Northern Poetry Review: Archived

Review: Frontenac Quartet (2007)

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Contrary Infatuations, Dymphny Dronyk

She Dreams in Red, Alexis Keinlen

The Bride Anthology, Patricia Rivera

Impersonating Flowers, David Bateman

 

Reviewed by Richard Stevenson.

Back with a new quartet of poetry volumes, after winning the prize for Alberta Publisher of the Year, Frontenac House continues to diversify its list. This year, we’re treated to two new volumes by Frontenac alumni and two new poets with first books. Once again, the range of poetics is impressive.

Dymphny Dronyk’s name is new to me, though, judging from her bio, she’s been around a block or two. After years of rambling on an eclectic career path, having been a camp cook, editor, waitress, photographer, her gypsy soul, as she puts it, has taken root in the Peace country and her energy is now directed towards raising three children and running her arbitration and mediation business. If that were not enough to establish her hard realist credentials, alas, she’s also a widow, having recently lost a young husband to cancer. All of these experiences have fed her poetry and led to a strong, mature first collection.

Happily, Dronyk’s sense of craft matches her range of subject matter. Whether writing about the hard scrabble life of being a camp cook or documenting a long and harrowing bedside vigil beside her husband; whether writing about working in the oil patch, about being “bushed,” or juggling wolves in a primarily male industry, she never succumbs to sentimentality or maudlin self-pity. Indeed, it is the upbeat character, the wit and good humour the poet brings to her candid observations that impresses most:

 

I have gained

forward motion but

it is the prosthesis

for the heart

I long for.

 

(“The Widow”)

 

Her preferred mode is the skinny free verse strophe, and, occasionally, I’d like to argue about the line breaks, but she’s terse and economical with the language, nonetheless, even in the narrative pieces, and can string together a strong developmental suite, as she does in Camp Cook, Tree Planting Poems, The Patch Poems, 2006, and the stellar centerpiece, Astrocytoma.   Her work poems bring to the familiar anecdotal narrative sub-genre a wry wit, strong use of anaphora and other parallel structures, so she can ring the changes from straight reportage to metaphor with élan. She’s also attentive to the melodic and rhythmic possibilities in her phrasing.

A solid debut. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Originally from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, poet Alexis Kienlen is also a peripatetic wanderer, having lived in Montreal, Wainwright, Grande Prairie, Vancouver, and, overseas, in Indonesia and Mongolia. Of mixed ethnic heritage — Chinese, French, German, and English/Scottish — she explores her background in a series of journeys in this, her first, collection — from China to Canada, to Indonesia to Mongolia into the mysteries of the human heart and romantic relationships.

Again, mainstream realism in terse short-line free verse strophes; brief imagist pieces bridging slightly longer anecdotes. Unfortunately, some of these anecdotes and imagist pieces fail to transcend mere description and the book is better as a whole than it is in individual performances. I often felt that the poet hadn’t worked her groove as much as she could, mining the literal level of observation for a telling metaphor or climactic, ironic disclosure. Sometimes the poems just peter out:

the call to prayer carries,

echoes through crooked little streets,

small mazes I don’t understand,

past the children,

the older women cradling them

in batik slings,

bare feet and dusty smiles,

speaking those fast words,

i don’t understand.

 

from my balcony,

I look toward the mosques

tall towers

among squat little houses

 

(“call to prayer”)

The grammar seems a little shaky between the image of batik slings and bare feet and dusty smiles; a re-arrangement of the syntax — “past the children / the older women / with bare feet and dusty smiles / who cradle infants in batik slings (something like that, so the older women aren’t cradling children in slings and in bare feet anyway). I know, if the reader goes back to the verb, the passage reads well: the bare feet and dusty smiles are just part of the panoply of things passed, but the ambiguity creates an awkward hiccup I would have revised.

When she’s on though, she’s definitely on, as she is in the final image of “dance of intimacy.”

 

we keep dancing away from love

brushing away intimacy

in the same way

windshield wipers

scatter raindrops.

 

Same use of understatement, close observation, but better timing, and a nice use of dropping rhythm to let the reader linger on the reverberations of that final image.

In short, plenty to admire in the brevity and close observation of domestic and travelogue detail, the handling of colloquial speech rhythms and phrasing, if a little too lean on the tropes and schemes that add depth and breadth.

Patria Rivera’s second book with Frontenac, The Bride Anthology, is a worthy successor to her earlier collection, Puti / White (2005). Subtitled “A tidy treatise on love and its malfunctions,” this one’s more focused and, indeed, the frequent use of matrimonial imagery and re-imagined tropes from the romantic poetry of yore is sweet to the tongue and mind, and rich as marzipan come upon wrapped in a serviette in a secret compartment of a hope chest.

I’m tempted to say that Rivera is drawing from a deeper well than the other two poets — I can hear echoes of Wallace Stevens, Yeats, other early Modernists — but, of course, we’re just following a different aesthetic here: more impasto, fewer pointillists dots perhaps. This makes the poetry slower going. I found myself putting the book aside after I’d read a section rather than reading it straight through, as if to savor the sweetness all the more when I returned to it.

The sly wit and humour are still here, as is the tight control of melody and rhythm:

Every petal is like a period when a hen sits on an egg,

incubating its step into an entreaty, a dot to catch a spot,

 

and while traveling from place, slides uncontrollably,

like a mussel menacing the lake. Isn’t that adorable! Posed

 

as a lateral start, the holy man utters the word as a sham move,

it’s not free of charge; it is, shod in while, thinhorn sheep …

 

(“Turning rose petals to gold”)

This is as tasty as it gets in Canada, and the poet is as adept with a strophe as she is with a distich. Indeed, Rivera uses all the resources of the poet with equal aplomb: recurrent motifs and cognate imagery at the atomic level; tropes and schemes at the sub-atomic atomic level. It’s a rich collection and one I’m likely to return to, to sip at awhile in the shade.

David Bateman’s Impersonating Flowers is a worthy sequel to his first Frontenac collection, Invisible Foreground (2005) as well. I wouldn’t say it’s a better book, but it certainly consolidates his position in the poetry cosmos. As clever as the fey cover with its flower head-dressed waif with steady blue-eyed gaze, and, frequently, as startling, Bateman takes some of the gains of other pop culture-oriented poets like David Trinidad, David McGimpsey, Ron Gross, and Denise Duhamel — the unlikely source material, play with diction registers, matter-of-fact presentation, ironic observation — to new places. Finding a haiku — actually it’s a senryu, but let’s not quibble — in a euphemistic pool closure sign, for example, or a found lyric in the package boomph of a Thrift Village pair of novelty boobs isn’t what you’d expect in a collection of homo-erotic narratives and rites-of-passage poems, but Bateman is an excellent tour guide of suburbia and points beyond.

Sometimes he’s a little over the top and pushes a Beat rant aesthetic beyond the reach of surreal imagery, and cinematic jump cut, in long swatches of run-on prose that flags before we get to the finish line, but, more often than not, he’s able to rescue the material from bathos, and take a sudden turn the reader doesn’t expect, or drop a pun like a bad stink bomb on the way out of the building.

Like Rivera too, he’s adept at a variety of forms — the prose poem, the Beat catalogue poem, the found poem, serial post-modern narrative, the performance poem, even satiric, accentual-syllabic doggerel / song lyric. Best of all, he’s in complete control of syntax, meter, rhythm, melody; you can taste the words on your tongue as you intone them.

Here’s a few sample passages:

 

we rare and rural drag queens

know a lonely luckless life

we long for ostrich feathers

but get chickens, cows and strife …

 

(“Drag Lament”)

 

***

 

Ultimately, beyond the pseudo pithy allusions to pop culture and performance art, fucking Betty Rubble was what it was all about for him, that day at lunch. …

(“The Best Part of You”)

 

***

 

Her son wearing a dress

Her son wearing a dress onstage

Her son wearing a dress onstage talking about her

Her son wearing a dress onstage talking about her

 

and not reserving her a front row seat

 

(“Maternal Fears: A List”)

 

Hang onto your hat: it’s a wild ride, hetero or gay; poetry shouldn’t be so much fun!

Four to the floor then: proof Frontenac takes a back seat to no one.

 

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Author: Alex Boyd

Alex Boyd is the author of two books of poems: Making Bones Walk and The Least Important Man. He also writes essays, reviews and fiction.

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