This Transitive Age

Reviewed by Kevin McNeilly

These collections address the gifts and stresses of aging and dislocation. “This is an old man’s poem,” Levenson intones with Yeatsian brusqueness in “Maps, Revisited.” His voice mixes prosaic reminiscence with flashes of lyric disturbance, as if trying at each descriptive juncture to jolt his loose lines out of habitually cataloguing detachment—one of his favourite devices here is the unsorted list, often of place names that “freight . . . our common history”—toward a vital engagement with a world that increasingly seems to leave him out. The first poem, “Static,” positions him as “a kid before transistors or plastic,” setting up his persistent sense of being a bewildered witness to glib media depictions of atrocity, consigned to “watching disasters” rather than managing any real affective connection: “If you’re not already dead, you’re an observer.” Our ears, he writes, “cannot take it in, this swelter / of information.” He wants to find poetic means to activate those encounters, somehow to “elucidate”—to draw light from—those noisy flows of word and image, to “re-enter the real contagious world” by composing “a steady buildup of small attentiveness,” winnowing sense from estrangement, rendering “a pulsing anagram of the places I lived through / that strobe my body with memories.” The poems tend to articulate that want rather than overcome it; as observances, little rituals, they thematize instead of enacting visionary incisiveness, the “night vision” Levenson craves: “I say the names over like a black rosary,” he writes in “Geography Lesson,” offering an incantatory list, a “sad inventory” of sites of “disasters, massacres,” in order to overcome their bleak darkness with some “gift of light,” but which leaves us only to “savour,” as a fraught, vestigial music, what Levenson names “the weight of collected absences,” shared loss.

Shouting Your Name Down the Well compiles about five hundred haikus and tankas composed by McFadden over the course of his long career. The book’s shoddy sans-serif font coupled with a clamorous presentation—three or four poems per page—echoes the loose flippancy of McFadden’s style. Cued by Zen tradition, the poems frequently subvert pretenses of high seriousness: “What an idiot!” he happily berates himself. The book begins by slyly repurposing Bashō—“Another frog of / Five or seven syllables / Plops into the sylvan pool.” I’m drawn to his transpositions of Bashō and others into this compact form; his versions of Sappho’s fragments are particularly provocative, a cross-fertilization of cultural histories. (He hears “the booming / And beating” of drums “[i]n tenth-century Japan,” though he never confronts the appropriations inherent in translated genres like haiku.) Most of the poems, in keeping with McFadden’s wry and plain-spoken aesthetic, fall a bit short for me, a failure McFadden acknowledges and even wants to own: “Your life has been one mistake / After another.” There might be pathos here, but such resignation—“I am seventy— / The wound I’ve been suffering / Since birth is healing”—also feels a bit over-indulgent. Complaining that poems like his are “Ridiculed and vilified” in Canada sounds bathetically overstated—he has a wide readership— and all-too-deliberate.

Doug Beardsley aggregates a travelogue from sojourns in Mexico, the Caribbean and the Pacific, aspiring to be more than a “towel-toting tourist . . . snorkeling without getting wet” and aiming toward a poetry of immersive encounter, “determined to become” the resistant diversities of culture and of place through which he passes, to recover “spirit.” “In the morning,” the opening lyric begins, “we don’t know where we are.” The poems want to work through that uncertainty, not necessarily to overcome it so much as to accommodate human plurality, a change Beardsley sees as necessary if, as a species, “we’re going to survive.” Each of these lyrics is “seeking more than we can experience,” an openness to diversity. Robert Louis Stevenson figures this accepting immersion, managing (Beardsley imagines) to acquire “uncommon words from his mysterious world” late in life in Samoa. Beardsley sometimes leaves a conjunction or ampersand hanging at the end of a line, as if to signal this acquisitive openness. He tends to fetishize the indigenous—witnessing “sacred dances . . . becoming the thing itself,” for instance—but also acknowledges, a little like McFadden, the inevitable shortfall of late colonial English (counterpointing his name to the “inventive, ringing, singing” names of Latin American poets). Despite yearning for release, his work remains shackled by romanticizing an uninterrogated “authenticity” he attributes to his others.

This review “This Transitive Age” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 108-09.

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