by M. Travis Lane
by Deanna Young
by Sue Wheeler
Post Your Opinion
|The Everyday Matters
by Christopher Doda
"Nothing is too small to say" is a line from M. Travis Lane's "Solar Remission," the opening poem in Keeping Afloat, that could easily serve as a motto for Lane's collection as well as for Sue Wheeler's Slow-Moving Target and Deanna Young's Drunkard's Path. All three poets chronicle the dense minutiae of daily life, be it the rural outdoors or the domestic realm, placing themselves in a modernist tradition of William Carlos Williams on one hand, and Gertrude Stein (of Tender Buttons) on the other. Both Williams and Stein could, in their respective ways, make the reader reconsider plain objects and mundane situations by elevating them beyond their routine uses. In terms of emulating that achievement, Young here is the most successful.
Deanna Young is a poet in love with the commonplace world, a world she regards as both signpost and saviour: "We believe/in everyday things, in ritual, in magic." With an economic use of language and fairly consistent application of structure and rhythm, she finds in every modest detail a transcendent power or joy. Young's work focuses on the interconnectivity of all things, where "The point is that/there are insects living out their little lives in the grass" or how a billowing laundry line is just as good a place to witness divine workings as St. John's United Church. While there are a number of poems which address victimization at the hands of reprehensible people, there are also some that demonstrate genuine affection, such as "This Year the Leaves", an ode from a youngster to a loving uncle as they watch the lamentable Toronto Maple Leafs on television:
Driving me home
you never once even thought
of touching my knee, but would ask about school
Uncle Frank, I rush this message to you
down the gleaming corridor on skatesűknow how much
your love has helped me.
(Note that Uncle Frank is specifically praised for not making sexual advances on his niece, in and of itself a sad commentary on the expectations of the contemporary reader.) Young refuses to indulge in any romanticized domestic idyll and simultaneously avoids a reactionary hatred of domestic life. In this way she retains a cagey fondness for familiar tasks and people who perform them, and it's from her capacity to reveal both the compassion and meanness that permeate intimate human relations that her poems draw much of their impact.
This is not to say the book is without weaknesses. Some poems, like "I am a Little Suitcase" and "The Day Elvis Died", ramble too long or drift into sentimentality, such as "Photo of Myself at Seven" and "Stone Devotion", and, worse, some rely on language apparently borrowed from therapy sessions, like "telling you this story/you already know//is absolution, it's me forgiving me for being who I was and I/still am." Fortunately, Young has kept her most intriguing poems for the book's fourth and last section, where objects in the physical world are gradually diminished and destroyed. From moths that "make no sound//that I can hear/ alive or going down" her throat to the imagined assailant who never emerges from the bushes while she sunbathes topless, Young slowly tears down the detailed physicality she has painstakingly built up over the course of the book until she closes with a suite of "Photographs Untaken". That Young's final poems negate themselves or their subject matter even as they are being generated¨as in the following description of an acquaintance: "he is memory, our neighbour, and he is fading. Master machinist/he crawls under time and tinkers, starts up story after story/bound for the scrapyard"¨is an unusual tactic which, if pursued, might lead to some interesting future work.
M. Travis Lane is the elder stateswoman here, having published seven previous books (dating back to the early 1970s). Of the three, Keeping Afloat's worldview is the most sophisticated as Lane peppers her poems about nature and domestic isolation with some serious metaphysical questions. However, for someone who seems to favour Wordsworthian wisdom over Blakean ecstasy, she is fairly short on answers. The title poem is a meditation on stability versus chaos which she embarks upon while swimming. The poem also carries with it an epigraph from a poet whose work her own resembles, Louis Dudek. Gliding through the water, she asks
Is pattern there, even when we can't sense it out?
We lean upon simplicities as on this pool
a swimmer floats, half-dreaming, half at prayer
Does the story run forever, or just out?
Like Dudek, she often writes about the search for underlying plans and, like Dudek, she conveniently never decides whether the universe is founded on chaos and our lives are accidental, or if it has an innate order and we bring chaos to it.
As have many Canadian poets before her, Lane writes about our formidable landscape, where she flatly asserts "there are things out there/that may very well be dangerous." These nature poems generally appeal for order against mutability, or against "fangs//when all sure paths seem broken/or estranged," and draw solace from the aspects of nature that are predictable: sunsets, gardens, constant rain. The plea for equilibrium is mirrored in her poems about the act of writing (of the 48 poems in Keeping Afloat, 18¨a full third¨are, directly or indirectly, about writing poetry). For instance, in "What Can be Named in Numbers" the rational world of numerals is a comfort because it is unchanging and comparable to "poetry/which measures nothing, spells itself." Poetry, in other words, reassures because it is not expected to quantify anything and exists within its own exclusive boundaries. I have a hard time accepting this pronouncement. Not only does it contradict much of what she says about art in the rest of the book, but it devalues poetry¨which has already been devalued enough for my liking¨into a purely aesthetic pleasure, the flaccid territory of "art for art's sake."
If Lane contemplates the physical world and our place in it, Sue Wheeler in Slow-Moving Target, her second collection, worships it. She is explicit about concentrating on the corporeal at the expense of theories and abstractions, which she presents as the source of deceit and indecision, because "Logical rooms will whisper If this, then that/but Sammy, remember the bread and the doorwaysÓYou'll be asking how long this light, how big this air./What can I promise? That everything must eat." In "A Brief History of Time" she issues an outright proclamation against thinkers like Stephen Hawking who toil with the larger philosophical and scientific questions instead of "the thornier mysteries/such as how two bodies cleave/meaning both cling and separate" (a somewhat insensitive manoeuvre; the lack of a body that can "cling and separate" must, for Hawking, be a source of considerable agony).
Wheeler is also in the fearsome grip of nostalgia for lost childhood and youth, as in "A Conversation of Blackbirds" where she suggests that infinite possibilities ű
Look! The birds
are still at it: forty-as-one? one-as-
forty? Dice without spots, several
dozen I Chings. Anything can happen.
ű are gradually choked off by the onset of middle-aged torpor. "Not the Whole Story", a poem about being trapped by the domestic life of marriage and motherhood (in comparison to carefree earlier times), opens with an original and arresting image of a wooden fire escape that is undercut by the nonsensical "Now I see/[my husband] was a porcupine inside out, any touch/might spike another tender place." Dissipated energy is a difficulty in many of her poems, which often start out strong only to have their momentum frittered away in subsequent stanzas. The problem here is not so much subject matter but its treatment; a potential danger of writing about the domestic realm, mistaking the familiarity of a situation for intrinsically interesting content. Once an event is deemed equally worthy of poetic expression as any other, once nothing is too small to say, then merely to report the incident¨and thus foregoing the attempt to interpret it¨becomes sufficient. But what lyric poets sometimes forget is that small details must be recast through a startling or unique interpretive lens before they take on any substantive weight. Otherwise they produce the poetic equivalents to still-life painting: a flowerpot, a table and two bowls of milk, which look pretty drab hanging next to a Jackson Pollack. To her credit, Wheeler does occasionally produce some notable exceptions to this, such as the longish poem "Aldredge Place", which does a fine job of satirizing the foibles, squabbles, and gossiping of small-town life, all the while preserving the sense of bodily threat that girds such small communities. The language here is jaunty and fun with a breezy rhythm that stands in marked contrast with the introversion that bogs down much of this book. ˛
Christopher Doda's first book of poems, Among Ruins, was published in 2001 by the Mansfield Press.