Antiphonies is a primer on some of the most exciting work in contemporary Canadian poetry. These essays discuss a wide range of work, from book already acclaimed as modern classics – such as Erin Mouré’s O Cidadán, Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic, and Karen Mac Cormack’s Implexures – to the equally remarkable work of Susan Clark, Catriona Strang, Lissa Wolsak, Christine Stewart, Deanna Ferguson, Lise Downe, Nancy Shaw, a. rawlings, Marie Annharte Baker and others. These essays are complimented by brief selections of poems and poetics statements.The problem with much of this work is in just how much most critics, certainly mainstream Canadian critics but also many interested in the so-called “fringe,” have simply passed over or outright ignored so much of this kind of writing and writer, with the possible exceptions of Mouré (partly, perhaps, for her earlier Governor General’s Award win, coming into more “difficult” writing after already establishing herself as a “work poet” earlier in her career) and Robertson (her own Governor General’s Award nomination certainly didn’t hurt, but she still gets more attention outside of Canada than she does in). In the opening to “’What Lies Beneath my Copy of Eternity?’: A Religious Reading of Lissa Wolsak’s Poetry” by Peter O’Leary, he responds to some of these silences, writing:
North American poetry of the past fifteen years, especially experimental work, has been characterized by a preoccupation with clarities or obscurities of legibility. Such work seems to be a response to the question, “Can this be read?” In this respect, poetry has begun to mimic a kind of academic discourse in which meaning is questioned, usually suspiciously, as a way of generation theories about knowledge (or art, or political philosophy, for instance). Ben Friedlander has recently suggested a spectrum on which poetry might be understood to operate, with “intelligibility” standing on one end of a continuum, and the “registration and production of sense impressions” on the other (66). I find this span useful for thinking about poetry and meaning: whether merely “intelligible” or the abstract, allusive, or surreal product of sense impressions (among which is the associative play of language itself), poetry means something, if only that it seeks to communicate something intelligible, or to record sense impressions. Readers ask, “What is this I am reading? What is this supposed to mean? How best to read this poem?” Because of our familiarity with writing built on asyntaxis, parataxis and anacoluthia, for instance, most readers, when confronted with work that is difficult to understand – work where legibility or intelligibility is called into question – feel comfortable enough registering the sense impressions of such work as its difficulties slide over them, normalizing them as a stylistic feature rather than as a challenge to sense-making. This sliding-over disengages the reader from recognizing either intelligibility or legibility in a poem. The work becomes understood, somewhat simplistically but acceptably, as “difficult.” In a further simplification, such difficult work becomes “language poetry” or “avant-garde,” both labels which have been used in the past pejoratives to mark the scorn of so-called mainstream critics. Nowadays, stripped of most of their specificity, these labels typically signify a familiar mode available to a creative writer, neither better nor worse than, say, “love poetry” or “confessional poetry.”British poet Alan Halsey, who wrote the collaborative book Fit to Print with Karen Mac Cormack, even wrote a series of “Responses To & For Karen Mac Cormack,” writing that “These pieces were composed in response to four book by Karen Mac Cormack; the responses are direct in that they were written during the first readings of the books at the time of publication. […] They are views and not reviews; records of the act of reading, the pleasures of new acquaintance and the unfolding of unexpected relations and unforeseen alignments in a reader’s mind.”
At Sixes and Sevens
Re: Vanity Release (2003)
I knew spring would be late
when December went missing
and now I can’t sit still
for favour minutes. Did you
see that rhyme fly right past
my head? Rapidly as figures
fingers may write so time
me sometime – draw a map of
any city with your
eyes tight shut or else sleep by
proxy. Some valuable
things are available
but not all available
things are etc.
A blind man taps in past
tense spat. Disc loss may follow
disclosure but not in
any Peking order
discolours. Did you see
that rhyme, a real cutter, hit
the spread-sheet? It knocked the
bottle over the beetle
was in now the beetle’s out. (Alan Halsey)
As Mac Cormack writes herself, in her interview conducted by Stephen Cain:
KMC: My early work was an exploration of altering the way we perceive the day-to-day, while allowing “language” to be shown as an entity itself (rather than a transparent vastness through which to “see” our world). This led to an investigation of “sentence effects,” particularly the integration of poetic like with prose period. (This was not to enact a conciliatory synthesis of the two genres, but to delineate their radical sympathies and contradictions, i.e., not to write a prose poem, but to reclaim an exploratory usefulness from the sentence, in order to extend the poetic form to more challenging/rewarding modes of readership.)Obviously, the question (and politic) of form and structure is one that comes up repeatedly in the collection, as Peter Larkin talks about in his essay “Lisa Robertson: How Pastoral is More and More Possible,” writing:
In her manifesto “How Pastoral” Robertson confronts the question of how to negotiate with a complicitous but would-be disingenuous genre head-on: “I wanted a form as obsolete yet necessary as the weather. I begin with the premise that pastoral, as a literary genre, is obsolete – originally obsolete” (22). That the weather can be timed out by the urban is both a pathos, an irony and a lived cultural actuality, but new necessities immediately flood in to fill that space of cultural self-arbitration which is so persistently less than autonomous (i.e., culture, which gives frame and history to human judgment, cannot “re-give” what is provided to it, which is what also posits horizons which cannot be contained. Robertson can claim with justification that the pastoral genre is obsolete ab origo, though that gives little indication of what to do with its traces and residues, or with what might be read as “anoriginal” (i.e., primordially plural) or as rediscoverable and still-to-be-encountered horizons of the “provincial.”With the length and the breath of writing and writers covered in this collection, I would easily call this a collection and an attention long overdue, and presents essays on many writers that haven’t really been dealt with critically. Certainly there is far more ground that needs to be covered (this is the kind of thing that Open Letter used to do, and do rather well), but through this and journals such as Parser and recent issues of West Coast Line, this new book is certainly a step in the right direction.
The Influence of Complete Darkness
In the dusk of a November evening
somewhere in the mid-seventeenth century
nothing is concealed or conveyed.
There is, simply
a concentration of sunflowers.
As the world turns, they turn
from pathos to persuasion
guided by the radiant light.
Two fresh puddles insert themselves
and are read as a dark ellipse.
Nothing hinders them from soaking through.
Perhaps a fish detects them before disappearing
its far-off murmur a mutter now
sounding something like the inscription
on a Japanese fan by Totki Baigai:
“Outside the city walls there’s an odd fish.
I don’t know its name.” (Lise Downe)
related links: my entry on Deanna Ferguson; my entry on Parser; my entry that mentions Lise Downe;