by M. Travis Lane,
by A. F. Moritz,
Iodine: or A Visit to Jake's Kero Confectionery During the Elks' Rodeo Parade, 1963
by Harold Rhenisch,
by Tony Cosier,
Angel Wings All Over
by Anne Campbell,
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|Brief Reviews - Poetry
by Tim Bowling
MOST READERS OF POETRY UNDERSTAND instinctively that the highest achievements in the genre are reached when emotion meets craft, when something worth saying is said in a memorable way. Unfortunately, of the 200 or so collections published in Canada each year, few succeed on both levels. Many fail completely, some are finely crafted but bereft of feeling, while others are impassioned but technically uninspired. Happily, this month's survey contains more successes than failures.
112 pages, $11.95 paper), by A. F. Moritz, is the work of a mature poet in full command of his powers. Rich in imagery and elegant in language, with an impressive emotional and intellectual depth, the collection proves a demanding read, but one that pays handsome rewards. Moritz, a native of Ohio now living in Toronto, returns to the landscapes of his youth in a series of long poems and shorter lyrics that, as the publisher proclaims, "evoke the spirit of embodied Nature." More specifically, in sections entitled "Egypt," "City Plan," and "Founders," the writing powerfully captures not only the physical character of the poet's remembered world, "the low hills/and distant ridges violet with factory smoke" ("Egypt, II"), but also, remarkably, his childlike wonder of it touched at the same time with an adult's poignant sense of its decay:
A child the day before, my eyes
buried contented and unknowing in the eye
of cat, snake, goldfinch, or in the pure might
of the mile-long factories, I woke up.
September dawn was burning, the colour of rust,
of drying blood, and my blood was
erect and on fire
From the macabre intrigue of "Secrecy" to the pure, perfect nostalgia of "First" and "One with Sun," Moritz succeeds brilliantly in bringing his subject -- the Mahoning River and surrounding countryside -- to vivid, compelling life.
Tony Cosier's Kilmarnock (Penumbra, 150 pages, $12.95 paper) is another strong collection focused on the history and geography of a single region, in this case the country around Ontario's Rideau River. According to the back cover, the poet, after purchasing an old stone cottage on 50 acres of maple bush within sight of Kilmarnock Lock, proceeded to write in celebration "of forest walks and hikes, of visits to museums, archives, and libraries, and of interviews with local residents." The result is a long, intriguing book that paints a comprehensive and affectionate portrait of life, past and present, in a land of considerable beauty. Again and again, Cosier's simple language, controlled rhythms, and stoic backwoods philosophy bring to mind the work of Robert Frost:
Soft things go first, they said, and man was soft.
No good to rummage through leaves for a rusty pan
Ora squareheaded nail; no good to notice the mark
On a pine or the drift of a slope; these relics were nudging
In under. Vines would heap soon; and moss in a long
slow wave. I would not find them again.
("Running the Richmond Fen")
This is fine writing, and Kilmarnock contains a great deal of it. Some of the historical pieces are less successful, being the dry product of archives rather than immediate experience, but even here, in poems like "First Scything" and "Mother and Son/Montague 1917," Cosier shows a passion for his material and a deep awareness of mortality that give his well-crafted lines a winning emotional resonance.
I must admit the title of the Saskatchewan poet Anne Campbell's fourth collection, Angel Wings All Over (Thistledown, 78 pages, $11 paper), did not raise my hopes about the contents. The use of angels in modern poetry usually indicates a vague and listless spirituality, which typically produces anemic poems. Note, for instance, the bland abstractions of "Cut Through the Place Where the Soul Is Divided":
Praise the place of division there
and just there
where God slips in
complete the leap
Fortunately, Campbell keeps her musing on the ephemeral world of God and the angels to a minimum, and concentrates her quiet lyric voice more on relationships with flesh-and-blood people; in particular, her family and romantic partners. Poems such as "Aunt Kate," "The Way She Cared," and "The Shawl" reveal a light humour and a sensitivity to the heart's universal conflicts that immediately engage the reader's interest and understanding. But it is in the volume's last poem, "The Ice Fisherman," where Campbell's unpunctuated style finally achieves the sort of spiritual intensity she has been striving for all along: the poet, looking down at 13 fish laid across the winter ice, offers up a sudden, moving prayer: "from here / high on this road they are / black beads / scattered/ fisherman / rest my soul."
Yet despite this occasional flourish of a telling image perfectly married to heartfelt expression, Angel Wings All Over remains largely unspectacular and toneless.
To say I was disappointed by Harold Rhenisch's Iodine (Wolsak and Wynn, 78 pages, $10 paper) is a major understatement. I know this poet's work primarily through Poetry Canada, where he has published a number of intensely visual poems about life in British Columbia's rural interior. Honest, carefully balanced, full of striking imagery, these poems plunge the reader straight into a magical world of trembling starlight, apricot blossoms, and deep-blue mountain ranges.
deals with essentially the same rural material, but its tone is much different, and the writing suffers as a consequence. Throughout, Rhenisch adopts a kind of mock-evangelical voice that is supposed to capitalize on what the publisher calls his "idiosyncratic brand of humour," but by the fifth page I was bored with the joke. "Hymn for Herbicide," "Psalm, for Ennui -- A Self-directed RRSP," "Hymn for Kleenex and a nylon comb"; poem after poem uses high religious language to bless the flotsam of modern secular life, as in "Our Lord Is a Blister in the Palm of the Hand, Our Lord Is a Rock":
When I think of our lord
the god of the SpermicidaI Jelly
and the Stimula Ribbed Condom
I confess my pleasure
This can be funny once, but becomes decidedly tiresome over 78 pages.
But the really disappointing thing is that Rhenisch is capable of so much more than a repetitive, book-length display of cleverness. In a few lines, he can create a vivid, memorable world:
he would ride down
the dusty road under the moon,
through the bruised grass
of the orchards,
in the hours of the first frost
and the tungsten starlight,
the valley road as dark as coking coal
his face burnisbed like molybdenum,
This is marvellously controlled poetry, immediate, grounded in concrete experience. It's a shame that Iodine contains so little of it.
80 pages, $11.95 paper), the Fredericton poet M. Travis Lane's I 10th book, is a work of high intelligence and assured technique, a combination of the metaphysical and lyrical that derives its power from a careful, visionary analysis of life's quieter moments. For example, in "Fall-Winter 1990-91," the long and moving elegy that opens the collection, the senselessness of war is focused through the poet's sharp-eyed observation of pastoral minutiae. A kitten rolls in a tulip bed, moss grows on stones, an old dog murmurs in her sleep; Lane somehow weaves these tiny details into a thundering denunciation of evil, a graceful move that characterizes her approach throughout Night Physics. Whether she's confronting her own mortality ("Half Past") or describing the scene in a Japanese print ("Woman with Child"), Lane treats her subject with a mature directness matched only by her sensitivity to poetic rhythm. Note the humour and subtle music in the opening to "Everything's Just Fine":
I have these great grotesque despairs
without a name to put to them.
They run around like dogs all tied
in one long leash about my knees
and trip me up, disgracefully, yapping
at anything. They do,
oh most fearfully.
Other poems are just as accomplished: "Beginning the World," "The Stars Perspire" and "The Thing Outside" all possess the same admirable quality of vision perfectly transmitted through form. My only complaint is with "Anachronistic Night Music," the long "Mozartean comedy" that centres the book. Here, the humour is esoteric, and can best be appreciated by those who, simply put, appreciate "Mozartean comedy." Personally, I found the idea and its execution uninviting.
But for the most part, Lane's work, like that of Moritz and Cosier, is rich in both language and meaning, that vital combination that continues to make poetry a relevant and powerful form of expression.