Thursday, February 25, 2016

Matrix #103 : Prose poetry

The Invoking

Careful not to reveal the words that confess what she is, busy twisting her ring thinking of the scattered half-cocked passions of her teens. In the cleave of a myth her forgetting opens the muscled sky.

It swells to release a banshee wail and draw a sword against the sea. Strange literacies emerge from the well of its throat. Here it is, she was empty for something and now it is here. (Ashley-Elizabeth Best)

On the heels of their Ottawa issue, Montreal’s Matrix magazine’s latest issue features a healthy section of prose poetry, guest-edited by Sarah Burgoyne, Nick Papaxanthos and William Vallieres, and includes new work by Paige Cooper, Mary Ruefle, Gabe Foreman, Hilary Bergen, Jaime Forsythe, Marie-Ève Comtois (trans. Stuart Ross and Michelle Winters), Kyl Chhatwal and Andrélise Gosselin, Alma Talbot, Sue Sinclair, Madeleine Maillet, Jim Smith, Lillian Necakov, Gary Barwin, Nick Thran, Mark Laba, Lee Hannigan, Melissa Bull, Harold Hoefle and Anna-Maria Trudel. In terms of form, the mix is quite intriguing, especially given the range of emerging (I’d not heard of a couple of these writers) to established (Forsythe, Sinclair, Smith, Necakov and Barwin) to very established (Mary Ruefle) writers, as well as the inclusion of translated material (although I’m sure there might be some curious to see the work in the original).

A Strange Thing

Maybe I read this, or dreamt it, for my mind wanders as I age, but I have always believed Odysseus, when he heard the sirens, was hearing the Odyssey being sung, and in fear of being seduced by his own story he had himself bound. And he was in even greater fear of hearing the end, for he could not bear the possibility he might become someone other than who he was now, a war hero of great courage and unexcelled strategy, trembling against the cords of his own mast. Or he might become an even greater man, one without a single fear in the world, one who would balk at a man having to tie himself up in fear of anything, and then it would be revealed that the man he was now was actually a coward. Either way, he felt doomed as he sailed past his own story. He sailed past the island, he sailed past the sirens just as they were coming to the end, and once out of earshot he did a strange thing, of which there is no record, the story having ended in some far away sound which was no more distinguishable than an eye dropped of sweetness in the vast and salty sea. (Mary Ruefle)

I find Burgoyne’s introduction to the feature, which is itself impressive, rather curious, as she writes an introduction that does little but really say “here are some prose poems,” instead of pushing to answer some questions on the form (which, I suppose, is more of my issue than hers) [see my own piece on the Canadian prose poem up at Jacket2 here]. As her introduction opens: “One thing I love about the dubiously titled word cage that is ‘prose poetry’ is the dubi-titley-ness of it. By definition, it’s already divided against itself. is it poemly prose, or prosely poems? Can any old poemaster pull one off? These are questions one old poem ghost Mr. Eliot asked himself in a very difficult-to-find essay he published in The New Statesman in 1917. His conclusion: obscure. He knew at least bad prose poems came from those who thought the form was somehow a mash act between two genres. A magic mix. Cookies and dough. (No).” While Eliot’s response is interesting, has there really been no progress in the intervening century? I very much like the examples she presents from earlier on in the previous century, perhaps it is more a criticism on the lack of scholarship/attention on the prose poem generally that she has barely an example between Charles Baudelaire and Claudia Rankine [her book really is remarkable; see my review of such here] to present (American writer Sarah Manguso, for example, has quite a lovely essay responding to the T.S. Eliot essay Burgoyne references). Given so much has been done in the form in the decades between (there was even a decade-plus worth of journals produced in the United States, exclusively exploring the form, and the questions of form, of the prose poem), where are all the other examples? Lisa Robertson, Sarah Mangold, Sina Queyras, Meredith Quartermain and Nicole Markotić, just off the top of my head. What are the current questions on the form that the prose poem presents? Her introduction presents the suggestion that this section is presented more of an opening salvo into those kinds of questions, rather than an exploration of those questions themselves. And yet, the selection of works does far more than that, presenting such an array of work that, if not seriously challenging the form, certainly presents a questioning, and a variety of examples, of what the form of prose poetry is capable of. Burgoyne continues:

Over the years, prose poetry has housed kooks like Arthur Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein, Charles Baudelaire. What connects these poets is perhaps (too simply) possedoffèdness. Was it just a matter of linebreakennui? Were they saving paper? What did the prose poem once mean? (Especially today when it’s actually hard to find a poet who hasn’t dabbled in the chunky realm). Well, once upon a time, the prose poem was actually a political statement. (Not to say it can’t be now. One need look no further than Rankine’s 2014 publication Citizen). But in a day when reading poetry was a popular pastime (let me be clearer: among the upper class), Baudelaire hurling his unrhymey bricks of prose (discussing donkeys slouching down the mucky streets of Paris and the hardworking-workingclass) was hardly a welcome blow for a fine fellow to receive.

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