Saturday, November 17, 2007

Victor Coleman’s ICON TACT: Poems 1984 – 2001

With twelve years between his last trade collection and this one, you would perhaps think that the publication of a new book by Toronto poet and editor Victor Coleman would be more of an event, with the appearance of his ICON TACT: Poems 1984 – 2001 (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2006). Largely run over and misunderstood by the literary powers that be, Coleman has certainly been involved with literary activity over the past near-decade and a half since his last major poetry collection, LAPSED W.A.S.P.: Poems 1978-89 (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1994), including as coordinator of The Toronto Small Press Fair, founding editor of the revived Coach House Books in the late 1990s, and smaller publications through Coach House Books, above/ground press and BookThug, among other wisps of ephemera, and publication in various small magazines, anthologies and journals. For someone so active during the 1960s through the 1980s and beyond, as one of the original editors of the original Coach House Press, and silent editor of Raymond Souster’s New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry (Toronto ON: Contact Press, 1966) to all the other things he ended up doing, one could easily ask, where has Victor Coleman been?

One of Canada’s essential cultural workers, it is almost as though the collapse of his involvement with the first Coach House seriously began to curtail his literary activities, and just at the point when he was about to embark in the most interesting work of his career so far, including publications such as Honeymoon Suite (Toronto ON: Underwhich Editions, 1990), The day they stole the Coach House Press (Toronto ON: Eternal Network, 1994), Icon Tact (Toronto ON: The Eternal Network, 1996), LETTER DROP (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 1999), Eulogistics (published as STANZAS #20; Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 1999), Moon Over Viagra (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2002) and MI SING: LETTER DROP 2 (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2005), and even an earlier version of the collection that appeared as ICON TACT [POEMS 1985-94] by InstaBook in 2002.

Through his references to old poet-friends (whether in the poems or acknowledgements), Coleman ties himself to the past, but somehow his work isn’t necessarily tied to that past (working the tact of his own iconography), as in this poem for the late poet Paul Haines (father of musician Emily, from the band Metric, editor Stuart Broomer recently put together an edition of Haines’ works as the collection Secret Carnival Workers: Paul Haines):

Tapes, like notebooks
have no taboos

no Network executive interference
just the honest crackle

of state-of-the-home equipment
in a little Ontario town

where French
is taught by Paul.

Women inspire me!
But they don’t let me write.

It costs more
to call Kingston

than to call
New York, New Jersey & New Haven

Mercy! Whatever happened
to the distance crossed?

Fenelon Falls
but the Fall Assizes.
The collection also includes his infamous (and often-reprinted) piece “The Day They Stole The Coach House Press,” that came out of the shifting of the press in the 1980s, a shift that eventually meant a departure from the “old-style” collective, as well as the Press becoming a separate unit from Stan Bevington’s Coach House Printing (once the “Press” died, a new company continuing the values of the old emerged back at the old Coach House behind Huron Street into Coach House Books, thanks to Bevington and Coleman, among others). The poem itself includes the emotionally-wrought stanza:
The order of the day was ‘cut your origins,’
or ‘remove the dead wood of the past,’
a lasting legacy that wouldn’t go away
even when part of it died. Complicit,
the elixir of greed had crept under the skin
of the interlopers, some of whom
had come on board to make careers.
There is no mistaking the intent in a poem that includes “The enemies of poetry stole the Coach House Press” or the heartbreakingly raw couplet, “Nothing could be more empty / than the body: poetry.” As well as that poem, the collection includes Coleman’s “Moon Over Viagra,” as well as the “Eulogistics” series that originally appeared as a whole in STANZAS magazine (reprinted in Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003). Another extremely strong sequence (a form Coleman seems to favour), it pairs up the living with the dead, such as in a poem for Greg Curnoe, referencing his widow, Sheila, Daniel Jones, referencing Nicky Drumbolis, Gwendolyn MacEwen, referencing Rosemary Sullivan, or this one for Frank Zappa, referencing Ottawa poet/publisher (and Zappa fan/collector) jwcurry:

dear jw

O’Hara is dying in the dunes
Guitar the axe of apes
Tropes assigned their millennia
Billions of dollars in debt
Florid pillars of regret
Big boogies behind the weather
Following the head that cried melody
Or calling the siblings dirty names
Carving a mythology of sonic boomers
Including both waffle and vacuum
Into whom won’t two go?
There’s a seam in seamless
and it’s always crooked
From walking that way to the bank
Of the River of No Return
Written in couplets, with much the same feeling as the poems in Eulogistics, I am disappointed that the poems that make up LETTER DROP (originally published with a series of drawings by painter David Bolduc) and MI SING: LETTER DROP 2 didn’t make it into this collection, and wonder at the reasons why; is it simply a matter of space, attention or something further? With the poems in this collection, it’s obvious that Coleman is interested in the twist and the pun, working language in that “serious play” that bpNichol so often talked about, but what is it about the “I/eye” that keeps coming up in Coleman’s pieces? From his 1960s poetry journal Is (or, “eyes”), to the obvious penis reference from his first book one/eye/love (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1967)? (We won’t even begin to discuss the ejaculation blurry close-up shot inside his Stranger collection from 1974, or all the penis artwork otherwise in the collection.)

It does become interesting that Coleman has an ongoing interest in structuring his collections through these notions of time, as opposed to highlighting some of the other structures he has worked over the years, telling us in the title what years the poems were worked on, from his Old Friends’ Ghosts: Poems 1963-68 (Toronto ON: Weed/Flower Press, 1970) to From the Dark Wood (poems, 1977-83) (Toronto ON: Underwhich Editions, 1985), his LAPSED W.A.S.P.: Poems 1978-89 and even his Open Letter issue, Seventh Series, No. 4: Winter 1988-89, “Victor Coleman: a selection of art writing and literary commentary 1966-83,” edited by bpNichol. Whatever else you might think or have thought of his poetry (Coleman has the distinct honour of being the only poet removed from Gary Geddes’ infamous 15 Canadian Poets series), is the openness of his work, the open-ended seriality of where Coleman’s poems go that give them their strength; Coleman’s poems have never been afraid to look you directly in the eye, and managed to bore a hole through both individuals, the watcher and the watched. Not about the “I” as such, but about the singular gaze.

related post: Victor Coleman's "12 or 20" interview

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