Perhaps you’ve noticed a swing in current critical approaches to literature. I say “swing” because it’s largely a response to years of sociopolitical unpacking of texts from various points of view: Marxist, feminist, post-colonial, etc. In the wake of these practices, a question has arisen: “What about the work of art as art?” Witness Terry Eagleton’s move away from Marxist analysis and toward the literariness of literature in How to Read Literature (2013). Or consider art critic Dave Hickey’s disdain for sociopolitical considerations that he says have run roughshod over the American art scene (The Invisible Dragon 1994). Closer to home, there’s James Pollock’s identification of himself as a “new aesthete” in his 2012 collection of essays You Are Here. For critics, he says, “aesthetic value should always have priority.” I’m glad of this swing in some ways. I didn’t pursue graduate studies in English partly because I was alienated by lack of attention to the effectiveness of the book in engaging readers through its author’s skill in creating and/or reflecting a world. What makes me nervous, however, is the danger of moving too far to the other extreme. Full consideration of an artwork would seem to require thought about form, content, and the relations between the two, and it’s from this perspective that I approach these three collections of poetry.
Sarah Pinder’s Cutting Room is aptly named for the collection is fragmentary on at least two levels of composition: 1) many of the poems are juxtaposed fragments, and 2) the whole is arranged into eight short sections. This constant breaking of the collection’s flow is unsettling and keeps it feeling unfinished. However, this book isn’t interested in tying up its loose ends. Take for example its resurrection of obsolete objects (loose ends par excellence) or images such as Henry Darger’s painted girls “like scattered improbable shrapnel, / dispersing toward the future in pairs and packs” or the deliberately contradictory title “Praising and Disparaging the Functional,” which points in two directions at once. The choppy form is in key with the poems’ imagery and concerns. Yet sometimes the relations between the parts of a poem are tenuous. Consider part two of the three-part “Draught”: “One cough fits in the sealed envelope: thank him or the text written over. One container dreams another, nested quiet in the shipyard, and makes rote inquiries.” In part one the speaker is hanging wallpaper and there’s no clear connection between that activity and the cough. Not being able to quote the whole poem, I can only refer readers to this passage and allow them to question what the connection may be. The connection between part two and the last part is also unclear. Some may consider the surfacing of these very questions of relation the work of the poem, but a question is only as illuminating as its prospective answers, and I haven’t yet found such prospects in this poem. By contrast, “End Times,” also a three-part poem of juxtapositions, is loosely centred on the intersection(s) of body and technology, and although it shifts around a good deal, it has enough cohesion to create interesting friction. This is Pinder at her best—loose but not too loose. Her disjointed mappings are often moving, and I’m a particular fan of the low-key but persistent depiction of technology’s effects on our thinking and perception. I’m sobered by lines like “with colour values bled, every room / approximates a ward,” and also by moments like the “End Times” account of a Skype call in which a stray moth “dive-bombs” the screen and defies the ability of autofocus to capture it. This sort of imagery alerts me to the danger of embracing technology so whole-heartedly that its limitations become mine.
Like Cutting Room, Sara Peters’ 1996 features multiple short sections, but to somewhat different effect. Her individual poems are wholes, more “finished” than many of Pinder’s, with regular numbers of lines per stanza. The poems also tend to be grouped thematically. The effect of the short sections, then, is partly that of disrupted flow, apt in this case because her poems often feature lonely children not well-enough loved, cut off somehow from their families. It is also apt in light of Peters’ focus on transgressive acts that are by definition disruptive of the status quo. But because the frequent section breaks aren’t echoed in the poems themselves, they aren’t as front and centre as they are in Cutting Room. They seem to exist primarily to create space around the poems, letting them resonate powerfully. The poems, furthermore, often map intense experiences—adrenalin-producing moments of riveting cruelty—so focusing attention from readers by including fewer poems per section (indeed, the book itself is not long) moves us toward embodiment of those experiences.
I admire Peters’ skill in juxtaposing sweetness and innocence with abandonment and cruelty. Such stark contrasts could easily have been heavy-handed or melodramatic, but Peters has an eye for the particular, which allows her to create images of distinctively creepy beauty. There’s the green net bag of oranges in the poem in which two sisters act out being raped; there’s the wind blowing “fresh and sweet as an apple” while a child vivisects a gopher. And I can’t get out of my head the image of tiny gold fawns that “jerk and shudder” as they dangle from the ears of the mother-abuser in a poem that addresses the real-life murder of a four-year-old. The earrings are partly a display of power in miniature, tiny hunting trophies. But as an element of the mother’s dress, they also reflect her: I find myself wondering about how vulnerable she has felt, and about the strange bond that can exist between abuser and abused. The beauty of the image is disturbing in its evocation of the child’s helplessness and suffering. Every time I think of the gold fawns, the beauty of the image gives me a certain uplift, one that I reject in the same moment. But the spark of pleasure I feel is inextinguishable—I feel it every time—and it makes me complicit in the crime even as I’m overwhelmed by compassion. Such is often my feeling as I read these poems. I’m no fan of delving into disturbing experiences for a thrill, but Peters is instead (or also?) asks readers to confront the complex intertwining of innocence and cruelty, compassion and complicity in each of us.
If what stays with me from 1996 are the gold fawns, what remains in the wake of Emily McGiffin’s Between Dusk and Night are images of northern BC, its rains, woods, and waterways, even its parasites. Many of McGiffin’s lines have a still-life quality, and she excels at haiku-like visual compositions: “A July / snow on the crowberries and a lone bleached antler.” She is like Dioskrodies, the Greek botanist who “names each land for what grows there.” Crowberry, stout spruce, karst, basaltic ridges, wild sage, scrub willow: this is the language that makes a place feel like a real place, even when—perhaps sometimes because—a reader may not know what crowberries are.
McGiffin’s often precise language and eye for the myriad compositions of the natural world are sometimes dampened by clichés, which tend to appear in the background as she builds toward her more central images, moments, and thoughts. November is twice described as “bleak.” In another poem we find both “hazy distance” and “beating sun,” and in yet another stars are “pricks of light.” The clichés are so familiar that they may not register, may seem innocuous, but they dilute the power of her vision. But McGiffin can do original things with language: consider “the sacrum summer sky.” The image is unusual and reveals a sky that is elemental, intimate, and tinged with death. It’s also a highly musical phrase: the repeated “s” and “um” sounds hum against the hard “c” and “k.”
Although many of McGiffin’s poems evoke a BC wilderness, these are not the only poems in the book. But even the travel poems often turn an eye toward home, and the speaker is ever conscious of the danger of presuming to belong. Even in more familiar territory, the question of what a home is and how to inhabit it arises: “I wish you could see / the true weight of our presence here” says the speaker in one poem, and another says, “I want veins strong as rebar, / or at least lignin: rooted / in ground we could call home.” The “could” is poignant, and speaks to the tension in McGiffin’s work between a desire for home and a concern that to be too much at home is to disrespect the element of strangeness in the world. Although it is in many ways a quieter, less arresting book than 1996 and less formally challenging than Cutting Room, the questions in Between Dusk and Night are equally urgent.