AMONG THE many quotations incorporated by Peter Dale Scott into his highly allusive poem Listening to the Candle (McClelland and Stewart, 204 pages, $14.99 paper) is a brief passage from Czeslaw Milosz's notebooks in which "language itself' is described as "potential messenger / to a few good people." This seems, increasingly, as much as most poets can ask, even the best ones. This month's group of poetry collections is full of passionate intensity, sequestrated, almost ghettoized in the poor lonely objects that poetry books have become. How many still care about the discipline that gives rise to "that state of grace // when the words are free / to write themselves," to quote Scott again?
Listening to the Candle is the second book-length poem in a three-part Dantean project that Scott began with Coming to Jakarta, published in 1988. Like the latter, Listening to the Candle is composed of a series of books written in triadic stanzas that integrate a great deal of quotation from other works. Pound, Dudek, and Williams haunt the poem's formal procedures, giving the work a very modernist surface and feeling; but it is at heart an extended lyric poem, much more private and personal than Coming to Jakarta, which was basically public and political. The latter was A Poem about Terror, to quote its subtitle; Listening to the Candle is A Poem on Impulse.
Listening to the Candle addresses what poetry is meant to address -the world - and succeeds brilliantly in combining autobiography and the larger sphere, which in Scott's case includes Zen, the CIA, a large circle of friends, political conspiracies, and so on. All are beautifully articulated in a poetic language that is by turns precise, expansive, lyrical, rhetorical (in the vatic rather than the overblown sense), controlled, and wonderfully expressive. Virgil and Wordsworth, the Pervigilium Veneris and Lescarbot, all easily cohabit here in what is perhaps essentially an exploration of the poet's consciousness:
It is all becoming
as someone (Dogen?) says
arrival hinders arrival
as we are we relax
and things compose themselves
into the past and future
a field of impulse
The voice in Barry McKinnon's PulpLog (Caitlin Press, 64 pages, $9.95 paper) is poised somewhere between the poem, the prose poem, and the journal entry. It is attractively uncertain, deliberately self-conscious, reflective of a gentle and open-hearted poet in mid-life crisis. The entries in this log of the life of a college teacher in a pulp and paper town (Prince George, B.C.) are fragmented and tonally wild: they vary from quiet meditations on the inevitability of death to complaints about poisoned air and uncaring company executives to clear-eyed observations about kids and snow and the need to make a community of the heart.
What McKinnon is after is "to sense wholly what's here," to make a coherence out of the seemingly incoherent: "what is this sense that life is elsewhere but this pit? but once out of yourself, there's the possible desert of the unknown. oh let the romance be of and with the particular moment you invent - blessings of weather and sense of the children safe." And further: "there is no mind but the human voice that sees its body."
The poetics in PulpLog nicely allow rapture and withdrawal from the world to speak consecutively and not to be at war with each other. Such a conflation of impulses could easily turn a book into a mere hodgepodge of sentences; but McKinnon's "self," which is assuredly a subject here, also provides an equilibrium of voice (the definition, after all, of a log) that gives unity and clarity to the book. It is an unpredictable and craggy clarity to be sure, but that is its great pleasure:
...... in one day the chemical eraser erases my
inarticulate thoughts of love - & sense of integration
and being. the very nature of poetry is to sense your
own limits and go beyond - suspect your haggly muse
who says, here, I'll solve the title. (this pleasant
slavery to the unknown.
David Bromige is an Anglo-American-Canadian poet who has taught in California since 1970. He was peripherally part of the Tish group at U.B.C. in the early 1960s, but has published most of his collections of poetry in the United States. His work is austere, wry, and much concerned with how we think about the world. No other Canadian poet (if he is a Canadian poet) writes like he does, save perhaps for some of the younger Vancouver poets who have learned from the American language writers (Bromige wrote some of the earliest language-centred poetry).
Tiny Courts in a World without Scales (Brick Books, 64 pages, $9.95 paper) contains 50 mostly brief poems that are dry, witty, and playful, but passionate for all that. A few are seemingly thrown off, though they do not lack charm:
I just want a couple acres
in beautiful country
where 1 can put two-three chevys
up on cinder blocks
and abandon a stack
of automobile tires
("Manana from Heaven")
Bromige's social criticism is not always so blatant, and is very much at the core of his work. More frequently, it arises from a hard-edged look at how humans perceive reality (so-called), as in a poem called "Book ends," in which two people involved in a bad relationship wonder "Are we / hungry or is it / only something / we just ate." History, politics, the news, and simply what the eye sees all provide Bromige with fruitful sources for smallscale but often devastating deconstructions of what lies at the intersection of perception and the world.
Judith Fitzgerald's Ultimate Midnight (Black Moss, 64 pages, $10.95 paper) could not be more different stylistically. Fitzgerald has a rich imagination and her language is a fit vehicle for it: it is condensed, full of wordplay, sophisticated yet visceral. The collection is composed of 13 shorter poems and the title poem, a longer piece in 12 sections or "hours." Fitzgerald's characteristic tone is elegiac, and her poems centre on loss, despair, and ephemerality. But this is not to say that these are simply poems of the bereft heart, for the language is so insistently lively that it can celebrate being alive almost despite itself
New world order, old weathering. We
danced a kind of strut,
a sort of sway and emanation. Nothing
morbid. Clipped wings;
ruby-throated dusk, sunset essence.
Talk about that smile
indigo a colour of indeterminate length,
lost in iridescent shadow.
Feminine, masculine, elementary
sanguine nexus. He pulls me
down to something molecular,
a promise of gardens.
"Ultimate Midnight" is a very self-conscious piece, wrought with immense attention to an urban sort of rhythm that must be read slowly and with care. At its core perhaps is a line from the seventh hour: "Let me teach you how to / have a heart, p-o-v of these fictions." That point of view occasionally disappears into a welter of clever and allusive language. But as a whole this poem is a fine achievement, and Ultimate Midnight is a worthy successor to Fitzgerald's last book, Rapturous Chronicles (Mercury), which was nominated for the Governor General's Award.
Mark Frutkin is well known as the author of two "factions," Atmospheres Apollinaire and Invading Tibet. In Acts of Light (Cormorant, 84 pages, $10.95 paper), history - its uses and recreation - is a central concern. The title poem, which makes up one-third of the book, offers a typically Frutkinian take on Dante - typical in the sense that the author of the Divina Commedia, is recreated in various anachronistic contexts (the ancient Near East, ancient China, etc.). He becomes, as it were, Frutkin's Virgil, a guide for his visionary wanderings through heaven and earth. The verse in which this voyage occurs is rather undistinguished, rhythmically at any rate, though Frutkin has an extraordinary imagination and a way with arresting images:
Graph of flame along a flood-mark
When golden fish swam attics
Set with a splash
Walls of Uruk
Ghosted into ash
Paraphs of albacore
Texts of cuneiform flood
The first three sections of Acts of Light are less encumbered by cultural archaeology, and seem tighter and more effective. "The Watering Hole" is a brief but intriguing poem about Rimbaud in Africa; "African Cloth" bespeaks a strong attraction to the primal realities of Africa (without the Rimbaudian meditation); and "Spontaneous Combustion" treats light and fire as metaphors of creativity ("Language combusts / Spontaneously out of darkness"). Frutkin's imagination seems to me more at home in prose than in poetry, but Acts of Light is not without interest.
Vic Elias's awkwardly titled Reflected Scenery from Where My Eyes Should Be (Moonstone, 88 pages, $9.95 paper) is this London physics professor's first collection of poetry. Though the publisher's blurb emphasizes Elias's Jewishness and praises the book as "a genuine attempt at depicting a salient aspect of the Canadian cultural mosaic," Reflected Scenery is more accurately a typical collection of poems on various bits of personal history by a part-time poet. Glimmers of real poetry are to be found here, but on the whole Elias's voice lacks any real originality, and most of the individual poems sound depressingly like workshoppers. One or two pieces are occasionally amusing (e.g. "Speculations on the Nature of Divinity By Leonard Eliezer Akiva Elias"), but most are shipwrecked on an uncertain ear:
Measure the span
of that filmy
memory of flight
Triangulate the atmosphere
and from the width
of those diffusing
strands of vapour
calculate how long ago the heavens
were rent and plundered like the tissues
of a gutted womb