by Christopher Levenson
AS THE Canadian literary community, for all its geographical spread, is small and incestuous, I should start by stating my interest: about four years ago Vehicule turned down my own proposed new-andselected volume because, as Michael Harris explained, although he liked the poems, they were too much like his own. A well-known Canadian woman writer`s poetry manuscript was returned for the identical reason. Such apparent similarities did not prevent Harris from publishing his own book, In Transit, in 1986, nor has it stopped him from allowing himself 205 pages for his New and Selected Poem. Although I have my doubts about freemarket economics, where poetry is involved it is at least preferable to self-selection by poet-editors, which comes perilously close to vanity-press publishing.
A second problem arises with the expectations behind the phrase "new and selected." Such volumes are usually seen as retrospectives. Here, however, although Harris`s three previous books are listed on the back cover, the poems are grouped thematically without any indication of when particular poems were written or from which books they were taken. Readers are thus at once denied two expected pleasures: that of contemplating the new poems as such and that of tracing the poet`s development over an extended period - in this case 16 years -through successive volumes.
That said, how does this volume stack up against some of the excellent collections by Susan Glickman, Don Coles, and Jan Conn that Vehicule has published over the past 10 years? It is a mixed blessing. The sequence "Turning out the Light," one of the CBC Literary Competition winners in 1985, is superbly harrowing in its account of Harris`s brother`s battle with terminal cancer; the "Death and Miss Emily" poems, about Emily Dickinson, glitter with insights; most of the poems in the "Family Album" section are moving and, as in the evocation of Uncle Edward singing in the bath, characteristically virtuoso in their comic control of cadence and onomatopoeia:
each drip moves like a fishing bob, the winking pink of his penis. Outlandishly it peeks from the bulk of him at the love-songs and war-songs that wheel circling each other above him; it eyes with awe the patient polysyllables he herds like pods of whales for a final sally through the Valley of the Shadow.
Likewise, though sometimes content with little more than genre paintings in his travel poems, his skill in "Barn Swallows" and "Goats, Agios Nikolaos" builds on intense observation of the natural world, and the same talents applied to contemporary urban settings bring poems such as "The Goddess" to life:
In the pulsing Arcades, boys press up against the bright machines, caressing the sides, pumping the last of their money into the slots.
But sometimes Harris tries too hard: in "The Poet," for instance, the joke goes on too long, and too often what starts as genuine wit disintegrates into slickness. Thus in "Siren Songs," "the sailor who plugged his ears up and lashed himself / to the mast had the right idea. Bondage of any sort / is one way of dealing with it." The same tawdry slickness pervades even the prize-winning opening sequence, "Spring Descending," where, despite some excellent individual lines and images, Harris comes across as playing too self-consciously the role of the much older lover, while the second section ("The Force of Love") overbalances on occasion into cuteness, whimsy, or sheer flashiness. Although this volume contains much good poetry, to make its full impact it would have needed a good editor to reduce its bulk by a third or perhaps a half.