PASSION must be scarce in southern Ontario, for it seldom appears in the region's poetry. Recent collections by David McFadden and David Donnell confirm this view. Both offer verse as defiantly "cool" as a Chet Baker recording. Emotion is not "recollected in tranquillity," but either casually noted or abstracted into ironic anecdotes.
McFadden and Donnell both make bricolage poems - verse constructed from the bric-a-brac of their lives and mass culture. This gathering technique, pioneered by the
18-century British poet Christopher Smart, has been furthered in our era by American poets, among them Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. When informed by a genuine lyricism and an oracular discernment of the vital, this type of poetry can release tremendous power.
In Anonymity Suite, however, David McFadden's effort to join Italian and Fijian sojourns, fragments of conversation, literary allusions, movie stars, baseball, Mozart, comic-book references, etc., in deadbeat-Beat collages is a splendid failure. The poems perish for want of coherence and passion. The ironic, Prufrockian rhymes faint, and the representations of effete intellectualism are all too successful. Anonymity Suite has far too many passages like this:
Barrie's book has just come out,
Two years after his death. I give
A copy to Susan who lives an alley over.
I drop in to see her three mornings a week.
She's a Hare Krishna devotee
And she writes poetry like Anna Akhmatova.
This is confessional poetry with nothing to confess.
McFadden's "cut-ups" - his disconnected lines and jests ("Chubby as a checker...") have the same effect as watching television with someone who incessantly changes the channel. The experience is endured, not enjoyed. Even so, a few poems, such as "The Story of Mike," sparkle with humour, while good lines and passages gleam in others: "Language is a breakwater causing the blind / Waves of the mind suddenly to halt / and explode" ("Strange Language").
China Blues is so mellow that David Donnell slips in the couch-potato verb 11 relax" without arousing derision. Like McFadden, Donnell treks through the gaudy debris of pop culture, but he's more focused, more at home; his voice is that of a middle-aged, middle-class Ontario male, a sort of L. L. Bean-attired Whitman folksy, liberal, born to please. Indeed, his poems are urban pastoral - with masseuses replacing shepherdesses.
Donnell's persona strolls the clean streets of Toronto, recalling the Golden Age of his small-town Ontario boyhood and commenting on subjects ranging from Madonna to last year's war (remember?), from love to baseball, vining his lines with vintage Italian expressions and modem pop. Usually, the poems fix on a person, situation, memory, or thought and develop it, though the result often seems trivial. Hence Donnell, too, is brilliant in fragments rather than in entire poems.
He manifests a wondrous command of lyric and image - when he so chooses:
you must believe me when I say that the
bourgeoisie begrudge us even this chicken,
lake, even this 1/2 full bottle of Monnet brandy
lying on its side beside the wicker basket. They
will never give in, and we will never give in. We
are like the lake, flexible, because we are immovable.
More often, he retreats into mere anecdote: "We're in late spring or early summer now / in Alliston. Last night / it began getting dark around 8:30" ("Darkness"). Must poetry die in such prosaic agony?
"Massage" is probably the best poem in China Blues because it seems so wholly realized, while parts of others, especially "What's So Easy About 17?," are also fine. Of Donnell's quartet of short stories, only "Tangerines" achieves sustained, lyrical energy, though it seems to be about precious little indeed.
McFadden and Donnell raise an important question with their latest works: can one write poems that incorporate the contemporary world - without losing one's soul? Stay tuned to "MuchMusic"...