WHY IS IT that the apparently "lowbrow" writers get to use hackneyed forms, cliche-ridden language, and shop-worn subjects, and still produce good work sometimes? Riding the Northern Range: Poems from the Last Best West (Red Deer, 160 pages,
$12.95 paper), edited by Ted Stone, is filled with cowboy poets who make a virtue of having small ambition and prolific pens. There
are also "serious" writers represented such as Andrew Suknaski, Thelma Poirier, and Sid Marty, and the mix is a good one.
In his introduction, Stone talks about attending virtually every cowboy poets' gathering since the first one in Elko, Nevada, in 1985, and
observes that '[w]hat impresses me most is the delight people find - in an age of television and videos - in words. It's the kind of delight
most people, perhaps, once felt for poetry before it began to be perceived as inaccessible and elitist." Perhaps Stone exaggerates the
distance between raised and furrier brows, but his point is well taken anyway: an audience that takes delight in the art of poetry is
a fine and surprising thing.
There is pleasure and vitality to spare in this collection. Frank Linderman, born in Ohio in 1869, was a
Montana trapper and guide who wrote poetry and transcribed the reminiscences of the medicine woman Pretty Shield. His 1921 poem
"To the Coyote" is a good example of Linderman's humour and artfulness:
I uster hate ye once, but now I've weakened some, an' wonder how Ye live on airth that's ditched an' fenced, An' lately, somehow, I've commenced To like ye.
Of the "legitimate" writers, Sid Marty is closest in spirit to the folk poets. His poems have a sardonic bent, but also a real pleasure in the tacky neon culture of the West:
Nobody danced with Miss Rodeo And she was too dignified to hulahula with the heavy-thighed Hawaiian dancing girls, entertaining the yokels in a hockey rink turned beer garden for Round Up Daze ("Nobody Danced with Miss Rodeo")
Thelma Poirier, a Saskatchewan poet, has a darker sense of humour, but one that seems, in this context, to be part of some previously unanthologized tradition. In "At the Branding" Poirier notes that "years ago / women were never allowed / to go to the branding," but now "their daughters move with ease / ... one of them picks up grandpa's knife / ... she clutches the pouch ... / snip slice."
Poirier is one of three women in this predominantly male collection and tradition; the others are the Montana native Gwen Petersen and Doris Bircham of Saskatchewan. Petersen and Bircham are grim realists, exactly what one would expect of women who had to put up with cowboys.
Andrew Suknaski's eloquent "Nez Perces at Wood Mountain" is included, culminating in this great passage where the chief speaks of his tragic situation:
i am tired of fighting our chiefs are killed looking glass is dead toohoolhoolzote is dead
i want time to look for my children and see how many of them i can find maybe i shall find them among the dead
I should also note that, unlike many poetry books published in this country, Riding the Northern Range is beautifully and appropriately designed, from the cover to the page layout and typeface.
Kathleen Hale's The Intimate Alphabet (Cormorant, 108 pages, $10.95 paper), like Stone's collection, takes a stab at reality, in this case the life of the great American painter Georgia O'Keeffe. Hale's poems constitute the imagined letters of O'Keeffe to her sometime lover, advocate, agent, and critic Alfred Stieglitz, who also made his reputation as a photographer taking pictures of O'Keeffe. This is obviously rich material for a writer: the woman painter, involved with a male patron/lover, needs her own voice.
The difficulty for Hale is that often this rich material comes off as flat and prosaic. She has O'Keeffe comment that the children she taught in Amarillo "studied me and saw / a new way of looking / at everyday life." (" 1907") This is no doubt true, but it's the kind of truth that needs to be approached from a more oblique angle in order to be poetically apprehended. On the other hand, Hale's flat, abbreviated diction occasionally works with real emotional precision, as in "Fall, 1918":
You tell me to step out
into the space between us,
fix the line to your eyes;
to walk the wire
and don't look
Hale's attempt to focus on O'Keeffe's emotional life has as many hits as misses, and her work is definitely worth paying close attention to. The problem with articulating O'Keeffe's inner state is precisely that she worked with images and not with words. Hale quotes Stieglitz, who has a more indirect and more accurate approach to the subject: "O'Keeffe is beautiful. She is beautiful in every respect."
Ken Norris's Report on the Second Half of the Twentieth Century: Books 8-11 (The Muses' Company, 112 pages, $12 paper) was accompanied by the goofiest and most pretentious publicity sheet I've ever seen. The Muses' Company, lists its "Board of Directors" in a vertical column on the left-hand side; the names consist of a list of the Greek muses. I wouldn't even mention this if it weren't related to a serious weakness of Norris's book, a weakness that could be characterized as a lofty aim combined with poor vertical-leaping ability. To be blunter: big ambition, limited talent.
Norris starts with "the self on its voyage through time knowing the temporal /knowing the eternal...." This has a ig, Eliotic reach, but the language is so flat that it's hard to take seriously. Norris's humourlessness doesn't help either. He refers to "my brother poets, Issa and Basho, and has an irritating tic like habit of talking about his own work; "the 8th book turning back on itself," he intones, and "7 books posited, this the eighth," just in case someone missed the numbers.
There are also plunges into bathos of varying degrees of clumsiness. "[O]n the 8th of every month the cactuses are to be watered rain falling briefly upon the desert of the heart" isn't too bad, but then there's "I could commit this book to the deep toss these words into uncaring waters or drown myself and my lifelong sorrow." Sincerity is much valued in poetry, but Norris's work makes me think it's overrated.
Norris does have his moments, though, and generally they are the ones in which Paul Simon seems to be his main influence rather than Ezra Pound. When Norris is good, it's hard to imagine how an editor (not someone likely to be listed on the Muses' Company's letterhead) could fix the stuff up, since what's good is mixed in with what's not:
I write the truths I cannot speak of
tarantulas dissected by a steady hand
the irregular heartbeat of innocence
staring into the mystery
spaceships appearing in the night sky overhead
Michael Holmes's got no flag at all (ECW, 80 pages, $12 paper) is aggressive, meaty, and language- intensive. Every bit as ambitious as Norris, his writing has harder, more colloquial edges and grabs the reader's attention:
But the smell of a dogsblood summer's always been the most,
sticking round how I figure a war might stick. Could near
with the sun off my brother, us sucking for breath through our
first man-sweat, eyes gone funny but everything sharp-
clean beneath the road-haze,
("When the Air Comes Quick Like Winter")
"Her sheets are of the skin of Dove's eyes made" is a perfectly incongruous title for this jivey poem:
it ain't like this in my movie, see
the kid's got moxy, a big right hand
-sayin, cut me man, cut me
let it all in
Energetic and overblown in a thoroughly readable way, got no flag at all is a fine first book of poems from a writer very much worth watching.
Phil Hall's latest collection, The Unsaid (Brick, 80 pages, $10.95 paper) is gutsy and elegant, a rare combination. "The swan raped Leda from behind" manages to be both politically correct and nervy, so it's only appropriate that Woody Guthrie rather than W. B. Yeats is Hall's muse:
Hall's poetic mission is "to dedicate myself again - in his name // to singing about what is wrong with how we live." Hall's reflexivity, unlike Norris's, is not just a gesture. In the book's opening untitled sequence, he addresses
Those I meant to speak to
by publishing poems
... who are more like me
in need of eloquent, stalwart answers
that lead out of here
Halt has humour, too. In "If Aphids Had Unions" he writes "[i]f aphids had unions and sang songs together it would be that much harder for ants to milk them." And in "Inner Handles" he uses this wonderful metaphor for the danger of silence: "Our enemies lay their eggs in what we cannot say to each other, or in what we take too long to say." Phil Hall is a writer who deserves a lot more recognition, someone who believes in and practises his art and craft with great skill and insight.