Thursday, January 11, 2007

Shane Rhodes' Tengo Sed

Only in love is loss made up.
Only in religion do we ignore it.
– Unas Historias, tengo sed

An absolutely lovely chapbook produced by Jason Dewinetz’ greenboathouse books is Shane Rhodes’ thirty-eight page tengo sed, a collection of seventeen poems written while the author lived a year in Mexico. There is a fine tradition of Canadian writers in Mexico (but certainly not as many as have made pilgrimages to Greece), with George Bowering’s Sitting in Mexico (published as IMAGO #12, 1969), written after two summers spent there in 1964 and 1965, to William Hawkins, who went south with a Canada Council grant (when tequila was only eight cents a shot), to produce a number of the poems in his collection The Madman's War (published by SAW Gallery in 1974), and then of course, Malcolm Lowry (who was technically an American, but who’s counting).

Originally from the west, Shane Rhodes was one of the original editors of QWERTY magazine (along with Steve McOrmond, Andy Weaver, Paul Dechene, Darryl Whetter and Eric Hill) during the time he was schooling at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, eventually moving back to Calgary, where he was an editor for filling Station magazine. It was some time after that, after publishing his first collection, The Wireless Room (2000), the first poetry collection that NeWest had published in years, that he went down to Mexico. Around the time of his second collection, Holding Pattern (2002), he had returned to Canada, and very soon afterward moved to Ottawa, where he currently lives in the Capital’s Little Italy.

As Rhodes’ writes in the acknowledgments of tengo sed:
Why travel? It is more than a question on a form from Immigration, but can I realistically answer it while sitting down? Perhaps it’s for the stories we tell upon our return so that we can sit (as Odysseus in the court of Alcinous) recounting our adventures? Or is it to replace the boredom Pascal notes of sitting quietly in an empty room with the boredom of sitting quietly in an empty bus? Perhaps, in the end, it becomes the same question as “Why write?” I have no answer to this yet, but I’m working on it.

There is a figurative phrase in Spanish (I’m unsure if it is particular to Mexican Spanish) which is used to describe something that brings pleasure: me late – which would translate as it makes my heart beat.

Much of this book was written during a year long stay and travels throughout Mexico."
Recently, while in Ottawa driving from one bar to another, Rhodes mentioned an essay he saw reference to, online. Written by a student at the University of Alberta and presented as a paper at a conference in Scotland [I have since learned it was written by Olive Reading Series member T.L. Cowan], on Rhodes’ first collection against Robert Kroetsch’s first, Stone Hammer Poems, the piece wrote Shane Rhodes as “Robert Kroetsch’s gay son.” There is a lot to compare between the two as poets, and one can even make comparisons between tengo sed and Kroetsch’s chapbook, Lines Written in the John Snow House (2002), later included in his trade collection, The Snowbird Poems (2004) [see my note on Kroetsch here]. Rhodes is able to write a lush lyric while still writing in a plain, spoken line, a mixture of statement and lyric flow. Listen to this, the first half of the poem “Cuentas,” that reads:

They agreed, hiking the mountain which overlooked the city
spires and silver mines, that their lives were already arthritic
with worry.

On the mountaintop, they removed their t-shirts, jeans and
underwear to suntan – interrupted only by the goat herds
eating brown grass dried tough by summer drought.

And they meant by “worry” an anxiety that fed from its own
imprecision and so became an italicised sadness – as in a life
corroded by work, the lack of money, the loss of time – filling a
lower case (times new roman) hole.

After an afternoon storm, they dried themselves and descended,
stopping only to pick cactus fruit – its cool skin and warm,
lucent centre full of pits.

“This is how the middle-aged would live,” she would say at times.
“A life of pattern and routine with very little conscious waste.”

And it makes me want a quick end to it: “They returned to their
pension (the one with the beaten tile in every room), made
dinner and turned out the lights” or “The grey-green pigeons,
startled by the evening bells, flew from the gutters to the
church spires.”

Kroetsch’s small chapbook was written during a similar trip, another Alberta writer placed but nearly placeless (he has been based in Winnipeg for a number of years), while in Calgary during a writer-in-residence stint; both collections written as familiar and foreign, a self-contained group of poems. Is there a difference?

Before his first collection appeared, what I saw of Rhodes’ work was made up of “great lines in good poems,” and, with each new publication, has steadily improved. Rhodes has always managed to maintain a loosely-restrained lyric, pulling between that and the underlying (barely contained) energy that runs through his lines, but the pieces in tengo sed are far more refined, and fuse the two far better than anything he has accomplished previously.


In a Mexico City market, stalls sell tacos made from the meat
of cooked goat heads. Beside the grill are piles of eyeless sockets
and obstinate looking jaws still with their full array of stained
teeth. You eat the meat from the head, a man tells me pointing
at the skulls while pushing a taco deep into his mouth, because
then at least you know it’s not rat meat.

There does seem a difference between this and the work of his two trade collections; it’s good to watch any writer move outside of themselves and their own histories. There are some pieces in Holding Pattern written during his time in Mexico, but in tengo sed, it’s exclusively what the poems are from, written both from Mexico and the idea of Mexico (whatever that means), as Rhodes works to place the pieces inside the imagination of where he is. As he writes at the beginning of “El Mercado En Merida” (p 26):

a shop sells nothing but coconuts beside men who turn old tires
into sandals

or the short piece “Los Pescadores Y Los Rancheros” (p 21):

The rancher ranches so every two months
he can drive to town and eat shrimp
with beer and batter and cocktail sauce.

The fisherman fishes
for the occasional meal
of chicken and veal.

One of the most interesting pieces in the collection has to be “To Elizabeth Bishop,” a long list of a piece that includes lines such as:

Here is a trade. Here is a woman in labour.
Here is trade. Here is a woman’s labour.
Here is a border zone. Here is a pay phone.
Here is free trade. Here is a man getting paid.
Here is a market place. Here is a church.
[. . .]
Here is a tourista. Here is an assembly line.
Here is an assembled line. Here is the blazing divine.
Here is a smokestack. Here is a wire rack.

And ending with:

Here is the beautiful song. Here is the beautiful song.
Here is a room. Here is a man sitting.
Here is his hammock. Here is his beach sand.
Here is his harbour. Here is his coast.

The pieces in tengo sed work through Rhodes’ meditative spread, both specifically working and surrounding the Mexican space as an insider who knows he is still a traveler. From the first poem to the last, Rhodes writes himself in, as in the brief opener, “On Imitation,” that writes:

In the night,
the cat-in-heat sang.
In the morning,
the mocking bird sang
of the cat-in-heat.
In the afternoon,
I wrote of the mocking bird.

The ten part poem “Otono” that ends the collection is quite lovely, a flow that connects each fragment but still holds to the disassociation:


In the 1400s, 20,000 human hearts

cut from their chest with obsidian blades


commemorated the new temple nearby –

only stopped when the priests fell
from exhaustion. Now

everything I touch –


feldspar, a pen

to write this down –
beats in my hand.
There is nothing
we would not do to keep it

The continuity between breaks flows nicely, adding weight and depth to the lyric flow, giving the reader the chance to read between the lines, between the line breaks and the line continuity. As the poem ends, with the two line part “10,” writing:

They will burn
as long as we need them to.

And it does. It does.

Works Cited:

Bowering, George. Sitting in Mexico. Montreal QC: IMAGO #12, 1969.
Hawkins, William. The Madman's War. Ottawa ON: S.A.W. Publications, 1974.
Kroetsch, Robert. Lines Written in the John Snow House. Calgary AB: housepress, 2002.
________. Stone Hammer Poems. Victoria BC: Oolichan Books, 1975.
________. The Snowbird Poems. Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2004.
Rhodes, Shane. Holding Pattern. Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2002.
________. tengo sed. Victoria BC: greenboathouse books, 2004.
________. The Wireless Room. Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2000.

This review originally appeared in ottawater; Shane Rhodes' Tengo Sed was reprinted in the anthology Decalogue: ten Ottawa poets (Chaudiere Books, 2006) & appears in his third poetry collection, The Bindery, out in April with NeWest Press. An interview with Shane Rhodes appears in the third issue of ottawater, launching at The Mercury Lounge on Friday, January 26, 2006.

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