some notes on Canadian poetry
This is a list I started a year or so ago, for reasons I've managed to completely lose, and have returned to again only recently (if only to get this out of my computer). As a reader and writer, the whole idea of “best of” seems so very subjective, so I thought I’d list those books that, for whatever reason, I return to, again and again. Those books that feed both my reading and my own writing. There are books you look at for a few days, or maybe a few weeks, but these are part of an ongoing list in my head of books that continue to be taken down from the shelf, sit on my desk for as long as a few months at a time.
It’s probably hard to judge a work of literature otherwise. It’s one thing to know something is good, even great, but how many of the same collections come down from the shelf, over and over? How many of them get trapped in the skull like a fly in liniment? Call this an ongoing list (in no particular order) of works that continue to dwell in my head, for whatever reason. That continue to teach (but in no particular order).
In a month’s time, would the list be different?
1) Lake Nora Arms, Michael Redhill
1993, Coach House Press: Toronto ON
(reissued in 2001 by House of Anansi Press: Toronto ON)
The third of his five poetry collections, in Lake Nora Arms, Toronto poet Michael Redhill burns through the mythology of an imaginary place. “You are here,” he writes, over and over, first as a map of the place, and then, as a blank space. When I first read this at the age of twenty-three, I was struck by the poem “Young Loves,” of those first moments of being in love, in something, in what, the ending of which that writes:
When will unhappiness strike?
Who will be the first
to awaken in bed and feel alone?
Soon they will have to love each other
in the impermanence of what awaits them
and that will be difficult, that time
which life pays you for in advance.
There’s something about the deliberate naiveté of the work, a small perfect collection. There are echoes of the same kind of myth-making in his more recent Light Crossing (2001, House of Anansi Press: Toronto ON), a far more mature work, but there is just something about Lake Nora Arms, Lake Nora Arms.
2) The Night the Dog Smiled, John Newlove
1986, ECW Press: Toronto ON
His last trade collection of new poems, The Night the Dog Smiled came out the same year John and his wife Susan moved from Nelson, B.C. to Ottawa, for him to work as an editor at Official Languages. Newlove (who lived a block away from me) was a mentor for innumerable other writers, simply from the work he gave us. In The Night the Dog Smiled, there seems a shift from his previous writing, as the consummate editor began to take over sometime in the mid-1970s, after the publication of Lies (1972, McClelland & Stewart: Toronto ON), taking out more words than he was putting in. There are so few examples of "perfect poems," but Newlove managed to get as close as anyone could get, from his "White Philharmonic Novels" to "The Weather" to "Concerning Stars, Flowers, Love, Etc." and so many others that exist within this small collection, quoted endlessly by so many other writers and readers over the years. Currently working to put together a larger selected poems for 2007, we had hoped there might have been enough for a new collection hidden in the house, but so far, there's been nothing. Still, we hold out for hope (however useless).
You never say anything in your letters. You say,
I drove all night long through the snow
in someone else's car
and the heater wouldn't work and I nearly froze.
But I know that. I live in this country too.
I know how beautiful it is at night
with the white snow banked in the moonlight.
Around black trees and tangled bushes,
how lonely and lovely that driving is,
how deadly. You become the country.
You are by yourself in that channel of snow
and pines and pines,
whether the pines and snow flow backwards smoothly,
whether you drive or you stop or you walk or you sit.
This land waits. It watches. How beautifully desolate
our country is, out of the snug cities,
and how it fits a human. You say you drove.
It doesn't matter to me.
All I can see is the silent cold car gliding,
walled in, your face smooth, your mind empty,
cold foot on the pedal, cold hands on the wheel.
related notes: John Newlove's Ottawa Poems;
3) The Collected Poems of John Thompson, John Thompson
edited by Peter Sanger
1995, Goose Lane Editions: Fredericton NB
Like Malcolm Lowry, John Thompson was another American lost on the wrong side of the border, his being the east coast, who eventually drank himself to death. When his second poetry collection, Stilt Jack, appeared posthumously in 1976 from Anansi, a group of thirty-eight ghazals, it suddenly made everyone want to write them. Considered to be the one who brought the ghazal into Canadian literature, Thompson’s were probably the best, influencing the work of Patrick Lane, D.G. Jones, Douglas Barbour, Andy Weaver, Catherine Owen, Phyllis Webb, Lorna Crozier, Michael Ondaatje, Eric Folsom and dozens of others.
Collecting not only his two trade collections, On the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets (1973, House of Anansi Press: Toronto ON) and Stilt Jack, the second half includes a pile of other works, including dozens of uncollected poems, and his translations of René Char and others, more than doubling the amount of his work previously published in book form. Just listen to the flow and movement of this, the opening of the poem Stilt Jack:
Now you have burned your books: you’ll go
with nothing but your blind, stupefied heart.
On the hook, big trout lie like stone:
terror, and they fiercely whip their heads, unmoved.
Kitchens, women and fire: can you
do without these, your blood in your mouth?
Rough wool, oil-tanned leather, prime northern goose down,
a hard, hard eye.
Think of your house: as you speak, it falls,
fond, foolish man. And your wife.
They call it the thing of things, essence
of essences: great northern snowy owl; whiteness.
4) Delayed Mercy and other poems, George Bowering
1986, Coach House Press: Toronto ON
Probably my favorite of Bowering’s innumerable collections, in his Delayed Mercy and other poems, it’s the rhythms that get me, the movements that go from spark to spark, in “late night poems” about squirrels, the Pope, the movement in his backyard, and all that other wonderful everything and nothing. The poems themselves read quick, as though each piece was composed in five minutes bursts, at the end of an evening doing some other kinds of work at his desk. The quickness defines the pieces, moving in further leaps than some of his other writings. This, along with his Kerrisdale Elegies, is a collection that should certainly be reprinted by someone, as they originally were. These are books that need to be remembered.
The Pope’s Pennies
This long disease, my life,
lets me some days stand
& even walk where my eyes
have shown me a path.
A path? Silly talk, the world
‘s paths crossed one another
into oblivion years ago, a path
thru a riot of footprints?
As likely as surcease, some days
I can only manage to breathe,
one nostril clear, thin air
escaped from a hundred other bodies.
A poem, walked in, breathed out,
as stupid a task as any, as hopeless
as a medical report on an aged
quintuplet, a poem should be abandoned,
related notes: George Bowering's Baseball Love; George Bowering's Left Hook; A life built up in poems: an intersection with some of George Bowering's lines; the Jacket section on Bowering I edited;
5) traffick, Rob Budde
1999, Turnstone Press: Winnipeg MB
As much as I enjoyed Budde’s previous work, this is the collection that really made me look at him as a serious contender. A collection of long poems / sequences fit under the umbrella title “traffick,” Budde’s long prairie play is both serious and irreverent, following traditions long established by bpNichol, Dennis Cooley, Robert Kroetsch and George Bowering. He's published a few since this one, and always has another collection perpetually forthcoming, even as the last is barely out of the box; what else is there even to say?
This is about the failure of saying. The failure of language taken
one more step. About the man writing who must annihilate
himself, cut out his tongue, crush the bones of his hands,
gouge out the empire in his eyes. What is left is breath,
rhythmic, self-contained. No, what is left is the sensation of
breathing. Knowing that alone . . .
. . . I will be breath.
then the world will open up to earth
(when the earth underneath our world
objects will rise into things, and wordless
they will gather outside my house,
all those things without purchase,
all those things without names
While anxiously eyeing myself for signs that I am not who
I say I am.
the earth escapes us, us
concealed beneath the techniques of the world
The cab did not come. We stood, the two of us, unsure of
what to do. Our knowledge of each other was sketchy. The
sky was growing dark. The conference was on poetics of
resistance. The evening was a poetics of resistance. We
crossed the street again and again. Language crossed our
hearts again and again. Praying, languageless, for the divine.
related notes: rob budde’s A Sleep of Faith;
6) Change Room, Mark Cochrane
2000, Talonbooks: Vancouver BC
When I first read this, the second collection by Vancouver poet Mark Cochrane, I was filled with that mix of awe and envy; his is the kind of writing that threw (for a time) everything of mine into question. Why can’t I be this good? Why aren’t I doing what Mark is doing?
There are usually rumours of a new collection of Cochrane's far longer than there are answers forthcoming from him; through Cochrane, we learn not only patience but that anxious restlessness that his poems bring, hunkering finally down.
Dumbhead IX: Found Poem
So one day Miranda finds this poem
so far, face up on my desk
& appeals to our face-up
which holds that any exposed manuscript
around the house is free for reading, but
or the opening of journal pages
Miranda finds this poem, so far
& although we both know better than to explain
I start to explain
Dumbhead I-XIII™ is a work of fiction, & any
resemblance of its characters ...
Dearly tested reader,
it is too late
to complain. You broke the rule, the seal, & the compact.
You peeled back the sheets, & every page you turn
7) Competed Field Notes, Robert Kroetsch
1989, McClelland & Stewart: Toronto ON
(reissued with a new introduction by Fred Wah, 2002, University of Alberta Press: Edmonton AB)
Depending on what period I was in, the answer could have been Advice To My Friends (1985, General Publishing: Toronto ON), which it was for quite a long time, or Excerpts from the Real World (1975, Oolichan Books: Lantzville BC ), or even the individual poem “The Winnipeg Zoo,” all of which has fed into my imagination over the years since I discovered Kroetsch’s poetry, and all of which is part of his continuing (yes, I’ve said it) long poem, the “Field Notes.” It's nearly a long running joke, somewhere, that this poem is about as “completed” as 6 Book 6 ended bpNichol's The Martyrology, a poem as long as a life, with new sections seeping through into the world as chapbooks & journal selections, over the years. Really, these works have possibly appeared in more single author forms than almost any in Canadian poetry, each time with another section or as, added.
Considered by some to be one of the most important postmodern works in Canada, this is poetry that shows a body how it is done. It's also impressive for the range of styles Kroetsch works with, in the extended piece(s), from note taking, letter writing and ledgers, each recording and making a record of what has happened, out in the Field, standing, out in the field, outstanding. Kroetsch once wrote an essay on the long poem as delay, delay, emphasizing the unfinished tantric elements of his continuing poetic. Every piece in here is a delay, each piece but part of the next one, fitting in together into one extended act over three decades. Filled with puns, references and bad jokes, Kroetsch the prairie trickster is giving you clues while pretending not to, while pretending to give you clues. Here’s part of the series “Advice to my Friends” (p 114):
18. Four Questions for George Bowering
Michelin Green Guide: “The University [of Bologna], founded in
11C, had 10,000 students in 13C. At that time the professors were
often women and a solemn chronicler reports that one of them,
Novella d’Andrea, was so beautiful in face and body that she had to
give her lectures from behind a curtain to avoid distracting her
You who wrote Kerrisdale Elegies,
Does the body teach us nothing?
What is it that we seek to learn
instead of beauty?
What do they mean, “distracting her pupils”?
I too once lectured in Bologna.
It was February, the room was cold,
I was more than adequately dressed.
No one put up a curtain.
What would happen if, just as you
slid into home plate,
the pitcher threw the catcher
related posts: Comparing apples to oranges to lemons: Robert Kroetsch’s The Snowbird Poems as continuing Field Notes; The Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry;
8) Queen Rat, New and Selected Poems, Lynn Crosbie
1998, House of Anansi Press: Toronto
Collecting the best work from her three previous poetry collections (she’s also had two others since), the most important sections are at the beginning, the new poems, such as the suite on angels, the five part “Fredo Pentangeli” and “Prestley,” but predominantly the “Alphabet City” series, easily the strongest example of her poetry. Originally appearing in the anthology Open City (199, House of Anansi Press: Toronto ON), Crosbie’s poetry is known for giving “voice to our bad and beautiful icons,” writing previously on Farrah Fawcett, the Black Dahlia, Jack the Ripper, John Travolta and Jeffrey Dahmer. In “Alphabet City,” rife with references literary and otherwise, she turns her attention to the city itself, in an abecedarian on various Toronto marks and landmarks:
Gladstone Hotel (1985)
The whole rhythm section was the purple gang ...
It was a blizzard out there, but King Elvis (Toronto’s first impersonator +
Subway Elvis) was performing at the great hotel where Sweet Daddy Siki’s
purple Cadillac surfs by,
and there is mud wrestling, some country and western in the Bronco Room.
He is wearing a gold lamé jacket with unfinished edges, black slacks.
Looks nothing like Elvis but we dance on the chairs as he sings. Those lush
segue ways I said I don’t wanna I don’t wanna be don’t wanna be tied,
that old hook – sm. hip-swivelling, a tired blonde girlfriend clicking
her nails to the beat, smashed, we ask him to sing Smoke on the Water,
and he gives it a shot which is why he’s the King:
Frank Zappa and his buddies were at the best place in town, some crewcut
with a flare-gun burned the place to the ground, yes!
There is a little car accident later and I tip the driver generously, record
snowfalls, ice, and fast winds. I appreciate a little showmanship.
9) Disturbances of Progress, Lise Downe
2002, Coach House Books: Toronto ON
This is one of those books that I admire for both its intuitive properties, and its generative properties (many of the same qualities I admire in Suzanne Buffam's Past Imperfect), pushing the nodes in my head into further of my own little directions. Her skill is such that her poems read seamless and effortlessly wonderful, and the sheer craft of them justify the wait we suffer between collections. Just listen to the soft collusions in her poems, as in this first part of the poem “But Oh To Ride Her Marvellous Exception” (which is probably one of the best titles I’ve ever heard):
Many hours crave a slender paddle
flocking destinations on either side of
a glass plane.
We ourselves a friction that emulates
the distance between days.
To stretch equatorial this long age.
Neat oval of stones.
Through no-man’s land
(by all accounts ailing)
I’m afraid I’m afar not one
who interiors but
Even as I try to end this, the list grows longer. Wilson’s Bowl by Phyllis Webb, Iridium Seeds by Sylvia Legris, Bloody Jack by Dennis Cooley, Craft Dinner by bpNichol, Hello Serotonin! by Jon Paul Fiorentino [see my review of his most recent book here], Ogress Oblige by Dorothy Trujillo Lusk [see my review of such here], The Beginning of the Long Dash by Sharon Thesen, The Centre: Poems 1970-2000 by Barry McKinnon [see my review of such here], The Holy Forest by Robin Blaser, lacerating heartwood by Judith Fitzgerald [see my note on her here], Past Imperfect by Susan Buffam [see my review of such here], An Oak Hunch by Phil Hall, A Sheep's Vigil by Erin Mouré, etcetera. Once it begins, does it ever end?