You Exist. Details Follow, by Stuart Ross
Reviewed by Alessandro Porco
Any discussion of Stuart Ross’s most recent collection of poems, You Exist. Details Follow., must necessarily begin with its title poem. “You Exist. Details Follow.” is the book’s first and longest poem. It totals 171 lines and divides into seven sections. As Ross explains, he composed the poem “during” John Ashbery’s long poem “A Wave” (1984), transforming the act of reading into an act of creative writing. The resulting poem investigates the relationship of time — in this case, the duration of reading Ashbery’s poem— to poiesis. “Honestly, citizens, / have you heard of time? It’s a thing that matters”: with civic exhortation and a telling pun, so begins Ross’s standout piece.
For Ross, time “matters” because, if we admit it into the poem, it will constantly disorient and reorient the poet’s language. We are always keeping and losing time in language, and those oppositional forces are at work in the poem’s form. Thus, Ross recycles keywords from section to section of “You Exist. Details Follow.” In section 1, for example, he writes, “Someone else [in the diner] strutted / into the corner, admired / the landscape, an unfocused / golf course”; while in section 3, he describes how “an echo scrapes / across the doomed surface / of a laughing golf course” and in section 4 that “landscape” returns, “mesmerizing, wagging / its considerable tail.” Here’s another example: in section 4, in an elegantly phrased passage about love, Ross writes, “People stand with their hands / on their hips; trees in / their landscapes; their appearances / are in love, but they / are not”; in section 5, Ross finds love where we least expect it: “the quiet supermarket / yields love, headlines, a special kind of wakefulness”; and finally, in section 6, Ross reminds us that love is sometimes very silly: “Love me. Tender my loins.” On the one hand, these keyword repetitions serve as buoys; on the other hand, they produce a linguistic déjà vu, which upsets the reader’s sense of the now and splits the self (i.e., like Ross qua Ashbery of “A Wave”).
Time matters, too, because — tempus fugit — it steals off with the poem’s subject matter or “topic.” “I will tell you / my topic when I’m / better prepared,” a sly and winking Ross tells the reader (“you”). It’s a promise Ross has no intention of keeping because he knows it’s impossible to keep. As he explains in a later poem, titled “The Topic,”
When I began this poem
six minutes ago, everything was
rolled over the pavement
outside my window, the crazy
guy with the shopping cart
rattled by, a fly slammed itself
between two panes. The cartoon
made everything vivid.
Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse”
was everywhere I went.
Everything was different, and everything is different, and everything will be different, raising an ethical question of technique more than anything else for Ross: how to accept and express how everything was and is and will be different through poetic form? One way Ross solves his technical problem is through enumeration — the counting of, and accounting for, things from sentence to sentence. The list is always at the heart of Ross’s prosody and his signature surrealism. Another way is digression: in the poem “2010,” Ross reminds himself, “That’s what I was talking about”– by then it’s too late, he’s already riding a new line of inquiry.
Yet another way for Ross to foreground the matter of time is through revision. For example, “The Good Life” and “Everybody Had Lost Track of Time” are translations of works by Mark Strand and Charles Simic, respectively. Ross subjects each poem to three translations representative of unique occasions of composition: so, “You are wearing your father’s slippers” becomes “The moon did not know your father” becomes “You are waterproofing your faucet’s slime”; or, “Though his likeness is pasted everywhere” becomes “The leaves are red and yellow” becomes “Though his lilac is part-exchanged everywhere.” This is like a game of Chinese Whispers, which John Ashbery — whose presence and influence is felt on every page of Ross’s book (a total of five Ross poems are composed “during” Ashbery poems) — once described as
… the game where
A whispered phrase passed around the room
Ends up as something completely different.
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place.
Because of this game, the poems by Strand, Simic, and Ross become “caricatures” of themselves.
Finally, Ross is able to introduce time into his poetics by writing occasional verse. Occasional verse is, paradoxically, both permanent and fleeting, thus as a genre it fits nicely with Ross’s interests, as thus far described. Every year, for example, he writes a poem to commemorate New Year’s Day: “We wait. The year is invented.” You Exist. Details Follow. includes installments in this series dating back to January 1 2008.
But that’s only a small part of what’s happening in Stuart Ross’s latest collection of poems.
In 2007, Ross assumed the position of poetry editor for Denis De Klerck’s Mansfield Press. And in his editorial capacity, and with the assistance of Stephen Brockwell, and with the support of De Klerck, Ross decided to connect poetry and politics through the publication of Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Holiday Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament. That anthology wasn’t Ross’s first foray into the political: in 2003, he edited and published the anthology Love Poems for George W. Bush. I mention this because, in You Exist. Details Follow., Ross continues to tackle the political sphere through his own work. This isn’t surprising given the recent history that forms the cultural context for these poems’s production: a conservative government in Canada; the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010; global economic crisis; continued war efforts and military spending.
Ross’s best political poetry (“Remote Silos,” “I Left My Station,” “Secret Country”) is equal parts postmodern allegory and nightmare vision. The disturbed speaker of “Remote Silos,” for example, is radicalized by mass-mediated paranoia (i.e., the punning “remote” control of the title):
I think of bombs.
I run towards me
in slow motion.
if I’m in a commercial.
These last six lines point to the frightening commerce between fantasy, aesthetics, and military recruitment ads. In “I Left My Station,” through a series of sixteen single-sentence lines, Ross evokes life within some unnamed police state:
They told me to sit right there.
I sang the praises of the secret police.
I felt the cool of lips on my brow.
I felt the barrel of a gun in my rib.
The toes on my feet curled like boll weevils.
Her voice was as pretty as a pretty thing.
The poem quietly grapples with issues such as collaboration and complicity (“I sang the praises of the secret police”), the instrumentalization of aesthetics (“Her voice was as pretty as a pretty thing”), and imagination as survival (“I learned to play a broken mandolin. / Clouds made of porridge parted in the sky. / Seven blind crows swooped by”).
“Secret Country” is another exceptional political poem, and it perfectly captures Ross’s signature surrealism. That is, he sets up a strange conceit, and then plays it out to its logical (or illogical) end: “I look at my watch. / It is ten minutes to the moment I climb / into a shoebox.” From inside his shoebox, in the future, the speaker proceeds to “secede from Canada” and “form a Sandinista government.” He creates a “paradise.” But the poem, in fact, is about deconstructing the fantasy of paradise and admitting the limits of escape:
I become dissatisfied. The country is cramped.
I haven’t stretched in ages.
I topple myself and install myself.
These lines, however, also read like Ross’s self-reflexive gloss on his indebtedness to surrealist compositional strategies. Or, similarly, they articulate Ross’s disenchantment with the narrow purview of Canadian poetry (“The country is cramped”). Either way, he has no desire to remain mindlessly loyal to either brand, recognizing the dangerous extremism of such loyalties.
During the period Ross composed the poems included in You Exist. Details Follow., the poet moved from his long-time home of Toronto — where he has been a force at the epicenter of the small press community since the 1980s — to Cobourg, Ontario (about 60 miles east of the city). Perhaps it was inevitable that he would try his hand at writing about Cobourg. When he does so, mercifully, Ross doesn’t treat his new, adopted hometown as a patronizing or sentimental tourist might; and yet he doesn’t exempt it from critique or suspicion, either.
For example, “Cobourg, Night” captures Ross’s sense of uprootedness. So, he seeks out “the clock / on Victoria Hall” in order to remind himself where and when he is. He laments, later, “My parents / died in another city / 75 minutes away.” But Ross doesn’t succumb to writing a maudlin poem about loss — loss of home and family. Instead, in homage, he provides a whimsical, cinematic metaphor (movie “stars” in the sky) for his parents and, then, opens up his poem to the issues of his “exotic” Jewishness in Cobourg:
of their lives, as filmed
by Ealing Studios, is screened
on the night sky. Here
it is exotic. Tonight:
the screening. Tomorrow:
the Pulled Pork Festival.
“Cobourg Dogs” is a simple but effective parable. Ross suggests that everyday life –community, sex, aesthetics, language, and care — in Cobourg might be improved if citizens adopted the value system of dogs (read: poets), one which (among other things) admirably doesn’t recognize or accept the concept of “owners”:
… let them off-leash, let them
walk through gardens,
hump stuffed animals,
let them eat off your plate.
You are so wasteful.
You’re just going to throw it away.
Open the Homelike Inn to dogs!
Schedule bands that play dog songs.
A bowl of water at every street corner!
Learn to speak dog.
And in “Cobourg Commerce,” Ross satirizes the town’s perpetual blinders to economic and intellectual difference and exchange: “The Chinese buffet opens, then closes. / Another Chinese buffet opens. / The Chinese buffet changes its name / and opens again, two doors away.” Ross’s formal-tautological conceit moves the poem, tonally, away from anger or scorn into nonsense tinged disappointment and frustration, especially when we get to the poem’s final line: “A Chinese buffet has opened.”
But the most satisfying of the handful of Cobourg poems is “Pop. 18,500.” Surveillance and scrutiny are (more often than not) built into a small town’s structure of feeling, and Ross expresses the need for resistance to such conditions, a way of being invisible:
into the silent lake
In these Stevens-esque final lines, Ross wants the freedom to not be seen — and that’s tied to the imaginative freedom to not see. He says as much through the delicately alliterative lines, which are more sonically precious than Ross is typically inclined. (As I suggested earlier, typically, his poems are propelled by a roughness of accumulated sentence units more than anything else.)
You Exist. Details Follow. is distinguished from Ross’s early work in another way: he seems, in many poems, to be actively courting emotional sincerity and using a more plain style, whereas earlier in his career (and elsewhere in this very book, too), he might have automatically resorted to upending a poem’s sentiment with a throwaway joke, grammatical opacity, or a randomly-generated image (see the two-line conclusion to “Rest Period, Kindergarten” or the abstraction of “The Event”). What makes You Exist. Details Follow. so compelling is Ross’s willingness to recognize how easy that stylistic automatism is (i.e., the poetic equivalent of a failsafe) and to explode it.
To put it another way, echoing my discussion in part 1 above, Ross actively revises and mistranslates his own well-established poetic persona and style, thus rendering himself a “caricature” – a caricature that rings as deeply and heart-achingly true as the more surreal Ross many have come to love and respect.
For example, here is “Moon” in its entirety:
At night the mountains are invisible.
Horses dance through dust and the headlights
of an invisible car. Their hooves
pound the dirt road. We slip
through the fence and lower ourselves
into the pool. The moon is directly above.
It is the same moon my father saw
from another continent
and he is dead.
Ross is a regular visitor to the Kootenays, and I can easily imagine that area of the country is the source of the poem’s “mountains.” The descriptive language tends toward impressionism: there is only the elusive movements (“dance”) of light and dust and sound — phenomena that cannot be pinned down, just like the covert we who “slip” into the poem and “into the pool.” There’s a freedom in being invisible and elusive, delinquent from the world. But in the turn of the poem’s final four lines, the speaker sees clearly (ah, the moon!) that, even in this moment of pleasure and release, he is a part of something grander, even cosmic, and something sobering: history.
The dead have a way of shining in and on us at every moment, and “Moon” is a very good poem about such hauntings.
“Fennel” is an even more moving eleven-line love lyric. It begins simply enough, in parody of cookbook instructions: “To prepare the fennel, / cross-cut, remove the heart , / you can smell the licorice, / save the leafy part for hutspot.” But the poem quickly becomes filled with pathos, as the cool and methodical cookbook language slips away, revealing a desperate lover trying to hold it together:
to your senses and move
back home. I don’t know how
to repair the door hinge
and my back needs rubbing.
The know-how of lines 1-5 give way to the utter helplessness of lines 9-11. And the play on “senses” transforms “fennel” into a truly touching — and surprising — symbol of hope.
Lyrics like “Moon” and “Fennel” — but also “French Fries,” “Lineage,” “6:31am,” “Late,” “Father’s Shave,” “Razovsky and the Heron,” and “When We Met” — will, ultimately, force readers to reassess Ross’s range as a poet. And “Fennel,” in particular, is the kind of poem that should remind folks that Ross belongs among the top tier of poets in this country.
A final note about You Exist. Details Follow. as a whole unit of composition. Ross seems to be gleefully toying with the expectations of readers. From poem to poem, he purposely “topples” the notion of formal, imagistic, thematic, prosodic, or tonal continuity — and that’s essential to the rhythm of the book-as-a-unit and the pleasure it affords. Or, to borrow a formulation of Ross’s, “Nothing prepared me for this.” But it’s more than just Stuart Ross showing off his poetic chops — though there’s a great deal of that, and it’s fun to watch. Ross quietly performs a critique of Canadian poetry’s tendency toward books that possess a singular focus or “topic” and the governing bodies of arts councils at city, provincial, and national levels that force artists to imagine such cohesiveness throughout the application process. (Surveillance isn’t unique to small towns: it extends to arts institutions, as well.) Thus, as a whole unit of composition, Ross’s book is, among other things, a quiet polemic in defense of the miscellaneous, swimming against the stream and against streamlining.