Ways of Looking Backwards

Reviewed by Patrick McCann

Riding the line between universal and personal, these four collections of poetry discuss the intricacies of knowledge, memory, and the self, and the multitude of emotions that accompany such topics. In Human Tissue, Weyman Chan, the most experimental of the four poets, explores a vision of humanity in a technologically charged world. Stephen Brockwell’s All of Us Reticent, Here, Together delves into experiences and relationships in a candid and often humorous fashion. My Life without Me, the latest collection from Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, while still saturated in personal matters and beliefs, emphasizes the creative process of the poet. Love, the mind, and memory are the subjects of Edward Carson’s formalistic Knots. Each collection demonstrates a unique perspective on the introspective nature of poetry.

Human Tissue, the fifth book by Calgary poet Chan, exudes a sense of immediacy and simultaneously displays a modernist influence. Although it deals primarily with contemporary issues and concerns, like the effect of technology on the psyche, navigating a rather unenjoyable house party, and multiculturalism, Human Tissue includes excerpts of Franz Kafka and Gertrude Stein (whose style is visible in many of Chan’s poems), hearkening back to certain poetic modes of the twentieth century. Many of the poems’ titles are simply numbers, ordered in a seemingly Wittgensteinian manner: “11.1,” “11.84,” “0.0089.” Technological terms, academic topics, and scientific language blend with an arsenal of colloquial terms:

or is solipsism
a subset of unreal
juxtacrined and morose.

This clash of tradition and the contemporary, of the informal and the technical, contributes to the sense of anxiety in Chan’s poetry. A reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the titling of the book’s sections (“Deviance Standard,” “Mute Function”), and the book’s subtitle, “a primer for Not Knowing,” combine to create a carefully crafted expression of being flesh in a partly robotic world.

All of Us Reticent, Here, Together is an honest, formally straightforward exploration of memory and relationships, in which Brockwell studies his life through the lens of the figure of the poet. Many of the poems are aptly titled “Biographies” of certain things and people, as he records experiences and feelings in hindsight: “Biography of the Translucent Grandmother,” “Biography of Glazing,” “Biography of My Father’s Last Breath.” As is apparent from the titles, the poetic representations of Brockwell’s personal life range from sorrowful to sardonic, exemplifying his capability with multiple tones. Like Chan, Brockwell alludes to literary and philosophical figures, yet the allusions are often presented as tongue-in-cheek and in passing. There is a claim that Heidegger mistitled Being and Time; it should have been Being in Time, for there is “no other way to be.” The versatility and personality of the collection exemplify a blend of the droll and the doleful that is emblematic of a recent trend in Canadian poetry.

In a similar way, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco’s newest collection examines individual experiences and emotions in a primarily lyrical, serious manner. Many of the poems revolve around religion, death, and memory: they look forwards and backwards. Despite such weighty and grave matters, Di Cicco’s poetry exhibits an uninhibited affirmation of life, of people, of love. As the poet examines his life in detail, he simultaneously claims in one of the poems that “[o]ne day I became everybody else,” and in the preamble he writes that he “always had other people’s thoughts.” This juxtaposition attempts to create an element of universality in the poetry in My Life without Me, claiming an authority for the poet’s perspective on the important matters of life. In a world permeated by the loss of love, life, and time, Di Cicco asks, “Where is God in all this?”

Carson’s Knots revolves around the subjects of the mind, memory, and love, almost exclusively using nature-based metaphors. The sky, birds, rivers, and mountains play a central role in his elaboration of his view of the mind and its functions. Although it boasts a pulchritudinous style and a creative way of unwrapping the mind’s emotions, Knots feels increasingly repetitive as it proceeds. The book employs essentially only one poetic structure for each section, and a single poem from one of the sections can sometimes seem indistinguishable from the others, both in style and in subject. Nevertheless, Carson shows off his ability to craft poems that delve into the hear

This review “Ways of Looking Backwards” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 139-140.

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