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Poet'S Corner
by Maurice Mierau

READING A HEFTY pile of poetry books for a round-up review is a bit like being trapped in a room with a dozen salespeople. You get collared, buttonholed, stroked, offended, entertained, bored - and it`s not easy to describe the experience. Erotic metaphors, allusions, and jokes abound, though, and there`s something very Canadian about the constant sublimation of the erotic into product. In a way this is the only thing the books I`ve been trapped in a room with have in common: the best succeed through repression, and the worst are strident and brash. Perhaps Irving Layton`s erotic poetry is the model here, demonstrating that Canadian poets are better off with their buttons up. Lesley-Anne Bourne`s The Story of Pears (Penumbra, 78 pages, $9.95 paper) has a subtlety and technical skill that`s rarely displayed in a first book. The short lines and tightly controlled line breaks often lead to second and third readings of these poems, as you navigate the emotional and syntactic uncertainties that coil around them: ... In the afternoon by the livingroom window she`d count everything - waves, daughters in the yard, meetings my father went to instead of dinner. Even with the careful construction, there`s a lot of emotional power here, and there`s range of subject too. Only in "Fat Man" and "Mahler`s Thoughts of You" are there traces of immaturity; "Fat Man" seems to be mainly for shock effect, and the admonition "to listen to Mahler" seems intended for culture effect. The book succeeds by excess of restraint; occasional bursts of emotional energy reveal a poet who may need to lose a little more control, but Bourne`s second collection will certainly be worth watching for. John Barton`s Great Men (Quarry, 96 pages, $10.95 paper) is his fourth book of poems; its epigraphs are from Margaret Atwood and Constantine Cavafy, and this is a good way to situate Barton`s style. He can move from being cool and detached-sounding, in "Sustenance": This is love, the repeated cracking of shells, the release from form, from expectations that enclose us, illusions that hold us apart... to the moving and erotic effect of the last two stanzas beginning I tuck my hand under your bath robe / where your heart is...." Barton also has something of Cavafy`s emotional directness at times: "I want to tell you I love you, / but can`t. We are all / children unable to cry"- from the cycle "Hidden Structure . " Barton describes his book as a "coming-out story," but he`s much too good a writer to fall into the kind of combination soft-core porno and gushy romanticism that this genre often embraces. "Those who love shall love / no matter how the bodies join," he writes, and this is a Canadian voice that hasn`t become too Greek for us to believe. Great Men is a finely tuned collection of meditations on the erotic life. At the other extreme is Pierre Morency`s A Season for Birds (Exile Editions, 125 pages, $15.95 paper), translated by Alexandre L. Amprimo; it`s an aggressively heterosexual, overheated bilingual edition of Morency`s work from 1967 to the late `80s. In "june" he employs one of his recurring feminine metaphors: "june / spread out on the lawn in the yard / the day is wide open like a flower"; in "my footbridge," "morning broadens when your hips appear," and most frequently he writes about woman-as-boat, for example in "the wool and waterfall poem": "I suddenly brailed all the ropes / and trimmed her rigging." The back cover assures us that Morency is "one of the few Quebec poets who speaks of ... women as women, and not as the femme-pays (`Iand-womar`)." Perhaps this is Amprimoz`s academic stamp of approval, his guarantee that Morency will not fall into crass archetypalism, associating the body of women with the body of the earth. The reader has nothing to fear on this score, since the book is more like a poetic version of Woody Allen`s film, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). But Allen meant to be funny, and by the time you get to the 10th poem about Morency and his lover as ships, "on desire`s deep quay," you`ll be ready for something not quite so steamy. Maybe it`s the translation. Linda Rogers`s Woman at Mile Zero (Oolichan, 62 pages, $9.95 paper) carries an erotic charge in its packaging: there`s a monochrome photograph of Rogers in a tight black-leather outfit emerging from the ocean on the front cover, and the same image is reversed on the back. The book consists of short, paragraphlength prose poems, many of them dream sequences. There`s a playful wit in some of the writing that matches the cover art: My children fall like snowflakes out of my skirt. I line them up in sections ... and make them promise ... not to mate with extraterrestrial beings. But Rogers seems to accept the postmodern notion that writing poetry in North America is a risky and even sexy proposition, like putting your life savings in junk bonds: "We could make love on the glacier. It would be less dangerous than writing poems." The truncated, somewhat predictable shock effects of many of the poems contradict this idea; when Rogers writes that "This is my reality; falling and falling and feeling everything - trying to find the words," I get the feeling that she hasn`t found the words yet. Woman at Mile Zero strives for the condition of a European art film, and succeeds only intermittently. The only book that uses traditional rhyme and metrics is Barry Dempster`s The Unavoidable Man (Quarry, 74 pages, $10.95 paper). It is filled with Catholic imagery, but is Audenesque in style: "Father`s / voice passes over row on row, the / awful radar of an angel`s sword" This style has a cold, glittery effect for me, and distracts from the emotional content of the work in much the same way as the shock tactics of Woman at Mile Zero. The technique is often brilliant, for example in "Singing" - "No doubt the sound is / awful to the disinclined: the twisted larynx of the saint." The "swallowed / faith!` of this poem seems parallel to the swallowed emotion of this work: everything is a little too neatly placed. It`s as if the decibel level has been turned down so as not to offend the neighbours. Still, it would be unfair not to recognize Dempster as one of the most technically accomplished poets in the country. "Picasso`s Eyes" and "Holding Father" are both outstanding poems that fuse technique and feeling quite beautifully. The most mis-packaged book in the group is Charles Noble`s Let`s Hear It for Them (Thistledown, 64 pages, $9.95 paper). The front cover is adorned with a painting of a farmer`s boots striding toward a distant combine, with stubble underfoot and the prairie sky overhead. The back cover quotes a review that says Noble "is to Canadian poetry, perhaps, what Sam Shepard is to American drama." This assessment is about as accurate as saying that Pierre Berton is the Eugene lonesco of Canadian letters. But judge for yourself: Reading this tale in the crop cracks me up a bit but 1 think my rainbow figuring haywire now who`d think X-tended wooloves blanch, cut out to be cutting in? I`m the punched-up mouse and the Hegel`s over. This is more like Gerard Manley Hopkins on acid. Right from the book`s first line (`A naked woman takes leaves of our senses") the eroticism here is largely that of the pun or the punning literary reference: PS How`s the farm doing in Banff/ moveable east? This is pail supply side parody for does writing give fanning to fanning at least? It`s hard to be this unrestrained, albeit bookish, and come off as anything but silly. Brenda Brooks`s Somebody Should Kiss You (Gynergy, 56 pages, $8.95 paper) is the best example in this group of what happens when a poet gets too excited. The cover provocatively displays a vertical, sixinch-high pair of lips, with deliberate ambiguity about what kind of lips they are. The poems are drenched in a fog of adolescent hominess: Come to me as you come to a place that whispers removal of clothing The language seldom rises above this level of banality, although sometimes it works just because it`s direct and emotional: how filled I am with wanting her how it flows down the sides of things "Under These Circumstances," on the other hand, is a very fine political poem, and it`s also one of the few that doesn`t take constant randiness as its subject matter. The problem is really the lack of emotional range, as reflected in the monochromatic language: I`m amazed that anyone who lives in as expensive a city as Toronto could think and write about sex so incessantly.

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