Three Poets, Many Voices

Reviewed by Ruth Panofsky

Each of these accomplished collections, which show the poetic imagination at play, features verse written in multiple voices. Biblical, mythic, and historic figures, animals, and inanimate objects are attributed personality and emotion and speak in voices both vital and true.

Daniel Goodwin knows the difficulty of wresting meaning out of words. He refers to his craft as “my crazy aunt / living in the attic,” but he is a dedicated writer who counts himself among those “who are compelled to wring, / like second-rate magicians, / meaning out of the thinnest air.” Goodwin challenges himself to write poems that are “streamlined and spare,” for he sees beauty in simplicity. His work is anything but simple, however; he succeeds in probing the depths of human experience by spinning “artful webs / equal parts truth and lie.”

In several poems, Goodwin addresses a former lover, his wife, and children. Private life gives rise to poems about early romance, moving across the country from Ontario to Alberta, raising his sons and daughter, and marital joy and strife. The portrait that emerges is of love that “endures: / when we wake, we’re both still here.” “One More” is a masterful elegy for the poet’s father. Here, in an ironic reversal, a declining William Goodwin addresses a son “trying to hide his sadness / at how every man must fall eventually. / Even his father.”

Personal lyrics are balanced by poems uttered by recognizable figures: the Biblical Isaac, the Roman surgeon Galen, the general James Wolfe, the poet Catullus, the painter Michelangelo, and the sculptor Camille Claudel. In each of these poems, among the strongest in the volume, the speaker emerges as a fully realized individual. Michelangelo, for example, complains: “Each day I struggle to raise myself / to this claustrophobia high above the floor.” Goodwin’s ear is as finely honed as his eye. It is not surprising that Catullus’s Soldiers won the 2016 Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature.

In Prometheus Reconsiders Fire, Brent MacLaine plumbs the elemental force of fire. Overseeing the collection is the mythic Prometheus, who brought fire to humankind and who delivers the opening two poems. Despite his “chafing . . . / ankle chains,” Prometheus is “done with rage.” In its place, he has cultivated the “unflinching, self-shaped quietude” that informs all the assembled poems. From atop his promontory “in a scrappy corner of the Caucasus,” a composed Prometheus looks down on the world below. The view is expansive and his attitude empathic.

Prometheus’ perspective takes in all facets of humanity, from the serious to the comic. The “North River Fire Hall” suites that bookend the volume are inspired by clichéd sayings in “coal-black lettering” posted on road signs that guide the speaker on his “daily commute” to work: “A Spark Neglected Makes a Mighty Fire” and “Firefighters Save Hearts and Homes,” for example. The adages and epigrams spark poems that explore the divers uses of fire; as forger, destroyer, lamplighter, purifier, kitchen labourer, matchmaker,the effects of fire, and rescue from fire, which together serve as potent metaphors for the triumphs and failures, comforts and risks, of human experience.

Poems rendered by Hitler’s imaginary son, a humpback whale, a wolf, and items lost with the Titanic—a copy of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám as translated by Edward Fitz Gerald, and five grand pianos—expand the imaginative reach of the collection, as do ekphrastic poems that take as their subjects historic paintings by Frenchman Merry-Joseph Blondell (La Circassienne au Bain, 1814) and Canadian Robert Harris (The Studio Boy’s Private View, 1886). “Relics,” the closing sequence of three poems, is an exquisite paean to the beauty of a tree whose “midnight shadows / placed soothing hands upon the field.”

The funniest of the volumes reviewed here is Patricia Young’s Short Takes on the Apocalypse. Young’s project is innovative. Each poem is prompted by an epigraph taken from a host of sources: writers Henry James, Dr. Seuss, and Neil Gaiman, mathematician Blaise Pascal, comedian Groucho Marx, tenor Robert Brault, and singer-songwriter Marilyn Manson, for instance. Many of the poems are sombre; more are lighthearted; others are quirky. Although they touch on assorted subjects, from Biblical stories to secular texts, from family to celebrity culture, together they weave an intricate poetic web that summons the vast register of human emotion.

In “The First Vegans,” whose epigraph reads “Heart attacks—God’s revenge for eating his little animal friends,” Eve grows weary of cooking cabbage, turnip, and eggplant and cajoles Adam into action: “Want me to speak to Yahweh? / . . . Oh no, she whispered, don’t bother Him. / You’re a smart guy. You’ll think of something.” Another epigraph—“You know how it is in the kid’s [sic] book world; it’s just bunny eat bunny”—results in “Story Time,” in which an evil farmer “has the patience of a saint. / But he is no saint. His rifle’s loaded. He waits for days.”

“A baby’s cry is precisely as serious as it sounds” is the catalyst for “Wreckage,” in which a mother frets, “Why did they let me take this baby home, / how could they trust someone so careless, so clumsy . . . oh god, / now what have I done?” It is sheer delight to read “Coachella Festival (A Semi-Found Poem),” in which comedian Jimmy Kimmel’s television crew asks fans to rate bands with the fabricated names “The Obesity Epidemic,” “Get the Fuck Out of My Pool,” and “The Chelsea Clintons.” Young’s poems display stylistic dexterity and tonal range. They are a welcome tonic of fresh perspectives and sparkling language.

This review “Three Poets, Many Voices” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 149-151.

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