Monday, April 30, 2007

Phyllis Webb and the Common Good: Poetry / Anarchy / Abstraction by Stephen Collis
Who is this I infesting my poems? Is it I hiding behind the Trump type on the page of the book you are reading? Is it a photograph of me on the cover of Wilson's Bowl? Is it I? I said, I say, I am saying—
Phyllis Webb

What is the syntax of absence? What is the substance of between?
Stephen Collis
Despite the fact that she stopped writing a number of years ago, Saltspring Island resident Phyllis Webb remains an important poet for a number of writers across Canada, newly highlighted by the publication of Vancouver poet and editor Stephen Collis' study of her work, Phyllis Webb and the Common Good: Poetry / Anarchy / Abstraction (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2007). A book in the works for a number of years (excerpts have appeared as "A Duncan Etude: Dante and Responsibility" in Jacket #26, and "Another Duncan Edude: Empire and Anarchy" in W 10), Collis certainly isn’t a slouch himself, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University and author of the poetry collections Mine (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2001) and Anarchive (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2005) [see my review of such here], as well as editor of the anniversary collection companions & horizons: An Anthology of Simon Fraser University Poetry (Burnaby BC: LINEbooks, 2005) [see my review of such here]. The author of numerous publications of her own over four decades, Webb's poetry output is as formidable as it is (nearly) small, including Even Your Right Eye (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1956), The Sea Is Also a Garden (Toronto ON: Ryerson Press, 1962), Naked Poems (Vancouver BC: Periwinkle Press, 1965; also found in The New Long Poem Anthology, Second Edition), Wilson's Bowl (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1980), Sunday Water: Thirteen Anti-ghazals (Lantzville BC: Island Writing Series, 1982), The Vision Tree: Selected Poems (ed. Sharon Thesen, Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1982), Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti Ghazals (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1984) and Hanging Fire (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1990), the last of which, as well as her selected poems, are still available through Vancouver publisher Talonbooks; she also published two collections of critical prose, including Talking (Dunvegan ON: Quadrant Editions, 1982) and Nothing But Brush Strokes: Selected Prose (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press / writer as critic, 1995).


Bee-sweet, the honey now/how trails a star
of far/near hawthorn and roseate late leap year

Gerald Manley, your black cossock
rushing through cosmic and microcosmic

inscaped latitudes, I look, see you
passing away/through Jesuitical

raced time-future. All your musculature
stretched, taut, reaching out/off

from black clouds, momentary passage,
there to here, tears of your Christ

mix/mingle 'I am so happy, so happy',
your last wet watering words,

June the 8th's hawthorn-hoped, pied beauties,
beatitudes, 1889, heard

here, February, leapings of '88,
10.15 a.m. The 24th. (Hanging Fire)

In his book length study of Phyllis Webb (one would say long overdue), Collis works through the public and the private spheres of the poet and now former poet (and current painter) Phyllis Webb through the lens of her poetry, working through how her poetry worked, and works, and continues to work so well. As he writes in the first paragraph of his introduction to the book:
Phyllis Webb is a poet around whom archetypes tend to cluster. The reclusive artist. The distraught, borderline suicidal Sapphic woman poet. The lonely Canadian in the wilderness, cabined in the cold—shacked up alone Tom Thompson style. There is of course some truth to these mystic associations, but, of course, they do not come close to telling the whole story. This cartoon biographical version of Webb must be bracketed aside here at the beginning—if not cast out entirely—so that we may focus instead on a more public and engaged Webb, a poet who forms a key part of, and who, as it turns out, has been so concerned with, our "common good." I will be polemical: if we are writing now on the West Coast of Canada we are all of us writing in some sense "after Webb"—both chronologically (though still very much alive, Webb has given up writing) and in terms of our debt (what she has given to poetry which we should not forget).
One of the interesting ways that Collis moves through Webb's poetic, and one of the things that makes Webb's poetic rare, is in the overt way she showed her influences, responding openly to other writers and their writings, as Collis writes:
Webb's response poems to her female contemporaries—Atwood, MacEwen, Bronwen Wallace—tend to take the form of poetic correspondences addressing more the poet than the poetry. The exception, perhaps, is "Letters to Margaret Atwood," which, while addressing Atwood directly as a friend, does engage critically with some of Atwood's writing and ideas. Even more importantly, the response to Atwood prompts some thoughts on Webb's own poetics:

After survival, what? The sedition in my own hand, will it be written down legibly, will I sign it and hand it over for someone else to fulfill? Or will I open like a Venus fly-trap to catch fat spies from the enemy lines and feed myself forever on them on them on them? They really aren’t worth my exotic trouble but I can't eat money and I want for once to be useful.
For years various editors and publishers (including British publisher Salt) have been suggesting a new edition of Webb's poems, ranging from a selected of sorts to a collected, with little success (from what I've heard, she wants us to wait until after she dies). Until then, some of the books are still in print, at least, to be able to access the poems of one of the most quietly influential and important Canadian poets of the past few decades. What makes a poet so precise write so very little, and eventually stop altogether (a question that could easily have been asked of John Newlove, as well, a friend and contemporary of Webb's)? How does one move to not simply slow down and/or stop (such as the now-late Artie Gold, or David Phillips), but actually renounce? What makes a poet move beyond the words, as Webb has moved through the other side and into abstraction and visual art? In "You Devise. We Devise." A Festchrift for Phyllis Webb (an issue I would recommend highly), guest edited by Pauline Butling, in West Coast Line (Number Six (25/3), Winter 1991-92), she speaks in an interview conducted by poet and critic Smaro Kamboureli, that includes:
SK: I'd like to go back to a phrase in the passive mode you just used—the insistence on the words having "been given to" you. This implies a passive process for the poet, the poet's ear being a receptacle. It reminds me of the poetics of dictation that Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser talk about. Being dictated, in the verbal sense of the word, as to what to listen to, what to pursue, what to record. I remember George Bowering's opening of Allophanes where he begins by reciting a sentence he heard in his mind—in his ear to be exact—in the voice of Spicer—the poet of dictation dictating. What are your thoughts about being initially on the receiver's side, something we might define as passive, before you move into the active mode, the act of construction, of writing?

PW: I think that the writer has often felt and feels like a receiver, a receiving station, and so there's nothing extraordinary really about this process, except that I made it conscious and I pursued it and I tried to understand what was going on. I do feel that these givens are totally out of my control, and therefore I am the receptor. But what I do with them is what turns them into the poems. I'm not claiming anything extraordinary about the process.
Part of what makes Collis' study interesting, too, is that he includes some of Webb's visuals, whether as a cover image, or as full colour reproductions inside, showing how one clearly relates to the other, the writing that became the visual art, painting and collaging her way past the language. As he begins the final chapter, "After Webb," writing:
Near the close of her last book of poetry, Webb's poetic, lyric I "commits suicide," plunges off into the "watery commune" that is the very source of language, leaving Phyllis Webb herself to continue, to be reborn as a painter—to abstract a painter from the tangled self-examination of her verse. Or—is it a movement from the unavoidable subjective impulses of the (lyric) poem into the more (plausibly) objectifiable exteriority of the abstract painting? This is the tricky part. I don't want to veer into psychobiography, don’t want to suggest painting as therapy, as the salvation of a tormented poet. In Webb's suicide poems the lyric I is already gone: either it is part of the "commune"—"we, my friends, / who have considered suicide"—or it is wholly outside, an eye (I) watching—"I go as far as I can / collaborating in the fame"—staring into (or out of) the face of the other of its language: silence.

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