The wooden bench at the bus stop is scarred with cigarette burns. Somebody’s big brother did it. A bus pulls up and a man steps off. He wears a hat and carries a briefcase. Every day he steps off the bus, except on weekends. We don’t know where he goes or where he’s coming from. On weekends, we gather in front of the TV and watch cartoons and wrestling. This is the world. In the winter the monkey bars are covered by snow and ice. You can’t climb on them. You’d be crazy to try. If you touch them, your hands get stuck. Even the firemen can’t save you. (“Monkey Bars 1966”)
Prolific Cobourg, Ontario poet, fiction writer, editor and publisher Stuart Ross has been referring to his latest poetry collection, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Hamilton ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2016), as his attempt at a more “mainstream” publication, composing the poems in A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent as a counter-point to his previous poetry title, A Hamburger in a Gallery (Montreal QC: DC Books, 2015) [see my review of such here]. Over at his blog, for example, he wrote that “While Jason and I were putting together Hamburger, which contains scores of personal poetic experiments, I was building a file of my most accessible, narrative, straightforward, personal poems for the subsequent book.” More recently, as part of an interview over at Open Book: Toronto, he repeated this:
There were never any other possibilities, though this book ended up splintering off from my previous book of poetry, A Hamburger in a Gallery. I decided to save all my pretty normal, accessible poems for Sparrow and put the weird shit in Hamburger. That title is a reference to Claes Oldenburg’s Floor Burger (1962) in the Art Gallery of Ontario, a piece of art that blew me away when I was about seven years old and my mom took me to the gallery and I couldn’t believe a giant hamburger could be “art.” That totally influenced me as a writer.
I’m curious about the idea that Ross considers the poems in this collection more “accessible” than works in any of his last few books. The poems in this collection engage a particular flavor of lyric narrative, but are often anything but straightforward, engaging in surreal narratives and the occasionally odd poem or passage, such as the opening of “Research,” that reads: “This poem required no research. / When facts were called for, I invented them. / When was the dog painting made? / It was made in 1932. Who / made it? It was made by a monk / named Brother Owenjay.” As well, readers familiar with Ross’ work will recognize elements that have appeared in numerous of his works, whether his late parents and brother (such as the in-joke from “Research,” slipping his brother Owen into the poem as “Brother Owenjay”), Cy Twombly, David W. McFadden or NelsonBall. The suggestion of attempting a more “mainstream” poetry title infers a couple of different things, from the simple writing experiment to an attempt at a potentially wider audience, one which might be intrigued enough by the work to perhaps move into other of his expansive list of poetry, fiction and non-fiction titles. Given Ross’ suggestion, I would answer two-fold: is this a mainstream poetry book (if there even is such a beast)? No. Well, not really. Is this a poetry collection more mainstream than most of his other works? Maybe. Possibly. I don’t really know. Does it matter?
A sunny early evening in Toronto. I’m driving
right by Dave and Merlin’s place on College
Street when the door swings open and they
both step out. I wave through my open window
and their faces brighten when they see me.
But I have veered into oncoming traffic and
a streetcar nearly hits my Honda Civic. Cars
honk, I swerve. I think of how stupid Dave
and Merlin must think I am, back there
on the sidewalk. Then I’m awake. Of
course, it was a dream! Dave and Merlin
don’t live on College, my Honda was
stolen years ago, and I’m already dead.
Predominantly composed in Ross’ comfortable, comforting first-person vernacular, one can easily hear Ross’ voice speak through stories of reading, family, friends and writing, as well as meditative stretches around history, sunny stretches, language and the occasional pun, all rife with his familiar neuroses, complains and concerns, and a dry, absurd humour. One might say that this collection of lyrically-dense and thoughtful poems is entirely classic Stuart Ross, and one of his strongest collections, at that.
You listen to terrible
poetry. I listen to
terrible poetry. Rod Steiger
listens to terrible poetry.
A squashed caterpillar
listens to terrible poetry.
The town crier listens
to terrible poetry. Emma
Goldman listens to terrible
poetry. The flaming sky
listens to terrible poetry.
I wrote a poem. I was
lonely. I wrote a poem
describing how I was
lonely. Many a person
said I should write a book.
The next day I wrote
one. I called it Eschew
My Feet. It was copyrighted.
It made my muscles
sore to write it. I went
to sleep. I dreamed
When I opened my eyes,
all at once.
While, in the larger scheme of things, the conversation about whether or not this book is “mainstream” or “more mainstream than his other works” is most likely beyond the point, I find the exploration on Ross’ part intriguing, and understand the notion that some readers simply require a particular “entry point” in which to engage with the work of certain writers. It took me six different poetry titles in my twenties before I “got” the work of David W. McFadden, and my personal Rosetta Stone was his poetry collection The Art of Darkness (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1984). Somehow that one book allowed me to read the rest of McFadden’s work. Might A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent be the book that allows scores of new readers into Ross’ work? For the sake of all those new readers, I would certainly hope so.