The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh|
by Rob Mclennan
Manitoba Highway Map
by Rob Mclennan
Bury Me Deep In The Green Wood
by Rob Mclennan
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|Stacking Books Like Dominoes
by Maxianne Berger
Last June, the Canadian Authors Association honoured rob mclennan with its Air Canada Award for most promising Canadian writer under thirty. In 1998, the Ottawa-based poet, book reviewer, editor, publisher, reading-series coordinator, poetry-festival organizer, and book-fair director counted among his publications a score-plus of chapbooks, Notes on Drowning (Broken Jaw Press), and Written in the Skin (Insomniac), an anthology which he edited. In 1999, the energetic mclennan has scored a publishing hat trick.
Divided into four sections of loosely related poems, bury me deep in the green wood connects personal, historic, and mythical pasts to the here and now. A poetics of place is manifest throughout: from Eastern Ontario’s Glengarry County, where mclennan was raised, to contemporary Canadian urban centres.
The poet is at his best when indulging in deft verbal play and precise imagery. For example, mclennan ironically calls attention to the title idiom’s literal meaning in “house on fire”. The described event of his father’s youth leads to this vivid memory from his own:
where we as children, ran rampant thru the charred foundation, topping off weeds & wildflowers w/ sticks
Just the right combination of details is also what makes mclennan’s “richard brautigan” poems so sensual. These are carefully crafted, each line shifting the image slightly, as in “richard brautigan 1975”: its not the falling in love I have a hard time w/, its that sudden stop at the end. the long drop & coils of rope. edges. frayed.
The Zen koan in “richard brautigan 1984”, unfortunately, recalls its previous use in the second section’s “I didnt plunge to drown, I leapt”. And “The sound of one hand clapping” has become hackneyed: one repetition too many; some would say, two too many.
mclennan presents himself in the narrating persona, lending a story-teller quality to the voice. There are times, though, when the resulting poem comes across as a journal entry (“a big yellow haze over cooper street”).
Yet this same persona and the ordinary minutiae it reports can work quite powerfully. “everyone is shooting each other” begins with a news item: the Drummondville man who returned “home/to the bodies of his nine-year-old son/& the mother who pulled the trigger.” The poem then meanders into the mundaneness of the poet’s life: an evening with a friend after a reading; going to a bar; conversations; other patrons. This catalogue of no consequence sets up the ending:
we talk about nothing — jobs,
travel. we talk about poetry & someone laughs.
in drummondville, as a key finds the familiarity
of a front door lock.
When mclennan takes his observations of the quite ordinary and peoples the poems with far-from-ordinary beings, he is spot-on. The eight-part “Book of the Hours” wonders, “what happens to the old gods/once all the believers/have gone?” The poem delivers a quirky admixture of myth and the mundane, as promised by such titles as “where osiris closes down the underworld, retires to a cottage in suffolk, england” and “seth smokes a cigarette & rediscovers continuity”.
It can be discerned from these lines that, save for the “I”, mclennan uses no capitals, avoids apostrophes, abbreviates “with” and “without” to “w/” and “w/out”, and simplifies the spelling of the “-ough” words. The one exception—a spelled-out “though” in the final line of “I wrote a poem where you were laughing”—had me wondering whether some deeper meaning was intended.
These devices, which call to mind e.e.cummings and bill bissett, help make mclennan’s written voice distinctive, if not totally new. In Manitoba highway map, he maintains the same style. This “poem sequence” in six parts lays out observations, impressions, phrases from road-side signs, and snatches of conversation—all written during a cross-Canada reading tour undertaken in 1998 with four other poets.
The collage of snippets has a wonderful cumulative effect, and succeeds in conveying the overall gestalt of landscape whizzing past a moving car. But it yields little context for individual words, and semantic closure can be a real challenge when spelling becomes personal. Because, in Manitoba highway map, mclennan affects yet another orthographic device. In part III, one finds the phrase “towerd grain”. Is this a typo for “toward”? I wondered. It took me several readings to grasp what mclennan was doing here.
Like Milton and Shakespeare before him, mclennan has removed the “e” from the past tense of regular verbs. The canonical duo elided the neutral vowel to ensure proper meter in the days of shifting pronunciation. But mclennan, staying true to his non-use of apostrophes, simply keeps the “d” or changes it to a “t”, according to today’s pronunciation: droppt, filld, crackt, pulld—and towerd. The gimmick adds texture to his written voice, but (in one case at least) detracts from clarity.
Despite the occasional confusion resulting from unusual spelling, the poetic sequence is highly readable, and there are many wonderful moments. There is a lovely sense of movement conveyed by lines like the following from part II:
stacking municipalities like dominos, one drops against the other
In part V, the fear of encroachment is expressed:
true lies & antelope grazing & twist
theres one walking due perfect north
how long before they turn this into
golf courses, fifteen green
& four par, gazelles dancing past a richochet
Throughout the sequence, the sense of space is enlarged by an ingenious layout: all segments rest on the bottom margin instead of descending from the top. This inversion of convention subtly effects a concrete-poem equivalent to the prairie sky.
There is a return to urban landscapes in mclennan’s third collection of 1999, The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh. Its cover, designed by Adam Swica, superimposes over a stylized cityscape the silhouette of a ghostly fisherman hooking what is presumably a large trout.
The title is daring because, beyond honouring the late American novelist-poet, it also invites comparison with Brautigan’s work. Though this is mclennan’s strongest book of 1999, and despite biting irreverence and cultural savvy, however, it is not yet of the same calibre.
Icons and symbols of twentieth-century popular culture are featured in many of the poems: Elvis, Bogart, comic-book heroes. One of mclennan’s strengths as a poet is his ability to use these figures, so removed from our real lives, in order to say something about us. In “homage a walter gretsky”, for example, it is with the simple act of waving to The Great One’s father that mclennan evokes the eternal boyhood of grown men who continue to play hockey for fun. And it is hard to live in Canada and not know such men.
Two poems stand out for the strength of effect achieved through subdued language. mclennan juxtaposes the aftermath of a neighbourhood fire to a failed relationship in “fire, newspapers, cigarettes, etc.” The final lines can then transcend the literal: “nothing remains of the red brick building./its winter.” (Readers must recall that mclennan continues to avoid apostrophes, and read “it’s” for “its”.)
The poet achieves a veritable tour de force with “clare & bryan, years later”. The first section of the poem might be complete in itself for many poets. It consists of a series of finely crafted, lyrical images, such as:
in the passage of years, the slow paint of shadow thru the interior
In the second section, mclennan moves the six stanzas around, the changed order resonating differently in the reader. In the third and fourth sections, normal syntax is confused as all the elements become more and more intertwined. But having read the earlier versions, a reader can impose sense on the result.
this weather, seen last thru grey, mesmerized, a lightning hill, slow for rain, raises
for bags her costumes
It is not clear whether mclennan has used this technique to convey loss of memory from aging or from absence, but either way, it makes a fine poem—and one the average reader can grasp more easily than a “traditional” l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poem.
In this collection, as in the previous ones, mclennan himself seems to be wearing the transparent mask of a narrating persona. In the concluding poem, part 10 of “confectionary airs”, he comments,
my ex-wife says im self-obsessed but i say
self-aware, an arguement in the end
i think im losing
i am beginning to understand
the need for personal story
after all these years, finally
learning how to write
mclennan may be right on all three counts. Too often his “i”, newly reduced to lower-case, draws more attention to the narrating self than to what it says. This is unfortunate because personal stories are worth telling, and the book’s writing is strong—certainly too strong for that library in Brautigan’s The Abortion. But then, there are no published books in that library.
Maxianne Berger’s poetry collection, How We Negotiate, was recently published by Empyreal Press.