Simply Observe

Reviewed by Alex Assaly

Since Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” one of the most prominent characterizations of the modern artist has been of the detached and indifferent “observer.” Three recent collections of poetry represent this idea of the artist-as-observer, doing so in ways that also extend and challenge it. Indeed, in debut collections from Neil Surkan, Michael Nardone, and Dominique Bernier-Cormier, the artist’s “observing” is not just passive voyeurism: it is an act that is intrinsically moral, spiritual, and political. While Surkan, Nardone, and Bernier-Cormier do occasionally fall into vacant mimesis, at their best, their poignant and nuanced poems encourage readers to reconsider their own observations and reevaluate their relationship to their surroundings.

Surkan’s On High is a patient study of the moral dimensions of “observation.” The collection sets its tone in the opening poem, in which Surkan’s speaker describes a path that meanders down to a beach. The winding path ultimately leads the speaker to declare, “So think less / of your destination, more on where / you’re bound to go.” On High takes its readers on such an ambulando, passing through a variety of scenes and, while doing so, noticing what seem to be their most mundane details. Although he occasionally uses metaphors and rhetorical flourishes, Surkan’s language is always grounded. “There are no parables here,” states the speaker of “Low Tidings.” The strength of On High, however, is not in its clear “observations” per se, but in its ability to represent the tensioned moment when an observation snaps open and asks the observer to think or act conscientiously. In On High’s most interesting poem, the speaker witnesses his uncle shooting a deer and imagines it stumbling into a schoolyard to die. The poem concludes with an account of the speaker’s fluctuating sense of his uncle’s actions, showing him moving between feelings of guilt, shame, and love. Importantly, Surkan never tries to resolve the speaker’s feelings and, instead, allows the contradictions that exist within them to remain a “Gordian knot.”

Nardone’s The Ritualites is written with the ear more so than with the eye. Indeed, many of its compositions are based on sound recordings taken in locations across North America. A poem created from a recording made in Victoria, BC, starts: “We live on an island / I mean I don’t know all the history / It’s never really understood.” Throughout The Ritualites, listening becomes an almost spiritual act. “All that Nature asks of you is to listen,” Nardone writes in “Unfixed Territories”; “You must keep your focus on the here and now. / Only what you are doing in this moment, only this, is real.” Despite the value that Nardone gives listening, however, The Ritualites is fatiguing, for its poems are often composed of series of terse clauses—observations cut short—which prevent readers from dwelling in the sonic topographies of its compositions. The sharp rhythms of Nardone’s ear are only really effective when he uses them to build a coherent, rather than a fragmented or complex, image of his subject. The opening lines of “O, Or, Plains, Pennsylvania,” for instance, are some of the brightest in the collection, instantly causing the reader to visualize the scene:

Away from a relative plane of table conversation,

The last forks and spoons resume a familiar

Progression, clattering the sink’s tin basin in time

With Aunt Ange’s O! no! oblivion. Laugh tracks

Wrangle down the hall . . .

Of these three collections, Bernier-Cormier’s Correspondent pushes “observation” to its most political end. The collection is divided into three, nineteen-part prose poems, with an additional prologue and epilogue. Each of the three primary poems of Correspondent is centred upon a political event that the poet was personally and emotionally connected to as a result of his father’s employment as the Foreign Correspondent for CBC/Radio-Canada. The first poem, for instance, is a lucid description of the Kursk submarine disaster. Like Nardone, Bernier-Cormier constructs the poem by balancing a variety of different perspectives and voices. In “Kursk,” he shifts from the disaster to his father’s journalistic obligations in Moscow to his familial life in Canada to Vladimir Putin’s general indifference to the event. In one of the most moving sections of the collection, Bernier-Cormier writes of the moment when Nadezhda Tylik—the mother of one of the men who died in the Kursk disaster—was forcibly sedated while she was berating a senior Russian official. When the needle sinks into her thigh, Nadia not only “unlearns her legs,” but also “unlearns her language.” Correspondent shuns the point at which voice, observation, reporting, and, ultimately, poetry end. Indeed, the collection revives and conserves what has been forgotten or silenced, not with the intention of overriding the original moment, but so that its readers can relive, re-see, and remember them.

This review “Simply Observe” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Feb. 2020. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.