Friday, March 06, 2009

David W. McFadden, Be Calm, Honey

Toronto writer David W. McFadden’s first new poetry collection since his Griffin-nominated selected poems, Be Calm, Honey (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2008), has the sort of title that sounds like an anagram, but if it is, I haven’t figured out what it is, yet. This collection, together with his Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2007), were edited by Mansfield Press poetry editor Stuart Ross, and are his first new poetry collections in some time, after years of publishing books with Talon. Is McFadden no longer a Talon author?

Through a couple of dozen collections of poetry going back some four decades, McFadden starting writing sonnets, or at least, started writing sonnets in a way that was far more obvious, and in this new collection, he has crafted a book of one hundred and twenty-nine sonnets. Over the past decade or so, both he and Vancouver writer George Bowering, friend and contemporary, seem to have shifted their writing back into strange little poems that could so easily written of as “humourous,” as well as moving back into structural territories that presented themselves in their earlier works.


Never ride your bicycle with your mouth open;
I swallowed a dragonfly that way one day.
In childhood’s exotic dream landscapes
it’s better to swallow a dragonfly than a swallow
and the sensation of it dying in my tummy
deep-froze the heart of spontaneity,
like a peek into the universe of footnotes,
one for every tasty treat we’ve absorbed.

How proud we were we didn’t crash our bike.
It’s almost as if life itself had meaning.
We vowed we’d never become a mere statistic,
till Aunty June ran off with that mathematician,
that skinny little guy who talked like Bogie
and said we only remember consciousness.

There is something uniquely human in the poetry of David W. McFadden, something earnest, that doesn’t necessarily come through in the poetry of others, yet, for the quality and sheer amount of material he’s published over the years, there seem to be few essays on his work, few interviews with the author of a few dozen trade books of poetry, fiction and travel. Why is that? In his introduction to My body was eaten by dogs: Selected Poems of David McFadden (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1981), Bowering wrote that:

All his writing life he has acted as if the poem had a real function in the social life of his country & world, as if poems were composed by a human being intent on taking his part in the building of a place to live in. The poet is perhaps not the unacknowledged legislator of the world, but if the citizens could have their ears unstopt they would at least recognize him as a functionary. McFadden does not want to replace the famous athletes in the workaday dream machine; he just wants to take his turn with them.
In his introduction to McFadden’s more recent selected, editor Ross continues a thread of Bowering’s sentiment, writing:

If Frank O’Hara was the poet of “Personism” –- recording the minute details of a life lived in New York City among writers and artists –- then David W. McFadden might be the poet of “Otherpersonism,” recording his fascination with everyone around him: writers, artists, the guy working the convenience store, the woman on the bus, in Toronto, Hamilton, Havana or wherever the poet happens to be.
Over the past decade or more, McFadden has managed to hone an important zen-like quality in his poems (he even worked the tanka for a while in the mid-90s), writing a deceptively-plain speech that works to get to the heart of things. As McFadden himself said in an interview with David Collins, in the first issue of Missing Jacket (above/ground press, 1996):

DC: What effect do you wish your best poems to have on your readers?

DWM: They’ll have a different effect on different readers. We always want what we can’t have and as for me I want to write poems that can be read over and over and over again. Somebody can read my poems with such immense delight they will want to do it again next week or next year and they’ll want to buy copies of my books for all their friends. I consciously try to design my stuff in such a way that it will become more interesting the older it gets, like photography in general. I think it’s perfectly okay to do that. But to strive for the kind of effect that will cause a reader to want to read the piece over and over again (or even just remember it fondly) for the rest of his or her life, well that just isn’t in me. It just seems so damned fake and so damned egocentric and so damned pretentious. It’s not craft, it’s self-regard. I’d like to be able to do it but something in my genetic spiritual makeup forbids me. Great if it comes naturally but I forbid myself from striving for it or even twitching a muscle in that direction. Call me perverse, but that’s the way I am.
Still, there’s a looseness that brings some of these pieces down, with extremely strong and tight poems beside others that just don’t quite make it, making me wish that McFadden could have worked on a couple of these pieces just a bit more, or even taken about a dozen of them out altogether, to tighten up the collection as a whole. But with all of this, why are there still people who don’t understand that David W. McFadden is still one of our most important and underappreciated poets?


When we were dimwitted kids at school
we had to learn a lot of poetry.
Shakespeare was pretty good except he was
awfully hard to understand at times.
Yeats and Keats sometimes penned a good line
but most of what they wrote seemed fraudulent.
And why did we have to memorize Shelley
who was always dramatizing the obvious?

The teachers used to say it was bad and sad
that Canada didn’t have any poets.
And so we vowed that we would become one.
Seemed like a noble thing to do.
And if Canada needed us we’d be there
to forge a nation with our perfect lines.

No comments: