Younger poets-it is often said-with their enthusiasms cannot help but wear their influences on their sleeves, unlike older poets, who have learned to hide them. In the case of Alan Wilson's first book, Animate Objects, many poets, from Kinnell to Guillevic to Ashbury to Bishop, make their cameo appearances, but in the end the Czech poet Miroslav Holub's presence, or influence, looms largest. Not only is Holub explicitly conjured up in "Twenty-Four Poets' Haiku on the Colour Green" (if not, like many of the other twenty-three, actually imitated), but, as Phyllis Webb says in her brief cover blurb, there is an obvious and natural affinity between the minimalist, emotionally compressed style typical of the most successful pieces in the book ("Equipment Failure", "Exercise", "Carpenter", "Eraser", "Suitcase", "Hearing a Knock", "Windows", "Air Travel") and that of certain European writers: Zbigniew Herbert, Vasco Popa, and especially the early Holub. This is not to say that Wilson's poems are imitations; rather that they are usefully infused, whether explicitly or by common accident, with something of that spirit. Take "Suitcase", which, in tone and motion, might lie somewhere between Holub and Popa, though belonging to neither:
This is proper for a suitcase:
to sit empty in a corner
for the leather halves
at the tug of a zipper
and fill with the things
we give it.
These it carries,
to its dimensions,
till we reach for it
in travel, and take back,
what we gave.
He moves up. Moves down.
And then pauses ... unsure.
With each change of heart,
with each new opinion,
he wears away
which might be piloted down for an emergency landing, without apology, among the "games" poems of Popa's Unrest-Field. This is a useful language-nominally quiet, yet precisely by this quiet having its own intensity-useful language for introspection or retrospection, for prying up, as if from underneath some seemingly quite ordinary rock, small and durable treasures. And it is made all the more interesting (as often happens) by current literary context; much recent Canadian poetry tends either to a mode of academic, almost mediaeval, self-absorption (much, though not all, of nominally language- or theory-centred writing) or to the modern version of the "expressive fallacy" that weakens much of the writing of the romantic period, in which the poetry ends up coming across as something like an infomercial for the poet's soul.
I don't want to dwell too much on the Holub connection, but one last point begs to be dealt with, particularly as the publisher and the author strongly stress it. This is the relation of the work to science. There is an interesting contrast here between Holub, who, at the same time as he was writing his poems, was also an actual, and active, physiologist, and Wilson, who, though he has studied physics, is not a physicist. In his introduction to the English translation of Holub's Interferon, or On Theater, the American academic and translator David Young argues that one of the most characteristic features of Holub's writing is his use of metaphor as a form of "hypothesis, an instrument for testing experience through conjecture and experiment," and that this usage is inextricably linked to his experience as a research scientist; to paraphrase: that another mode of thinking is open to him.
Without that intimate connection, use of such "special" knowledge often runs the risk of veering toward the ornamental or, at times, even worse, as if with some intellectual Mrs. Malaprop, of tripping over its own claims to intimacy. In Animate Objects, five poems are located explicitly in the realm of physics or mathematics or both. Unfortunately, for the most part they suffer from these difficulties.
The most successful of the five is "Radio Waves", a brief meditation on the nature of radio waves, which pass through walls, windows, bodies etc. and are, at the same time, just another form of light, whose longer wavelengths make them invisible to us. There is a lovely capriciousness to "Walls do not consider them./ They do not consider walls./ They pass through one another/ without comment." (section 1) or "The setting red sun./ The violet sky./ The spread of light we know well.// But what of/ that sunset only hinted at/ in the crackle of the dial?/" (section 4). Strangely, that meditative accuracy is abandoned in two places in between: in section 2, where we find "Their insistence in corners:/ searching through dust,/ curtains, paper-" (which completely undercuts the perspective of section 1, to no good effect that I can see) or section 3, which begins beautifully with "Because they do not deafen us/ like the waves of the air,// Because they do not crush us/ like the waves of the earth,// Because they do not drown us/ like the waves of the sea" only to end with "We let them sink, taut/ with purpose, into our flesh." (I don't see that there's any "letting" to be done, according to the logic of the rest of the poem, or that the radio waves can in any useful way be said to be "taut with purpose" here.)
As for the ornamental, there is "Elemental", a series of brief semi-descriptions of the properties of selected elements, which, in the section titled "Uranium" begins, "Heavy with electrons/ which makes it unstable" (either false-since even stripped of all its electrons the uranium nucleus is still unstable -or hermetically idiosyncratic). Or the first two sections of "Newton's Laws" (Newton's laws are the "laws" of motion which create a view of the world in which the "kinematical"-those properties related to measurements of distance and time-is distinguished from the "physical"-those properties (forces) related to the interactions of objects with one another). For example, we find "My indifference to velocity/ confuses others." This is simply a recapitulation of a certain piece of special knowledge, and without apparent further purpose, all the more awkward because of its elementary content (from the point of view of physics). In contrast, the third section, based on the third law (which states that "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction"-in everyday terms, if somebody punches me on the chin I at least have the satisfaction of knowing that my chin has hit back at their fist with equal force), makes this law a momentary metaphorical tether for the beautifully self-depreciating "Is it fair to be called/ obsessive just because/ I answer every question,/ respond to every touch?"
Although there are some problems with this book (including the presence of a few poems such as "He" and "Anguished Poet Seeks Self in Verse After Combing Countryside Without Success", whose humour I fear does not survive the hothouse atmosphere of the creative writing class), there are also many delights (beyond those I have already mentioned): much of the haiku of the sequences "Twenty-Four Poets' Haiku on the Colour Green" and "Poets Write Haiku on Office Stationary [sic] During Coffee Breaks", for example, or the William Carlos Williams variation section of "Fascist Haiku". Overall, while one might have wished for a more rigorous editing job from Turnstone Press, which could have considerably strengthened the book as a whole, Animate Objects is an interesting and individual first book, one whose strengths make me look forward with curiosity to what Wilson will do next.
Kim Maltman teaches mathematics at York University and has published over forty papers in theoretical particle physics. He lives in Toronto and, with Roo Borson and Andy Patton, is a member of the collaborative poetry ensemble Pain Not Bread.