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Inventional Attitudes
by Clint Burnham

THE MOST IMPORTANT event in 20th-century Canadian poetry was no doubt the shift in the early `60s from a naturalistic or socialrealist modernist poetry to a more formally engaged, experimental poetry. While there is a degree of continuity between the older modernist verse (here, Raymond Souster) and the latest attempt at revolt (here, Nancy Shaw), the poetic revolution ought to be a permanent one, as you`ll see from the appalling formal conservatism of some of the work under review here. And the poets themselves aren`t the only culprits. Shaw`s and Souster`s books are exceptions to the curious rule that there exists a real dearth of poetry editing (the phrase seems like an oxymoron) in this country. Shaw`s collection of poetry, Scoptocratic (ECW, 93 pages, $12 paper), announces its sophisticated agenda with the title - I thought it had something to do with scopophilia, the feminist semiotics of the male voyeuristic gaze, but "scoptic" is also an obsolete word meaning satirical or scornful and, finally, a bard! This complex of meaning certainly demonstrates Shaw`s delightful attitude to convention. Prose and verse mix it up on almost every page, imaginary or unnamed films are "summarized" in pseudotheoretical ways, and it all gets slippery and funny, as in this passage from "Opening Shot": Circular pan on ceiling - across the stars moving along the bar. Two men sit drinking martinis. The music stops at some heightened moment, the clink of the glasses and simultaneous sips -preparations for the opening round. Other shots can include shimmering glasses, drags of cigarettes, looks in the eye, laughter. All is anathema. The effect is vertiginous, as various "shots" and "rounds" (guns, camera, drinks) exist in a montage. In addition to intermingling theoretical and "poetical" discourses, Shaw can also use sparser, lyric forms to suggest by absence and disjointed syntax as much eroticism as you`d find in an entire novel: A warm overweening enforce their least they were sin blanket loin ("Hair in a knot") As a friend recently remarked to me, Raymond Souster is the Toronto poet: not merely in terms of longevity, or oeuvre, or even subject matter, although certainly his achievements in all of these areas are important. This is particularly evident in his latest volume, which has the curious title Collected Poems, Volume Seven, 1987-88 (Oberon, 288 pages, $29.95 cloth). The poems are partly from a "discovered" series written in the `40s, so the breadth of Souster`s work is immediately evident. All of the familiar Toronto topoi are here: Sunnyside, Keele and Bathurst streets, streetcars. These images are linked in the series of love poems to Souster`s wife. And what`s compelling about the love poetry, whether old or new, is its beguiling (and hence embarrassing) modesty of artifice: From the first moment I saw you across the bedlam of that office room (me, airman with his wings well clipped, walking the bumpy tarmac of reality, you, wild Prairie rose, transplanted to a hothouse Toronto) ("From the first moment I saw you") In typical Souster fashion, the ascetic imagery belies its metaphorical self-reference: the "well clipped" airman is also the poet with a reticent romanticism. The worn-out female flower images only make sense, in this collection, as part of the continuing return to a notion of Toronto`s essential inhospitability. Shaw`s rhetoric and Souster`s metaphors, then, are aggressively selfconscious: it`s too bad the rest of the books I`m reviewing here are only self-conscious in a bad way. I don`t like to trash poetry, since it`s a wonder any gets published these days, and no doubt less will as the legacy of Tory rule continues to wreak havoc on small literary publishers. But keep in mind that to find these other four books to discuss I had to read through an equal amount of even worse stuff. Joan Finnigan`s Wintering Over (Quarry, 154 pages, $15.95 paper) is a tepid documentary poem, a poem-version of those horrible film-strips we used to endure in grade five social studies. Ostensibly about pioneers in the Ottawa valley in the late 19th century, the poem just ends up being about the usual stale themes: uncharted country, mystical miscegenation, etc., etc. When Finnigan isn`t churning out warmed-over AtwoodMoodie poesy, she reaches for verse-drama: POET Listen! In every night of the world home is love`s long-standing relationship to wind ("Songs from Both Sides of the River") As for Artie Gold`s The Beautiful Chemical Waltz: Selected Poems (The Muses` Company, 108 pages, $12 paper), the key problem is inadvertently pointed to by George Bowering in his introduction, when he says that Gold "is an erudite collector of history`s hippest poets - in that way he was usually ahead of his peers, reading Mayakovsky when they were reading something from their highschool textbook or Rolling Stone." I`m not exactly sure who "history`s hippest poets" are (although I`m sure George knows), or how that snobbery differs from the catch-up smarminess of Rolling Stone, but Gold`s work suffers by comparison with some of the poets he mentions (Mayakovsky), dedicates to (Stephen Rodefer), or emulates (Louis Zukofsky). Gold works most obviously with a commodified version of the `60s poetic revolution, all terseness and selfreference mixed with ambiguous sprawl: The piano is the poem itself, not an instrument of background if there were to be a landscape with the river a single line on it, maybe a rag doll ("The poem I am writing") Gold gets off the occasional funny bit, as in "Phrase book": "there is too much wrong with this soup for me to accept it." But there`s too much cute stuff here - all dashes and parentheses, "w" for "with," and lines in full capitals - so what poetry there is gets lost in the hipness. Marianne Bluger`s Summer Grass (Brick, 74 pages, $10.95 paper), however, is just lame; here you have the sort of polite, dandyish poetry that will turn the uninitiated off the art like nothing else: but behind a sagging shed we found clumped fern - maidenhair of thin black stem with every Up a beaded drop arching luxuriantly green ("Up by Ladysmith") Now, "sagging shed" isn`t bad to look at or pronounce, but I for one can`t stand plants being mentioned in pseudo-realist Poems, and the adverb "luxuriantly" should be banished from poetry for the next century at least. But mostly her work is closed, by which I mean that the poems offer hermetic statements that refuse any role to the reader. This is the entire poem "Liberated": In this age for a woman to think her man king`s anachronous a thing ridiculous as court brass would be blaring down Bank huzzas for the dead Louis Quatorze pity me sisters but there it is There`s so much wrong with this poem that it`s hard to know where to start: the clunky syntax of the second and seventh lines, the Ontario-centrism of referring obscurely to (I guess) an Ottawa street, the inexplicable ugliness of "anachronous" and "huzzas" (showing a lack of ear), and, finally, the offensive smugness of the closing lines that unwittingly deconstructs the poem`s title. Last is Patrick White`s The Benjamin Chee Chee Elegies (General Store, 102 pages, $12.95 paper), for an Ojibway artist who died young and tragically at the beginning of a promising career. Here we have all the standardized ideas of the tragic artist joined to the doomed Native: do you dance till dawn by the cooling waters of the lake your spirit the borrowed pulse of the earth are you struck by the white shells hurled from the otter slings of the medicine men (XVI) White`s poetry demonstrates the continuing use by nonNative writers of a dubious rhetoric that imprisons Natives in some mystical relationship with an eternal "earth" - Chee Chee`s spirit is a "borrowed pulse," whatever that means. The so-called elegies also betray a frightening lack of talent, or ear, or whatever is required to avoid lines like the following: no name on your grave nothing cut by the living into the blank marble that protrudes out of the earth like a large toenail. (XIX) As I noted at the outset, the four books I`ve been most critical of here seem to demonstrate a double failing in poetry publishing in this country: too many writers are being published by too many presses that don`t pay enough attention to editing or selection. People will always write bad poetry; that doesn`t mean it has to be published. Especially when there are younger writers like Nancy Shaw producing innovative, compelling work that deserves to be read.

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