||Poetry As Good As Sin
by Richard Stevenson
Some poetic voices take a longer time to evolve than others. They steep or grow in character like a good wine or scotch. The elegiac mode, the self-deprecating wit, the quirky sense of humour, and the eye for detail you need to slip from anecdote to concise incandescent lyric aren’t attributes you find in younger poets’ work very often. But they are attributes Terrence Young exhibits in abundance.
As the title implies, The Island in Winter is a deeply reflective, meditative work: a chronicle of childhood, family, marriage, and middle-age dreams. The fact that this is the author’s first book may come as a surprise, for it certainly doesn’t read like one. It’s not a box of licorice all sorts; there is nothing in it that smacks of the inkwell or creative writing workshop; and it contains none of the usual set pieces, imitative five-finger exercises, or poetic stumblings and pratfalls the reader may have come to expect in first books. The voice is assured, the poet confident and skilled; none of the considerable technique exceeds the grasp. Yet the writing is playful and full of delightful surprises, too.
I particularly like the way the book begins. The title of the first poem sounds like a set piece: one of those serious meditative exercises serious British, middle-aged poets are supposed to engage in when taking stock of a wayward youth, or acknowledging genetic endowments and parental wisdom—“Ten Years After His Death I Examine a Few Lessons My Father Taught Me”. It could be a deliberate parody of a romantic frisson, and it sets the reader up for a humorous treatment of the subject; but it doesn’t stop there. What we get is a loose assemblage of fractured adages, quirky witticisms, and firmly held prejudices and beliefs—the kind of hand-me-down effluvia of advice we remember and cherish our fathers for:
A cheese slice is not a slice of cheese.
Red sky at night means nothing.
Close all gates behind you.
Hemp has more honour than nylon, but any rope
is your friend.
Neatly arranged triplet stanzas reinforce the wit. However, the zany fortune-cookie zen, the arbitrary selection, and the comic juxtapositions don’t create the expected caricature or leave the reader nodding in amusement. Instead, the ending, with its shorter, crisper lines, introduces a note of quiet desperation, and quietly pulls the rug out from under our feet:
Sex is your own affair.
Always pay cash.
Visit the dead.
The loving portrait delivers a double whammy in indicating the debt, but also delivering the news that a man’s principles, finally, are the only bulwark against the time and tide. What we end up with is both a quirky elegy and a sly kind of ars poetica. A paraphrase might go something like this: pay attention to the day-to-day; life is lived in the details; the arrangement is everything, choose carefully; listen attentively; derive your metaphors from real events and careful observation; the way to art is through the craft. It’s a lesson the poet has learned well, and one he passes on in his own self-assured explorations.
Terrence Young has clearly learned his craft and wastes nothing. The rest of the book documents both the requisite middle-aged look-over-the-shoulders and the vicissitudes, responsibilities, and joys of the dedicated husband, parent, lover, good neighbour, and family man at the point when his children are a little older and there’s suddenly a little more room and time for romance and home improvements. The island of the title is Vancouver Island; the other poet is, of course, Patricia Young; the marriage, a good one. While the ecstatic moments may come in a distant second to the more muted pleasures of reflection, acceptance, even acquiescence, the joys are unexpected, full, and rich:
Let us gather round our coffee tables.
Let us hunker down one more time over the
those ambassadors from months gone by.
There we are in Tuscany, Provence.
This one through the shower window:
is that the Mediterranean that gleams
at the end of a valley?
And see, where steam from a vegetable stew
clouds our picture window?
Last winter a boy wrote his name
across its surface and, look,
there it is again.
(“Seasonal Affective Disorder In
The Middle Years”)
This is a wonderful collection of joyful meditations in lyric narrative mode. The bulk of the poems are written in free verse strophes, but the occasional prose poem and exploration of parallel syntax in open form lyric add spice to the mix. Music and image are splendidly handled throughout, and Young is especially adept at creating the telling image (“skin cool as peeled willow”, “biker’s leathered hands flex/and unflex/like two greyhounds/about to eat up a track.”). An auspicious beginning indeed. I must confess, hearing my son rave about his English teacher and seeing the work he put into co-founding and helping sustain The Claremont Review have led me to expect this book for some time now. I’m grateful it has arrived; doubtless his students have been the beneficiaries of the man’s talent for years.
The Green Alembic marks another fine debut. As the title of her collection implies, poet Louise Fabiani is concerned primarily with transformation: in nature and in the human heart.
The alembic was a vessel used in distillation, one of the most important processes in the ancient art of alchemy. Nature and images of the natural world, and close scrutiny of the processes that are fructifying or redemptive or transformative provide this naturalist/poet with the metaphoric crucible to work her own alchemy.
The process begins with the division of the book into the four ancient elements: air, earth, fire, and water. While certainly not reductive, the categories allow the poet to ring the changes we associate with each of these elements in the ancient cosmology.
Basically, the ancients believed all matter was composed the four elements. Earth was associated with the humor, or bodily fluid, of black bile; air with blood; fire with bile; and water with phlegm. Each element produced a corresponding temperament that was outwardly indicated by a man’s complexion. Too much earth produced the melancholic humor; air, the sanguine; fire, the choleric; water, the phlegmatic. In a healthy body, the elements existed in a kind of equilibrium.
Now, a naturalist and science writer (the poet graduated from McGill in biology and obtained a Masters in environmental studies from York) isn’t going to adopt the cosmology obviously; instead, Fabiani uses it as a loose grouping for the archetypal images she employs in her own alchemical wordplay. Indeed, part of the deep pleasure of Fabiani’s work is in finding new metaphors in science and discovering in the language of science an inherent poetry. Consider the way she makes the diction of science and the metaphysical language of the poet amorous bedfellows in this passage from her poem “Bog Man”:
To what rules of nature
does the quiet bog subscribe?
Once, the tannin-rich water
soaked the peat, trickling in
to fill the prints of feet,
an eerie brew of black tea
running from an earth God’s flagon;
the slow slide into decay
resisting the common sense in which
sun, soil, and moisture eventually
made vanish all but tooth and bone.
This isn’t rocket science, of course; it’s largely a matter of getting the syllables to dance, and Fabiani has a wonderful ear as well as a wonderful word hoard with which to work. Occasionally, she misplaces a comma and falters (“ditches that thick, with flowing water,/harboured life” instead of “ditches that, thick with flowing water, harboured life”); but, for the most part, her syntax and imagery dance with as much abandon as that good old gospel tune, “Dem bones”.
She also has a ready wit and can literally find poetry in haute cuisine while simmering a heady bouquet of succulent syllables:
My hands have never caressed
satiny hillocks of strudel dough,
or levitated an egg’s hidden cloud
to make a perfect soufflé
(“The Cook’s Assistant”).
The subject matter—the coming of age of the woman and the scientist in an autobiographical/ anthropological survey of every woman’s rites of passage—is familiar enough terrain, and, as with Young’s work, we’re primarily dealing with naturalistic lyric-narrative. Hence, the work is more accessible than the early work of Christopher Dewdney, say, but every bit as playful in wresting the nomenclature from its procrustean bed of Latinate description.
When she does play with symbolist notions of synaesthesia and frees words from their denotative moorings, she does so with a saucy deliciousness that is just plain fun: “Speak to me pinkly./Murmur to me mauvely” (“Hearing in Colour”). Even the blood caul of menstruation and ovulation get a re-working from the by now traditional feminist/symbolist landscape/mindscape diction: “the pockmarked moon/tugs a flow from the faucet/in my womb”; “the moon smiled wisely and was heeded”; “the eyeless egg felt the nudge/ into the welcome flood”. Even the coming winter blues are handled with a wicked wit as Fabiani rings the changes on the old anaphora of “Monday’s Child” to spell out the particular cobalt that is November:
November is a bronze goddess stripped to
the iron statue within.
November is a Mahler symphony with the
needle stuck on a decrescendo.
November is an erased blackboard.
November laughs at gallows humour.
Again and again, the craft and good humour, the sheer joie de vivre win us over, for even when the metaphors fail to take flight, the diction, rhythms, description, and narrative raise the text above the quotidian. This is a feast of a first book: as tasty as it is provocative.
Finally, we come to Bruce Taylor’s second full-length collection, Facts. The title couldn’t be more mundane or ironic. Even under the searchlight of a decidedly anti-romantic poetics, the rhythms cavort, gambol, leap, mince, shuffle, and stroll while the poetics shift from traditional accentual syllabic to free verse with the melodic invention and abandon of an Ornette Coleman. It’s not other poetry I think of first, but of Gerry Garcia riffing along with Ornette on “Three Wishes” or “Singing In The Shower” from Virgin Beauty. He has the ability to quote, in the musical sense of dropping in on the tradition and picking up this melodic fragment or that, turning it over, turning it around, finding a new use for it, while following his nose through the detritus of our culture, or improvising on a droll fantasia. By turns, laconic, witty, satiric, farcical, and downright hilarious, Taylor plays the language of the quotidian like a kazoo one moment and a plastic saxophone the next.
I haven’t heard contemporary accentual syllabic verse this good for a while. Even when doodling with the ludicrous, Taylor somehow manages to hit a high note of the sublime:
I have doodled a fantastic picture,
definitely worth keeping.
But what does it mean?
It shows a man in black pajamas sleeping
in a black gelatinous machine.
It happens quietly, without commotion.
Your mind is elsewhere. Something interferes
with empty paper and a thing appears:
a madman on a jewelled ocean.
And that is what my poems want as well,
to make things happen, but without exertion
baffling arabesques unfurled
like faxes from the underworld
in one authoritative motion.
What reads at first like an ars poetica, a few lines later becomes a shrewd observation about the genetic doodling inherent in an organism’s DNA:
It does it all without a plan,
lacquering the beetle’s shell,
kinking the horns of a gazelle,
composing tracts of timeless nonsense
in the cursive of the runner bean.
Then a kind of object lesson or homily:
The speechless bulk of the created world
is made entirely out of marginalia,
weird caprices that assail
the central tissues. Oh, to fill the pale
middle of my life with frail
finials and diaphanous rosettes
and have a heart as pink and ruffled
and confused as an azalea!
To read Taylor’s poetry in this collection is to beam down to a strange world of gadgets and twentieth-century castoffs and view it all from an alien perspective, or to take a microbial view of things, to divest nature of the egoistic filtering consciousness of man:
What’s under the mud that schmecks our boots?
A raft of bedsprings lashed with roots,
spavined lumber, cans of glue,
electrical cables, lampreys, newts,
and, if what the neighbours say is true,
the ribs of the horse that once fell through
while pursuing a dog, who’s in there too:
Nonsense verse is never very far away, and the levity helps puncture a lot of pompous thought balloons. The point of view is refreshing, too. The ultimate message might just be to lighten up, but I like the spin the poet puts on it, so let’s give him the last word:
let God do as he pleases.
He loves you approximately as well
as you love yourself.
But if you have to waste your Sundays
begging for help, then pray
for a soul that can know it must die
and not be paralyzed with fear.
Pray for the courage to endure the worst.
Pray for a subtle and respectful mind.
But these are things that you already have.
Nonsense indeed! Facts holds a torch up to “the grinning trophy of the head” and reveals a most rueful grin. This is poetry at least as good as sin. •
Richard Stevenson teaches at Lethbridge Community College. His recent books include A Murder of Crows: New & Selected Poems (Black Moss, 1998 ), a collection of YA verse, Nothing Definite Yeti (Ekstasis Editions), and Live Evil: The Miles Davis Poems (forthcoming from Thistledown Press).