Collected Poems

by Miriam Waddington,
384 pages,
ISBN: 0195405358

Treading Water

by Kenneth Radu,
ISBN: 0887508731

Urban Snow

by George Bowering,
112 pages,
ISBN: 088922305X

The Way to Come Home

by Carolyn Smart,
ISBN: 0919626564

Memories Have Tongue:

by Afua Cooper,
128 pages,
ISBN: 092081350X

How to Be Born Again

by Colin Morton,
96 pages,
ISBN: 1550820362

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Brief Reviews - Poetry
by Phil Hall

THERE ARE MANY complicated ways for a book to cause its reader problems, and perhaps books of poetry are particularly problematic because of their generally smaller, more personal, more intense, enigmatic, tighter natures. (Or, depending on your stance and preferences, perhaps it is the popular misconception of them being so that in fact causes problems.) Anyway, 1 have a few complex reactions to the following titles - by which 1 mean that my love of them is not pure, my disappointments in them not dismissive. 1 would wish it otherwise, for various reasons, but will try to unravel my knots of response in useful ways. My initial thought was that 1 should not review Carolyn Smart's The Way To Come Home (Brick, 80 pages, $10.95 paper). 1 know her; currently we have the same publisher; one section here is about the death of a mutual friend, Bronwen Wallace. Despite all these reasons why 1 shouldn't review the book, it wouldn't be fair not to do so, either, especially since 1 like this collection best of the lot. It comes in four sections: two travel sequences, a grieving sequence, and a calendar cycle. This last cycle, "Home," calls back to the overall title, and so 1 begin to see Smart's sections as movements toward resolution. If South Africa, Costa Rica, families, and friends are all unresolvable, ongoing complexities, the poet herself seems to have found homes for the difficulties of each within the stalwartness of her poetry: "I wasn't waiting for anything else, any more. 1 knew 1 was living my life, at last." Consequently, there are many tears, many fears in this book. They are calm, brave, and calming ones though, and the poems themselves come off that way too. Fear and lusciousness cohabit:

Even when you're alone you carry the presence of others about

you. How I envy you this. I walk onto the beach feeling human eyes

on me. Even with my children I walk alone, my gender lure enough

for violence ... Tired men with elbows on knees. Vacant eyes...

How I covet your ugly malice, your body, that naked asylum.

("Poem for a Solitary Baboon")

Anger and love, holding hands, drive the same backroads and home (another naked asylum, perhaps) is found:

Goodbye, brief lives,

ablaze with tenderness;

today the glory of the leaves

is enough, for I am learning anew

to release all I cannot hold


Of the section about Bronwen, I will not speak here. I am glad Carolyn and her poems are alive. And into other complexities: Memories Have Tongue (Sister Vision, 128 pages, $10.95 paper), by Afua Cooper. I know I should like this book; I want to, but I just don't, much. I agree with all that it argues, and I welcome its publication because it is full of enthusiasm, anger, information, intent. It will be an inspiration to some. It is full of wry family images, childhood anecdotes, little essays, and prose pieces. Memories do have tongue on these pages, as do many women and victims of racism. But the language, except in the last section, has little jump to it beyond that of repetition. Cooper's insistence is mostly predictable and single-toned:


of genocide you are accused

why is it your jails are filled with Black men

why is it your prisons are filled with Native men

what are your intentions Canada

that you seek to bound us so

("Oh Canada II")

Yes, what is written in this book needs to be continually reiterated -but I, for one, like more rose in my bread, except at rallies. Also, I don't think that the copious notes (with reading lists) and the introduction here are sustained by the simplicity of the poems, although, as I say, the history lessons are valuable. (I like the poem "The Black Madonna/(thinking of Jimi Hendrix)" best.) One thing that Smart's The Way to Come Home and Cooper's Memories Have Tongue share is cohesiveness, an agenda, a shaping principle. Thus, the lasting effect on a reader is of having read just one thing instead of many. The four titles discussed below, conversely, have in common a grab-bag approach to volumes of poetry, in which the only shaping mechanism, if there is one, is of gathering like pieces into sections or minisequences. George Bowering's Urban Snow (Talonbooks, 112 pages, $12.95 paper) is not one of his best. He is, of course, prolific and, therefore, uneven. He has done many grab-bag books, fine or not so, as well as many that are unified or book-length (notably, the incredible Kerrisdale Elegies, 1984). Urban Snow, in fact, continues with many of the same tones and preoccupations of those elegies. Serendipity growing colder, wider, darker, and more melancholy with age - that's what it sounds like to me:

I'm up

against the silences to come

They keep telling me to talk more,

write less

but I can't figure this out, I

will be doing neither

soon enough.

("My Family's All In Bed")

1 say that the serendipity is widening, for in the best poems here -the long, jazzy, playful ones - what 1 hear is more a changing from alto to tenor sax. Bowering has been writing (playing) a long time. His ease couples with our familiarity of his voice and range. This time Bowering has been to Germany and brought back a slight notebook sequence. He's been thinking about Marilyn Monroe, and about all of the baseball fields he has visited. But, as 1 say, my favourites are the two long ones, especially the last, which is a nostalgic remembering of the early poetry days in Vancouver, when you could still smell the oily harbour and nobody you hung around with was famous:

(Some of them sold poems from time to time, and t

hen they went up to Fourth Avenue, to Jackson's

Meats, where you could buy cheddar cheese by the

cent. Seventeen cents worth of cheese. Poets and

painters. Deadbeats.)

"The Great Grandchildren Of Bill Bissett's Mice")

Miriam Waddington's first book of new work in 10 years has a title reminiscent of Bowering's: The Last Landscape (Oxford, 90 pages, $12.95 paper). I've always found Waddington's poems to be of an older fashion than I need. But my life has renewed tenacity when I go to A. J. M. Smith's anthology, The Book of Canadian Poetry (1943), and am able to read her work there, too, because I realize that her use of "gardens," "the seasons ... .. light," etc. (images simple or archaic) has survived the span of my time and more. The Last Landscape is a likeable, touching book, by one of our durable contemporary forebeaters of words. Waddington has trimmed a thin, efficient line and stuck to it. Her images have been added to, of course, and in this new book they all seem darker, even the bright ones. Lots of snow. More women and humour. Greater simplicity, but few surprises - though her quick honesty can be disarmingly endearing, as in "Paper Boats," which I'll quote in full:

When we divorced,

we each divorced our youth,

sent it like paper boats

sailing to who knows where,

and lost our selves

in those old lovers' lanes

still winding through our blood.

In my blood

the self has dwindled,

and the lovers' lanes have faded

but in your blood

our youth still dreams

and winds its way

through the remote rivers

of your death.

Colin Morton's How To Be Born Again (Quarry/Prentice Hall, 96 pages, $11.95 paper) is also a likeable book with a few problems of its own. It is most often a collection of high praise for Morton's life partner and love itself, the kind that does not have cream smeared mutingly on its lenses, but the kind that still likes its paeans to soar playfully nonetheless. Even the poet's computer wan-ants a "Hymn of Thanks":

Thank you

silent partner

faithful co-ordinator

meticulous savior of my least vision or revision

fellow slave of stray thoughts at all hours

These funny, playful, humane set-pieces only bother me in that I become increasingly impatient with this popular method of poem creation - best exemplified when Morton says at one point: "What the hell, I'll write something." Poems such as these most often have their origin in something the poet has been reading and can extrapolate on. They often begin with quotes, or they run imaginatively beyond an overheard phrase or quote. I guess I must like the cohesive agenda method (mentioned above) better, because piece by piece Morton can be very rewarding:

At forty, you're beautiful. Your child's

callow face is no more than a sketch

life will fill in, in good time;

but you're the portrait now, posed on a hill

amid ripening fields

("Not Time's Fool")

Kenneth Radu's Treading Water (Oberon, 72 pages, $21.95 cloth, $10.95 paper) has similar strengths and a few extra drawbacks. It suffers along with other Oberon books in that the uniformity of the press's packaging style tends to blur its authors and make them slightly anonymous. Also, this book, unlike the others, does not even use the convention of sections to help arrangements. For these reasons, I hope that at least Radu's glorious long poem "A Day at the Beach" does not get lost in the shuffle:

Unconsciousness, come now while sunflowers

still follow the sun and music is made

by flautists in subways and poets cry

that no-one listens any more. Come now,

while there's still time for fish and lily-pads.

Fully realized, lush, and tending to flamboyant melodrama, it manages to sustain most of our age's concerns in one scene.


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