by Brian Bartlett
Pale As Real Ladies:
Poems for Pauline Johnson
by Joan Crate,
by Steven Heighton,
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|Man Of Steel
by Maurice Mierau
STEVEN HEIGHTON'S first book of poems, Stalin's Carnival, is a promising if uneven debut. The first section carries the Blakean title "Energy is Eternal Delight," and it features what is probably the strongest poem in the collection, "Icarus." The choice of subject is no accident, because Heighton's aesthetics are rooted in the great modernist poets: William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Dylan Thomas. "Icarus" climaxes with this account of its hero:
And because every feat is a fall into broken silence, like any creator for him to win is to disappear, as a poet, moving becomes the surface of a page ....
Heighton is perhaps more willing to talk about process than his modernist forebears and his work also has a darkly romantic vein that is quite attractive.
The second section of Heighton's book, titled "Ashes on the Earth," is the most interesting and uneven. In it Heighton explores the fascinating transformation of Josef Stalin from what the book blurb calls "romantic poet" to "fascist butcher." There is some awkward psychologizing here that doesn't work very well. "Ekaterina" is in Stalin's voice and attempts to recreate his feeling about the death of his first wife: "With her death the last shards of compassion in me/Are crushed." On the other hand, "1921: An Order to the Red Army near Rostov" is chilling and entirely convincing. Again in Stalin's voice, Heighton gives us the powerful, unnerving sense of the dictator's mind:
History stalls without electricians. Rusts. I am a conductor. I have gripped live wires in my fist and felt currents pulse in my fibres like blood.
A number of the poems are presented as "translations" of Stalin's own youthful poetic efforts. These are probably the least successful parts of Stalin's Carnival. Heighton even has a young poet who has rewritten some of Stalin's work appear in "Testament." After angrily rejecting the young man, Stalin admits to himself that the reworked poems were "beautifully written, much better, I think, than the originals." This comes dangerously close to Heighton writing his own book's review, and would have been a good place for some editorial intervention.
At his best, Heighton transforms the rhetoric of dictatorship into poetic occasions; his Stalin "carves from the body of the world an order hewn in his own image." In the book's final section, "Man to the Hills," he offers an alternative to the brutal modernity of the dictator. Violence of various sorts is again a thematic preoccupation, but a resilient lyric voice is always in the background. Heighton is already an ambitious and very accomplished writer, and his next collection should make that even more obvious.
Brian Bartlett's Planet Harbour is a quieter first book than Heighton's, and in some ways it's too quiet altogether. Bluegrass in Japan" winds down like this: 'Walden's ice melts, Schubert's quintet/brings on the dessert. Day ends..." Consolation is one of the things poetry provides, but here it seems like an overexploited virtue.
Some of Bartlett's stylistic choices are a little grating too. His attraction to unusual diction in poems like "Vociferous" -- "Jeer, jeer, ye/unnamables" -- is hard to swallow either as humour or as flashy technique. The heavy use of alliteration also strikes me as overwriting; lines like "shocked, vestigial-shaped, vivid" in "An Eft on Noonmark Mountain" are more distracting than intense.
None of this is to say that Bartlett isn't worth reading. The title of the second section, "River There, River Here," is a beautiful piece, as is "Melville Celebrates His 19th Year as Customs Inspector." Bartlett seems to be at his best when the poems are least tampered with, as is "Among the Rows at 7 p.m.":
A brawny red god shot arrows into ash trees, and our ancestors stepped out of the bark
The last section is a sort of travel journal about Israel, and is the most readable part of the collection. "Love Poem During a Weather Report" is cleanly written and moving, as is "The Multiplication of Windows."
Joan Crate's collection of" Poems for Pauline Johnson" attempts the same kind of psychological ventriloquism that Heighton achieves with his poems about Stalin. "I will frame your history on a white page," she notes self-consciously in "Story-teller," and that is exactly the problem. The page is very white and Crate's book is very literary. Pale as Real Ladies is a deliberate Journals of Susanna Moodie revisited, but the revisitation is not very enlightening. "I write poems for you.... I re-invent you," Crate writes in a prologue, but she seems only to have discovered a mask for herself rather than much insight into Pauline Johnson. Other than adding a bit of postmod selfparody, I'm not convinced that Crate has done much more than dress up a book of lyric poems. When she writes (in Johnson's voice) that "to have you hear my voice,/I will turn any trick at all," the voice seems self consciously fashionable, and not particularly distinctive. There are moments when Crate realty connects with her subject. "I am a Prophet" presents a voice that is genuinely frightening:
For ten bucks I will show you every scar on my body. Another ten, you can make your own.
Crate is capable of writing very well; if she shakes off some of her anxiety about influences she no doubt will.