The Many or One

Reviewed by Douglas Barbour

The back cover of Kevin Connolly’s Revolver argues that his poems “present a challenge to the idea that an honest poetic voice need be singular, static, egocentric, and bound by convention.” An ideal devoutly to be wished. And Connolly is not alone in practicing it.
In Revolver, Connolly stages a number of formal approaches to vary the speakers of his poems. And they do speak: complaints, jokes, cries of love, anger, put downs, sardonic asides, almost all addressing someone, in postmodern variations on the apostrophe. And although he does so in many voices, there is a general, even continuing, sense of wit, language, and a sardonic view of the world throughout.
Connolly essays his own version of the gloss, some sonnets, rhyming quatrains, as well as various kinds of free verse. He likes to borrow and change, using collage and cut-ups to give his speakers wide room to maneuver. “Standard,” for example, mixes phrases from The Great American Songbook. Sometimes such play goes on a little too long, as in “Antonia Is Not the Plasterer.” In the very powerful “No Windows,” a stream of images about child abduction, the shifting repetitions create a mood of unfocused terror. On the whole, Revolver provides a wide range of emotion and intellectual engagement.
David McFadden’s uniquely eccentric stance is fully present in the 129 sonnets of Be Calm, Honey. Although adopting an array of personae and voices, the poems do seem to concentrate on death, the pastness of the past, and the losses others’ deaths have brought. Being McFadden, he often confronts these losses, real or anticipated, with a wicked if understated sense of humour.
Although they look traditional, with their octaves and sestets, McFadden’s sonnets are about as open as they can get, casual and sly. Written between January 2004 and June 2008, these poems annotate a time in both his and his readers’ lives; if half of them seem almost hermetically personal (but who is the person saying these things?), the rest reach out to remind us of the dangerously slapstick world we share. The large range of moods in Be Calm, Honey reflect both the times and the generous spirit of the writer. Many provoke laughter, yet a general underlying sense of melancholy hovers over the whole. The final poem captures that latter tone perfectly: it begins, “When my mother died I saw her standing / alone at midnight at some railway station”; it mentions that, “She was different than she’d been in life”; and it ends, “The train pulled out silently and empty. / I was the only person left on the planet.”
Lisa Robertson keeps telling it ever more slant. In Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip, she whips many souls into subtle shapes, as various ‘I’s speak learnedly if obscurely about a world itself far too complex to pin down in lyric description. Even more than Connelly, her writing refuses the singular, static, egocentric, and convention-bound. Robertson writes beautiful sentences and lines that almost make ordinary sense but never quite fall into that trap. As a ‘quotation’ suggests, “Her pronoun is sedition unrecognized as such.” But that’s only one screen of a “Voice-Over for Split-Screen Video Loop.” Which simply extends the on-going construction of confusion that is this book.
Robertson is one of our most crisply intelligent writers, and the poems and prose pieces in Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip (that possessive signaling one particularizing quality of this text), with their allusiveness (in all senses: history, philosophy, art criticism are but a few of the implied intertexts), continually knock readers off their conventional responses, asking that they follow the curlicues of thought-in-motion the writing displays. One poem that deploys all of Robertson’s gifts, “On Painting,” begins with a reference to Pliny’s thoughts on the art, slides to Egypt as possible origin, back to Pliny on painting and war, with asides on other possibilities, until its first part moves beyond Pliny:
Each earth has a property and a use. Pliny speaks of each.
But generally it’s worth repeating: the earth is an island mixed with blood.
In its furnace we concoct colour.
In the next two parts “painting” becomes a person, a social effect, something government will silence if it can. Yet the tone remains cool, there is no “political” rhetoric; rather there is an invitation to think the possibilities along with the poem.
“On Painting” provides but a modest taste of what Robertson offers in this volume. All the pieces, whether verse or prose, are essays in the old sense, attempts to make the process of thinking (with heart) visible, “lisible.” Take “The Story,” in which the narrating “I” attempts verb after verb, until:
And all the roads grew dark
with my longing and my tears. It snowed
in darkness. I strewed, I strove, I swelled all night.
The truck sheared through the Night.
Or any of the pieces: Lisa Robertson writes along a line between language that mocks meaning and facile conventions. Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip insists that language moves, with exquisite care, along that knife-edge, dangerous and cool, emotions banked but fiery beneath the text’s apparently calm and collected surface.

This review “The Many or One” originally appeared in Prison Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 208 (Spring 2011): 145-147.

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