“Unhinge yourself”

Reviewed by Hilary Clark

In Eli Mandel’s poem “The Meaning of the I CHING,” there is a command that poets could keep in mind: “bow down, unhinge yourself.” Poems should take risks. In different ways, these three books of poetry evince a poetics of the unhinged and off-kilter.

From Room to Room: The Poetry of Eli Mandel is an introduction to the poetry of Mandel; it is one of a series published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, each dedicated to a major Canadian poet. Peter Webb introduces Eli Mandel as a poet of the Cohen-Layton-Purdy generation, a major poet whose work has not been as visible because it evades categorization and has the reputation of being difficult. Webb quotes Robert Kroetsch’s description of Mandel “as Houdini, finding his way out of chains, and then back in again”—a trickster both in his forms and in his relation to Canadian poetry.

The poems included in this volume illustrate several threads in Mandel’s work: the poet’s use of myth and allusion to structure his experience; his repeated return, both nostalgic and uncanny, to an origin (the Estevan, Saskatchewan, of his childhood) that no longer exists or returns only in glimpses; and his concern with traumatic histories of war and genocide. The poems selected illustrate the formal evolution of Mandel’s work, which began in the 1950s with the high rhetoric of poems such as “Estevan Saskatchewan,” dense with allusions to Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, and the story of Cain and Abel:

A small town bears the mark of Cain,
Or the oldest brother with the dead king’s wife
While the farmer’s chorus, a Greek harbinger,
Forecasts by frost or rings about the moon
How ill and black the seeds will grow.

An odd poem, beautiful but unbalanced, a prairie town bristling with myth. Over the years, Mandel’s poems loosened up rhythmically; like other Canadian poets, he was experimenting with forms growing more organically out of place and occasion. In the collection Out of Place, for instance, he revisits the place of his origin. The poem, “the return,” presents a dream vision, and in doing so it treads lightly:

the flowers coloured
my father appears
my mother appears
saying no words
and all
the ghostly jews
of estevan

Unsettled forms, uncanny visions: Mandel’s work was socially committed and yet also evasive—a poetry not difficult but restless, unhinged.

Endgames is Andrew Stubbs’ second collection of poetry. In both this and Stubbs’ first book, White Light Primitive (2009), the reader encounters a formal disturbance that pushes against a fairly ordinary subject matter of parents, childhood memories, and prairie winters. Only in the final section, “schreber poems”—on Daniel Paul Schreber, whose paranoia so fascinated Freud—does this disturbance find its subject. Stubbs’ poems are often short in length and line, and given to odd line-breaks that unsettle the reader. For instance, here is the latter half of the poem “second glance: turning some corners then,” referring to The Wizard of Oz:

. . . at
the end, the wiz turns
up as
the fat geek behind the drapes—god / evil, love /
hate, all for the
sake of plot. If
not for the dog
none of us’d ever see

With that final period, we are set back on the ground. The poem is a spinning house, “off / centre, floor tilted” (“moonlight serenades”); Stubbs reminds us that by simply breaking lines in counter-“intuitive” ways, tripping rhythm, the poet can unhinge a world.

With the challenge of his title, Gimp Crow, and dedication, “this book is for the birds,” Ken Kowal lets us know his book is trickster territory. His questing hero is a crow with a “bad leg” and an “Ol Lady hen / -peckin.” Crow leaves the nest with a “BC cravin” to visit his “Cawsin Raven.” On the way he picks up Muddy Magpie, a “mighty pretty bird,” and promises her adventures:

Let’s rob some nest
Break fast eggs suck
Blue ones be best
Red sky swells luck

Bring down eagle
Feathers sky fly
A’int quite legal
Giver best try
(“muddy’s proposition”)

Many poems in Gimp Crow are short-lined, rhyming ones like this, but there’s an array of looser forms as well, plus Shakespeare in crow-speak (or vice-versa): “Sweet breath neath wing / Clear dark eyes see” (“Shakespeare’s crow”). The poems are very funny; they’re made for rowdy oral performance. They do not invite deep study, as Ted Hughes’ Crow poems do. But Kowal’s crow is much more fun than Hughes’.

This review ““Unhinge yourself”” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 181-82.

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