Wednesday 8 June 2016
"Orange chair blue porch white Stetson
am re-reading Cold Mountain translated by Red Pine
woke to fog a cremation dream it is garbage day
Olson: words made to taste like accuracy pincers
the king birds are back an osprey shrieks
in the wooded swamp ice reigns yet first the school bus
no motor no drive passes only one child so far up front
then the Trueloves would it hurt them to signal bastards
despair is elitist do not count pages forget the work
w & k both built from 2 Vs or 3 end up with only or deface the cartoon until the joke is fearful"
Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall’s latest collection is Conjugation (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2016), a complex, engaged and expansive collection that continue his meditative explorations into the lyric fragment, collage, poetics and the deep self. “Conjugation,” according to one online source, is “the modification of a verb from its basic form,” and Hall’s poetry manages a deep and serious play in the way words are constructed, pulling apart the mechanics of language and how it interacts with ideas (a play that has, it would appear, deeply influenced the work of Ottawa poet Pearl Pirie). As he writes: “but there’s a fee / a fee that sees & hears wonky // fe-ces we’re were subtler/fugues etc.” Similar to Dennis Cooley, Hall engages the mis-heard word, the mis-step, and runs with it, managing to make connections where there otherwise might not have been.
Over the past few poetry collections, Hall has shifted from his more overt engagements with Ontario gothic/rural, including his own childhood and history of abuse, to a more overt engagement of multiples—poetics, “the prison of metaphor,” pulling apart the minutiae of language, personal history, direct observations and his immediate environment (including the Ontario wilds of his Perth homestead)—each holding similar weight throughout, woven together as a precise, dense and thorough series of ongoing threads.
Constructed out of an opening poem, seven suite-sections and a coda, the short poem-fragments in Conjugation follow a similar tone and structure set in a number of Hall’s poetry collections, and, as with much of his work, the poems within could be presented in a variety of orders. It becomes curious how an order built so carefully, with such precision, is also constructed to be opened at any page, and read in either direction. His poems are less narratives than a series of accumulations, and the order in which you interact with them might even bring you to an entirely different conclusion.
Hall has become known for his shuffling, reworking and reprising his work, giving the sense that his poems might be less “finished” than simply set in a particular way for a particular temporal, whether temporary or permanent, reason, including poems shuffled and re-set for the sake of a chapbook, a public performance or a trade collection. “Early versions,” as Hall himself writes in the acknowledgments, of elements of the first section, “Gap & Hum,” appear previously in his X (Thee Hellbox Press, 2013) and My Banjo & Tiny Drawings (Flat Singles Press, 2015). The fifth section, “Essay on Legend,” was originally produced as a 2014 chapbook through Mark Goldstein’s Beautiful Outlaw Press (Goldstein is also designer of this current volume, as well as many of Hall’s recent trade collections). Cobbled and stitched together from a variety of threads, found and salvaged lines and objects, his “Essay on Legend” begins with an anecdote about a dog, utilizing such as a starting-point for a sequence of observations on poetry, anecdote and violence, each circling around the very idea of “legend.” The chapbook version was produced in an edition of 52 copies “in commemoration of the second annual Purdy Picnic at the A-frame, Roblin Lake, Ameliasburgh, July 26, 2014,” acknowledging the late poet Al Purdy as one of Phil Hall’s long-standing touchstones. At the Ottawa launch of the chapbook in 2014, Hall spoke of starting out as a good Ontario “son of Al Purdy” poet that slowly began shifting towards Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers (1978); from stories and the anecdote to “that purse sound of the vowel.”
About the reviewer
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com
This impressive debut novel, previously published by Tartarus Press, has sucked in accolades like quicksand – which would normally be enough to put me off reading it, being the contrarian that I am, but in this case I decided to give it a punt (thanks to my local library – use ‘em or lose ‘em). For once the praise seems justified. The Loney is an atmospheric study in faith, truth and the uncanny. It focuses on two brothers – one an elective mute – growing up in a Catholic corner of 1970s London. The universe of the novel is limited to their immediate family – the overbearing ‘Mummer’ and forebearing ‘Farther’ – and faith community, the claustrophobic, competitive parish riddled with sins, small and large. When their much-loved priest dies, a new Father tries his best to shepherd this unruly, opinionated flock. The annual pilgrimage to a shrine on the Lancashire coast, to the lonely stretch of the title, vividly evoked by Hurley, is hoped to cure all ills – especially the mutism of ‘Hanny’, the narrator’s brother. Instead, the trip opens up a whole can of worms. I must admit that I found the relentless pettiness and neurotic Catholic minutiae less engaging than the Loney itself – which is the real ‘star’ of this narrative. The author succeeds in creating a tangible sense of place, one that epitomizes the ‘English eerie’ as discussed by Robert Macfarlane and others. The Loney has a brooding sense of malevolence, as though the bleak section of coastline was the antagonist itself. Something chthonic and unwelcoming lingers there. The remoteness and neglect provides a zone of projection for the inchoate fears of urbanites (something that has been happening in English Literature since Beowulf). Whether the drear flatlands of the Fens, the grim North Country of the Gawain poet, or the blasted heath of Shakespeare, Britain’s few wildernesses offer a dark playground for imagined terrors. There are shades of The Wicker Man here – the spectre of dodgy pagan rituals awaiting the unwary who stumble upon them (the pilgrims might as well have ‘sacrifice’ pinned on their backs), although the ‘terror’ scale here is less Hammer, and more Hill. Hurley’s aesthetic reminded me of many of Susan Hill’s settings – lonely stretches of coastline, causewayed islets, chancy footing and vindictive tides. Madness always in the wings, or in the annexe. The Loney’s ‘heart of darkness’, Coldbarrow, could be in Hill’s real estate portfolio. One could imagine The Woman in Black’s sister living there. The stifling religiosity, small-mindedness and demonization of difference also reminded me of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. And I found shades of Graham Joyce also – although his prose has more warmth and humour to it – and a broader church than depicted here. The Loney is simply modern Gothic. Hurley has done nothing new under the sun here, but as a debut it is supremely confident, polished and promising. His prose is unshowy, no-nonsense, and easy-to-read, but there are poetic flourishes – distinctive dialect, arresting analogies, striking imagery – which make it punch above its weight at times. The ending is open and unsettling. Hurley resists exegesis and closure. What we are to make of the strange events is left to us to gnaw over in the middle of the night, while the existential wind of nameless terrors howls outside. Take it on holiday with you to an isolated cottage and scare the bejeezus out of yourself.
About the reviewer
Kevan Manwaring is currently undertaking a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester (in the form of a novel). He is an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies at the British Library, and teaches creative writing for the Open University. One day he hopes to have a proper job. Blog: https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/
Thursday 2 June 2016
"(A PRECARIOUS LIFE) ON THE SEA
the ocean you grew up watching has decided, finally, to take you in. “where else was i going to go?” you ask, setting off. it spews squid and minnows into your little boat for you to eat if you are hungry. you throw them back because you know the ocean is hungrier. at night, the moon casts a sidelong glance into your boat. you are less round. the ocean is delighted with your company. it carries you from place to place, each day a little easier, imagining your bright bones, sideways moons, it’ll use them as walking sticks."
The author of chapbooks through Proper Tales Press, Baseline Press and above/ground press, Montreal writer and editor Sarah Burgoyne’s first trade collection is Saint Twin (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2016), a collection of, as the back cover informs us, “story poems, short lyrics, long walks, tiny chapters, and fake psalms.” A hefty poetry collection at nearly one hundred and seventy pages, Saint Twin is a curious mix of straighter lyric, prose poem and short fiction, blended together to create something far more capable than the simple sum of its parts. Part of the unexpected quality of Burgoyne’s surreal lyrics comes from the structures of her pieces, slipping prose beside more traditional line breaks beside dialogue/script. Whereas most poetry collections hold together through their structural connections (some of which are the result of editors and/or copy-editors), Saint Twin remains deliberately scattered, almost collaged, maintaining a strength far more evocative than whether the collection of poems maintain consistent capitalizations or punctuations, all of which speak to Burgoyne’s incredible capacity for putting a book together. Furthermore, while the book might be structured into eight sections, one has to seek out the connections through other means; poems from the second section, “Psalms,” for example, according to the contents page, exist on pages “10, 13, 18, 23, 27, 30, 36, 42, 48, 51, 57, 61, 63, 67, 72, 81, 99, 113, 116, 119, 124, 132, 137, 139, 142, 144, 147, 152.”
"NOT AS ASCENSION.
Torn up in the surgery of night. The buttering under of it. Seven halos away from becoming a sprig of something anointed. Never too few in the brooding door frames; the spoken-to lighting the walls. The corner-drawing minds buttoning silver horns of ancient wisdom. A voice: Dance with me, future loser, I love you. Hide under the table, I will call down the Lord without sulphur. To cast alms over our future mistakes."
I’ve been long intrigued at the options on how to construct a poetry manuscript out of scattered parts, aware that some who compose in chapbook-length units have set the units side-by-side for the sake of the book-length manuscript: Toronto writer Kevin Connolly’s first collection, Asphalt Cigar, is a good example of this, as are Kansas poet Megan Kaminski’s two collections, Desiring Map and Deep City (I’m less aware, with Kaminski, the chicken-or-egg of “which came first,” admittedly). Another poet, such as Stephen Brockwell, might have composed the individual pieces of his 2007 poetry collection The Real Made Up into section-groupings, but resorted the manuscript into a single, book-length unit, allowing the final selection to blend together as a more cohesive single unit. What makes Burgoyne’s collection so unique is in how she somehow manages both sides of the structural divide, as one infers that the sections were composed as single-units (at least two of her section titles correspond with chapbook titles), whether as short lyrics or prose poems, but were re-sorted for the sake of the full manuscript: the uniqueness lies in her adherence to that earlier, compositional structure, while allowing the book to live (or die) on its own single-unit coherence.
The poems in Saint Twin contain multitudes, from surreal wisdoms, biting self-awareness and hard-won observations to a wry humour, dark prophicies and proclimations, and an incredible optimism, such as in the poems “MY NEIGHBOUR’S MISFORTUNE PIERCES ME / AND I BEGIN TO COMPREHEND,” “IT WAS NOT IN PARKS THAT I LEARNED HUMLITITY” and “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, IN A NICE WAY.” As she write to open the poem “TO THE MASTERS OF OUR YOUTH, GREETINGS”: “the last days of a person’s life are the same / as the first.”
"PERHAPS THE MUSEUM NEVER EXISTED
Maybe everything is good, after all.
The act of reading and the act of understanding
made it. The point is, relates to reality.
And what of this?
Precise laws. Behavior of individuals.
Unintentional walk. Map of maps.
Wheels on the table legs. The main activity
continuous drifting, these visions.
Dear professional juxtaposer,
maintain a division.
Cyberspace, I walked across it.
I’m a little disappointed.
Where the body is, at the corner."
About the reviewer
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.
Diana Athill calls Alive, Alive Oh! "a report on what living for 97 years has taught one rather lucky old woman." In fact, most of that "report" appeared in her six previous memoirs, covering her childhood on a Norfolk estate and personal and professional life afterwards, when she was an editor at André Deutsch for 40 years. This volume contains some extra pieces – including chapters on having a miscarriage when she was 43, politics in the West Indies and life in a residential home.
This is no anguished coming-to-terms; Athill’s attitude to life is gently positive, and as a writer she is refreshingly unwilling to exaggerate the bad side of her own experiences for effect. (This is perhaps linked with having to be the sensible bystander when, as an editor, she sometimes had to nurse writers through personal or professional crises). And the book is quite as much about the outer world of travel, friends and rose bushes as it is about moments of sense-making – or rather, it is about both together. Here is where she starts to notice the poor living conditions of many black people in beautiful Tobago:
"But it was the very richness of what surrounded them that made the houses’ poverty so shocking, as though you split a glossy fruit to find only a little wormy dust. I met Europeans who had come to run businesses in Tobago who said of the people in the villages, 'they never do more than they absolutely have to' – and I heard black people say it, too: black people who had escaped. The closer you looked, the more you wondered that so many did escape, because simply becoming accustomed to a life so reduced, which a person naturally has to do if it’s the only life on offer, would shrink his mind and dry up his energy." (p.51)
I did fear the autobiographical material would be stretched rather thinly by this time though – already in her previous memoirs the same events are sometimes touched on more than once (and some are even within the pages of this one book).
So does she have anything new to say? Yes, she does. "The Decision" is about moving into a residential home – not so much a decision actually, but a gradual change in attitude helped by seeing one of her friends move there, another unwisely sticking in her own home, and the fact that she had people to support her and was able to consider the option slowly. "A Life of Luxuries" covers trusty bespoke tweed suits, ball dresses and a misjudged choice of green tulle in which to be presented to Edward VIII. "Beloved Books" is about the two writers she thinks about most often now – Boswell and Byron.
Athill shows an editor’s trust in the value of precise language and a Jane Austen-like trust in the ability of abstractions to express and define thoughts and feelings, for instance when she reflects on her feelings towards her partner (who is married to someone else) when she finds herself pregnant:
"If, when I told him I was pregnant, he were to offer to leave his wife and come to me, I would be quite as anxious as I would be happy. I would not, whatever I decided, try to make him do that. Perhaps this was cowardice – a fear of actually having to face a lack of success which I thought I could envisage with equanimity. Or perhaps it was vanity – a desire to go on representing freedom, pleasure, stimulation, all the joys of love rather than its burdens. Or perhaps it was really what I would like it to be: the kind of respect for another person’s being that I would wish to have paid to my own. But there was no doubt that, if I was pregnant, life would be a great deal easier if my lover and myself were otherwise than they were." (p.67)
So – not spread too thin, but a little fragmentary. It is a short book, and half the chapters have been published elsewhere in some form. But I can’t remember reading anywhere else a personal account of life in a residential home and can’t help thinking that books from the perspective of advanced age will become much more important as we all live longer (current average life expectancy in the UK is 81.5 years, according to the Office Of National Statistics). Especially if they are written in such a wise, positive voice.
About the reviewer
Rebecca Reynolds works as a museum education consultant and writes non-fiction. Her book Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain’s Museums will be out in a couple of months. This looks at 36 objects in UK museums, using interviews with over 40 people who know the objects well – curators, artists, academics, users, makers and others. She blogs here: http://objects-ofinterest.blogspot.com.es/