Wayman in Winter

Reviewed by Owen Percy

Of all the recognitions and awards that Tom Wayman’s poetry has garnered since he began publishing in 1973, none have been more appropriate or meaningful than the 2013 Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry he recently received for Dirty Snow. Wayman has always striven to be a poet of and for the 99%. Those who have seen him read, or who have encountered any work from his 19 books of poetry, know already that his everyman voice is accessible and direct—qualities which often see him dismissed by reviewers as uncomplicated and, under the logic of most postmodern literary criticism dictating that obscurity = maturity, unimportant. Critics who go after Wayman for his prosaic syntax, or for his simplification of labour politics—there are almost always clear lines drawn in a Wayman poem—often also ignore or disregard his clearly stated figuration of poetry as an ever-expanding globe of possibility and connection of and for one another, a more democratic space as it is in the world of music. Under Wayman’s generic conception, criticizing him for his plainspoken style or his blue-collar poetics is akin to criticizing Jay-Z for not writing good country ballads. And yes, Wayman is Jay-Z in this scenario. You’re welcome.

So when Dirty Snow was named the winner of the Acorn-Plantos prize, it was apt recognition of Wayman’s fine book, but also of his long-standing ethos that poetry can and should be, as he put it in a 2009 interview with Diane Guichon, “a tool useful for beneficial social ends.” Dirty Snow, it can be surmised then, wants us to consider what it actually meant that Canada became embroiled in the post-9/11 Afghan war. The opening section of the book, “The Effect of the Afghan War on the Landscapes and People of Southeastern British Columbia” explores, well, it’s right there in the title. Poems like “Interest” and “There Is No War, And You Would Not Have to Consider It If There Was” directly challenge Wayman’s local, regional, and national neighbours to assess their complicity in Canada’s foreign exploits. The standouts in this arresting section are “Air Support,” in which the military term itself is literalized so that schools, health care, and compassion, not bombs, are showered on the Afghan people, and “Mt. Gimli Pashtun,” where a hiker’s Kootenay mountain landscape spectrally becomes that of “Pashtuns blown apart, or maimed / by bullets released in the name of this country.” By the time the poem declares “[a]n alien death has been brought / to these mountains,” we are ourselves shell-shocked—suddenly uncertain of our own surroundings, culture, otherness, and complicity in acts of institutional aggression.

The book also contains several tender elegies for friends, and an aging speaker’s meditations on the minutia of our everyday lives. But even in his retirement from teaching, Wayman remains a work poet. Poems like “If You’re Not Free at Work, Where Are You Free?,” and the especially poignant “Whistle” give us a Wayman whose world since the 1960s has started to repeat its corporate and political sins, and whose calls for social justice and freedom remain as loud as they’ve been for four decades. The latter poem applies the conceit of “a slight wheezy sound” that begins “[a]t the threshold of hearing” and permeates scenes of mass corporate firings, bullshit press conferences, meetings, and protests, growing louder all the while until it erupts and becomes the soundtrack—“the tinnitus of the world”—of the so-called Arab Spring, and all the revolutions yet to come elsewhere in the world.

Like in some of his earliest books, the poems here are introduced by short contextual prose pieces that evoke the casual familiarity of Wayman’s live readings. The collection also includes rare flashes of the well-established Wayman sense of humor (see “Leonard Cohen Didn’t Get Me Laid”), but its concerns are more with making us think than making us laugh. Dirty Snow is deserving of its accolades, and it deserves a wide readership of citizens. For all our sakes.

Wayman’s most recent book, Winter’s Skin, evokes another recognizably CanLit conceit through the observations of the nature-navigating speaker. A project “in honor of [his] conceptually oriented colleagues” at the University of Calgary (Wayman retired in 2010), Winter’s Skin is comprised of 25 poems that riff on lines, images, or concepts from Pablo Neruda’s posthumous 1974 collection Jardin de invierno. Dotted with stark, stunning landscape photographs of southeastern BC by Jeremy Addington and Rod Currie, the book’s physical beauty seems a direct answer to the anxious questions many of us continue to ask about the vagaries of digital publishing. The poems themselves strike an introspective and personal intimacy in their delicacy of perception; they are concrete and nuanced in a way that much of Wayman’s other poetic writing is not. Consider the haiku sensibility of the first two sections of “Breath”:

Tufts of snow
that rise from the branch
a chickadee alights on

Winter fog surrounding
the house: on the frosted slope of
the ridge behind, great spruce and pine
blur to white shadows

Ol’ Wayman is still in these poems, in both voice and persona, but he is more contemplative, less anxious than he has been, even in the book’s slower, more measured burns against injustice and death (especially in the excellent “The White Dogs”); Winter’s Skin is Wayman in the beginnings of his own winter—asking “only / to take the minutes // of the meetings between the season / and [him]self,” and exulting in the solitude and reckoning of the ever-falling snow. This is not to say that Winter’s Skin is tame, or uninterested in politics, literary or otherwise. Wayman’s preface to the collection characterizes the book’s tone as quietly elegiac, but in general it is vintage Wayman: engaged, observant, prickly, lusty, and open to what the world, and the newly arrived winter, have to teach us about ourselves. Both Dirty Snow and Winter’s Skin renew the call for closer consideration of Wayman’s verse; true, these books set their own terms, but they do so in hopes of showing us that we are intimately and inextricably tied to one another in our mutual experience of and conversation about the living world.

This review “Wayman in Winter” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 185-186.

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