Restless Pages

  • Fred Wah
    Medallions of Belief.
  • Barbara Langhorst
    restless white fields. NeWest Press
  • Basma Kavanagh
  • Mark Goldstein
    Form of Forms. BookThug
  • Ken Babstock
    Methodist Hatchet. House of Anansi Press
Reviewed by Kevin McNeilly

There is too much to say about Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet, Canadian winner of the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize. An abundantly variegated language overflows his poems, even when most of them are rigorously framed in stanza and page— contingent tactics to stem the whelming currents of verbiage and image circulating through a media-saturated world. Babstock likes the ways our words collide and intersect: “What we mistake for popular song / blows out its hair near the window-mounted / air-con unit. Wet snare drum in the patronymic, / imagine seeing what’s there” (“Fending Off the Conservatism in Adorno”). His enthusiasm for contemporary speech, which he hears not as decrepit but, in its collapsing bricolage, as a source of renewed vitality and even of wonder, is infectious and energizing. The mistakes we make, slippages in meaning, in syntax, and in idiom, are not errors to be regretted but generative moments when, like recombinant samples, poetic imagination is reactivated. Babstock’s style is sui generis, although I hear traces of the multifarious lines of Tom Raworth and John Ashbery, or see analogues to the savvy assemblages of Michael Robbins. Babstock takes up his art in the age of its technological reproducibility—starting with replicant images in a home decorating magazine, where, say, art books by highbrow abstractionists like Gerhard Richter are positioned as accents on the floor beside a chair—not to lament its degradation to cultural commodity, but to embrace commodification as a source of aesthetic potential, to be re-stressed and salvaged. “Slide an arm,” he invites us,

right through

the surface of this picture,

into whatever spatial realm lies

behind the illusion of depth[.]

Babstock faces the screens and surfaces of our illusions, not to demythologize but to find a correspondent verbal feel, to swim head up in that “desacralized” flow. He combs through layers of secular, mundane chatter and distills something from its sacred and its sacrilegious drift, its consuming spin. These aren’t monumental poems, and Babstock never pretends to lithic memorability; they are, nonetheless, great work, and Babstock is one of the very finest poets of his generation. His writing bears brilliant witness to our complex and conflicted sense of our place and of our time.

Mark Goldstein’s Form of Forms is a book-length poem in three movements—“Creation,” “Destruction,” and “Quiescence”— occasioned by Goldstein’s search as an adopted child for “information” (a resonant keyword) about his birth mother. Comparisons with Jackie Kay’s The Adoption Papers (1991) might spring to mind, but the contrast in style and approach between Goldstein and Kay is immediately obvious. While Goldstein’s text is lightly peppered with biographical factoids (birthdate, personal names, the odd address), its approach is neither narrative nor confessional, but—as the title suggests—formal, or perhaps meta-formal, if that can stand in as a word. Goldstein builds his poems on a fascination with the geometry of the printed page; he manipulates bureaucratic form-letters and paper documents, skewing and over-printing lines, erasing and re-spacing words, and juggling alphanumeric type to remake his source-texts into hybridized found-poems, sectioned and scattered across each recto and verso. There tends to be more white space than type on a given page, each poem’s design-template testifying to an essential absence Goldstein is seeking to fill, poetically. He wants to reconstitute “an overriding self,” a genetics he knows he must vestigially still embody, but he discovers only the hollow, untrustworthy and iterative verbiage of governmental agencies: “I trust this / will be of assistance to you.” Goldstein’s diction is more philosophical than lyrical, more abstracted than material; “thinking is safer,” he writes, “than feeling.” He combs through the material traces, in print, of his uncertain origins, trying to squeeze from empty pro forma phrases some residue of texture, moments when “bodily memory / intrudes” into detached representational arrays of text.

Goldstein has an “apparent need to touch” and to be touched, across thin but impermeable paper barrier of his poem, his lost beginnings. Form of Forms becomes an archeology not of the personal so much as of the concept of self. He engages from the get-go in a game of hide-and-seek (“this is a search / for clues”), identifying with a corporeality that simultaneously “reveals” and “conceals,” but I hear very little of the redemptive empathy promised, as quiescence, by the formal agon of the poem’s tripartite structure. He wants the “implicit / made / apparent,” punning on the shared etymology of appearance and parentage. While his poem can come to terms with its lost origins—can finally reproduce his birth-mother’s name—those terms remain effects of typographical sleight of hand, and finally refrain from articulating, let alone enacting, the empathetic bond, the umbilical covenant, that Goldstein craves. In that semantic shortfall, the pathos of Goldstein’s poem might start to emerge; the allure of his book’s material form, the aesthetics of its design, appears to me to come closest to reproducing an experience of trusting contact, of human touch. Simply put, it’s a beautiful book to hold in your hands.

Basma Kavanagh’s Distillō continues the run of beautifully produced, hand-typeset books from Gaspereau Press, run by Andrew Steeves and Gary Dunfield in Kentville, Nova Scotia, which is also where Kavanagh resides. These poems focus principally not on the Maritimes, but on the geography around Port Hardy, BC, on Vancouver Island. The cover and title pages are printed with airbrushed outlines of flora and fauna, and Kavanagh includes shaped poems mimicking pressed leaves or the shadows of a steelhead in a stream. The surfaces of Kavanagh’s pages want to imitate water, and her poems gesture repeatedly at fluidity and at containment, mixing freely kinetic lines with self-conscious formality in a verbal register that is both porous and sealed. Her poetic tactic is to distill, as in the opening poem, a “Taxonomy” of various kinds of rain; she offers a micrology of drizzle (Latin, distillō, “I distill”), small cascades of careful close observation:

Delicate drizzle gilds the standing
bracken, polishes woody stalks,
gleams from green bog orchids gossiping
in the ditch, films the salmonberry
blossoms, bronzes each bold stem,
glazing every pore, grazing the breathing

There is some danger here of gilding the swamp lily, of overwriting the “flux” (to which every pore might be “a doorway; / soil, bark, lungs”) and of converting her descriptive attentiveness—a number of texts, including this first poem, advocate for renewed and acute “listening” to the natural world—into decorative lyricism, as surfaces become polished glaze rather than membranous contact zones. But as I read, I find I can’t help but be drawn into Kavanagh’s finely tuned, shifting aural meshes, wanting (like her) to “hoard / mineral glow in marrow,” to catch and hold, even temporarily, some of the kinetic energies of the flows in which she discovers herself to be immersed. Distillō is a seductive and technically accomplished first collection; its liquid cadences and interlaced textures affirm the promise of a significant new voice in Canadian lyric poetry.

Barbara Langhorst’s restless white fields, like Goldstein’s book, negotiates tense and uncertain terrains between the confessional and the textual. But while Goldstein’s reflexive formalism often curtails his capacity to grieve his mother’s absence, Langhorst seeks to objectify grief, mapping the work of mourning onto the white field of the page, trying to transmute the personal into persona. This book is an archeology, drawing heavily on the fraught historicism of Walter Benjamin, mixing a fierce imperative to redeem a terrible and “eviscerated” past with a sense of the disastrous futility of poetic effort: “whatever my path,” she writes, “i can’t avoid stepping on angels,” evoking Benjamin’s key image of cultural collapse from his theses on the philosophy of history. restless white fields traces Langhorst’s efforts to come to terms with personal trauma; her father, in a state of post-stroke confusion, murdered her mother and then took his own life. At a number of points, Langhorst confesses what she feels to be her complicity in tragedy, particularly in her mother’s death: that she wasn’t present to stop her father.

The poems intercut such confessional directness—“there are no kind words for this”—with moments of either philosophical detachment or crystalline abstraction: “the fractal catastrophe of human time / your steps corner the bed your living death fades forgotten in tissue paper slips[.]” The lyrical can sometimes grant momentary evasions, but Langhorst’s poems, while necessarily aspiring to draw renewal as “morning,” from an extended and difficult arc of “mourning,” never really shy into the comforts of the aesthetic, but want to push through a “firehorse of pain” toward a promise of meaningful closure. Words are dismantled vertically to suggest both the spiritual fracture of grief and the centripetal tug of sense-making, as the reading eye scans and reassembles them:

a cur

These lines aren’t talking-cure, and never take for granted any remedial givenness—but neither does the “calling” to which Langhorst’s writing wants to attend. Elegy does not promise verdant renewal, but it does present Langhorst with contingent possibility: “elegiac dirt verminating / rhizomatic quackgrass / calling come to me / compose me[.]” The wordscapes that make up Langhorst’s book—poems that act more like Benjamin’s dialectical constellations than Deleuzian rhizomes—call to her for expressive form, to be composed, and also offer her the possibility to recompose herself. restless white fields is a powerful and fascinating text that deconstructs the “broken economies” of grief, even as it finds its necessary path to self-forgiveness, to reconcile with loss.

The “Note” closing out Fred Wah’s recent chapbook Medallions of Belief clarifies its intention: intermingling unpublished and newer poems with a handful of pieces from as early as 1986, this gathering offers up Wah’s own “spectrum of considerations” on how to produce an occasional poem. It was published to accompany a workshop at the Toronto New School of Writing held on March 10, 2012 under the rubric “How to Write a Poem for the Queen,” and presents some of Wah’s work as the Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate, a post he held until December 2013. Most of the poems are dedicated to or occasioned by the work of others, and most also call into question, to varying degrees, what it is to occasion a poem, to use and to “use up” poetry in a historical—or better, historicized—present. Stylistically, the poems extend Wah’s practice of the deliberate admixture of linguistic registers and pitches, collating a sometimes visceral density with prosaic baldness, or highfalutin theory with mundane colloquialism. I hear echoes of Robert Duncan’s hybrid voice murmuring at times behind this work, although Wah’s sources and forebears are as playfully various as his mercurial poetic practice. What I admire in a Wah poem is its commitment to the immediate moment; while each of these pieces remains thoroughly self-conscious about its own highly mediated language, each also aspires to touch the occasion of its own making, to collide the experiential and the textual in the temporary corpus of a given poem: “Physical / performs textual as anatomical / memory re-engages the heave / and accumulates a distinct / sound for the body in language, / outside the utterance” (“Parapoetic Sink”). The character and context of that heave is as variable and as different as each text it occasions, but it is the often improvisational swing back to a compositional present that most draws Wah’s attention, and that gives his laureate poems a depth—if that’s the right word— beyond their datedness as functionary artifacts. A key poem in the chapbook is “The Snowflake Age,” a laud for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II; Wah’s poem interrogates the pronouns of the Queen’s coronation address, reproduced in a local paper in 1952, finding instead of any “sovereign We” a network of shifting persons—“I Me You / Your They My We”—that allow him to rethink, and “re-engage” with, the interstices of the public and the private, sovereignty and subjectivity: “we too / Mark our time momentarily collected public[.]” Wah’s poetry aspires to inhabit what he calls a “between,” a conceptual and aural space in which the dominion of the speaking self is both asserted and held in abeyance, where the possibility of viable, intersubjective community, and with it a cultural politics of the many, begins to happen.

This review “Restless Pages” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 134-37.

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