Tuesday, January 20, 2009

an old poem embedded in thoughts on alberta

After a break of some time, I can’t even remember how long, I started writing short lyric poems again, pushing much of May, 2008 writing the first fifty page section of what would become “Poems for Lainna.” The writing taking over, almost avoiding other writing. When the push comes, I know now just to take it, and let all else slip away. Wanting to be taken. Waiting for it. This is a collection of short, sharp, tight, lyric love poems, written still under the inference, I suppose, of the Canadian ghazal (as brought into Canadian literature through John Thompson, and followed by others), writing evasive and disparate leaps between lines that leave the connection sometimes thin, and often open-bare.

a (short) history of l.

I am interested in how lyricism
bonds itself to our molecules.

the insistence of light against
insistence of dark.

we pass warmth from both sides
of a single clear glass

as red scratches run surface smooth.

to end the Chin Dynasty, the first emperor,
his guard army of ghosts

to protect him from other ghosts.

I try to learn how the story gets told,
teeth marks on almond-tone skin.

there are songs I will never remember,
songs I could never forget.

by the bend of the bough, Isaac Newton’s small hand
runs across what the apple left.

once all this gravity, no longer
as rain to the ocean it rained from

or the stone to return back to stone.
my mother a collection of mason jars

she puts nothing in.

How far can a poem go when so many seemingly unconnected references are woven through the text, including the idea of the “love poem” alongside science, popular culture, old film stars, historical characters and others? Through the weeks and the months, “Poems for Lainna” worked to specifically place these poems firmly in the immediate world, one that includes the whole world and not compartmentalizing “love” away from all else. When we love, do we lose our interest in the world? Hardly. The accumulation of these poems worked to incorporate all those elements into a tight, short, lyric form, each poem no more than a page in length, yet existing as a longer, book-length, almost-ongoing suite. What was it George Bowering said? In his thirties, he said, he stopped writing lyric poems, and focused instead on the long poem. In the preface to In The Flesh (McClelland & Stewart, 1974), writing:
In your twenties, I was saying, you are a cell, interacting. In your thirties you enter time, that is not only yours. In your thirties you become all ways aware of your life as a drama, of the cycle, the place in the pattern your life is now taking, who’s been there & who’s coming. You see that where you are is where Gilgamesh was. The passion takes over, & in art the passion takes over from mere worship, what you were doing in your lyrical twenties. To think that for thirteen years I was completely convinced that I’d die at twenty-nine!
I don’t know about refusing the lyric per se, but I know about the long poem, something that took over as well in my mid, I think, twenties. I write now in bursts, no poems for weeks, sometimes months as I work on longer prose, and then a book in a couple of weeks, sometimes, continuing to push an initial burst as far as it will go. Is this the tantric delay, delay, delay of the long poem that Robert Kroetsch talked about? From May to August, 2008, exhausting myself finally around one hundred and forty pages, finally and lovingly spent, until the next time.

All I write now are books, and I seem not to have conflict with that. But still, someone, years ago, suggested that all of my poems are about women. Is this possible? It might be, various loves or crushes or friendships over the years, growing up with two widowed grandmothers, a younger sister, two older female cousins who visited from time to time, and lived with their single mother and our grandmother in Ottawa, not to mention hours of indoors with my mother as my father worked the silent fields. Most of my friends throughout my life have been women. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, afternoons in my paternal grandmother’s little white A-frame across two fields as I grew, or watching Gone With The Wind (1939) when I was maybe ten, a New Year’s Eve in Ottawa’s south end with my mother’s own mum.

Everything connects, my ex-wife used to say, and it took me years to understand, like strawberry roots that could extend out for miles. Nothing at all, she once told me, is separate. There was something about the sentence I wanted to finally work in these poems, not relying as heavily on the breath or line break, wanting to write her in full exhale, a long extended gasp, before breathing her back. These are poems that then took my breath away. It reminds me of this short passage by Stan Dragland, from his Apocrypha: Further Journeys (2003), that writes:

Subir—is he the listener I always wanted? The total stranger who hears my words & knows me instantly? I don’t know how to answer except with the climax, the parade scene, of Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter. Buddy Bolden didn’t know what he wanted for his music either, not until he saw it. Saw her. “You learn to play like that,” Crawley had told him—“like weather, volatile, like conversation, snatches of a crowd you move through, hard kiss on the mouthpiece, like a, damn, like a goat hopped in the front seat of your Volks, like a new $7.50 ring would, right, it would save your marriage, like a mountain railroad, yodel, like a black snake on your deck, like three old ladies locked in a lavatory, like blood, like stains, like blood blood heart blood air, exactly the tone of this room—play like that and no band will play with you.”
Coming Through Slaughter, the novel I was reading when we first met, and rereading when we met a second time, thirteen years later. I wrote about fifty pages that month of May, pushing line through another line, wanting to see how I would ellipse direct statement, bouncing line by direct line as so often point by direct point, during my last Edmonton month, sitting daily beside her. I updated her every evening, sometimes three new poems, sometimes a new version or two of pieces from the day before. Did I call them love poems at the time? I think I probably did.

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