Northern Poetry Review: Archived


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Review: Seaway

Seaway: new and selected poems, by Todd Swift

Reviewed by Tom Phillips

Gleaned from his four previous collections and garnished with more than a dozen new poems, Todd Swift’s ‘Seaway’ is both a ‘greatest hits’ collection for those who’ve already read this verbally athletic Canadian-born poet at length and a comprehensive introduction for those on the European side of the Atlantic who have had, so far, only the occasional chance to get a taste of his work at the jostling, competitive buffet known as English language poetry. As such, it is long overdue. Swift, after all, has been a tireless champion of a distinctively cosmopolitan, open-minded, post-modernist strand of contemporary writing for quite some time and his work as an editor and ferociously scrupulous blogger in Budapest, Paris and, latterly, London has all too frequently occluded his reputation as a poet with a singular ability to be simultaneously learned, playful and profound. Not for nothing does Salmon Poetry’s Kevin Higgins mention Ezra Pound in his introduction to this book: in his ‘booming’ of others, Swift is tireless; in his own work, he has a similarly joyous, border-ignoring interest in what makes a good poem tick. Fortunately (and unlike Pound), he also shows himself to be smart enough not to be taken in by false messiahs.

‘Seaway’, in short, is the work of someone with a sure grasp of the modernist ‘tradition’ and a healthily inquisitive attitude to what poetry can and can’t do, fired, perhaps, by Auden’s finest posture: “Poetry makes nothing happen.”

Here, then, are poems like ‘Tomsk’, which skitters between post-Soviet tourist information bureau hype and ancient Greece, ringing the changes on Yeats’ Byzantium and deploying language with the same tough relish:

“…the Siberian Athens, known for its lacy wooden

buildings, furs, gold, and universities.”

– Local Tourist Guide

 

What are lacy buildings? Was there ever

a cold Socrates, a Parthenon gilded in ice?

What long poetry, what Pythagorean tears

scattered in these bitter white winds?

What polar bears bit at what rinds?

Did Plato and Aristotle, pulled by a team

of snow-caped malamutes, decamp in Tomsk

to envision gold-smeared Greece

reborn in a frozen swamp, newly lit

by Diogenes’ lamp? Did they flame

the chill-gnawed Siberian landscape

with images of icon and geometry?

 

What exists love says should be:

a dolphin-grey, a book-kissed, city.

Elsewhere, too, there’s ‘The New Fedora’ with its staunchly in-the-moment detail, the formalist neo-romance of ‘Water, Running’ and the breathless ‘The Great Rose Windows’ about the stained-glass wonders of Chartres cathedral. Not to mention the smart one-liners, peppering the whole collection: “Send for the boys who do not care.”

Words matter throughout. That might sound like a very obvious thing to say about a poetry collection but then, when it comes down to it, few contemporary English language collections exhibit the combination of verbal precision and improvisation which Swift deploys in poems like the tour-de-force ‘One Hundred Lines’. We all want some clever, all-embracing metaphor to explain the lives we live now. As ‘Modest Proposal’ from 2007’s ‘Winter Tennis’ would have it of contemporary poetry: “Every word counts, he said. / And then he counted them.”

What counts in Swift’s case, then, is his fashioning of a particular, disjointed sense of ‘the world’ and its difficult relationship with wherever we might call home — home, at various times, being where we were born, where we happen to be living or where we might possibly die. How we exist in several different places at once and survive abstract relationships which nuance our day-to-day relationships with those different places is very much a part of Swift’s subject matter here, the ‘Seaway’ of the title coming to seem like a metaphor for the great architectural changes most of us have no say in determining. Curiously, for all their vertiginous imaginative leaps, reading these immaculately crafted poems and knowing that Swift is out there somewhere fashioning stray experiences into verse makes more of the world seem like home.

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Review: Between Dusk and Night

Between Dusk and Night, by Emily McGiffin

Reviewed by Lori A. May

In Emily McGiffin’s textured collection, Between Dusk and Night, we are challenged to find meaningful connection between humanity and nature, a renewed respect between Human and Earth.

There is a weighty loneliness to these poems. McGiffin’s speaker drifts in and out of her own life, and in and out of remote landscapes and riversides, searching for immediate and long-term purpose. Quirks of the human mind and an observation of human behavior intertwine in a kaleidoscope of listlessness; in “Setting Out,” the subject reaches her breaking point and distances herself from the physical and mental chain that has been weighing her down — all the while admitting her escape is likely the first of many, as we so seldom outrun ourselves.

This search for meaning, the hunt for satiation of desire and want is explored in “As Air.” The first two stanzas express the desire for personal peace, the longing for freedom within the prison of skin, the weight of being human:

If you could know how I crave

weightlessness,

 

the state that is almost

non-existence.

McGiffin delights with her use of white space and imagery combined to create a tantalizing visual on the page. Too, with precise enjambment, the poet shifts meaning from one verse to the next. As an example, in “Wokkpash,” the poet brings to life the isolation of driving along a barren highway and the uncertainty the day brings:

…there is no one

here. Tomorrow does not exist.

The overall tone of the collection sees McGiffin feverishly trying to connect us humans with our Earth and open sky. In “Note on Astronomy,” vastness is observed and noted alongside our insignificance and inability to truly consume the life around us:

It’s what we’ve hoped for:

a means of converting the deep cold dark

to a friendly giant….

Mixed in with succinct verse is the hybridization of poetry-meets-prose; in “Insects in Lamplight after Rain,” paragraphs and dialogue unfold unexpectedly into a six-page narrative. Yet the reader needn’t be jolted from the absence of verse; McGiffin eloquently employs her poetic technique and emphasis on language throughout this sojourn, pushing form and bridging genres.

Language is, indeed, the heart of McGiffin’s delivery. In “After a Journey,” the poet examines what is spoken outside of human language, again connecting Earth with her people:

There is a language roots write through the soil;

you’ve begun to learn it, pressing your ear

night after night to the earth

until their words are almost of your body

after so much conspiring with your sleeping bones.

Subjects fade in and out of dusk, fog, and orderly existence. As readers, we navigate the terrain laid out for us, consumed in its labyrinth of realities, ever-reminded of our insignificance as humans, but comforted by our shared loneliness and the ever-present guardianship of Earth.

Between Dusk and Night exposes the vulnerability of humankind and explores our miniscule presence amid natural wonder. While the poems speak to our isolation amid one another, and indeed from the living things around us, there is a comforting resolution suggested, buried beneath loose grains of earth if only we seek to uncover it. While McGiffin paints humankind as disconnected and ever-seeking companionship, in this collection nature is personified and wildlife comes to speak, guide, and influence strangers in their paths, “unseen but sharing, for a small time, the same journey.”


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Review: Reticent Bodies

Reticent Bodies, by Moez Surani

Reviewed by Ingrid Ruthig

 

New poetry collections lacking craft yet overripe with irony and self-regard are, sadly, ubiquitous. Conversely, those that do not trigger a chorus of snores or complaints are few and far between. That one of those ‘few’ might even sit a reader up straight in her chair, or tilt her perspective of the world, seems too much to expect. However, four years ago in Lichen Arts & Letters Preview, Toronto’s Moez Surani published work that hinted at a writer worth keeping an eye on. Now, his debut book of poetry, Reticent Bodies, shows that he has been honing an imaginative and imagistic use of language, as well as developing his own ‘tilt factor.’

The collection is comprised of four parts. The first section, “Kingston Poems”, leaps into the hyper-imagistic, using an epigraph snipped from Neruda’s “I’m Explaining A Few Things” as its gateway. With both stage and mood set, Surani’s “The Captain’s Garden” begins:

11:30 pm

Carry myself across the library

hold open his volume

read and reread

something revolving

as I revisit the line caught

in a pencilled circle and the tug

of a woman’s adjoining scrawl

 

This is what’s happened to us […]

 

Just as the late-night silence and “the tug of a woman’s adjoining scrawl” has “caught” the narrator, the tight focus and the mystery behind “what’s happened” catches the reader.

If well-crafted poetry demonstrates skill with form, music / play in language, and layers of meaning or mood, Surani has a good grasp of the tools of his trade. He captures singular moments like this first one, building a larger tableau, with poems that are not the long lyric. Rather, they lean toward pared-down necessary elements that work toward a flash of clarity.

The second poem, “‘A Quiet Man’”, attempts to recreate what photographer Eugene Louie (who is quoted at the end) failed to capture on film — the image of the Tibetan Thupten Ngodup, who, in 1998, publicly protested China’s occupation of his homeland by setting himself on fire. The result is powerful and painful.

Body expanding into bright rhythms

arms raised

carrying the amorphous billow

spine flinging this way

and that loosening

minute bones that

slept within neck

 

a shrieking lamp

 

dancing in New Delhi

 

Ankles flipping

like coins

 

Ankles snapping

like a shutter

eyelid or

tip of pen releasing and

 

slamming back into case

 

Expanding and contracting on itself, the poem evokes sound as well as picture, and toward the end, echoes of Atwood’s hook-and-eye poem can be detected. The final five lines replay in the mind with a violence that’s difficult to ignore.

Throughout “Kingston Poems” Surani explores a variety of forms, lengths and situations. He examines and documents moments ranging from the contemplative (as in the first poem) to the revelatory (such as “Transit Friend”, about a fellow streetcar traveller) to the stenographic (“The Necessary Questions”, in which the poet magpies an overheard discussion between a writer and a reader). Striking images are plentiful: “All night // blowing rain // suicidal acrobats / weaving through high branches”, “His is a dignity I believe to be sewn into his chin”, and “leaving me / in my basket of laughter.” Even more tantalizing are glimpses of ‘off-the-wall’ set amid controlled intensity. The poem “The Missing Exchange” is a good example. It begins with the hilarious observation

It has occurred to me

that Jane Austen persistently avoids

talk of massive erections dragged

like luggage through the house […]

Halfway along, the comic shell of this piece cracks open — a reveal heightened by precision of word choice and uncomfortably placed line breaks.

There is never any rupture in the

manners that chain the air like

humidity. No

garden relief

 

after shoving glares.

The frantic couple

miming hallelujah

and cartwheeling off together […]

 

This is now tragicomedy charged with the toll of emotional restraint, confronting the desperation of

[…] that reserved man

dragging himself from the kitchen

pulling free of his trousers

his pained whisper,

 

“Yes, my love.

I told you it was all in bloom.”

 

Then once again the mood modulates into “Several Idiomatic Demonstrations Of ‘Carbuncle.’” Multiple riffs redefine the word, egging on the reader to join in the fun. Something darker surfaces, but resubmerges too quickly to be identified.

Somewhere near Clarington, the engine began to carbuncle […]

 

When she drinks too quickly she enters that familiar carbuncular sphere.

 

“Breaking up with me because you hold some sort of grudge against

women for original sin is ridiculous — it’s a fucking myth — you get

angry for no particular reason and shut everyone out — “ “Carbuncle,”

he muttered, leaving the room.

The second section, “Fictions”, brings the reader to an interlude of sorts. It consists of two sequences that drop articles and dismantle poetry into a loose gathering of short lines and broken phrases. The first, “Ally Dolle” — with its mention of Etta James, 12-bar blues, and nightclubs, and its soundbite feel — evokes a bluesy, rhythmic mood that borders on the hypnotic, even though its narrative tends to the obscure. “White Tub”, the next sequence, slides into a more personal, almost hermetic space. “Some moods // cannot be re-visited with comedy / so they’re left to accumulate. / Tableaux of grim mannequins / figures stunned from dialogue.”

The final two sections, “Poems Against England” and “Reels of Joy”, have the feel of the unplanned roadtrip, with visits to allusive literary and global locales. Gravity and direction often seem relegated to the backseat, but the result can be amusing, as in “Packing For Montreal” where “the apples […] are upset that I am leaving. / They have been ignoring me.” The ride can also be intense — a trip to Moscow prompts ruminations on Anna Karenina, “men throwing themselves into trains” and “one / hundred sessions of rushed love.” And when the reader arrives at “ — The Last Poem / I Can Remember With Any –”, in which the narrator asks “What has happened / to Ondaatje’s Vietnam poem,” then goes on to describe “their pitch // irritating my slim glass my slim date / attempting casual gestures but // intrusive torso shoulders blocking / conversation then falls with the cloth upset // -ing soup and maitre d’ hand apologies / hauls away the exhausted // sack of hysteria and my girlfriend […]”, it is clear that language has stubbornly taken the wheel and a breathless, experimental momentum has been reached.

Throughout the book, epigraphs and allusions to the (mostly Western) canon testify to a string of influences — Neruda, Eliot, Flaubert, Rilke, Lowell, Kant, Basho, and numerous others. As with many first collections, they also signify the young poet’s literary rite of passage. While it is a natural and worthy progression, by book’s end the constant reminders of that journey can become tiresome. Twice “Was ist Aufklärung”, referencing Immanuel Kant’s essay of the same name, might sidetrack the unfamiliar reader off the intended trail. Eliot’s “Prufrock” resonates loud and clear within “How Do You Imaginate The Future”

Let us buy

a red boat

 

you

& I

 

and push it

into bluest water.

 

The colours will be elemental

(‘yellowest sunlight’)[…]

 

without doing anything astonishing to it. And the poem “Debt” is little more than a deep bow to Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” — the first two of its four brief stanzas are identical, and unfortunately, homage for its own sake is not enough.

The book’s second half is less compelling than the first. In part it’s due to a weakening sense of direction and weight. Poems here appear more anecdotal, less purposeful, and there is a perceived distancing from deep emotion. A sense of this is encapsulated in the poem “Realpolitik”: “I will not mourn the dying and deformed / because an idealist cannot be happy. / And I want to be happy.” The lessened impact also stems from the presence of a handful of ephemeral and unstartling pieces — for example, “Debt” (aside from its aforementioned homage), “Nocturne,” “Untitled 2,” and “Leonard Cohen” (more homage) — which simply don’t carry their weight in the grander scheme. As well, a few confounding semantic miscues — e.g. “what I have done is march my intellect in moods / across the length of a dime […]” and “[r]olling / and rolling in / cones of sleep” — fail to produce immediate, clear imagery. Nevertheless these remain relatively minor quibbles when looking at the whole and what it promises for subsequent collections.

All in all, Reticent Bodies is a heartening discovery, and each subsequent reading will yield a quiet pleasure. Just as his work four years ago suggested, Surani is a writer striving to express his view of the world in his own way, and he’s finding his ‘tilt.’ Readers will anticipate more.


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Review: The Scare in the Crow

The Scare in the Crow, by Tammy Armstrong

Reviewed by Jason “Ocean” Dennie

 

The title of Tammy Armstrong’s fourth collection of published poetry, from Goose Lane Editions certainly offers a hint as to what we can expect inside from this GG Award-nominee. From the opening pages of The Scare in the Crow, it is clear the reader will accompany the poet down some shadowy country roads.   Morose and morbid are two apt adjectives that best characterize the tone in these poems. There is very little sunshine throughout her five chapters — a “grotesque menagerie” of dim skies, funerals, formaldehyde, zombies and goitres bleed forth from her pen instead.

The only chinks in her brooding Dickinsonian armour seem to appear in canoe trips up and down the river or when she is out slogging around with her dogs. The poem, “Canoe Lessons” is deftly peppered with well-crafted imagery such as the “corrugated river,” “knock-kneed docks,” and the “apologetic stillness of islands.” Natural settings like these are the backdrops that figure predominantly in the book, thought they aren’t situated in the deep wilderness but instead border “homes where nobody comes out — all the rooms beaming lilac television glow.” It is nature revealed along ski trails and shorelines and perhaps deep in big back yards that span acres. Credit is certainly due for attempting to pen a book of moody nature poems, for it isn’t a simple task, and the feel-good sentimentality typically associated with the genre is often ridiculed in the poetry world.

It’s a nearly impossible task to quantify the vagaries of the wilderness, so our dalliances with its outer limits must sometimes serve as a reasonable compromise. Armstrong recognizes this in her poem, “On Renaming Mountains” where her bull moose “offers no allegory.” This recognition of a poet’s limitations, however, finds her exacting very little solace from this half-world of hers. There is not much in the way of conjured emotions in the poems beyond a tranquilized indifference. A case in point is the final piece in the book, entitled “Where it Softened,” which recounts having fallen through thin river ice. One would think that such a traumatic event like this would leave a person with some emotional reaction — surrendering to the drama or some wistful insight into its wider significance. Instead, only a hint of this leaks out when she writes:

by the time we reached the road

 

something gave,

wind spooled through the fir boughs foreign.

 

This, outside, stilled my complaining

A reviewer by the name of Jacqueline Turner once described Unravel (a previous collection by Armstrong) as “heavy with words”, and it’s easy to agree. Poets are naturally lovers of words — they have to be — but there are times poets cross into a perplexing verbosity that leaves readers frustrated and befuddled. Words that have a low frequency of usage need not always be the default literary choice. Say it and mean it, but don’t flaunt the fact you have a thick dictionary weighing down the corner of your desk. Most readers of poetry are not bumpkins, but words like glossolalia, octavalent and sobriquet run the risk of not winning people over to the poem. “He croups a threnody” was one of several severe head-scratchers encountered in the book. Perhaps in a self-conscious slip, she writes in “Here: Soft-footed” that “my words are never my own these days.”

How long readers will remain interested in this volume will depend on how long they choose to prolong their own discovery of the poet’s morbid curiosity with the dead, the ravaged. Her stellar ability, however, to tease poetry from seemingly mundane objects could be enough to satiate a majority of the readership. Particularly impressive are her ruminations upon unattractive considerations we may normally take for granted such as graffiti beneath a bridge, a motorcycle tarp, even fibreglass geese dangling from the ceiling of a downtown shopping centre.

Most of the poems in The Scare in the Crow require at least a second, if not third reading, in order to digest the full import of the message behind them. Few of them really grab you on the first go. A number of pieces are in fact entirely disorienting right from the start, as if the reader is cutting halfway into a conversation that the poet is having with someone else. Armstrong writes as if we are already familiar with the intimate contours of her world. Nevertheless, there are still several powerful pieces that do make this collection a worthy enterprise and a fulfilling read. “Hyla Amphibia” is a strong piece that recounts the rescue of wayward frogs from a construction site. The underdog analogies of “Porcupine” will also win readers over (“the one rejected with tisking tongues”), as well as “Girls with Sharp Scalpels”, another ‘amphibious’ poem that takes us back to high school biology dissections.

“Up-river a House Breaks from Its Foundation” is a brilliant poem, perhaps the best of the bunch. Its tantalizing imagery spurs the reader on to wanting more, disappointed the poem is only a page and a half long. As a derelict house floats down the river, Armstrong writes,

a bungalow drama.

half-sunk in turbined slew,

shambolic patio furniture

thistled with shadow,

new kitchen curtains waving queeny goodbyes:

some envy in that kind of leave-taking.

 

Gifted lines that pack a punch from other poems include some of the following:

your mind, once steadied before the rift, was an eroded vesper (“From Fundy Bank”)

doe-eared shadows henna the hunter moon (“And She is No Stranger Now”)

twitch light spindled swampland cottonwood (“Where They Don’t Belong”)

the fetishes of our extinct gods (“Beauty to the Alligator’s Beast”)

All in all, a worthy and admirable undertaking that deserves attention if one cares to spend time sitting with the crisp melancholy of Armstrong’s fantasia.

 


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Review: Sister Prometheus

Sister Prometheus: Discovering Marie Curie, by Douglas Burnet Smith

Reviewed by John Herbert Cunningham

 

Douglas Burnet Smith was born in 1949 in Winnipeg. Author of twelve volumes of poetry of which Voices from a Farther Room was nominated for the Governor General’s Award, he currently divides his time between Paris, France and Antigonish, Nova Scotia. He teaches English literature and creative writing at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.

This collection reminds one of Richard Parry’s Imperfect Penance in which Parry explores the life of Georg Trakl. Here, Smith engages in a poetical exploration of the life of Marie Curie. Is this a new direction in poetry? One perhaps derived from David Solway but substituting real, although fictionalized, characters in the stead of the ones Solway invents.

The introductory poem to Sister Prometheus is titled ‘Le Panthéon, I: Installation, 21 April 1995. A bit of background is needed to understand this poem. The Panthéon is located in Paris, France. In 1744, King Louis XIV vowed “if he recovered from an illness he would replace the ruined church of Sainte-Geneviève with an edifice worthy of the patron saint of Paris.”(Wikipedia) Although construction began immediately, innumerable delays prevented the completion until 1789. By that time, the French Revolution had begun “the new Revolutionary government ordered it to be changed from a church to a mausoleum for the interment of great Frenchmen.” Such literary luminaries as Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Émile Zola are buried there. In 1995, Marie Curie became the first woman to be interred there which leads us to the latter part of the poem:

They’re fond of quoting themselves, especially on the subject of female intelligence, how it contaminates their world: “First it was the respectability of the Sorbonne, the good name of Science. And now, on all occasions, France.” And so, Pierre & I dance, & share the last, eternal laugh, since it turns out that my demure but irrefutable presence here, & not the clever equations of Foucault, makes the great men rotate in their marble graves.

The Foucault referred to is not Michel but the one whose pendulum rotates in the entrance.

In ‘Warsaw, 7 November 1867, we are introduced to Marie and the times into which she was born:

The rest are whipped stumbling in chains to Siberia & the luckiest are the hundreds who will become meals of thawed flesh next spring for the hundreds who will follow, & unfortunately live. In the midst of this official ‘Russification,’ under the sign of the horseshoe, the arrow, the cross, on Freta Street, the fifth of five, I was born & named immediately after the Black Virgin of Chzestochowa: MARIA SALOMEA SKLODOWSKA.

A pattern emerges, a pattern of prose poetry, and the question is raised: why is this not prose? — a question which has been asked since Baudelaire. The only answer is the elevated language in which it is written and the compression of images which state without stating. We can see the fictionalized account of this biography by which it vaults into the world of poetry in ’On the Way to School, Gymnasium No. 3, 1879’:

A bomb in St. Petersburg had delivered Czar Alexander II to his examination by the angels. Knowing he’d fail, Kazia & I danced gleeful in an empty classroom. Mademoiselle yanked us by the braids to the office of the Superintendent. But he already knew I’d win the gold medal, & merely sent us home with stern letters of instruction on how to properly mourn the nation’s loss. So we did, in secret, with lemonade & chocolate ices.

The style is interesting. There is one problem though. Unless the reader is interested in the life of Marie Curie, the prose becomes quite ponderous. Devoid, for the most part, of any poetic devices such as metaphor, rhyme, meter, interesting endstops or caesuras, there is not much to hold ones attention. Certainly, prose poetry can be entertaining, even delightful. And certainly, Burnet Smith has taken the risk of extending the prose poem to comprise an entire book. For the fact that he has taken that risk, he can be thanked and appreciated. Unfortunately, at least for this reviewer, interest stops midway through.


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Review: I Can Still Draw

I can still draw, by Heather Spears

Reviewed by Ingrid Ruthig

 

With the release of her twelfth collection, I can still draw, award-winning expat poet and visual artist Heather Spears continues to render an unsettling world. Her poems exhibit qualities similar to those of her drawings (four of which adorn this book); they are at once ordinary, urgent, deliberate, yet often remain ambiguous. At their best, lines encapsulate a moment, mood, or sensibility, then proceed to reveal a deeper reality, often through a single detail that contrasts sharply with its less-defined setting.

Spears’ skill at pinning down the essence of her subjects is apparent from the first poem: “‘The vagina,’ says Jack // in his loud lecturer’s voice / this time at the restaurant, leaning back, replete, / ‘has never been properly shown / in the medical books ….’” Like the narrator (one of Jack’s “listeners”), the reader is elbowed into paying attention, to “feel this touch / silk and continuous skin to inner skin / in darkness, the closeness the firm fold / as of two hands in celebration, / or smoothed linen, or a book, its pages / closed over silence.”

From there, a gallery of disparate studies shapes this collection, beginning with: museum photos of young pre-Raphaelite suffragettes; the long-neglected Sheffield knives of a Scottish ancestor; a slow, hot border crossing at Niagara Falls; cell phone towers disguised as trees; the West Coast’s ’quake-prone landscape; and even a glimpse at allergies, in the poem “Expecting hay fever at the Scottish border” which concludes with a startling, marvelous visual:

“Yellow broom among pines, and the brain

quickens to it, anticipates — […]

Countable now, the days

of my health […]

Hardly worth a complaint

much less a poem this is not serious

or permanent or even catching

yet it’s as maddening and unreasonable

as for the blind to have sore eyes

or the deaf between whose dull appendages

the sea sings and roars across immense synaptic gulfs

and gives them no peace —

or the numbed man, rising

who goes to stand on his foot, surprised

and falls through its absence

the whole height of himself.”

Another example of spellbinding imagery can be found in the poem “Synchronized swimming”, in which the swimmer surfaces “with water dripping off the rivets of her teeth.”

Elsewhere the language’s sonic insistence draws the reader deeper. In “Ghost crabs, Kihei”, a walk on the beach leads the narrator to ponder mysterious marks in the sand: “The beach is still in shadow / but it’s changed — scratched, textured, / something frantic happened here….” The word “frantic” immediately launches the poem to a higher realm, that of the contemplation of war and its insidious roots:

“Or it’s the aftermath

of warfare — tank tracks, bomb

craters and spewed sand, Desert Storm

on a tiny scale and only just surrendered.

 

[…]       There’d have been,

with anyone there to listen, a fierce whisper

almost sub-aural, all those armoured tips

manipulating, eyes on stalks

gunmetal backs gone haywire, mass and mess

and movement at ground level.

 

Whatever it was, it’s all stitched up.

The surf wipes the lower shore

and soon the towels and feet

of tourists will smooth away

whatever was done or undone,

 

While underground

in tunnels, in their solitary cells

the ghost crabs kneel on their many knees.”

Keen images and aural echoes blend to resonate with even greater impact. In “Spring tide, Active Pass, Quake poem 4”, lines such as “Lowest tide of the year and the pass / full of ravelled patterns […] Patches like rain squalls or the mess of false wind / under a helicopter” provide a dynamic sketch. Similarly, “On the bus through Tsawwassen” unleashes a fun rant on language’s contemporary mishandling with

Deafness Awareness Week

Disaster Response Route

I’m getting sick of these stupid

strings of nouns

Thing, thing, thing

as if you could nail down the world

Customer Satisfaction

what happened to verbs?”

 

But the rant ventures further, to elicit what is possible:

 

“[…] they overwhelm us, these names

for nothing, they are weighted and thick

they clog the beautiful empty space

between the shimmering touchable world

prevent its melting and inconstancies”

The blunt and the lovely coexist, sharper for their proximity, and heightened with deft aural fine-tuning. In “Tofino”, the crisp beauty of a shore landscape, “Away off, people eaten by the light / threadlike, gaunt as Giacomettis / against the enormous horizontal […] Call the dog to me […] her reflection a grid of pixels shaking / on the light-blasted slick” counterpoints the uncomfortably intimate “Ward 5033 room 15” in which a bereft new mother “heaves to greet me — large wet / in a gown half stuck to her, the thick / of her hug, heavy with heat / and milk and leaking grief”, as well as the unexpected reality of a post-accident Christopher Reeves in “Superman”, who “wakes to yet / another muted day, / the locomotive of his death / imperceptibly / accelerates”.

Though not a ‘selected’, this is a lengthy, undivided collection that could have benefitted from some pruning. Hiccups of style, form, and placement occur. Guiding punctuation often disappears, and a nebulous form tends to be used; in combination, they sometimes hinder an immediate clear perspective. Anomalous poems also appear, veering in odd directions without bearing their weight: “The Kibbles equivalent”, “A prayer for grandmothers with swimming pools”, and “The listserve sequence”, which set aside a more poetic esthetic to chattily lambaste a do-gooder of dogs, to air suburban worries, and with an undefined mood to pick up stray threads of electronic discussions. Yet, despite these weaknesses, there is much to recommend the book, and it will reward repeat readings.

When a writer has accomplished so much, one has to wonder if any unexplored territory remains. The reader who approaches I can still draw seeking the challenging, skewed jolt of Spears’ 1958 collection Asylum Poems won’t find it. Perhaps that is as it should be. Still, this book proves that it is never too late for the eye to discover and for the pen to startle.


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Review: Surviving the Censor: The Unspoken Words of Osip Mandelstam

Surviving the Censor: The Unspoken Words of Osip Mandelstam, by Rafi Aaron

Reviewed by Shane Neilsen

 

Initially, I was wary of this book. The title was a red flag; Who dares put words in Osip’s mouth? I thought. It is my own practise to write, on Christmas Eve, a poem to the dead Mandelstam, a practise I’ve made for the past five years. Never in one of those years did I think to be so bold as to put words in his mouth. I may have used his patronymic, I might have imagined an anecdote or two, but never did I actually presume to speak for Mandelstam. I would have felt it wrong on two counts: the dead don’t talk, unless a hidden letter or manuscript becomes available, and secondly I would have been digging myself a hole. After all, who can sing like Mandelstam, who can carry it off?

Mostly, though, I imagine Nadezdha Mandelstam, author of the memoirs Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, clucking her possessive tongue at the very idea. I don’t want to make the same Aaronian mistake and presume to know what she would say, but I can’t help but imagine Nadezdha, who to some extent did survive the censor with two anti-totalitarian books, urging Aaron to develop his own voice as opposed to an attempt at ventriloquism.

But then I thought of Nadezdha’s beloved M. and his own practise of ventriloquism. For example, Mandelstam wrote “The Finder of a Horseshoe (A Pindaric fragment),” and it is no secret that Mandelstam’s guiding poetic influence was Dante. So, let Mandelstam be Aaron’s Dante, I say, and as a reviewer allow it to go no further than that.

Aaron’s first poem, “Let Us Begin at the End”, makes an interesting beginning of itself: it can be contrasted greatly with Mandelstam’s technique, which was densely lyrical, symbol-rich, stanzaic, and in the early going, allusive. Aaron’s poem is, by contrast, rather dream-like, typographical, and visual:

his words fall

silently like rain in the middle of the night, the world is asleep

or not listening

 

the words tap on the dark glass or the dream and are heard

in the memory of a previous storm

they drop into tiny pools

Now, I think it is fair to ask the question: Is this indeed what Mandelstam would say, or rather is it how he would say it? The answer is obvious: No. Mandelstam’s lyrics were blessed and free from sentiment; you’d never catch Mandelstam ending a poem like this

singing and dancing

and as long as his lips move

and he can feel the words, the sharp words

the soft words and the words he will never use

then he is alive

Of course this is elegy, using the device of a dead poet pronouncing on his own death, and much in Mandelstam is elegiac (life and work), but this poem just serves as preliminary: here, Aaron says, are the soft words and words he will never use, I will give them to you. As a reviewer, I object to this appropriation on the grounds that the poem is not very good; it is another argument to say if poets should write poems like this, but when they do, they had better do it well. Where is the majesty of Mandelstam? The mysteriousness of his images? It seems to me that “soft words and words he will never use” are not unspeaking softly in this clunker poem, and it’s those “soft” words Aaron himself needs to pull the collection off, and so I read this poem more as an elegy to Aaron’s powers as a poet. Mandelstam, after all, was a master.

Perhaps the most egregious intrusion on Mandelstam’s memory is the idea of a prose poem. All of Mandelstam is antithetical to the idea, and Aaron’s standard use of the prose poem suggests a kind of game: here is an updated, modernized Mandelstam. Aaron’s prose bits (one can’t even call them Mandelstam lite, so utterly are they unlike the presiding poet) are atmospheric, but they are unburdened of image. It’s hard for me to sit through snippets like the following:

His voice rose from somewhere, from a gorge or a

canyon, a lost year or a forgotten photograph. So soft, so

powerful, a whisper commanded me to follow him. And

so I travelled close to his words wearing the white sea

on my tongue. I reached the mountains or the coastal

plains, it made no difference, the night curled its lips

and spoke of darkness, and still waters dreamt of waves.

unless I’m sitting on my hands, wondering about the botching of a reputation. This is portentous and vague; Mandelstam faced down the century with lyric, and here he is served up gooey and prosy. And it’s not a case of like attracting unlike; I wouldn’t forgive this poem in a different collection under different pretences. “And so” in a poem? There is the occasional sop to poetry “white sea on my tongue,” but it’s abandoned later — indeed makes “no difference”– when we conjure up the dark speaking of darkness, the still water, etc. There are many prose poems like this, lyrically lax with overdone foreboding. Consider the similarly lighting-obsessed “What Mandelstam Meant To Russians During the Stalin Years”:

Now imagine during this period the smallest of

flames is somehow flickering outside your window. It

has the strength of the morning sun breaking through

your shutters, It is all that separates you from the

darkness of the day and the darkness of the night. You

spend your life by this flame and melt into its glow. After

many hours or days or months you believe you can train

the flame to leap higher on the walls…

I get it, I get it: it was a dark time, and Mandelstam offers a light. What Mandelstam never offered was a sledgehammer, his Acmeist “nostalgia for word culture” a subtle, omnivorous, syncretist thing that wouldn’t have suffered either “the” or the dreading hanging “it” as line breaks. It would be safe to say that this book is utterly without fidelity, an odd thing for the claim laid out in the title. One might have, in speaking for Mandelstam, appropriated his voice as a means of establishing credibility, and then ventured something new. This just reads like a young poet jazzed on the legend of Mandelstam and using him for his own purposes.

But my “How dare he” radar really trips when Aaron manipulates Mandelstam into pronouncing on the regime. Well, Mandelstam already did that better in “We live without feeling beneath us firm ground,” a poem on Stalin, with lines like

We live without feeling beneath us firm ground,

Ten feet away you can’t hear the sound

 

Of any words but “the wild man in the Kremlin,

Slayer of peasants and soul-strangling gremlin…”

 

But with Aaron all we get in “A Moment’s Rest from My Life” is

 

Understand this. I did not chart this course nor did I

abandon it once it became clear. What happened

happened quickly. After the revolution many things would

be lost forever. I feared for the life of a single word:

poisoned by the regime, I discovered it listless on the page.

Which is livelier, which is indeed even alive? I’m not contrasting the rebelliousness of Mandelstam’s poem (which had lethal consequences) to Aaron’s (which was presumably composed in relative tranquility); it’s true that Mandelstam had a five-year period where he wrote no poetry, so Aaron’s poem is historically valid. What I’m contrasting is the devastating line, alternately translated, of “ten feet away you can’t hear the sound / of our speeches” with “What happened / happened quickly.” In Aaron, it’s all about what’s not happening; the presiding genius-poet just isn’t coming through. I’m going to call this prose, for that’s what it is, and I’m going to call it “listless on the page,” because it is.

All of this is not to say that Aaron is thoroughly dubious as a poet; he has redeeming moments. When he actually tried to write poetry, and not prosy poems, he does quite well. “Lubyanka”, a poem written to the secret police prison, is very successful:

Lubyanka the century is shaking, every stone is

a tear, admit what you are: the half-sister of truth,

the commissar of fear, the poison the hungry

were fed.

Whoa. The image of that fear-inducing building being constructed by individual tears, so that it is the edifice itself of fear, the officialdom of fear, that the starved, terrorized populace were fed its meat (Nadezdha Mandelstam said: “It was the height of satanic refinement to give the victims of terror every opportunity, before their arrest, to dishonour themselves by extolling it.”) this is where Mandelstam can be found. Let it be said that Aaron found Mandelstam in this book, just not as much, nor in the places he expected.

For there are just too many moments where Aaron makes vague pontifications that serve to indict his art: usually about light and silence. In “The Years of Silence” he concludes, in a form that might as well be laid down as prose, that

When the

flashes of light died darkness inherited our words,

 

and what could never be

written or spoken

weaved its way

into the mind

and echoed in the ear.

A little of this is fine; it’s clear Aaron has made light and silence his dominant themes, but as they accumulate they seem to be saying: I can do nothing else, all I can do is name these words vaguely and hope for the best.

There are a handful of good poems here, poems like “Lubyanka” but also “Listening to the Elevator” and “Natasha Shtempel and the Evacuation of Voronezh,” poems that fulfill Jospeh Brodsky’s formulation of Mandelstam’s genius: “[W]hat matters in art is precisely the unique, unrepeatable, unressurectible mixture of flesh and spirit…” Notice the words unique, unrepeatable, unressurectible… but this collection is all about resurrection at length, and it seems as if this collection were made to fit, and brought out to length with filler. Nadezdha has written on the long poem sequence, saying that “Long poetic works of the kind we are speaking [Akhmatova’s “Poem Without a Hero”] always have a special momentum of their own which carries the reader along — as it has previously carried along the author — in an irresistible poetic surge, snatching him up like a wave, and setting him down again only at the end, at the final pause.” Aaron’s urge was best resisted; the poems feel like notes to future poems, and there is no momentum in the book.

Occasionally Aaron gives the stage over to an unnamed “researcher” and to Nadezdha. His style does not change — he steamrolls over them the same way he steamrolls over Osip. But let’s give the last word — the real last word — one of the real ventriloquized, to Nadezdha, who might have been warning Aaron when she said: “I was upset that M. did not sleep at night, indulging in these feats of poetry instead. But he calmed me by saying that the more difficulties you had to contend with, the better it was for your poetry — you would write nothing superfluous. I believe he was right.” Perhaps, in the end, it’s best to leave Mandelstam alone.