SOME poetry books venture far afield in form and/or material; others situate themselves on familiar ground. This month's batch of titles is a mixture of the restless and the stay-at-home, providing (in varying degrees) the pleasures of the unexpected and of recognition.
Rhona McAdam's fourth collection, Old Habits (Thistledown, 64 pages, $11 paper), both begins and ends on a note of travelling hopefully; in the opening poem, a Prairie highway is "holding travellers to its face / giving them one more chance," and in the final poem, a plane flight into London is the occasion for shifting from "old dreams" to new possibilities. In between, the mood isn't quite so upbeat. Ranging from evocations of the romance of longing (for a distant lover) to edgy portraits of urban disintegration, these poems are pervaded by a sense of individual powerlessness, which manifests itself as lurking menace:
... this neighbourhood
with its electric eyes
is not inviolate.
the voices the rustling
wraiths remind us we're
at the edge of something we can't lock out.
McAdam's poems advance smoothly, if at times predictably, and there are some appealing turns of phrase along the way ("riding mechanical fate / away from light," she writes in "Underground"). But that untroubled smoothness of style seems somewhat at odds with the alienation and psychic unease that underlie Old Habits; the poems are too orderly, too comfortable in the groove of regular syntax, to viscerally convey agitation. As a result, the collection seems muted, its impact (and interest) diminished.
There's nothing subdued about Brian Bartlett's Underwater Carpentry (Goose Lane, 115 pages, $12.95 paper), whose lively title poem refers to the poet's inspiration:
the heron for reach and poise, the thrasher
for song and speech, the waxwings
for their plucking of berries
and passing them from beak to beak.
This likeable collection does indeed range widely, and with
poise, from the Adirondacks to an inner-city mission, from tightly written character portraits to looser, more adventurous meditations on contemporary life in this culture. It has a word-delighted, tuneful bounce and as social a perspective as those community-spirited waxwings. Not to mention a disarming comic sense:
At lakeside a flotilla of pleasure boats
grew sullen in the rain Nobody was out
but mallards, gulls, geese, and Mr B
fighting for the rights to his umbrella
("Fragments for a Guidebook")
One quibble, which may simply be the personal quirk of a reviewer who has read hundreds (thousands?) of poems in straight anecdotal mode about family (and, yes, has written her fair share): some of the poems of this type in Underwater Carpentry could have been eliminated. They're well written, but the experience of reading them is a bit like leafing through a stranger's photo album - inevitably, attention begins to wander.
Karen Connelly is a young Calgary poet (she's only 23) whose travels in Spain and France - along with domestic encounters - are sensually rendered in This Brighter Prison: A Book of journeys (Brick, 112 pages, $11.95 paper), her second collection. In one poem, "My Photographs of Madeleine," an eccentric roommate yells, "I love this bathroom / more than I ever loved any of you!"; the book is like that, too, stuffed to the margins with the drama (and melodrama) of flamboyant gestures. Its to-the-max lyricism and hedonistic intensity can be a bit much:
Through a butterfly dance of bats, the violet sky
sweeps down to kiss the velvet desert,
reaches down to kiss your face,
and stars drop ivory petals of light in your eyes.
And yet, I'd rather that a book made me roll my eyes once in a while than put me to sleep - a lot of Canadian poetry is so restrained and demurely reflective that I found Connelly's tendency to pump up the volume quite refreshing. Amid the striving for effect, there are some striking images ("Lizards dance into the secret mouths of stone" is one of my favourites), along with enough boldness and passion to stir the sensualist in any reader.
There are no yawns in Anne Carson's Short Talks (Brick, 64 pages, $10.95 paper), either. True to its title, this debut collection consists of prose poems on topics ranging from "Where to Travel" Gin absurdist send-up of tourist attractions) to the nature of philosophy, from "On Sunday Dinner with Father'' ("We weight / down the comers of everything on the table with little solid Silver laws") to artists such as Van Gogh. Terse, often enigmatic (though evocatively so), Carson's work combines an oddball sense of humour and a quirky acuity to keep the reader off balance. The following passage deals with Camille Claudel, who was confined to an asylum for the last 10 years of her life, and hauntingly conveys Claudel's despair mid the petrification of her artistic talent:
Night was when her hands grew, huger and
huger until in the photograph they are
like two parts of someone else loaded into her knees.
("Short Talk on Sleep Stones")
It's the unexpectedness of Carson's observations that makes Short Talks so appealing; similarly, the strength of Walid Bitar's second collection, 2 Guys on Holy Land (Wesleyan, 60 pages, US$10.95 paper), is its idiosyncratic voice. Bitar's poems ,aren't centred in an integrated "I" that organizes perception and effect, a construct typical of much contemporary, and of course traditional, poetry (indeed, he satirizes this device in "Looking You in the Back of the Head"). His work is characterized by a dissociated, breezy patter, not unlike that of a disc, jockey, which mixes snippets of song lyrics, catch-phrases, punning double-talk, and various banalities. But there's a chilling tension to this peppy superficiality, because the poems are dealing with the corruptness, cynicism, and impunity of power elites, especially in geopolitics. Bitar is adept at evoking the paranoid world of surveillance and military intelligence, as in "The Product," in which the poem's speaker is interrogated:
There's a little ice age
in every cup of water
Yesterday they gave me
a turtleneck to wear -
today 1 am that turtleneck;
a turtleneck, and only a turtleneck beheaded.
And my own tongue the guillotine.
A jotting live-wire of a collection, formally adventurous and bitingly political, 2 Guys on Holy Land makes considerable demands on the reader; I'll spare you more adjectives, and simply say that it's worth the effort.
A subtext to Bitar's book is that language plays a role in how abuses of power are covered up. Betsy Warland's fourth collection, The Bat Had Blue Eyes (Women's Press, 98 pages, $11.95 paper), shares this perspective, though its focus is the violence inside families. Warland mixes fragments of poetry, journal notes, prose reminiscences, quotations, and descriptions of dreams and family photos, all of which act as signposts in uncovering and coming to terms with sexual abuse. The first page of the text sets out a summary of the book's "plot":
The language of this book is plain, even flat, though its deliberateness often does give the sense of pain held in check: in many of the poems, the words are compressed little nodes spaced out on the page, like small handholds. Warland's previous work has frequently relied on an etymological sifting/shifting of meaning, as in, say, Serpent (W)rite (1987); in The Bat Had Blue Eyes, Warland grounds this wordplay in experience, thus giving it greater resonance. And the mixture of forms is very effective - it operates as a kind of structural breathing pattern, alternating tension and the sense of being indrawn (the poems) with expansion and release (the prose passages).
Henry Beissel's 10th collection, Stones to Harvest (Moonstone, 64 pages, $10.95 paper), on the other hand, is based on an unvarying formula. The book consists of a cycle of 47 untitled poems divided into four sections named to suggest growth ("Seeds," followed by "Roots," and so on). Each poem begins with the close observation of some phenomenon in nature, and ends with a stanza that draws links between the qualities of the natural world remarked upon and the speaker's lover. This regularity quickly becomes monotonous, in part because the images drawn from nature and the changing seasons are frequently pedestrian - though I did like the description of Holstein cows:
wrapped in the black
and white maps
of their own faraway worlds.
The poems also often lapse into a creaky anthropomorphism ( 11 water slowly sinks its teeth / into the throat of this evening"). In Beissel's favour, though, 1 should note that there's a quiet modesty to these reflections on the resilience and fragility of love. Ultimately, Stones to Harvest is a romantic, slightly old-fashioned collection that honours familiar territory.