Monday, September 01, 2014

Phil Hall, The Small Nouns Crying Faith

96 pages, isbn 978-1-927040-58-4, $20
Toronto ON: BookThug, 2013

Through nearly a dozen trade poetry collections, Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall’s poems have the durability and devastation of koans, and the envy of poets who encounter them. Much like the books that preceded it, his eleventh trade poetry collection, The Small Nouns Crying Faith (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2013), is deeply immersed in the world and history, yet contained by neither. The Small Nouns Crying Faith borrows its title from the poem “Psalm” by George Oppen, himself known as a “poet of attentiveness,” a quality easily attributed to the more than three decades of Hall’s work. Oppen’s small poem, originally published as part of the collection This in Which (1965), opens with “In the small beauty of the forest / The wild deer bedding down— / That they are there!” with the fifth and final stanza, that reads: “The small nouns / Crying faith / In this in which the wild deer / Startle, and stare out.” Reading Oppen and Hall side by side, the comparisons run deep—Hall composes poems from his Ontario landscape, shades of his darker past, notes on his literary forebears (whom he refers to as his “heroes”), numerous artifacts, and could just as easily reference, at any point, the importance of pausing to listen for deer.


  Our expedition followed her cold-tea stare

to chunks of boiled turnip wrapped in waxed paper in a lunch pail
  near camp that first night the shortest verse in the Bible

was recorded as her only expletive


  Hectares from where her breast had proffered the warmed bottle
was found a cigarette rolling-machine wrapped in a clown costume


  On our last out-bound day we came upon Royal Family clippings

attached to corn-stalks by bobby-pins   all these items (photos/articles)
  we harvested & catalogued   except the pins (rusted/discarded)   note

little brown saw-marks in the corners of the stiff ceremonies


  From Gab’s-Gift-Unsubstantiated
to Skugog Island an au pair

Phil Hall has long been a poet of deep attention, compiling and collecting into an accumulation of poems that speak of artifacts and smallness, and a humanity rarely lived and articulated so well in Canadian poetry. This is his first trade collection since he won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the Trillium Award, aswell as being shortlisted for the Griffin Prize, for Kildeer (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2011), a collection of self-described “essay-poems,” published as part of BookThug’s “Department of Critical Thought.” Hall’s latest collection of what have evolved into “essay-poems” continue to practice a folk-local, examining the small, local and deeply specific, composing striking lines and phrases that accumulate into individual pieces, as well as sections of a far-broader canvas. Somehow, his lines manage to self-contain in such a way that even a shift in the order might still make the entire collection no less capable, breathtaking and wise. As he writes in the poem “Plum Hollow”: “The failure of order is the work / disorder is not the work.” The collection also includes a small pamphlet-as-insert, “Faith,” a poem-sequence composed up of words and phrases plucked from the book as a whole, selected and rearranged to reveal both something new, and something about the entire project.

  I would celebrate every detail

now I have changed my thinking on that

  no such thing as not being at sea
the alphabet does not end or begin

  wild yet   this inextricable quickening

During the Ottawa book launch of The Small Nouns Crying Faith on June 2, 2013 as part of the AB Series, Hall suggested thatbeing left-handed, it was easier for him to read from the collection from back to front. There is such a great comfort to the work in The Small Nouns Crying Faith, one that knows the important answers might only emerge from important questions, and the level of self-awareness and self-questioning is remarkably rare and deep. If a pen falls in a forest, might anybody hear?

  They hate me in that province to this day

& I them without reason
  once years ago I was judge for a book award

& didn’t pick the friend-to-all who was dying

  it would have been right to give the prize
to that last-effort by that decent man

  but in those days I was all about the work
the work

  which is not a sacred thing   which is not even a thing

but the tracings of a social pact    almost accidental
  always incidental

grudges age backwards   elixir to plonk

  our vowels are slackened
& the folios unaligned
                                    (“The Small Nouns Crying Faith”)

A version of the second of the book’s five sections, “A Rural Pen,”appeared as a limited-edition chapbook with Cameron Anstee’s Apt 9 Press in 2013, a series of (as the author self-described in his acknowledgements) “hacked scrawls,” lifting its title from William Blake to write short and quick meditations with fireworks-momentum. What is continually astounding about Hall’s writing, via his last few poetry collections, is in the series of shifts, whether gradual or sudden, that bolt through the poems. Move your way backwards through his work to the award-winning Killdeer (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2011), to TheLittle Seamstress (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2010) to White Porcupine (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2007) and everything that came previous, and you will begin to understand the differences in tone, mood and question. Urban explorations and a dark rural history have shifted entirely to an ease and sense of peace in a country setting, sketching poems and fences and birds. His recent collections have continued his interest in exploring and questioning through collaged-fragments of turned and twisted phrases, composed as poem-essays, but more recently the poems have shifted into poem-essays that explore the purpose, means and goals of the writing itself. Precision is an essential quality to Hall’s poetry, even as it discusses the impossibilities of such precision. The poems question, respond, reiterate and shift, as the hand that scrapes the rural pen moves throughout the world, working to ask exactly what the meaning precisely means, and if that is even possible.

  It can’t be October

in the stove I burn old New Yorkers
  (but always save the William Steig covers)

lake light quavers
  leaning as it again mulls over
the smoke-darkened Rene de Braux painting

  Chris benisoned walls with / now I get to
a man / a cattle-gad on each shoulder
  half-way / no hurry / a Roman bridge
(double arches / quick weed-hints)

  a stuccoed villa set in along a hillside
Ann has taken the Wolf River apples down to Margaret 92
  mornings I try to read page-shaped ash

a quote my fire preserves all night
  from columns it has only one use for now

riven by passion, not profit. We contin

Hall’s isn’t a poetry carved into perfect diamond form, but a poetry whittled from scores of found material to be arranged, pulled apart and rearranged. The poems are important for what they know, what they ask and reveal, and they might tell you, if you know to listen.

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