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As Natural As Rain
by Bruce Whiteman

POLITICALLY motivated poetry frequently suffers from the self?evident problem that what is effective as a political statement may be bad as poetry, whichever side one is on. All the same, in a world in which numberless regimes take it upon themselves to control what can be said and to treat offenders ruthlessly, the problem of the repression of creative writing has to be a concern of all writers with even a modicum of conscience. The recent international conference of PEN in Toronto and Montreal brought a good deal of attention in the Canadian media to this world?wide problem, and the two books under review here are therefore very timely.

In Spirits of the Age, Mona Adilman (a Montreal poet) .has gathered together in English translation from all parts of the world the work of 35 poets who have suffered in varying degrees from state repression, and whose work re fiects the ongoing struggle of writers ?to write freely. Many of these poems first appeared in the Index on Censorship, and many exist at all only because of various clandestine efforts to smuggle them out to countries where they could be printed openly. Eastern Europe, South America, and the Middle East provide most of the poets here, but the Far East, Africa, and other parts of the world are also represented. Though I read none of the languages represented, the quality of the poems in English is certainly high, with a few predictable lapses in the case of writers whose circumstances are heartbreaking but whose gifts as poets are not commensurate. Royalties from this anthology are being donated to PEN and the Index on Censorship.

Gary Geddes is probably the most persistently political of all contemporary Canadian poets. No Easy Exit, which Oolichan has co?published in a bilingual edition with Casa Canada in Santiago, is the result of a 1987 reading tour to Chile. ?(My Spanish is rudimentary, but as far as I can tell the translation by Chilean poet Gonzalo Millan is faithful ? though I do wonder about "rayada como un caramelo" as a version of "candy?striped"). Geddes's struggle is with the perhaps irresolvable problem that he states in the opening of "little Windows":

It's difficult now to speak of these things. I'd rather describe the way light falls in morning courtyards, on clothes hung out to dry. That child in the doorway turning to the sound of the shutter, half smiling, half indignant And Carmen's hair filling the entire back window of the Peugeot.

In general he manages to concentrate on the representative and revelatory details and to avoid the strident sloganeering a liberal democrat can easily give in to when dealing with a society like Chile's. Some of the glimpses given here of torture and repression are horrifying ("Rats driven into the vagina through a heated pipe"), but they are in the minority. For the. most part Geddes sticks to less brutally explicit testimony, and lets the quiet heroism of his Chilean friends make his point in a context where "We live by the grace/ of past ages, old light/pulsing through millennia."

The politics keeps Geddes pretty honest, and it is only when the lyric impulse gets loose that his weakness as a poet shows up. How any poet who can write the honed and effective diction of "A Small Quiz" ( "I spent a year tending sheep/on Tierra del Fuego./Me, the sheep, the elements. /Politics was naturals rain") can also give in to describing the sun as "[slipping] like a doubloon into the slot?machine/of the Andes" is puzzling. Such lapses are all the more irritating for being few in number. All in all, however, No Easy Exit provides ample proof that poetry can deal with political subject matter and still remain poetry.


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