The Retroactive Gaze

What braids together Christopher Levenson’s twelfth collection, A tattered coat upon a stick, Joe Denham’s fourth, Landfall, and Kateri Lanthier’s second, Siren, are the poets’ reachings into the past—for form and inspiration and to alert their readers to the tensions imposed by the retroactive gaze. Despite their temporal and formal disparities, there is an analogous urgency emanating from the three books.

For Levenson, looking backward occurs through a threefold structure: the temporal, which flashes anachronistically through events in human history—the tsunami in Japan, the Second World War in Europe, the return of a Biblical “second Noah”; the poetic inheritance of William Butler Yeats—“A tattered coat upon a stick” is the second line of the second stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium”; and the geographical splitting of a subject from the UK who has migrated to Canada, but continues to scour both landscapes for meaning. My reading of this collection hinges on the word unless—the word which directly follows Levenson’s titular line in Yeats’ poem. The human body may devolve with wear and years, Yeats explains, “unless / Soul clap its hands and sing.” Levenson’s poetic soul is nourished by this conjunction; each poem, in effect, could be called “unless” since, in each, Levenson’s speaker enlivens with whimsical reverence occasions experienced by those in their later acts. Take, for instance, the simple, poignant lyric “Aquafit,” in which the speaker-cum-Aquafit participant witnesses a Hindu goddess instructing “[s]ome antique ritual”: “Like trainee astronauts / we follow her in slow motion . . . relishing weightlessness.”

One of the primary conceits of Denham’s Landfall is bound up with the word’s oxymoronic dual definitions: the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that landfall is both an arrival at land on a sea or air journey, and a collapse of a mass of land. In Denham’s twenty-year career as a commercial fisherman off the Pacific coast, the first meaning would have especial resonance. In a 2016 interview, Denham explained:

Put yourself 200 miles offshore, the middle of the night, at the helm of a 60-foot boat bucking into gale force winds . . . Every year I go out there I’m reminded of the basic precariousness of life.

In lines from the long poem “Landfall”—“when we finally make landfall I’m going to eat / dirt for seven days and empty the bowels of my brain into the howl- /ing exegesis”—Denham’s speaker intimates the OED’s first definition, to “make landfall” meaning to find safe harbour. However, this presumed safety possesses its own threats: the emptying of the speaker’s brain into the howling exegesis. In such phrasing, Landfall reaches back to an ethereal cosmic plane that denotes both the creation and the combustion of the atmosphere and terra firma, while also postulating a present that requires the intellectual relinquishing of its inhabitants. In Denham’s circular, evolutionary, apocalyptic mysticism, the Big Bang came and went, but it will return. The land may feel safe, but it’s unstable, subject to physical as well as psychic erosion, in that earth’s occupants are forced to empty their brains to satiate the ethnosphere’s scripts.

In Siren, Lanthier transposes a medieval Persian poetic form—the ghazal, intended to connote erotic love and religious faith—onto apparently quotidian subjects of twenty-first-century Toronto. Lanthier’s epigraph cites the pre-eminent architect of this form, the nineteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib, from a set of famous translations of his works by Aijaz Ahmad and Adrienne Rich. As in those translations, compiled in 1969, Lanthier strays from some of the stricter conventions of Ghalib’s ghazals, such as the radif (in which each couplet closes on the same word). Her collection also moves in and out of couplets to free-verse lyrics and some of the funnier and more startling haiku on the CanLit market. Take, for instance, “Etobicoke Bay Bus Strut”: “Rain cannot dampen / the pigeons of Islington. / Party, platform 5!” Lanthier’s inheritance of the ghazal form is utilized most playfully in her take on the takhallus—a convention wherein the final couplet contains the poet’s name or alias. In “Easy Street,” Lanthier remixes and revitalizes old maxims: “You won’t end up on Easy Street if you wear that hair-of-the-dog / shirt . . . You say you’ll be my mirror. You’re more like my indoor plunge pool.” Lanthier’s speaker signs off with “Your Melancholy Baby”—a takhallus to undermine misreadings of this poem’s seemingly superficial facades.

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