Monday, October 24, 2005

Victor Coleman's Letter Drop

It is disappointing that Toronto writer Victor Coleman (the original editor for the Coach House Press; see his "The Coach House Press: The First Decade. An Emotional Memoir" in Open Letter, the "Coach House Press, 1965-1996" issue, Ninth Series, Number 8: Spring 1997; also the original editor of the nenewed Coach House Books), in so many ways, has claimed to have abandoned trade publications and moved more into smaller publications; seemingly, abandoning larger publishing the same way that earlier poets such as Maxine Gadd and David Phillips have, with almost nothing since the publication of their own volumes of selected poems, Lost Language (Coach House Press, 1977) and The Kiss (Coach House Press,1978). The pieces of Coleman's that have appeared since his selected poems, LAPSED W.A.S.P.: Poems 1978-89 (ECW Press, 1994), are few and far between, and have included (in my opinion) some of the finest writing of his career. They include Eulogistics (published as STANZAS #20, and reprinted in Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003, published by Broken Jaw Press / cauldron books in 2003), LETTER DROP (Coach House Books, 1999; online at, and the most recent MI SING: LETTER DROP 2 (BookThug, 2005). Coleman's work hasn’t had the attention it deserves for quite some time, partly through a lack of proper attention (welcome to Canadian literature, everybody) and his own stepping back, which seems strange, given the amount of his publishing activity from the 1960s through to the 1980s, from not only his work as a writer but as a substantially active editor and promoter. Subsequently, Victor Coleman is the only poet removed from Gary Geddes' 15 Canadian Poets anthology series (replaced in subsequent editions by Robyn Sarah and Geddes himself), and it would be pretty easy to theorize a whole slew of reasons why, without really having a clue. As well, the Coach House Books website still boasts another lost Coleman title, the perpetually forthcoming Honeymoon Suite (forthcoming in 2001, it says) that was to include the 1990 edition of Honeymoon Suite (published originally by Underwhich Editions; reprinted without the illustrations in his selected poems), "an erotically charged serial poem by Victor Coleman and a series of drawings by painter David Bolduc" as well as the first LETTER DROP. (There's another piece, too, the emotionally-charged piece "The Day they Killed the Coach House Press" that I know Coleman has published a few times, in a few different places, but for some reason I can't find it.)

Written as an abecedarian, Coleman's MI SING: LETTER DROP 2 continues the work of the first LETTER DROP, originally published by Coach House Books in an edition of 52 copies in 1999 (with images by David Bolduc). Fortunately, the whole piece is available online on the Coach House Books website. As Coleman writes in his introduction to the first LETTER DROP:

"LETTER DROP is an Oulipan exercise in the making of 'an alphabet of lipograms'.

"Lipogrammatics is the art of writing in prose or in verse, imposing on oneself the rule of excluding a letter of the alphabet."
- G. Peignot, Poétique curieuse, 1825

In LETTER DROP the A poem has no As in it; the B poem has no Bs; etc. Each poem was constructed through the use of a limited vocabulary of approximately sixty words. Often the source of the words was a found text, such as Tom Swift and His House on Wheels ('F'), The Book of Minor Maladies ('G'), The Manual of Radio Production Directing ('H'), Bread ('I'), The Hydriotaphia ('J'), The 1921 Victor Records Catalogue ('K'), The New Art >(General Electric Exposition Catalogue 1936-37) ('L'), Writers in Boots ('S'), The History & Geography of B.C. (C. 1936) ('T'), Crazy Weather ('U'), Stendhal's Rome, Naples and Florence ('V'), Lady Chatterley's Lover ('X'), and Joseph McElroy's Plus ('Y')."

Working much more through movements of sound and texture than the second collection, the first LETTER DROP flows more like water after the dam has burst, writing:

I bleed the sober frond of effluence,
mounting the crowns of the flushed hope of roses.
Crossed ochre dildos index eyes' fleet grind.
Simple window posses torn from their jingoism
into nothing short of mother.
Crushed vitreous crown brings hope.
Stop loop dildo effluence empties the bequest.
Fleshpot wishes into pointless omnipotence.
Retired poses stun sober eyes.
Justice into jingoism won't go.
Ochre crow belies the quiz.
Lemon pillow owl kilometer wrecking-crew.
Justice index uses exit resolve.
Nothing torn sonic from Mother's simple room.
Fleshpot nowhere furthers knots in jingoism.
Empty stopover, quiz bequest, oppressor loop
rose further in the norm.
Bring wishes into bleeding fronds
to cross the plenitude.
Lemon hopes kilometer the rule of the hour.
Sell posies, fit posses, retire tolls.
Pointless omnipotent wrecking-crew.
Use knot to stun Emu.
Never very nowhere, nothing ochre ever bothered you.
Beyond the Xerox window is the mix.
Lemon rooms simpler this century.
No Exit.
Oppressive mounts begin to die.
You, Boy! Zen denizen of Oz.
Bequest sober blend of sonic loops with knotted roses.

Eulogistics, on the other hand (some of which appeared in an issue of Queen Street Quarterly), also responds to texts the way LETTER DROP does, but without the constraint of missing letters. A sequence of eleven poems, the pieces in Eulogisitics respond to the work and lives of two people each -- the living and the dead. The poems are written as a series of homages to late friends (and mentors), from Greg Curnoe, bpNichol, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Roy Kiyooka and Daniel Jones (even throwing in Frank Zappa as well). "A WAKE FOR GREG," for example, references the late London, Ontario painter Greg Curnoe, addressing the subtitle to Curnoe's widow, "dear Sheila," while "A WAKE FOR MILTON," references the late Toronto Island poet Milton Acorn, and addressing "dear Mom," as Coleman's mother was an important figure for many years in the lives of residents of Toronto Island. I have always been partial to the idea of the response poem, and alternately, the transelation (see my post on Erin Moure), two sides of a similar coin. Responding, as a speaking. All literature, as Robert Kroetsch once called it, a conversation. These are simply the poems that exist from already having listened, instead of speaking first.


dear Sheila

Why does that smile contain a hairline?
And what about this odd obsession with the frame?

He played a good game of golf
without irony. Oka notwithstanding.

He painted his birth hospital, inspired schoolboys
and drove fiercely in the path of fate.

His "No!" was always upside-down
in times of renown or obscurity.

Committed to Region, he stood his ground
and thumbed his nose at creation.

His blood is all over the highway
of Heaven's biathalon.

Written in couplets, with much the same feeling as the poems in Eulogistics, the second MI SING: LETTER DROP 2 continues the Oulipan exercise of alphabetical exclusion in another abecedarian of twenty-six poems. Through the work in Eulogistics and LETTER DROP 2 as couplets, there is a kind of severe clarity in these poems that cuts to the heart of writing, and bleeds across each successive page. After first reading a couple of these poems in the now-defunct Queen Street Quarterly (the best little magazine in Canada), I was struck. I knew I had to read more.


Mostly we were Bimbos, often never growing wings,
translucent in a stunning limpid old bankers brilliance.

Your letter, quite recently, was absent.
But I continued … graduated actually,

acquired by many kindnesses. Just getting
blasted and belonging, Officer.

I never once liked imitation income,
but I studied success -- like a pleasant jockey,

a bankrupt Batman, no clouds were stripped,
very relaxed on meaning, and no cup appears.

Many liked our kindness, a fit experience to glow,
and it didn't quite colour vitality.

The good thing, at least, is that these three pieces are all still available. Eulogistics is published as a whole in Groundswell: the best of above/ground press, 1993-2003, LETTER DROP is available on the Coach House Books site, and the new poems, MI SING: LETTER DROP 2, is available from Jay MillAr's BookThug. The two LETTER DROP pieces, as well as Eulogistics, (and subsequent Honeymoon Suite) would, all together, make a fine collection. Is there anyone out there brave enough to publish a trade edition of Victor Coleman? Would MillAr himself be willing? Is there anyone out there even brave enough to try?


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