Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Bindery, Shane Rhodes

If it was the sea we heard, it was the sea
and not the sea, water lapped the edge of rock,
filling our nights with tidings of the sea
which was not the sea but a lack of sound, a lake.
If it was a man who ran on the sand beside the sea
which was not the sea but a gulf of water round
where a man was running hard, it was his water,
and then it wasn’t and then it was again.
(from "The Sea")

After a five year wait comes Ottawa poet Shane Rhodes' third collection, The Bindery (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2007); made up of poems from his time living west, sojourn south and back into Canada to Ottawa, The Bindery is made up quite literally of the things that hold people and ideas together, as the glue that keeps the pages. Predominantly written of the time he spent in Mexico, and published as the chapbook tengo sed (Victoria BC: greenboathouse books, 2004; and reprinted in Decalogue: ten Ottawa poets), 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, Sue Sinclair, Andy Weaver, Paul Dechene, Darryl Whettler 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 (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2000), the first poetry collection that NeWest had published in years, that he went down to Mexico with the help of a small amount of funding for his writing. Around the time of his second collection, Holding Pattern (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2002), he had returned to Canada, and very soon afterward moved to Ottawa, where he currently lives in the Capital’s Little Italy.

For a kid from the prairies, there is something he has for the sea, referencing the sea in a few places in a few of his books; more than anyone from so inland should be considering, including the first two poems in the collection, "The Sea" and "If It Was The Sea We Heard," that ends with:

Theirs was the calm of raging waters, fettered by borders of ac-
ceptable blame.

The end I see in this old order dismantled nightly, step for step
ahead, to an end greeded by sleep.

Much doesn’t care for my place in this story of unlikely return.

A tearmoist body a man could wreck against.

Night ravels me.

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.
A couple of years ago, while in Ottawa driving from one bar to another, Rhodes mentioned an essay he saw reference to, online, written by grad student T.L.Cowan from the University of Alberta and presented as a paper at a conference in Scotland; writing 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 the original tengo sed chapbook and Kroetsch’s chapbook, Lines Written in the John Snow House (Calgary AB: housepress, 2002), later included in his trade collection, The Snowbird Poems (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2004). Unlike Kroetsch, 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 placeness (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? The difference between the two, easily, the fact that, unlike Kroetsch, Rhodes is unapologetically lyric, and willing to let the music of the language move its own way through. 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 The Bindery 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.

The pieces in The Bindery work through Rhodes’ meditative spread, both specifically working and surrounding the Mexican space as well as so many of his other spaces (the title piece, "The Bindery," exists as perhaps the finest of his poems so far), as an insider who knows he is still a traveler. Through his own thinking and lyric thrum, Rhodes' poems both create and completely overtake an utter silence, moving as slow as a digression or a pause.


Sleep, a kind of Scarborough,
a mulch of the aberrant,

the attainable
which our bodies brim.

Poor life — given
but not taken, taken

but not taken away.
A psalmody to mellow the wind.

What, then, of mysticism?

What of the spirit buzzing
in the high transformers?

What of the bittersweet?
Our seeing has weight.

And as the bomb falls

on the white sands
of Alamogordo,

it falls the way a mind
in mid-age falls

firmly around the dream
it has of itself.

Uranium collapses
on a deuterium core.

I touch the fine groove
of a name or a date or a reason.

[the Ottawa launch of Shane Rhodes' The Bindery happens this Saturday at 5pm at the Manx Pub, reading with Saskatoon author Steven Ross Smith]

related posts: my review of tengo sed in ottawater #2, my interview with Rhodes from ottawater #3

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