Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Comparing apples to oranges to lemons: Robert Kroetsch’s The Snowbird Poems as continuing Field Notes

Still Life: First day as Markin-Flanagan
visiting writer

I left the last two sections of the orange
on the brushed steel counter top
in the kitchen.

They will,
in the morning,
surprise us with their beauty.

This is a sketch
for a beginning.
Good night, love, sleep tight.
― Lines Written in the John Snow House, The Snowbird Poems

When Robert Kroetsch’s Completed Field Notes (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1989; Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2001), written of so many other times and ways, appeared with a new introduction by Fred Wah, the long running joke the author was having on us was in the title. You can almost boil down the humour between poets Robert Kroetsch and George Bowering this way: the jokes Bowering has on the reader are in the poems, and the joke Kroetsch has on the reader is (predominantly) in his ongoing title; how this poem is about as "completed" as Book 6 ended bpNichol's The Martyrology (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 1987). The inherent poetics the both of them wrote and write, a poem as long as a life, with new sections seeping continuously through into the world as chapbooks and journal selections. As he wrote in the previous edition of the Completed, "Russell Brown, over a drink in a hotel on a Sicilian beach, suggested that the poems be published under one cover, with a title to include the dreaded 'c' word of postmodernism -- completed." Kroetsch's poetry all broken down into the completed and the uncompleted, long prairie lines of a love poem. Long prairie lines of an unfinished love. I’ve heard others suggest that Kroetsch’s lines, since he moved from fiction into poetry, is no more than broken prose instead of a poetic line, but I don't believe it for a second.

The “field notes,” Kroetsch’s continuing poem, started in 1973 with his Stone Hammer Poems (Victoria BC: Oolichan Books, 1975). Considered one of the most important postmodern works in Canada (they tell me), this is poetry that shows a body how it is done. Impressive for the range of poetic styles and the break of the line that Kroetsch works with, in the extended piece(s), from note taking, letter writing, ledgers, each recording and making a record of what has happened, out in the Field, standing, out in the field, outstanding. With each movement out away from what the poem is, he extends the range of the piece.

Of the first collection, only the “Stone Hammer Poem” remains, as prologue to the Completed Field Notes:

This stone
became a hammer
of stone, this maul

is the colour
of bone (no,
bone is the colour
of this stone maul
― Stone Hammer Poems

Well known in circles literary and critical, the Field Notes, Completed or otherwise, have been around for years, but out of print, from the first edition of Completed Field Notes, published by McClelland and Steward in 1989, or the various sections published as earlier editions, such as Field Notes (Toronto ON: General Publishing, 1981) and Advice to My Friends (Toronto ON: Stoddart Publishing, 1985), both of which appear in the Collected under their earlier titles as section headers. It makes me wonder if these works have possibly appeared in more single author forms than any in Canadian poetry, each time with another section or as, added. In both editions of Completed Field Notes, identical but for Wah's introduction, Kroetsch keeps a thread going, of the geographic and thematic continuities of the poem(s), starting at the beginning and moving out from the author/narrator's local to the beyond, with one foot still on Alberta soil. Still, even this second edition existed with rumours of incompleteness, and talk of the newer sections not included, those poems Fred Wah waited for, in his brilliant introduction (alone worth the price of admission), near the end, writing:

"I waited all winter for the new poems; he told me, he would add to what had earlier been complete. I waited for these additions to the edition. He intended to include them, he told me when we met in the folds of the foothills last fall. I believed him, but they never showed up. Has he out-faked my own grand design for his book? What comes after the last poem in this book, "After Paradise," is (finally?) more silence, the newly silenced poems I waited for. They have become rumours and cul-de-sacs. Wasn't that one of the new ones I heard at his reading? What about the limited edition chapbook you can only find on an island? Is the ongoing hush a clue?"

From an island, as Wah says. The point of publishing origin for the poem The New World And Finding It (Salt Spring Island BC : mother tongue press, 1999), originally in an Australian magazine (one island), and then as chapbook, on Saltspring (another island). Is that what Wah refers to? One can only presume. Or ask.

Kroetsch’s poetry, his Field Notes, Completed or Completing, have ever been concerned with visioning and revisioning, seeing the world around him, and the shifting perspectives of, in a constant re-evaluation. Kroetsch the Field reporter, looking without and within. As he writes from his limited edition chapbook:

The violation begins with the naming. We say the tree is a tree. / It resists its diminishment by coming into blossom. The stone blossoms in the garden. / The garden is the violent undoing of the name.
The New World And Finding It

Was it a violation to claim that this was Completed? Or is that simply part of the game, knowing that it is simply completed so far, at least for now. This is what it is and remains, until something new is added. In his essay "For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem," from The Lovely Treachery of Words (Toronto ON: Oxford University Press, 1989), he talks about the long poem as tantric, as delay, delay, delay; pushing the ending as far away as possible, as the essay begins, writing:

"In love-making, in writing the long poem–delay is both–delay is both technique and content. Narrative has an elaborate grammar of delay. The poets of the twentieth century, in moving away from narrative, abandoned (some willingly, some reluctantly) their inherited grammar. Poets, like lovers, were driven back to the moment of creation; the question, then: not how to end, but how to begin. Not the quest for ending, but the dwelling at and in the beginning himself."

Has he pushed the ending of the Field Notes so far ahead of him that it's unreachable? Has he pushed it so far that he has permission to go on forever?

Was the publication of a second Completed Field Notes simply a precursor, a teaser, for something further, a continued Field Notes? In summer 2001, another University of Alberta release, The Hornbooks of Rita K. (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2001) was published, as poetry within a fiction; as Kroetsch the writer wrote the archivist Raymond sitting as the collector and questioner of a pseudonymous (and lost) poet and her work (found). Was this another clue for us to follow, or a whole other direction? Where do the two long poems, published as the chapbooks The New World And Finding It and Revisions of Letters Already Sent (Calgary AB: disOrientation chapbooks, 1993), fit in? A joke is being told, somewhere. At the time I wondered, would I argue the continuation of the Field Notes, only to have Kroetsch read what I have written, and decide to never reprint them, sly smile on his face?

please delete, where indicated

if I understand you correctly you are saying that you

catastrophe is a shade of blue. Or is it merely the name
of a perfume that once

the crispness of the celery, so to speak, somehow
reminded me

The distortion of the poem by the image is endemic
to analysis, or at least your analysis suggests

If your heart isn't in it, why eat the goulash, comma

perhaps the occasion will present itself later, just
as did the clay ― was it tablets or feet? ― of your

the title should have read, Flight From Lisbon to
, as you suggested on the phone, when you
phoned from Madrid to tell me about the nude photos
your new acquaintance

masquerade, not Methuselah

tenebrous and tenebrific are both perfectly good
words, darkly majestic, perhaps, even verging, perhaps,
on the pretentious, as you so aptly

the usual, a boiled egg, and, of all things, sourdough

cookbooks, not books, cookbooks
― "(1) LATE APRIL? 1991," Revisions of Letters Already Sent

“I AM A SIMPLE POET / I wrote in the dust / on the police car hood.” Kroetsch wrote in “Mile Zero,” believing and belieing his own confoundings. Like George Bowering's poetry, nothing is as simple as it appears, how the joke has become infused with the serious work of the poem, but somehow become the title itself, the work, and the quiet continuation of it. When Robert Kroetsch tells you he's not writing poems, or never will again, that's when you know he's about to start.


Periodic fits of paradise exhaust him.

For instance. There is, he either knows or imagines,
in the midst of her body a tropical island.

For instance. He sits on a bench in Old Market Square,
his bottle of sugary wine concealed in a Gucci bag.

He cannot decide which text to take with him on the
long read, and therefore consults the patterned flight
of her painted toenails.

He is trying to pretend he didn't receive her letter.

Each time he takes a drink he watches with his tongue
for a message.
― "After Paradise," Completed Field Notes

In the interview with Kroetsch in the collection Poets talk: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouré, Marie Annharte Baker, Jeff Derksen and Fred Wah (Butling, Pauline and Susan Rudy, "Historicizing Postmodernism, with Robert Kroetsch," Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2005), talking about the piece "Poem for My Dead Sister" (originally published in his memoir/essay collection A Likely Story: the writing life (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1995), and later reprinted in The Snowbird Poems (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2004)), he said:

When I announced at the end of Completed Field Notes that I was finished writing poetry, I felt I had run out of ways to subvert myself. And the irony of this poem is, I was under incredible stress, and (this was in California) I had never used a computer. My sister lived with a woman [Eleanor] very close to us and I was sitting at her computer, trying to figure out how to use it. And I tried by writing a poem about my sister.

Susan: This poem?

Robert: No not this, but I wrote a couple of lines, and it was coming out as just jumble. And the phone rang, and said "Rush to the hospital, your sister's dying." And I had to actually write later to Eleanor and say, "could you give me a copy of what I wrote on your computer." Isn't this awful in the presence of death? I had to say to her, "I was playing on the computer. Would you send me what that was?" So she sent me a copy. And I said, "There's a possibility in that…." It gave me a way to start. (p 17)

In the introduction Susan Rudy writes to the interview with Kroetsch, she even writes of him contradicting himself in his completeness, writing:

Completed Field Notes (1989) collects the poetry from 1973-88 when Kroetsch claims to have come to "a poet's silence": "I like to believe that the sequence of poems, announced in medias res as continuing, is, in its acceptance of its own impossibilities, completed" (Completed Field Notes 269). Throughout the 1990s he continued to publish suspiciously poetic-looking texts under the title "The Poetics of Rita Kleinhart" in little magazines (including Open Letter, West Coast Line, Prairie Fire), many of which appear in The Hornbooks of Rita K (2001), nominated for the Goveror General's Award for Poetry. These "hornbooks," ostensibly written by Kroetsch's alter-ego, a prairie woman writer named Rita Kleinhart, are introduced to readers through the voice of her lover and editor, Raymond, who simultaneously addresses her: "Rita, you are wont to write a crabbed and stubborn / sentence, but this beats all. Without so much as a word / you point straight through the dark and past the bend in / the highway to the sign on the restaurant roof that, / glowingly, says // EATS" (104). A second edition of the Completed Field Notes appeared in 2000 with an introduction by Fred Wah. Kroetsch was honoured with the Manitoba Arts Council Award of Distinction in 2004. In Kroetsch's latest book, The Snowbird Poems (2004), the main character, travelling with the mysterious Henrietta , heads south for the winter and reflects on life: "We fly south to forget winter and instead / we remember the long colour of snow" (57). (p 2-3)

A completed, finished text, even as parts, including the poem written for his sister, aren't included in the Completed. How can it be completed, complete if we know what is missing? If we know what is deliberately missed? The only answer can be that it wasn't complete, even to Kroetsch himself. He was waiting for the next section to appear, complete. A complete other section. As Dennis Cooley wrote in his introduction to the new edition of Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue: a poem (Calgary AB: Red Deer Press, 2004):

"Kroetsch claims also to work with a strange muse–forgetfulness. The lack is cause for lamentation. It is even more cause for celebration and for acts of bravado: to hell with the past and its high art."

A new edition of an old poem, even though it already still exists in print, inside the Completed. Is this forgetfulness or deception? Or is this something else entirely?

When his collection The Hornbooks of Rita K. appeared, mere months after the new edition of Completed Field Notes, it felt outside the realm of everything he had done before in his poems. Contrary to everything he had written before, the book didn't feel as though it was a part of his Field Notes but was instead something other. It was poetry as both archive and archivist, moving through a narrative of beginnings and eventual endings (admittedly, a Kroetsch theme-standard, one that can be traced, too, to bpNichol: writing the endless departure). How could he create such a project that included everything in it, and still manage to subsequently work outside of it?

And how appropriate is the cover image for this collection, part of Michael Snow’s walking woman series endlessly overlapping in all directions, a detail from his "Venus Simultaneous" (1962), as reference to the lost Rita Kleinhart herself. Obviously more fragmented than much of his previous poetry, Kroetsch's The Hornbooks of Rita K. is one of the more obviously narrative collections as well, moving through multiple variations of the endless departure and arrival. Writing a poem through writing its absence. The character Rita by not writing her at all. The Field Notes by writing it as a complete separation. An incomplete completeness to both.

[hornbook #31]

To you, dear reader, frequenter of airport lounges–
even a stand-by poem should tell you where you are.

And what of the hornbook numbers, appearing as they do out of sequence, the reader asks. Are the hornbook numbers for the poems the archivist talks about real numbers, or part of his own fractured narratives? Should we be reading the numbers in the order of their appearance or through the sequence of the numbers instead, roving back and forth throughout the collection?

When the poetry collection The Hornbooks of Rita K. appeared, it fell outside of the field notes, the completed field notes, the unending field. Somehow, with his more recent collection, The Snowbird Poems, Kroetsch has managed to not only bring his Field Notes back, but through various plays, somehow bring The Hornbooks of Rita K. in with it, as part of this ongoing poem. Bringing in both collections like a long arm sweeping in, forging impossible links between both projects. Completed, he repeated, even as he would have been proofreading Rita K.

In the new collection, the main character, Snowbird, travels south for the winter (very Canadian, one might say, of the old bird), and the first four sections, under the header “The Snowbird Poems,” exists as an ongoing dialogue between “Snowbird,” various literatures, and his travelling companion, “Henrietta.”

conversation 7

The end, Henrietta said, is nowhere in sight. She laughed.

I like you in your bikini, Snowbird said. His voice was low,
awkward in his throat. Would you consider turning around?

You are ever, Henrietta observed, the teleological thinker. You
should buy yourself a telescope. For closer observation.

Henrietta, Snowbird responded, it could be said I spent my
whole life repairing chips in my windshield. Give me a break.

Poor dear, she said, turning around as if to look away.

Later, on the same page, he adds:


She said, Snowbird, if nothing else, learn something from the
past. Consider Ponce de Leon, seeking the Fountain of Youth.
He was sure he knew where it was. So he got himself a
commission from the Spanish crown: colonize the “isle of
Florida.” In the hurricane month of July in the year 1521 he was
mortally wounded–struck by an arrow shot from the bow of a
native of the isle that was not an isle. And so he is remembered.
If nothing else.
― The Footprint Episode, The Snowbird Poems

The footprint, a note in the field, allowing evidence of the past in the present tense. Think of this as archival material. Perhaps left by Rita K. herself? And how different is this than "After Paradise," the poem that ends the Field Notes, solicited by Andris Taskans at Prairie Fire, writing paradise before, during and after; writing paradise a footprint left in a grassy field, a sandy beach; a long love poem to and from the self. The reader asks, who are you, Snowbird? Are you the woman you have always been? Are you the face of the female other that Kroetsch is always talking to, when he talks to himself? Smaro, his sister, his mother, his daughters, Snowbird?


Honeyman, she say, you ain't nothing but a phase of
the moon. And you is waning.

Even if words are words, and they well might be.

Even if after precedes before, and in a way it must.

The Nairn Overpass has been under repair since before
it was completed. Railway engineers, passing beneath
its uncertain arch, speak wisely of the decline of
empires. One of the winos who sleeps in its shade
has added a sundeck to his shopping bags.

The horses, every Sunday morning at Assiniboia Downs,
draw straws to see who will lose.

I guess this is par for the course.
― "After Paradise," Completed Field Notes

The final three sections of The Snowbird Poems are simply under the header “and others,” being “Lines Written in the John Snow Louse,” “Poem for My Dead Sister” and “This Part of the Country.” In the seven pieces in “Poem for My Dead Sister,” there are echoes of the poem he wrote for his mother, simply titled “The Poet’s Mother,” included originally in the collection Advice to My Friends (1985), that includes:


I have sought my mother
on the shores of a dozen islands.

I have sought my mother
inside the covers
of ten thousand books.

I have sought my mother
in the bars of a hundred cities.

I have sought my mother
on the head of a pin.

I have sought my mother
in the arms of younger women.

I have sought my mother
in the spaces between
the clouds.

I have sought my mother
under the typewriter keys.
― Advice to My Friends, Completed Field Notes

The poems for his sister are more broken, but there are still the echoes, from the middle of the four-part poem “Visibility” that reads:


close the reminder, closeted book
choose, the closed book, clapping

clam and gentian reprobate, crotchety
steal at last look, asphodel, remain

sputter, and win and winnowed
rue is rue, unrailed, unravel ravel


bust and the lunatic spinner span
travel a stillness, travailed home

the kiss of breathing, teeth, tongue
toddle of losses, laughter laughed

and the holed mouth, mouthing
mouthed, mothermouth, unmurmured
― Poem for My Dead Sister, The Snowbird Poems

So much of Kroetsch’s poetry includes echoes of his other work, reading his “Excerpts from the Real World” from the first few sections of The Snowbird Poems; reading “Advice to my Friends” from “This Part of the Country;” reading so much else from “Lines Written in the John Snow House” (originally published as a chapbook by derek beaulieu's housepress in 2002). Is this what Cooley means by forgetfulness?

There has been an idea presented in the past that every poet writes the same poem over and over throughout their career, but for Kroetsch, this doesn’t even begin to describe it. He is writing new sides to the same poem, adding sides as though to a diamond. Illuminating different aspects as he goes. His poems twist into each other and echo off each other. He has already told us, through the Completed Field Notes that what came before is all one project; what is the difference of two more? If it is even the matter of what, the matter of why. Elsewhere in his Seed Catalogue: a poem introduction, Dennis Cooley writes:

"It is not a matter of whether you should write a poem, or even of why you should. Of course you write poems. Kroetsch pushes on in an exuberant troubled belief that a poem could be written."

And in the end, I'm still waiting for the volume of Field Notes that includes the lost chapbooks, out there in the world, the chapbooks The New World And Finding It and Revisions of Letters Already Sent, especially after Wah's suggestion that one would have already fit. But Kroetsch waits, as he always does. Delay. Waiting.

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