Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Rob Winger's Muybridge's Horse

Anyone trying something as large and potentially unwieldy as what Ottawa poet and Arc magazine editor Rob Winger, in his first poetry collection Muybridge's Horse (Gibson's Landing BC: Nightwood Editions, 2007), has done, has to be admired. As Winger writes himself in the first poem of the collection, "Muybridge's Horse," taking his own series of stills in the form of poetry, writing:

the second in walking when both of your feet are airborne

the time between target and gunshot

water in your throat

A nearly two hundred page poetry collection (a selection of an earlier draft won first prize for English poetry in the 2003 CBC Literary Awards), Winger works through the biography of 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose work in the "studies of bodies in motion led to the invention of moving pictures." Working a large, complex canvas, Winger builds his long poem nearly as a kind of poetic novel as he writes through the facts and fictions of Muybridge's life from England to American deserts to San Francisco, through his history, loves, torments and obsessions (including a murder charge), and finally to the 1878 race track, "where a battery of fifty cameras settles a bet about a horse's stride, forever changing the world's understanding of movement."


the window bars are loose
so Eadweard's capture is a matter of choice

his hair goes completely white

cradling his quill's calcium
he dips its tip into an inkwell
circles the feather around his mouth, tasting dust

he scratches letters over the grains of handmade papers
each small pellet of bark,
mountainous across the desert of the page
the hollow where his quill holds fast to its feather
used to be wings,
used to be a bloodline to the sparse heart of a gull

the letters he writes from this grey square
are heavy with this misdemeanour
dove's blood loped into every capital

he takes his dinners in silence
removes silver covers from entrees with calculated effort,
placing them,
across dinner trays, over napkins
avoiding sound,
utensils joined only in the choreography of his teeth,
patient grind of food a machinery he can trust

the slow decay of his body is a broken pully

when he emerges, for court
he carries his pen,
hides forks in his pockets
holds his watch in a hand's hollow,
relying on its weight

three months of prison measured by
the white whiskers that collapse from his jaws
like water

Winger certainly isn’t the first one or even the twentieth to write out biography in poetic form; one could go from various author to author including Michael Ondaatje's Governor General's Award-winning collection The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 1970), Stephen Scobie writing American expat Robert McAlmon in his Governor General's Award-winning collection McAlmon’s Chinese Opera (Dunvegan ON: Quadrant Editions, 1980), Dennis Cooley writing prairie outlaw John Krafchenko in the two editions of his Bloody Jack (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1984; Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2002), and even Stephanie Bolster writing Alice Liddell (the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland) as her own Governor General's Award-winning White Stone: The Alice Poems (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 1998). As Dorothy Livesay first coined it, this is, in fact, the “documentary poem” Winger has taken on; writing poem out of information that exists as one document into another, and in these specific cases, writing out biography (and fiction-from-biography) into bio-poetry.

What makes this collection particularly interesting is the way in which Winger carves out each individual poem into something larger; these aren’t simple or straightforward poems that exist side-by-side as any sort of linear narrative, but exist somehow as individual poems like individual points on a canvas by pointillist Seurat. Each dot may exist on their own, but bring the dots together, and a much larger and more complex picture is born. What makes part of this book frustrating is the fact of, it seems, a bit too much history and not enough of whatever else a book is supposed to be. One almost feels overloaded by the facts of the story instead of the story itself, weaving its own way through the collection. Still, this is a very impressive first book, and I look forward to seeing just what he constructs out of a second collection (having some sense of the years it took Winger to produce this collection), however long that might take.

The earth reacts against architecture,
disconnecting San Francisco.

Streets halting at new canyons
in intersections.

When the earthquake strikes at five a.m.,
the city vibrates for four minutes,

walls collapsing around
bodies asleep in beds,

bits of foundation leaping out of floors
into ceilings.

The new electric lights at the Chronicle building
shatter into triangles.

Every utility source coming into the city
blocked by fragments,

nutrients choked by fire, morning lit by natural flames
on burning corpses.

Every bridge stretching across the bay
collapses. ("BOARDING AN EXIT: 1906")

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