Brian Day's first collection of poetry, Love is Not Native to my Blood, explores the traditional poetic ground of myth and eros, and can be summed up in the story of Narcissus. Nothing is more native to the blood of Narcissus, however, than love, granted it is a love of a rather limited scope¨precisely the kind of perspective with which Day's collection leaves a reader.
Proudly, ostentatiously, "fabulously" gay, Day's poetry will no doubt find an appreciative audience, but the technical and imaginative limitations of the work are frustrating. Poems such as "Pornography and Prayer", "Dream of the White Wall", "From the Ruins", "Cave", "Fairies: Here and Fabulous" and "Fairy School" (the homosexual as "fairy" seems to be the extent of Day's sense of humour) give a homo-erotic perspective to Christian mythology and pagan rites. Re-writings of fairy tales, myths and religious rites are interesting and potentially fruitful in principle, and many such attempts have been pivotal: Walcott's Omeros and some of Rilke's New Poems are examples. However, there is the question of imaginative and, ultimately, ethical scope. I do not, of course, mean that there is anything ethically dubious about homosexuality or homosexual eroticism. Indeed, gay culture plays a significant role in the preservation and development of erotic consciousness generally. I do, though, question an eroticism, an aesthetic and ethic which are, at heart, so narcissistic. Witness the earnest self-importance of the collections' opening poem, "Like Dreams and Each Species of Love", where Art "directs its imperatives solely at me," leaving our poet "accosted by the broken stories of gods, / by unreadable fragments of figures and script/ that I, unassisted, must somehow complete." Or "Narcissus at the Pool" which plunges into 'the liquid unbroken mirror' to find:
This man who... leaves me wet as he turns at the wall:
He is me; his shape, his smoothness and style
My own ű as if I'd been lifted to face
My own swimming and watch my matching half.
I'm drawn to him in pure Platonic lust,
Seeing in him what is manly and most
Like myself. I want to have him, to have
Myself doubled by such flesh and made whole.
The mythologizing and allegorizing are often theoretical as opposed to lived, and fantasial as opposed to nuanced with the risk of particularity. There are ideas about life and people, but no life or people. (The aesthete who spurns the "mundane world" where most of us must live is bound to get on one's nerves.) The poems on mythological and legendary subjects leave a reader cold, while, when Day does write more directly about homosexual and religious experiences, the imagery often seems taken from a dirty magazine, as in the flexed, sweaty chest and flaring back muscles of the object of desire in "Faithful to Him"; or these lines from "Watching":
We pull off our shirts
in a single motion,
unbutton our jeans,
and present ourselves
for view. He leans back,
taut, hips pressed to mine,
the strain of our bracing
unshaping his mouth.
... [H]e is so close
my hand reaches out,
nearly to the glass
before it knows to stop.
If you missed it, this too is about auto-eroticism: that "he" is a reflection in a mirror¨ which, unsurprisingly, is the central metaphor of the collection. Love is not Native to My Blood is meant as a defense and celebration of male homosexuality, except there is not, I think, a single "you" in the poetry; i.e., not even the pronoun, let alone any believable, significant other; every "he" is a self-portrait; and every "I" masked and postured, bound by clichT and caricature, by a static and obsessively self-concerned vision and guilty defiance.
Day's static vision lends itself, we shouldn't be surprised, to a static line. While Day's collection evidences a competent and knowledgeable handling of forms and metres, his scansion betrays a limited imagination: iambic pentametre and tetrameter with pyrrhic substitutions, trochees at the ends of lines (indeed, some lines seem to be anapestic) so dominate the poetry that, since the reader may feel excluded from the social, psychological and ideological context of the work he isn't likely to accept the sometimes almost hypnotic effect of the repetitive metres, and thus grow bored with the mechanical clanking (one example of too numerous: "The table was laid like a funeral before him, / Forbidding with lilies indulgence in grief" ("Banquet of Flower"). Unsurprisingly, some of the poetry is marked by slightly archaic, precious syntax and diction and cheap alliteration to boot: "a flip-flop flew from his fleeing feet" ("Cinderella: Ashes at the Baths").
If Day's work takes its metaphors too literally and grinds itself out in repetitive metres, Jason Camlot's The Animal Library is ironic about such traditional poetic devices and themes, sacrificing the transcendent and sustaining aspects of poetry for notes and images which turn on ambivalence and instability. The Animal Library is a witty, surrealistic yet somewhat academic collection which explores themes of identity, art, love and loss. The relativity of such concepts is implied both in individual poems and in the architecture of the whole collection with its four sections. For example, the opening section "Animal Histories" explores autobiographical material: Camlot's imagination is deeply marked by his being the son of a furrier: "I am made of musk and violence and have browsed my life away/ among rings of skins hung in rows, my own animal library" ("Yellowknife"). These poems are also haunted by the Jewish Holocaust during the Second World War (family members were victims) making the images of young Camlot's domestic life all the more horrific and ironic. Compiling "Animal Libraries", making poems out of animal skins (note the evocation of the origins of paper and the book), suggests a recourse to creative art as a refuge for identity, or at least a page on which such a crisis can be played out: "Who are you hiding from/ wearing a skin that isn't your own?"
Browsing the skins now, the sheets of your past,
thinking how to draw close and see what you love,
you are shedding your fears, growing into a new
for skinning the works of those you love most.
You are looking for your head, too,
chasing your tail,
walking the stacks in million-word house.
This section is immediately followed by "Kit Schubert" where animal skins have been replaced with books and other artifacts of the (both high and low) cultural realm (specifically from music and the fine arts). The sequence of narratives of encounters with various cultural figures and aesthetic media is self-consciously about the constant creation of an identity. The implication is that though art is a form in which identity seeks concrete fulfillment, it turns out to be artificial, problematic, and relative. This ironic structure applies to the two other sections of Animal Library: "Penny Pleasures" is to "Animal Histories" as "A'mber" is to "Kit", though this last section, "A'mber", is even more ironic with its highly informal, experimental use of language, suggesting a more complete breakdown of identity and communication; yet the fact remains that the verse is merely witty and a reader is unlikely to invest, emotionally, in the work.
Rich in ideas and wit, Animal Library is also technically experimental (varieties of vers libre dominate but, considering Camlot is a song-writer, the work is disappointing. Unique and prodigious in its imagery ("Tu Fu" is particularly beautiful), it lacks a sense of rhythm. Exceptions prove the case: "In the Anger's Chamber" and "Derbyland" are very fine lyrics of suggestive imagery and memorable rhythm:
There used to be the force of law,
and on each bridge a cutting saw.
The musicians would bend and bow
and later fell their lovers low.
Now no one sees the public square
where bandits swung and children stared,
where minstrels hummed arousing airs,
and infant guns were born in pairs.
If Day and Camlot explore notions of the self, the other, love and loss through masks, Mark Sinnett moves radically in the other direction: autobiographical transparency. Masks, however intellectually useful and careful, distance us from experience, while Sinnett's objective is to reduce that emotional distance. Some Late Adventure of the Feelings is a collection of 50 love poems to the same lover: such books are rare; rarer still are those that work, engaging the reader in the story and characters. Sinnett's book works because, beyond the easy accusation of obsessiveness and sentimentality, a reader is convinced and moved by the work's emotional integrity and aesthetic consummation. Vulnerability and insecurity are at the heart of romantic love, and Some Late Adventure of the Feelings is anxiously haunted by the absence or imminent departure of the beloved¨for the lover's identity is absolutely linked to the beloved. The pace of the poetry and the metaphoric invention never lets up.
The emotional and aesthetic logic of Sinnett's work is simple and very effective: the dominant subject is the beloved's absence or the threat of absence; the dominant tense is the present (more often than not the present progressive) because the beloved is either here now or not, and that's all that matters to the anxious lover. Metaphor, therefore, ranges widely and wildly in order to draw the world¨not just the present visible, but the past and the future¨into the present in order to overcome the anxiety of absence: to re-create the beloved and the love as always here and now ("S. [the beloved] has become sewn already into myriad circuits / and set above all temporary things" ("State")). Any and every object or situation is connected to the beloved ("Nothing to be examined too closely, is how this / new union feels..." ("Beetle")). The predominantly long lines and sophisticated syntax of Sinnett's poetry are a logical result of this anxiety and metaphoric quest: to cut the sentence and its metaphors short would be to abandon the need to re-create the present world in the face of love: "[W]ith these/ roughed-in words I aim for the same / connection, and I suppose also to direct, / in some localized fashion, time's traffic..." ("Coast"); "making dodgy / and a few less-so connections, knitting them together / so that something more than the first simple web / might rise eventually from the swamp" ("Hay-On-Wye"). Sinnett's line is guided not by intellectual wit [with it's logic of critical analysis or provocative, absolute-seeming short declarative sentences) but by the heart; by a sincerity in trying to understand the fatal effect of love which makes the all-now-here vital ("I cradle still the absence of her / and the need to explain." ("Poppies")].
Sinnett is conscious of the risk he takes in the collection ["I run the risk of a piece sentimental / and mawkish" ("Plainsong")]; and, unlike Day, he is humble about his work: "To do / not much more than cast words lightly / at the paper, have them arrive on the breath / rather than try very hard to leave anything / indelible" ("What it is Floods"). The image of "scribbling" poetry in a "drifting" life is a persistent one, and wholly commensurate with the goal of the work. And, despite the sentimental commitment, Sinnett is implicitly aware of the ironies of this project: that the beloved is the source and the goal of the poetry, and she can stop it dead in its tracks: "the apprehension" of an image of her is "poem-stopping" ("The Pine Room"). But more often, of course, the beloved's presence "staggers" the poet into realizing
the rippling depth-charge boom of your presence
in my world, or me in yours. Your hand this instant
rests on the edge of my horizon like an oar that
sweep through water evaporated, urge the poem
on and, with its secular grace, move me also.
It is this "secular grace", instead of Day's righteous rites or Camlot's textual kit, which earns a reader's trust. ˛
Geoffrey Cook is a poet and English teacher at John Abbott College in Montreal.