Taken together, the newest books by Carmelita McGrath, Ken Belford and Michael Boughn might demonstrate one, albeit academic, perspective on the state of contemporary poetry. While McGrath, at one pole, operates in a very traditional manner, and Boughn, at the other pole, functions in a more vanguard fashion, Belford splits the difference and works, quite appropriately, at the internode.
Escape Velocity, Carmelita McGrath’s third book of poems, begins with a “Disclaimer”—a reflexive poem that presents both the state of her art, and the state of the art. She begins: “Should anyone wonder, / should anyone expect, / there will be no pyrotechnics.” McGrath functions, at her best, in a far more subtle, and “crepuscular” light, haunted by voices of Modernism like Frost and Stevens. As for the avant-garde, however, she proffers: “Too much already has been burned. / Enough turned to heaps of ash. / Let the children own the comet, the flare, the flash.” McGrath’s poems glisten in their most imagistic moments—when the punctuation is minimal, the lines tight and economical—like “black-and-white-lace moths.” In a poem titled “Elision,” for example, where McGrath addresses her aging parent, she demonstrates a proficient command of image and line:
[A] fossil has begun in you, ribs of memory
around absent cells, synapses flicker out
like votive candles, and that sea, our sea
no longer whispers a version of the world,
but lives on the windowsill in a dried shell
that fails to conjure anything to sail on [.]
Unfortunately, McGrath’s poems suffer in their most prosaic moments—when syntax organizes the lines against the potency of enjambment, when grammar and mechanics interfere, and when she addresses a reader, almost seeking reassurance: “Listen, can you not hear it?” and “You know that feeling?” Overall, McGrath offers poems that always “open the windows” to the natural world—to the earth, the sky, the weather—and therefore to the mutabilities of life and relationships. Despite the title, these are poems that do not attempt to leave the world as we know it. Unlike the cover image, in fact, these poems are not streaks of light, but more like “reading stories in a leafy light.”
Like McGrath’s Escape Velocity, Ken Belford’s eighth book of poems, Internodes, begins with a poem about his poetic project. In the first of a book-length sequence of untitled poems, Belford offers a series of poetic imperatives:
and get rid of the entangled fabric
of arcane meaning, and breathe,
and be something more than
the immediate, repetitious sample.
In many of the short, compact “agitated lyric[s]” that make up Internodes, Belford self-consciously asserts his outsider status in the poetry community. He wishes to operate outside of the prescriptions and demands of academic poetries, what he calls the “forcy algorithms of scolders.” But, while he respects the conceptual writing of fellow Canadians Christian Bök and Derek Beaulieu, whose “bricks and blocks roll off the line,” Belford prefers to get his “nuts and bolts from a bin.” Still, Belford’s intention to write a poetry that displaces our usual habits of attention to the world and language certainly falls within a vanguard poetic like the poets he names. Moreover, he claims to “concoct and fudge genres,” by which he means that he writes a brand of eco-poetry, neither “pastoral” or “idyllic,” but as “unpredictable” as the “environment.” His poems “oscillate” between themes of language, masculinity, exploitation, family and land. As a self-described “speaker of a geo- / graphic lan(d)guage,” Belford avoids “the charm of landscape poems,” “appeals for land’s sake,” and “submiss[ion] to the local.” His mostly uniform, columnar poems act as “persistent clumps of vascular / arrangements”—arrangements that demonstrate an organic form, analogous to the complexity and interdependence of an ecosystem, or the bright orange grouping of spores that adorn the cover. At times, I will admit, Belford’s heavy hand with statements about his internodal status, and his “aversion to retired / English teachers,” interfere with the actual execution of his eco-poetic model.
With Cosmographia: A Post-Lucretian Faux Micro-Epic, Michael Boughn’s fifth book of poetry, the title and cover suggest a grandiosity of tone and scope, as any epic should, whether classical, mock, or faux. Boughn approaches the project, in fact, with a tongue that might only fill the bloated cheek of Dizzy Gillespie. Across the cover Boughn has black and white cows traversing an antiquated cartographic depiction of three dimensional space and time. In Boughn’s campy attempt to write the world, he also intends to right the world—at least as there continues to be “heavily armoured engineering assaults / on pools of words drained and reclaimed // for development by veritas platforms.” Opposed to the cows that “here signify large groups / of meaning headed for the nearest / cliff,” Bough offers the character of Razzamatootie—a muse-like figure that inspires the “provocative non sequiturs hell bent / on breeding lilacs out of whatever vociferant / dung heap vocabulary tickles their dirty roots.” Boughn’s use of the word faux in the title allows him the latitude to write an epic of twelve books, each with six lyric-like cantos, while also transgressing the “imposition of bound rudiments” of genre or style. Boughn riddles the poem with footnote citations from jazz musicians, poets, philosophers, and scientists—footnotes that serve as “gravy,” the otherwise “unusable material designated / unprofitable” turned into an excessive delight. While Boughn cites the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the real war at the centre of the poem is the war against the imagination, where poems act as “pockets / of resistance” against both the “rhetorical simplifications” and the “market based / truth disseminations” by the perpetrators of “archonic” agendas. Ultimately, Boughn writes a philosophical epic like Lucretius and “not just for the fun of it” but with the
imperative to pay
attention to what matters in a time
of universal entrapment arranged
in long parallel rows of shelves stacked
with similar drugs to smooth out
whatever variations might disrupt [.]