The Bentleys by Dennis Cooley
Types of Canadian Women: Volume Two by K.I. Press.
Reviewed by Carmelo Militano.
Both Dennis Cooley and K.I. Press are local Winnipeg poets. Cooley, the grandfather of the ongoing vibrant poetry scene here, published his first book of poems “Bloody Jack” back in the late seventies (reissued by the University of Alberta Press in 2002) and since has gone on to publish some ten books of poetry, edit an early anthology of prairie poetry called “Draft,” and publish a collection of essays — “The Vernacular Muse” — on poetry. As well, he has also been teaching Canadian Lit at the University of Manitoba for the past twenty-five years.
K.I. Press is a much younger poet and previous to this collection has published two collections: “Spine” and “Pale Red Footprints.” Cooley’s new poetry is a return to a familiar conception he explored in “Bloody Jack,” that is, he enters a world already created (in this case the novel “As for me and My House” by Sinclair Ross) and tries to recover and fill in / out the emotionally charged lives of the central characters with poetry. “The Bentleys” is a complicated love story full of desire, heartache, betrayal, and longing set during the 30s depression on the prairies. But the passion does not exist only in the characters. This is also a collection of poetry passionately engaged with language and landscape. Cooley’s playfulness with language, his stretching of words like rubber bands to test their bounce, and the clever irreverent tone he takes when he is literally messing around with poetic forms is vintage Cooley. This is a poet who again and again says “Writing is serious stuff but that does not mean we can’t have fun, and by the way I want you to watch me having fun and I want to tell you how much fun I am having too.” See, for example, the mock poster on page 90 or the send up of a playbill called “Wind and Horses” in the opening pages of the book.
There is also a love here, for the local rural prairie language and behind this love is the simple notion that plain language can be used poetically to great effect. This view of poetic language can be traced back to poets like William Carlos William who sought to write and to find the extraordinary through ordinary language.
And there’s the beautiful mingling of passion and the empty ache of a blank prairie:
…. The window a great emptiness
blind as a mirror
when no one is there…
there should be a sign
what we want
our bent &
what can we say
to one another
we all hear the flutterings
The poems successfully weld together the impact of the prairie landscape on the main characters, their own erotic yearnings, brief fulfillment followed by grief, desire, the relentless prairie sun, dust, and the impossibly vast sky. In short, the poems express a kind of prairie existentialism that’s linked to the vast empty spaces and the vagaries of love. Like the people who work the land, love is “obdurate & implausible in waiting / in love as unyielding,” like a stone. It is not necessary for you to have read Ross’s book to enjoy and understand this collection. Cooley effectively renders the ebb and flow of the sad tender love story as well as being a broad punster / trickster and uses many voices, tones, and forms to retell their story.
The collection “Types of Canadian Women,” on the other hand, is a quirky book although like Cooley, K.I. Press enters a fictional world already created, or at least refers to one, and then proceeds to explore it with subtle irony and mordant droll humor. The premise of the collection is that the author (who has a fussy, overly refined, old-fashioned voice that reminds one of a female version of the voice in Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) has supposedly written the long awaited second volume of portraits about Canadian women and their character. The layered tropes here are like those from a Jorge Louis Borges story where we read a story based on a fictional book; in the K.I.Press collection we’re reading fictional poems based on imaginary women from the late nineteenth and early twentieth -century. In short, fiction based on another fiction.
To create her “types” K.I.Press (a name I first thought was part of the ongoing joke about layers of fiction) writes sometimes what I call prose poem portraits. The poem portraits are structured like prose but the individual sentences and the closure of each piece works like a good poem, setting up expectation and then surprising us. The endings of each piece are often sharp and wickedly funny and work sometimes against the quiet tone of genteel breeding.
Here is an example taken from the beginning of one:
“I do not eat. I have no unmentionables not to mention. I do nothing I could not do in public. (Except sometimes with the gardener, in the willow trees.) ”
Press writes about thirty of these short, three or four paragraphs vignettes that show mostly educated women from the middle or upper class of the late 19th century in a series of situations ranging from the problems of courtship and marriage to the taming and hiding of erotic desire (a favorite late 19th century preoccupation) to the problems of the domestics arts such as cooking, horses, servants, and looking after the home. Press, however, is also capable of using conventional free verse. Here is an example of Press using familiar poetic form to convey some stilted erotic desire and its angry vengeful aftermath:
Beneath giant parasols, courtside,
we barely spoke above our cream
and wild strawberries…
On his white trousers
I smeared the berries, a pink explosion
For jealous laundry girls to find.
For his wife, and for my grey, mossy husband,
just this: a little knob inside me.
For him, to be haunted
by my mouth,
a pink explosion.
Some of these poems also explore the issue of what to do with spare time, if you’re a woman of the upper class, or the struggle for women to create an identity opposite to the restrictive roles and conventions imposed in nineteenth society. The issue of identity, role, and the psychic and emotional wounds has an unmistakably modern sound and it’s a collection that explores ideas with wit, insight, thoughtful reflection, striking imagery and language. So there you have it: two books by two Winnipeg poets who enter different imagery worlds and return to tell us who we are, and where we were.