The Pleasure of Not Knowing

  • Stephen Cain
    False Friends. BookThug (purchase at
  • Ulrike Narwani
    Collecting Silence. Ronsdale Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Gregory Betts

I have been invited to review two books, side by side, that I would once have considered aesthetically opposite. The divide was borne in the politics and poetics of a bygone era, however, when lyric poets were pitted against language poets. The lines between the poetry camps are no longer so tidy, especially with the contemporary resurgence of identity poetics and the emergence of hybrid spaces like “lyric conceptualism” and experimental Indigenous literatures. As a result, either by the shift in time, or the softening of the divide, I am drawn as much to the parallels between these books as to their obvious differences.

Consider the titles: False Friends and Collecting Silences. Both are two-word paradoxes that call attention to irreconcilable divides. Similarly, both are idiomatic and point to language itself as complicit in the divisions. “False friends” are two words that seem similar in two languages, but are entirely different. Narwani’s title foregrounds what is left unsaid around the words of her collection, which distract from the more important collected silence.

The poems themselves, however, couldn’t be more different. Narwani’s speaker calmly observes meaningful, epiphanic parallels she finds between things in the world. She notes objects (mushrooms, statues, walls) and explores elaborate connections to a delightful web of other images, building elegant metaphoric networks. This is the familiar fodder of lyric poets. And yet language’s ability to represent the world accurately haunts the entire book. Narwani’s speaker writes of her mother and presents crystalline images that seem to reflect her. This surface simplicity gives way to something more troubling, more important. She watches as her mother brings newspapers to an elderly friend in the hospital who is “unable to talk.” Her heirloom is a gold watch “passed from mother / to mother” that “always loses time.” Silence accrues in such images, and highlights an underlying failure to connect. Another mother figure sees her daughter but is unable to recognize her body, her eyes. Later, we learn that “In the beginning / woman / was / wordless.”

Cain’s book, in contrast, is stylistically diffuse. Each section presents a radically different approach to writing. The idea of “false friends” works in multiple ways here: ekphrastic poems mis-represent source texts, one-liners twist aphorisms into cleverly inverted jokes (“If dogs did not exist it would be necessary to invent them . . .”), images are paired with literary jokes, and more. Beneath the humour, there is an insistent mistrust in language. Words point to other words, while extra-textual meaning slips in a grand “allegory of erosion.” The humour holds the book together, and the humour is fashioned largely through inappropriate or bizarre word pairings coupled with a constant set of allusions to postmodern theorists, Canadian authors, and pop music. It makes little sense to ask why Roland Barthes is being evoked in one line, Milton Acorn in the next, or why Johnny Rotten appears in another. Instead, it is safer to assume that every word is a kind of hyperlink. From the contorted language (especially in the long poem “Stanzas”), there emerges a unique pleasure in sensing an allusion but not knowing the target. This is, as Cain says later, “alphabetic acrobatics.”

Narwani writes, “Though shut out / I know about incomprehensible words.” This shared sense of mistrust in language, of its opaque qualities, of the limits of expression, and the difficulty if not impossibility of escaping language to real life experience, links these two books. Narwani even writes a series of reverse centos, writing poems between the lines of her epigraphs. There is a silence or an abyss in the limitations of language. Yet, the difference between these texts reasserts the aesthetic divide: in that silence, that failure of expression, Narwani discovers “a language / sacred,” whereas Cain recognizes the bared fangs of ideology, the “teleology of teeth.” His poems are rich with the pleasure of disrupting the false bonds of communication. Hers are marked with the return of something more when language falters. She depicts a carrier pigeon, no longer used by humans, turning feral, becoming a “wild homing.” In contrast, Cain uncovers the world “shrouded in phallogocentrism.” Where he finds a defamiliarizing “Alphabet alphababel,” she finds an “Alphabet cathedral” with sound poems emitted from a “pipe organ spilling letters.” Like Cain, Narwani’s sense of faith in human expression has been shaken, but yet her faith in the ineffable remains.

This review “The Pleasure of Not Knowing” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 134-135.

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