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Before We Had Words:
The Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series


by Sheldon Zitner
128 pages,
ISBN: 0773524495

Snow Formations

by Carolyn Marie Souaid
96 pages,
ISBN: 0921833857

Rural Night Catalogue

by Michael deBeyer
112 pages,
ISBN: 1894031636


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Three Careers in Progress
by Richard Greene

The idea of poets having "careers" is a very strange one. A poet with seven volumes out, for example, is thought by the Canada Council to be in "mid-career". By that standard, a good many of the poets we most value (Eugenio Montale, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, to name three) were less than novices. Here, we have three poets under review, for example, and the strongest of them, Sheldon Zitner, has passed through a lifetime of reading and writing having punched the clock at none of the required moments. In his seventies, Zitner published a first book, The Asparagus Feast (1999) that was instantly received as a Canadian classic. (At the time, he remarked with tart modesty, "I'd like to live to see the publication, but not the reviews.") But while I am convinced that the life that bears fruit in words cannot be quantified into a "career", there are some worthwhile forecasts to be made for Michael deBeyer's first volume, which delivers much and promises more. He has the gift of managing difficult forms, and can craft a strong, sonorous line both in fixed forms and in free verse. He writes in "Assembly":

The steeples of your city's churches floating,
not in the sky, as grey clouds pull weather vanes
and lofty clouds pull. But over tenement roofs,
across the bridges of stately mansions, sailing.

Some warn of the trick of perspective. "Yet this is,
it must be an accident." The churches cross paths
in Markham, Salem, and move on.
Priests scramble to recover their rhetoric.

As arbitrary her builders were, as ceaseless grew
the finishing touch, so churches too continue on,
nomads of no fixed address. This is your rereading
of prayer books, your wanting attached to the firmament.
These descriptions are haunting, and voice is strange and quietly lamenting. This poem¨which I have chosen to praise¨also shows some of the limitations in deBeyer's work. Excessive self-consciousness about the act of writing is a sign that the writer has not found his subject and is going to make a poem nonetheless. There is a good deal of semioticizing in the volume that ought to have gone. Some poems are dubbed "echolalia" and this, to my mind, is just pretentious. The blurb tells us that the volume "sidesteps the linear world of the lyric poem to embrace linguistic playfulness, unusual perspectives and surprise." What does this get him? It gets him some abysmal lines: "On the fourth morning / the sky opened like a theory, releasing this / wooded sonancy." In general, the weakness of his poetry is a taste for the enigmatic:

The night equally as clear, as still. It is night full
of caution, you
privy to its jingoism. Behind the ridged bark of
conifers is a
biological accuracy, a conscious nature at the
core of the tree.

Trees have been better described. Nonetheless, de Beyer is a considerable talent. Rural Night Catalogue leaves me full of hope for the poems he may give us in the years to come.

I cannot be so enthusiastic about Carolyn Marie Souaid, who has published two earlier volumes, and has already been a fixture on short-lists for various awards. Her work is praised by eminent poets, one of whom describes her as "the compleat poet". To my mind her work is undernourished, and her sense of the poetic line almost non-existent. The book's banality is evident from the blurb: "Weary of her humdrum existence, a woman packs up and heads for Arctic Quebec, where she hopes to find a new lease on life teaching native children. She soon discovers, however, that the Inuit have far more to teach her than she them, as she slowly learns that each day on this earth is a rich sensory experience, not merely to be lived but savored." Even if Souaid did not write this kitsch, she accepted it as a description of her poetry, and it is not far off the mark. She writes in "The Elder":

Study her carefully: old brown woman in mukluks
and mismatched clothes embellishing the days
with colourful yarn.
See how her hand pushes back tired wisps
of hair from her face, how she positions
the large rusty blades of her scissors
on either side of the thread,
checking and double-checking her work
before making the next snip. See how her eyes
cloud over
when she remembers she is doing it all for money
űanother artifact for another white tourist.

Souaid goes on to ask, "If this is her story, / how can I tell it?" My objection here is not on the grounds of cultural appropriation, which she is careful to address, but on the grounds that, step by step, the poetry is highly predictable. There are a few poems that rise above this standard, sometimes owing to surprising, even shocking, narrative elements. "Powerhouse", for example describes a knife-packing 6-foot-4 drunk demanding sex after Hockey Night in Canada; he ends the evening in tears, laughter, and farts. Seven years later he takes a .22 and 'blows the ocean through his ears.' The grotesque violence quite convincingly gives way to pity. "Artifacts", "Elisapie", "Survival", "Blind Spot", and "Stonecarver" all possess the merit of delicate and poignant utterance, but they do not typify the collection.

Sheldon Zitner's second collection, Before We Had Words, is founded on the personal and the particular, or, as he addresses an artist friend: "You trusted bit by bit in one by one." And yet he is so at ease among histories, cultures, art-forms, and literatures, that Zitner's idea of
"personal" becomes a category of enormous range and inclusion. Consider how in "A Window Seat" the private sorrow measures itself humbly against the grief of millions:

Flying to Prague, I look down at central Europe.
A cloud-rimmed radiance has spread
over the wrinkled fields and gray-haired cities
toward the horizons that foiled escape by sea.

What are the secrets buried in that forest
or floating in chimney smoke above that village?
We ride the turbulence of murdered spirits;
this is the graveyard of my people.

Ich habe tote. I too have my dead,
though the proprietary tone of Rilke's phrase,
suggests ű if not intends ű a restorative power
in eloquence. I am not of a time that thinks so,

nor would I diminish the Great Death with such a
claim.
Of them I am, but also other ű as this sky, that earth;
between us an irredeemable history:
their shoah ű my cosseted reflections.

This short poem considers identity, genocide, memory, selfhood, and the function of literature, with a grace and economy few poets ever achieve.
The title of the volume refers, in part, to a world before quarrels, when words divided the poet from his father and then from his wife.

Before we had words
for thoughts and feelings
we had looks and gestures,
immediate, unclouded
by context or connotation.
Almost lost in words,
that immediacy remains;
too deep a glance,
or a glance averted,
can leave us speechless,
coveting that unlanguaged clarity.
The longed-for purity of the world before words is matched, however, by a vigilance over the written word, and especially over books, as the culture values such objects less and less. In "Epilogue: At David Mason's" he imagines, amusingly, the apocalyptic demise of an antiquarian bookshop:

The overburdened floorboards groan,
splinter and give way; the plumbing bursts;
the bookshelves topple, spilling out a maelstrom
of űologies and űana, classics out of print,
the famously illustrated, the fatuously signed,
early drafts with author's blot-and-jot,
rare firsts to tempt commissioned break-and-enter¨
all now a soggy ruin, ISBN has-beens for the dustbin.

Beyond the mirth (his poems are often funny), he fears that the sudden triumph of computers is unlike the earlier shifts from scroll to codex to printed book: "is this change worse, / an abandoning of instruments of discourse, / a retreat in the struggle for a written language / to before the scrolls themselves?" Indeed, although writers "welcome the challenge of a lidless / Cyclops, always demanding excitation," the proper destination of words is not the hard-drive, but 'a stillness in the hand that holds it, / a tremor in the mind that reads it.'
Of course, this collection is, at times, sorrowful¨the unconsoled meditations of a man of advancing years. Many friends are remembered, many losses recorded, in poems that are spare, dignified and compassionate. A notable example is "By His Own Hand" in which a forbidding professor of Greek commits suicide:

He had meant this act to atone
for vows unfulfilled or broken,
death as the wages of weakness,
but he set too high a price
on the life he had not led,
and too low on the one he did.

Even though Zitner doubts the restorative power of eloquence, it is hard not to see in a poem so precisely executed the filling up of deficiencies in the life. The beauty of the words enacts a clemency that this man could not find for himself. His sorrow and poetic atonement are taken into the reader's consciousness as a gift.
The emergence of Sheldon Zitner as a major figure in Canadian poetry is itself a matter for rejoicing. Before We Had Words is a work of wit, passion, and discipline. He deserves all the honour we can give him, but I do not think his "career" is finished yet. ˛

Richard Greene is a poet and an English professor at the University of Toronto.
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