Sunday, March 26, 2023

Ongoing notes: even later March, 2023: Maureen Scott Harris + Buck Downs,

Nice that folk have started sending me chapbooks again; why do so few publisher send along chapbooks? I’m looking at you, various (other) publishers I’ve already reviewed titles by. 

Toronto ON: Kirby’s knife|fork|book really does produce some elegant-looking titles, and one of their latest is a chapbook by Toronto-based poet and essayist Maureen Scott Harris, her More Than One Homage (2022). This small collection is halved through a handful of poems assembled from elements of her great-uncle Will’s diaries alongside a handful of poems composed in homage to other writers and/or their works. As she offers in her notes: “My great-uncle Will was born in 1891. I remember he had large hands, calloused and dirt-stained, and a large laugh. He was a farmer, and my favourite person in the world when I was eight or nine. He wore big boots, denim overalls, long-sleeved workshirts, and a train engineer’s cap. He laughed a lot, sitting at the kitchen table, or leaning, foot up on the running board of a neighbour’s truck. […] ‘Will’s Diaries’ arose as an interaction between the diaries themselves and Robert Kroetch’s essays and poems. The italicized lines in ‘How to begin’ and ‘Wood (Winter)’ are Kroetsch’s own words, lifted mostly from his essays.” Her poems from the diaries do have the feel of some of those early Kroetsch long poems, whether The Ledger (1975) or Seed Catalogue (1977) (both of which are reprinted in full in Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch, published by The University of Alberta Press in 2000), offering a kind of collage of archive and sketched-out notes through accumulated fragment. Writing out her own kind of ledger, she offers a clear cadence of moments and movements through this lyric assemblage. As part of her poem “Will’s Diaries: Wood (Winter)” writes:

each morning      a blank page
a white page
see him     swaddled          in coat
& steam              from his own breath

the days keep going on

fix stable          fetch hay
milk cows        fetch ice
chop oats         fetch flour
kill pigs            fix hen house
feed & water the stock

(where did the water come from
in frozen winter? that pump
in the yard, its wooden handle
the well, surely frozen too)

There’s such a concrete scene articulated through those short bursts, and I’m intrigued by these homages, these experiments, offering poems for and through her late great-uncle, and similarly, for and through and from poets including Philip Whalen, Sei Shonagon and Lyn Hejinian. The homages, as much as her poems from her great-uncle’s diaries, are wonderfully responsive, allowing the influence and rhythms of her sources to infuse themselves across her lines in a really lovely way. Her poems respond as much as they echo; and echo, as much as they provide homage. As the third of the three-stanza poem “One day before the equinox, or, Walking to work I see,” subtitled “After Lyn Hejinian,” writes:

The trees firmly leaning are not waiting for spring but absorbed busy in manufacturing what will seasonably occur. Reasonably occur. When the goose crossed my field of vision I was musing rabbit with nose twitching, Rabbit stood upright in a field (the grass was dry, beige, bent at the tips) front paws hanging limp, listening and comic peering round one ear flopped over (bent at the tip). I raised my eyes from the field of grass to the field of bare tree branches and beyond that the field of clouded sky. My glance fell upon the long-necked bird at first unknown. The goose seized my eye and carried it along the curve of its slow flight till it was obscured by the field of rooftops or lost in the field of bare tree branches. Even a squint did not clarify the blurred disappearing. I smiled through and kept walking. The cardinals wheeted. As they had for some time.

Brooklyn NY/Washington DC: Given my familiarity with Washington D.C. poet Buck Down’s work over the years, having produced his chapbooks Shiftless [Harvester] (2016), The Hack of Heaven (2017) and Another Tricky Day (2020) through above/ground press, as well as working through a couple of his collections—Unintended Empire: 1989-2012 (Baltimore MD: Furniture Press, 2018) [see my review of such here] and OPEN CONTAINER (Washington DC: privately printed, 2019) [see my review of such here]—I was curious to see what Jordan Davis had put together for Downs’ chapbook-length GREEDY MAN: selected poems (Brooklyn NY: Subpress Collective/CCCP Chapbooks, 2023). Since my familiarity with Downs’ extensive publishing history only exists across a relatively shorter span, I would have been curious to see a bibliography of where (and when) the thirty-two poems assembled here had been selected from. I know I’ve compared Downs’ work in the past to that of the late Vancouver poet Gerry Gilbert (for a kind of extended, documentary-style ongoingness), or even that of New York School poet Frank O’Hara (for the “I did this, I did that-isms), but there’s something about the overview of this particular collection that paints instead a portrait of a poet comparable to a more pessimistic, even paranoid, version of the surrealisms of American poet Ron Padgett or Canadian poet Stuart Ross. As the poem “MYSELF CONTAINS MULTITUDES” reads in full: “and some / of these fuckers / have got to go [.]” The poems that sit mid-point and beyond in the collection are the structures I’ve become familiar with through Downs’ ongoing work—short bursts that wend across the page through an accumulation of short phrase-lines—so it is interesting to see the left-justification of some of these presumably-earlier poems, such as this:


there is a lot
of laughter going
on among the

beneath the waves
there could be
a steady under
current       as in
the realization
that the boy wonder
is a regis
tered trademark

I found a magic
vessel on the stone
beach and liquor
there inside it I knew
could restore me
to what I had once
been and so I took
off the plastic lid
and poured it in
the water

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