IN THE CANADIAN "Orient," that is, the eastern provinces, the pastoral is valued. Indeed, Northrop Frye's venerable cliche of the "bush garden," a phrase that conjures Canada as a barren land, barely applies to the long-settled and often lush ruralities of Nova Scotia (A[r]cadia), Prince Edward Island (the "Garden Province'), and New Brunswick. Even Newfoundland poets such as Boyd Warren Chubbs and Mary Dalton sing of the "Rock" with the honed romanticism and Celtic accent that inform so much Atlantic Canadian poetry. East Coast pastoral also evokes, at times, the poetry of the Far East. If Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins lend their voices to contemporary Atlantic verse, so do Li Po, Basho, and their modern
intermediaries - namely, Ezra Pound, Robert Bly, and John Thompson.
The Maritime fusion of Zen and the art of poetry is exemplified by the work of the New Brunswick poets Allan Cooper and Edward Gates. Cooper's sixth book, The Pearl Inside the Body: Poems Selected & New (Percheron, 127 pages, $14-95 paper), shimmers with the passionate grace born of his reflections on his family, his genealogy, and the wilderness about his home. In Cooper (who edits Germination, one of the finest little magazines in the country), the personal meshes with the natural and the spiritual; his lyrics and prose poems reveal inscapes:
I split open a maple log
and find trees and a mountain in fog.
("Three Tiny Poems")
and all the colours of your skin
were scents I wanted to taste.
("Something Moving Inside')
His observations become haiku, koans, or ghazals: "...I thought late at night about the lives of deer, / and what I could do with my own life to make it more like theirs" Cooper lapses into dullness at times; more usually, however, he finds the light secreted in things and brings it out into the open.
Cooper has edited and published Gates's first book of poems, The Guest Touches Only Those Who Prepare (Owl's Head, 72 pages, $9.95 paper). Family and nature are the actors; the prose poem is the stage. Gates works strong images: "The fallen leaves by the side of the road are like the dying embers of a fire or the rain before it finds its path through the earth to the sea" ("End of Fall"); "It reflects the sun that melts its surface to a hard crust, so that violence or the weight of time will not destroy what wells up from below" ("Snow"). Few of the prose poems are wholly fine, and the lyrics seem flat; even so, "Snow," by itself, is worth the price of admission.
In his fourth collection, earth moth (Goose Lane, 63 pages, $12.95 paper), the Nova Scotian Peter Sanger meditates on flora, fauna, hand-mades, and other poets. His lines are spare, yet rich with alliteration and such mots justes as "whirligig," "trabeculae," "juddering," and "abracadabrant." Sanger juxtaposes Anglo-Saxon morphemes and Latinate, scientific terms in the manner of E. J. Pratt. But Hopkins and Thompson are the substantial phantoms in these verses, a fact that crystallizes in the long, excellent elegy for Thompson, "Properties of Wood," a Maritime modernization of "Pied Beauty":
A language of leaves and water
was what he intended, words shaped
clear by commonplace things, helves,
shafts, tines, strips of interior bark,
suppled and woven for sieves and baskets,
ladles and tubs, all manner of tackle
trimmed to form by his knife, a ship's
keel crook, carving out workable space.
Sanger catalogues nouns and adjectives in mainly unrhymed - and often coldly abstract - tercets and quatrains. But when he employs sestets and octets, he can compose fine, moving poetry.
Incorporated in 1988 to provide a forum for regional and alternative voices, Wild East Publishing Co-Operative of Fredericton, New Brunswick, has issued, since 1990, seven titles in its "Salamanca Chapbook Series," including the following three. Raymond Fraser's Macbride Poems (12 pages, $3 paper) is a narrative sequence in the voice of Macbride, a cynic who has seen everything and despised it all. Unfortunately, the persona's boredom is conveyed too effectively; still, "In 1987. .." raises a sardonic chuckle. The Heron Stalkers (16 pages, $4 paper) marks Belinda Carney's debut. She evinces a genuine attentiveness to diction: "brave the red raspberries / crowning the cliff." Her poems could stand pruning, but "The Last Stand of Elms" is proof of significant talent: "the ... red strength / of his love shining at me in these berries...." Robert Gibbs, a poetry editor for the Fiddlehead, strikes to the heart with his florilegium, Earth Aches (12 pages, $3 paper). He writes tenderly of life - "it's not aging I am not prepared for but a / creeping that's become a suddenness in everything" - but none of his poems seem finished.
In Susan lannou's third collection, Clarity Between Clouds: Poems of Midlife (Goose Lane, 74 pages, $12.95 paper), the poet rarely allows herself to be challenged by language. She prefers not to steal the Promethean flame, but to gaze at it from a comfortable distance. Her work clanks with cliches: "Like a crystal spinning in tight / too many choices / blind the heart" ("Crystal"). But loannou can craft good verse when she concentrates. "Waves" holds the sustained energy that is missing from most of her other poems: "Crests tatter, rage, hiss / blue-black spray from sudden clouds." Frustration marks and mars Cornelia Hornosty's first collection, Voice with Flowers (Borealis, 103 pages, $9.95 paper). Excellent and awful lines intermingle. In "Plath," Hornosty marvels at "wild new worlds in round water," but then surrounds this gem with the newspaper wrapping of "whirling us into the vortex / of our forgotten selves." This poet needs to edit her work more carefully. Though she has made the practice of belles lettres her profession, Rosemary Sullivan avoids any hint of the precious in her tough, dark, and realistic second collection, Blue Panic (Black Moss, 63 pages, $10.95 paper). She lines her poems with precise details that speak novels about people and events:
One night she tied her husband to his bed,
eyes propped open with toothpicks,
while she took another man.
It was revenge he had to see.
Indeed, Sullivan is obsessed by the power of things to become words: "...you poured the word of yourself into my body." And, like her mentors Pablo Neruda and Elizabeth Smart, Sullivan seeks to ground the physical in the lyrical: 'Already the grapes are purpling on the arbour." However, her attempts to hint at life's mysteriousness often end in imprecision and prolixity. The compilation of a "selected poems" is the moment of truth for every poet. Paddy Webb's Woman Listening: Selected Poems, 1963-1990 (Merlin Books, 84 pages, $9.95 cloth), her fourth collection, demonstrates that she has occasionally constructed poems that withstand the withering impact of time. A romantic in a mean era, Webb can often sound sentimental. Yet "Monarchs," one of her best poems, is marvellously baroque:
They forge ahead in hordes
on electromagnetic lines of force
or by polarized light in the manner
of ants and bees - who knows how?
lifting over obstacles.
Other poems are perfect in parts but not completely realized. Webb has an eye for imagery that strongly recalls the sensuous work of Brian Bartlett -and Joe Rosenblatt. At her best, especially in her more recent work, she indites perceptively: "My spirit is whittled / to a peeled twig."
Small Perfect Things (DC Books, 172 pages, $12.95 paper) is Louis Dudek's 16th verse collection. Though a progenitor of Canadian modernism, Dudek has always respected traditional poetic forms. In his latest book, he employs his knowledge of the disciplines of satire, proverb, and epigram to ink brief, witty, and acerbic pieces lamenting the debasement of art and artists in our time, celebrating love or nature, and mourning Canadian politics. Failures occur more frequently than successes in this work, but much of it is eminently memorable and quotable: "Love in the marital bed is classicism, outside it's romanticism"; "Criticism is the glue factory to which Pegasus was sent." The love poems offer sensual surprises: "...great hordes / of Arab kisses descend down the valleys / of your mouth, where they slay, shout, and drink" ("Arabia"). Arguably the greatest English poetry of this century has been written in the loosened form of blank verse that shadows the traditional iambic pentameter line. Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Pratt, and Derek Walcott have achieved fine poetry in this form, but it is seldom used today. However, contemporary poets such as Steven Heighton and David Manicom are employing it and making important verse. Manicom's second collection, Theology of Swallows (Oolichan, 90 pages, $10.95 paper), stakes out a territory of achievement as vast - and nearly as pristine - as the Arctic that serves as the setting for his long, narrative sequence "Parts for the Marathon." Manicom possesses the epic sweep and technical mastery of E. J. Pratt. His lines shimmer and ring with something resembling genius:
... the Peace of her breasts
filling your hands whole like rain water...
you have become pears, a cup of water,
the sighing ease of swallows curving dusk,
perfect tangents, the caught fluid of Bach.
How can you possibly speak or move?
He attempts many different forms, shifting easily from the formal to the informal, from the descriptive to the analytic. His
images are clear and evocative: "In your lemon morning harbour / the wicker baskets of flipping / sardines, silver as quarters." Manicom has not yet achieved perfection, however. "Parts for the Marathon" is inconsistent, and other poems dull into prose. Nevertheless, Manicom is a poet to read, quote, study, and memorize. He has already written a few poems that seem to merit can onization. A line in his dramatic monologue, "Prochain Episode;' composed in the voice of the Quebec novelist Hubert Aquin, may prove prophetic: "I shall be infinite, in my own way."
Canadian poetry has often gyred between the poles of formalism and anti-formalism, regionalism and cosmopolitanism, academicism and populism. Happily, if the work of the poets discussed above is any indication, syntheses are occurring. In Cooper and Sanger, the regional and the universal come together. In Sullivan and Webb, the intellectual and the popular are joined. In Dudek and Manicom, the pleasures of verse, both formal and free, are recognized. A more pluralistic conception of Canadian poetry is being born; our poets are suddenly free to sing as they please.