Tuesday, July 15, 2008

JAILBREAKS: 99 CANADIAN SONNETS, edited by Zachariah Wells

For some time, former east coast (now living in Vancouver) poet Zachariah Wells has been one of the champions of this "new formalism" (for lack of better terminology) that's been spreading around Canadian poetry the past few years, along side other champions such as Montrealer Carmine Starnino and East Coast resident George Murray. What is the appeal? Either way, he has crafted an attractive and interesting new anthology of sonnets over the decades by Canadian writers, Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (Emeryville ON: Biblioasis, 2008). Including poems by numerous Canadian poets one might expect in such an anthology, from Margaret Avison, Carmine Starnino, Peter Van Toorn, Irving Layton, John Newlove, Stephen Brockwell, Archibald Lampman and Robyn Sarah, part of what makes the collection appealing is his inclusion of works by some lesser-expected poets such as Gerry Gilbert [see my note on him here], Stuart Ross, E.A. Lacey and Phyllis Webb.


You have no form, you move among, yet do
not move, the relics of exhausted thought
of which you are not made, but which give world to
you, you are of nothing made, nothing wrought.
There you long for one who is not me, O
queen of no subject, newer than the morning,
more antique than first seed dropped below
the wash where you are called and Adam born.
And here, not your essence, not your absence
weds the emptiness which is never me,
though these motions and these formless events
are preparation for humanity,
and I get up to love and eat and kill
not by my own, but by our married will. (Leonard Cohen)

For some time, there have been poets in Canada (Diana Brebner did through example, in the 1980s and 1990s, well before it was fashionable again) attempting to argue for the form of the sonnet, and this collection, I would suppose, is Well's argument for the form, and an argument well made. Still, the back of the collection includes commentary by Wells on most if not all of the poems included in the anthology, ranging from highly astute criticism to strange and even baffling story-telling. Writing on Stephen Brockwell's contribution, "The Fruitfly," Wells writes some of the best criticism on Brockwell's work to date:
Don’t let the lack of end-rhyme fool you into thinking this free-verse sonnet is sloppily built. The thought articulated in this poem is every bit as intricate as the fruit fly's wing ― if more nimble than the fly clapped into a punctuation mark. The metaphoric imagination Brockwell displays here reminds me of the pattern-perception of Hopkins in his journal prose. And in case you're wondering about his skill with more traditionally structured sonnets, you should seek out Wild Clover Honey and the Bee-hive, a sequence of 28 sonnets on the sonnet ― fourteen written by Brockwell, contra the form, and fourteen by Peter Norman, another contributor to this anthology, arguing for it. It's a brilliant performance of dialectical banjos.
Compare that to what he has to say about the late John Newlove's "God Bless the Bear," writing:
John Newlove was a friend of my uncle's. Once, while visiting Prince Edward Island to give a reading, Newlove was tracked down by a young fan at my uncle's farmhouse. The poet, not surprisingly, was in pretty rough shape from the previous evening's excesses. When asked by his admirer if he wouldn’t mind reciting a poem, Newlove looked blearily at the ephebe and croaked, "Gimme a dollar." Not sure what that has to do with this very moving free-verse sonnet, but it must be something.
I find it frustrating that, yet again, John Newlove's clear precision as a skilled writer is too-often overshadowed by biography, and it makes me wonder what the purpose of including this story is. I would rather such be left out, and nothing be said than this. How does this add anything to a consideration of the work, other than some kind of dismissal? And why is it so many of his small critical commentaries are excusing or asking the reader to overlook the fact that so many of these sonnets are, potentially, "sloppily built"? Is he excusing his argument even as he's making it?


What is homeless in me, and sightless, not
without love, but blind to your world? If I

insist on love, or sight, something not brought
by insisting, who will still cherish my

eyes, kiss them with tenderness, with darkness?
All of those places within me, somewhat

lonely, and foreign, where I am homeless,
still remain to be seen. The terror that

fills me is one dark place. The fear of sight
is another. I would like to believe

love is blind; blindness is something to fight
for, to believe in. Dear man, when I leave

my eyes open, I see nothing, in this
world we call real, but you: you and darkness. (Diana Brebner)

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