Instructions for Pen and Ink, by Edward Nixon
Wolf Hunter, by Darren Bifford
I don’t think I need to tell you, by Sarah Teitel
Sanatorium Songs, by Marc di Saverio
Reviews by Jacob Mcarthur Mooney
The Ontario chapbook publisher Cactus Press recently released a fresh crop of four chapbooks by a diverse and very competent quartet of new (and new-ish) poets. The books are charming in appearance, managing the tough trick of being memorable and unique in their individual design, while maintaining enough subtle hints of an in-house aesthetic to make them identifiable as a gestalt brand. The books carry plenty of spirit, but live happily as parts of a quartet. They are well-made, but still homemade. Their staples and imperfect edges hide a dignified and subtle edit. The gesture of their publication is simple and apolitical: to get good new writing out into the world. And the writing is good. Each of the four has something to hide, something to declare, and something new for their readers.
Instructions for Pen and Ink by Edward Nixon
This short collection by Toronto poet and community-thinker Edward Nixon is a book of workmanlike simplicity, and a certain philosophical sincerity that often invites an under-reading. That would be unfortunate, here. Nixon’s default tone, a sort of wistful, half-embarrassed lyrical mumbling, takes a moment to grow on you but is worth the effort. He doesn’t necessarily help himself by attempting to wrestle out of it early in the collection (the jokey, undeveloped “A Painting Black on Black” is the chap’s weakest link), but once he finds his best note, he holds it. The first couple lines of “A Resistance” get to the root of his concerns: “He says he’s not worthy / of the telling.” Those two lines contain the troubled working-class masculinity of Instructions for Pen and Ink‘s best moments, and wrap it in the false-front of a second person narrative. The “He” there is the author, of course. And the instructions of the title poem’s pedagogical conceit are there for that same “He”’s benefit. There’s a voyeuristic charm to being a reader of this book, and not in the way that most lyricists invite voyeurism. It’s exciting to watch Edward Nixon struggle to write Edward Nixon poems. That he can invite you into this intimacy with enough musicality and verve (as when “We Didn’t Know” begins “Polaroid 67 / Merc 66 fuel burn conspicuous / so delicious, fast on 15”) to make your time worthwhile, is what makes the collection a success, in the end.
Wolf Hunter by Darren Bifford
I submit that it’s harder to effectively organize a structured short poetry collection than a full-length one. The latter invites a breeziness, a looseness that allows for individual poems that only indirectly serve the thematic or intratextual concerns of the book. This isn’t the case in a sixteen-page book. One has to account for each poem in the whole, or give up the pursuit of “the whole” to the more nebulous thematic accoutrements of collecting. Darren Bifford’s Wolf Hunter is an example of a well-structured short collection. It comes bearing the weight of much paratext (I count five epigraphs in total), but reads like a single conversation between the sections marked History (consisting of a six-part fan letter to Czeslaw Milosz) and Nature (consisting predominantly of pairs of poems about the death of animals). The work, here, allows the “book-ness” of it. Bifford can craft a longer poem that works up and down the full length of the reading experience: from sound to image to narrative to theme. The title poem is likely the strongest piece, and well-placed in the collection’s dead centre. Its dramatic monologue is such a believable characterization that it reads as straight lyric, not too divorced from the immediacy of the Milosz letters that precede it.
“So, little wolf,
you might as well hold your full-throttle pace
across the scree: easier to aim. There’s a rivet here
on the window-ledge to gully the gun-barrel,
set its scope to your barn-wide belly, x mark
your shaking heart.”
Bifford’s rhetorician’s heart won’t allow that bombasticness to get away without a counterpoint (really what he’s doing here is writing a pair of short essays), so the follow-up poem is called “Wolf Hunted” and it finds the right counterpunctual chord. It begins, somehow, with what feels like the book’s last word:
“Is there a give to your hunt, some kind of pause?
Yours is a relentless stutter, a continuous cut
rhythm of steel and engine and wing”
I don’t think I need to tell you by Sarah Teitel
Much like the Edward Nixon book mentioned earlier, this short collection from Sarah Teitel needs a solid read-through or two to properly frame its raison d’etre. And like Nixon’s work, this isn’t because I don’t think I need to tell you is complicated or obtuse, but rather its specific uniqueness takes a little while to identify itself.
The poems here introduce a purer irony to the quartet, as the speaker jumps in and out of an earnest interaction with her disparate titular subjects (January, Downpour, Raccoon) and employs one or two tricky grammatical quirks. The most striking of these is an aversion for the parenthetical comma. This changes the velocity pattern in lines like the following, “His banded eyes unblinking eye the storm,” making the line seem to jump ahead of itself for a syllable or two. It’s constructively disorienting, and suggests a diversion from the quartet’s straight-ahead aesthetic. Of the four poets here, Teitel is the only one who seems capable of not saying what she means. She is letting the language itself lead the way. Sometimes this results in the sublime, “watch the rain ply green from grass / red from brick, branch, brown from root / gray from stone” while other times she gets ahead of herself. Consider the semiotic redundancies that lie under this line’s beautiful surface: “the fat, sweet, stench of fecund turning.” The book, however, has many more instances of the former than the latter, and as such is heartily recommended.
Sanatorium Songs by Marc di Saverio
If Teitel’s book introduced a whiff of alienness to the quartet’s aesthetic, then Marc di Saverio’s Sanatorium Songs follows it up with a guided tour of the spaceship. His style, dropping in somewhere along the romanticism / symbolism line that produced The Beats two generations prior, has reverence for the traditions of form but no nostalgia for their politics. It’s a big, wild-hearted, bantamweight of a collection. It reads like a full-length debut.
Many of the poems in the book deal with the author’s experience as a patient in a mental hospital. This informs our reading of them, as it should, but I worry it may also colour in the subtext. The adjectives historically used to describe antic writing by people with mental illness (disordered, untethered, even my somewhat softened offering of ‘wild-hearted’) have a political message to communicate. I don’t want to simplify di Saverio’s accomplishment through the filter of his affliction, because what’s really special about Sanatorium Songs isn’t the tumult of the prosody, it’s that he keeps so much of that tumult in check, that he is self-aware and self-reflective enough to take a line like “Forgive me for finding the hostel of death” and use it not as a throwaway anecdotal lyric but as line one in an expertly transparent villanelle called “Weekend Pass.” It’s this regulation of unbalanced intellect (regulated by form in all its variants, not just formalism per se but also the regulation of the line to breath, the phrase to phoneme, the poem to its rhetorical arc) that makes Sanatorium Songs the most memorable and impressive book in the quartet. Di Saverio is a gifted guy. He can track the anarchy-seeking scent of our bastardized language with a singular bravery, but what makes his work resonate beyond simple Beat parlour tricks is his ability to narrate his instincts with poetry. The effect is chilling, disorienting, and a little embarrassing; like stopping to watch a car crash, then turning around to find that the driver has somehow repositioned himself behind you, and has watched you watching him die. Di Saverio is never not in control of Sanatorium Songs. They are “[his] songs,” his role is that of author, not vehicle.
“Weekend Pass” is maybe the most technically proficient villanelle I’ve read from a Canadian poet this century. In deference to its easy perfection, I’ll let it close this review:
“Fifty Clomipramine, fifty Lithium, meth.
I offer a smoke, but the girl says no.
Forgive me for finding the hostel of death;
the baglady blows thick rings of breath.”