Three from Gaspereau

Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.” The last poetic word on parenthood belongs to Philip Larkin, who in “This Be the Verse” suggested bleakly how to lead a happy life, or at least a not completely unhappy one: “Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself.” (He did not.) Larkin’s poem appeared in High Windows (1974), a glum book of only twenty-four poems. Although it too is slim and spare, Rob Taylor’s The News contains half as many poems again—and offers a decidedly cheerier account of procreation. The collection records stages of his wife’s pregnancy—one poem for each week, beginning with the fifth—and the arrival of their son. Interspersed with reflections on imminent fatherhood are references to the news of the world, which is often violent and rarely uplifting: “the Paris shootings” in “Eleven Weeks,” “Nine dead in Charleston, S.C.,” in “Thirty-Three Weeks,” and so on. (I read the news today, oh boy.) The happiest developments, Taylor’s poems propose, cannot be isolated from the most harrowing; the public world and the intensely personal cannot be separated. But here and there in The News are passages that could be called Larkinesque not in the misanthropic sense, but instead in reference to quiet moments of grace and fallibility. In “Nine Weeks,” the father-to-be is comically (but charmingly) unhelpful: “In a fever of worrying / the world ready for you / I wasted another day.” In “Thirty-Two Weeks,” he ventures into the mountains for a last touch of solitude. Yet he remains a homemaker in the wilderness, his new responsibilities evoked even in his retreat:

I crush a house deep

in the well of my pack

and drive and hike.

Check cell reception

till it’s gone. Unfurl

the house beneath

a glacier, blow moisture

through my sleeping pad’s

synthetics, relieve the bag

of its compression sack

and crawl inside.

And in “Thirty-Four Weeks,” the speaker anticipates by the glow of “the bedroom’s single bulb” the advent of daily rhythms. He addresses his son: “You’ll soon know day from night. / But first, I pray, you’ll sense / this rustling ochre light.” The book’s structure is somewhat rigid—unavoidably so—but Taylor’s best poems have a compensating capacity to surprise. They succeed in showing how the extraordinary resides in the resolutely ordinary passage of days and weeks, and in a phase of life so common that we have all experienced it: “That’s the thing about news— / you’ve heard it before.”

In Some Nights It’s Entertainment; Some Other Nights Just Work, Matt Robinson dwells on familiar domestic matters and on reliable pastimes: hockey, baseball, drinking. His poems’ titles indicate a directness of approach—“Dog,” “Bear,” “Harbour,” “Heart,” “Explanation,” “On Doubt,” “Cold Spring Song”—but the poems themselves are dense meditations that sidle up to their nominal subjects. In “Bear,” a fearsome, hungry creature wakes the speaker’s friend: “An animal at her window pawing, lazily, for / a meat; a dank, unseen set of mandibles anxious / for a smatch of god-know’s-what.” (Smatch—an odd, old word meaning “taste.”) Yet the disturbance turns out to have been something else altogether—an earthquake—and Robinson takes the midnight mistake as an illustration of the imagination’s unreliable workings:

Sometimes a bear

is nothing but the earth’s quarrel with itself.

Another way the mind plays tricks, infers. How

time settles, awkwardly aslant; how we fix things

to one another, in error, then partially recant

those bonds. How a logic’s birth is often tremored.

Although his poems are rarely longer than a page, they have a sprawling quality: Robinson favours lists, digressions, synonyms, and departures. He stacks words upon phrases; precarious sentences wobble with style. His lexicon includes both the recherché (“apologue,” “fibril”) and the everyday (“those frosty tallboys”), and memorable coinages fleck and dapple crackerjack poems: “stark ozoned crackleflash,” “a candycorned indigestion,” “slumptumbled-cum-crumbled.” Robinson’s fifth book, Some Nights It’s Entertainment is the work of a poet assured of his topics and tone.

In the introduction to his complex book of poetry and prose, Sean Howard supplies a necessary explanation of his project:

The Photographer’s Last Picture is an experiment in poetic investigation of another “monstrous world,” that of the Great War, a disaster cutting deep into our culture, breeding even fouler monsters—including the Nazi and Soviet death camps—and still shadowing our movements[.] . . . In full view of the reader, and craving both her patience and participation, the investigation slowly develops twenty photographs from Collier’s Photographic History of the European War (1916) into poems sharing Wilfred Owen’s aim (and achievement) of distillation: flashes illuminating an uncapturable reality.

Over the course of nearly four hundred pages, Howard provides commentary on the photographs (which are reproduced in the book), extensive notes inspired by the images, and poems extracted from the jottings. Part commonplace book, part log, the result is an idiosyncratic assemblage of observations about the First World War, other historical atrocities, photography, reading, and the process of poetic composition. As a poet, Howard is laconic, aphoristic—a reference to Bashō hints at the relevance of haiku—while his prose is often anecdotal. He is a compelling chronicler of the wastelands of the Western Front, the North Sea, Gallipoli, and elsewhere. A description of a remarkable picture suggests the intensity of Howard’s writing. Killed while pressing the shutter, a war photographer is shown collapsing in his own exposure:

First or last light? Top left, bloom of smoke, sun I think lifting, opening a grandly ruined scene, showstopper backdrop artfully devised: front and centre, a broad, branchless trunk, tower leaning slightly right, leading a line of ragged figures, brutalized, surrendering to the photographer. But he, too, surrenders, arms high, tilting slightly right (satchel over left shoulder), falling, it looks, through the camera, to and through the earth, slow spin from airlock, left arm brushing a cone of light, shellburst-fan from bottom left, moon surface fast approaching, pebble-comets tailing shadow. Right of the cone, firefly-flaws, meteor shower, light sharp as shrapnel.

A strange, imposing book that defies simple review, an obsessive magnum opus, The Photographer’s Last Picture is an impressive contribution to Canadian literature about the Great War.

This review “Three from Gaspereau” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 160-162.

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