Thursday, April 07, 2005

a note on the poetry of Monty Reid

from Six Songs for the Mammoth Steppe


At the farthest margin of my life
lies the ice of pure simplicity.

Where the hunger of the glacier
with its unfillable crevasses turns me into somebody else.

Where each cold stone beneath the milky water that
runs green from the glacier’s foot

is as smooth as a skull pawed by thought
then discarded.

I am not missing. There is no one
who would know what missing means.

At night, a sharp wind sweeps the cries
of something that has fallen into the ice towards us.

It has the clarity of a single vanished thing
briefly reappearing.

In April 1999, Alberta poet Monty Reid moved from Drumheller, where he worked at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology for almost 17 years, to Luskville (just beside Aylmer, just beside Hull), Quebec, just over the river from Ottawa, to work at the Museum of Nature. As I joked at the time, moving from Badlands Alberta to Badlands Quebec.

The shadow of the 1960s poets of Canada is very long, and Reid’s work seems not to get the attention it deserves, along with so many other poets who came of age in Canada throughout the 1970s, including Douglas Barbour, Andrew Suknaski, Dennis Cooley, Barry McKinnon, Sharon Thesen and Artie Gold.

The author of a number of books, almost exclusively poetry collections (with a non-fiction book or to thrown in), Reid is the author of Fridays (Sidereal, 1979), karst means stone (NeWest Press, 1979), A Nature Guide to Alberta (Hurtig Publishers, 1980), The Life of Ryley (Thistledown Press, 1981), The Dream of Snowy Owls (Longspoon, 1983), The Alternate Guide (Red Deer College Press, 1985), These Lawns (Writing West / Red Deer College Press, 1990), Crawlspace: New and Selected Poems (House of Anansi Press, 1993), Dog Sleeps: Irritated Texts (NeWest Press, 1993) and flat side (Red Deer Press, 1998), as well as the small chapbook Six Songs for the Mammoth Steppe (above/ground press, 2000). One of the most genuine poets I know, Reid is humble in the same way that Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley is, almost self-depreciating.

One of my favorite poems from his collection flat side was the poem "Burning the Back Issues," a poem literally on burning old literary journals that he no longer needed. The poem begins:

There is no way to distinguish what one has chosen to remember
from what one has chosen to forget.

It is the first day of 94 and to take the chill from this old house
I am burning the back issues of American Poetry Review.

I didn’t have that many. Maybe two dozen, an old
subscription, and all the faces on the cover have become famous

and mildewed. It is not the first time
I have tried to give up some words. Everyone eventually does

no matter how carefully preserved and through
how many inconvenient moves, but one cannot be responsible

for the words forever.

When I first read Monty Reid’s poems, I didn’t know what I was looking at, and dismissed them too quickly. It took me a while to realize what they were doing (like reading a new language, it sometimes takes time to get into the space and breathing of an author’s work). Monty Reid’s poems have the ability, through long, slow movement, to get immediately at the heart of things. His poems have the ability to forget what a poem is supposed to be, moving instead into what a poem is. Reid’s lines pull at the image and extend it, and somehow get to the point as quickly as anything could.

Even his short poems feel like long poems, and his long poems are made out of small fragments, each one a single step toward something larger and continuous. In his work-in-progress, The Luskville Reductions, Reid extends it while managing to reduce it even further, as in this fragment that appeared in the on-line journal ottawater:

Does the weather
move to some kind of resolution?

Not by itself.

Mid-March, and the river-ice undoes itself
the ideology of water
lifts it

slow groan in the limbs, deep
in the run

faults tromped into the structure

directly under your feet

although they sound as if they
were miles away

and they are.

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