Words About Things

  • Jan Zwicky
    The Book of Frog: un amuse-espirit.
  • Lorna Crozier
    The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things. Greystone Books
  • George Elliott Clarke
    Red. Gaspereau Press
Reviewed by Alison Calder

As a writer, Lorna Crozier has always been concerned with seeing the small things of the world. The Book of Marvels makes that project official. This collection of 124 prose poems, arranged alphabetically from “Air” and “Apple” to “Yo-Yo” and “Zipper,” voyages through topics both concrete and abstract. One intention of the collection is to “negotiate a trip into the thickness of things,” to quote from the passage by Francis Ponge that serves as an epigraph to this book. Where Ponge describes this trip into “things” as a violent “revolution . . . comparable to that accomplished by the plough or the spade,” though, Crozier’s approach is less radical, a gently repetitive list structure cushioning her metaphors.

Metaphor is both device and subject in this collection, as the pieces are ultimately as much about figures of speech and language in general as they are about the things they purport to define. In “Hinge,” for example, this self-reflexivity is explicit, from the poem’s allusive opening (“Easy to tell a hawk from a handsaw, but what about a hawk from a hinge?”) to its meditation on how poetry works: “The present hinges on the past, the cure on the skill of the physician, the passion on the quality of the kiss. These being proof that metaphor is a kind of hinge. It makes the mind pivot. Hinge one word to another and see what suddenly swings open, like a gate meant to keep wild horses from the house.” Other poems deal with representation more obliquely, through allusion to authors as varied as Gertrude Stein, Mordecai Richler, William Blake, and Ann Landers. The real topic here is language itself, the ways in which it can and cannot approximate the things of western domestic life. In the poem “X,” Crozier writes, “You remember it drawn on the blackboard at school, the teacher saying ‘X is the unknown.’ You couldn’t help thinking it could be chalked across everything outside the self.” In a sense, these poems continue that chalking, with the words that attempt to articulate the object evoking it, but also X-ing it out.

In “Objects,” Crozier writes that “If you gaze at one [object] – a wrench, a cheese grater, a paper clip – with rapt attention, after twenty minutes you’ll be worn out and have to take a nap.” Indeed, a reader who tries to go through this book from cover to cover in one sitting may be fatigued by the accumulation of phrases, as each object is defined and redefined numerous times. Taken together, the definitions, although each rooted in specifics, assume some general qualities, a blending assisted by Crozier’s repeated use of the poetic “you” for her pronoun. As a reader, I found myself wishing occasionally for the more pointed “I”—what might these objects be to a particular individual, rather than to an undifferentiated collective? The general “you” begins to feel a little coercive, as a singular response is made to represent the whole. In smaller doses, though, the book preserves its charm, as the poet’s imagination animates the things on which so much depends.

The Book of Frog by Jan Zwicky is subtitled “un amuse-esprit,” and readers may need to be in a particular spirit to enjoy it. Much of the collection is a series of epistolary prose pieces, many of which are in the form of emails between Frog, who is a rock with four barnacles for legs, and Al, who is an imaginary albatross with a twelve-foot wingspan. Many of their communiqués concern the romantic life and activities of Liv, a musician who travels a lot, and her partner Hugh. These missives, many of which seem to be written by Liv and Hugh using Frog and Al as personae, focus on daily life—a delayed flight, a damaged toilet paper holder, an unexpected visit from a friend—but also allude to topics with heavier import.

It’s hard to quiet one’s monkey mind when reading this book. Allusions go everywhere, and nowhere. Is this Basho’s frog talking to Coleridge’s albatross? Is Liv’s name “live” or “leave”? Could “Hugh” mean “human” and/or “you”? References to the Golden Ratio, baseball, Warren Buffet, the nature of language’s relation to the world and itself, Facebook, the possibility of communication through metaphor, transience, transcendence, and noise and silence, to name a few topics, promise some sort of weightier discussion. But how to make sense? The book has to be about something. Frog’s closing statement that “everything is always about everything” gives the reader an easy way out. Readers wanting to exercise themselves by making connections will enjoy this book. Others may find the conceit just too twee.

If you found one of the poems from Red lying on the ground, anonymous and lost, you would know immediately that it had been written by George Elliott Clarke. Here, Clarke’s lyrics are at their most hyperbolic, the lines dominated by his trademark exaggerated shifts from romantic excess to bluesy innuendo.

Clarke describes Red as “Redskin, blackmouth blues.” The poems, divided into sections on the basis either of form (“Odes”) or content (“Nova Scotia”), range wildly through varied topics. The section “Red Eye” includes a lengthy reiteration of the Black stud White woman trope (“My Negro organ exults, milking, / Blanching, that sugary cavity!”), while “Red Star” contains a retelling of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Other poems concern the poet’s father, Charles Mingus, and Italy. One noteworthy poem, “Looking at Alma Duncan’s Young Black Girl (1940),” provides a thoughtful examination of Duncan’s painting. While there are some beautiful lines in individual pieces, overall the cacophonous conglomeration of topics and language combines to produce only a blurred impression.

This review “Words About Things” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 142-43.

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