||A Review of: FranklinĘs Passage
by Steven Laird
David Solway is often considered an artifact of an old Empire who,
like some samurai in postwar Japan, covers his head with a white
fan when obliged to walk under electric power lines as a protest
against the abomination. His point is simple: he longs for, and in
rare moments finds, a poetry that, to borrow from Louis Dudek,
remains "an awakening/A pleasure in the morning light"
a poetry that redeems debased words "to give back those old
whores their virginity." As Solway writes, "it is possible
[in our poetry] to speak candidly, engage the reader directly and
at the same time lace up a poem with consummate flair and assurance,
using a lightly handled complexity of means to render and evoke the
most intimate and powerful of human experiences."
So, how does his latest book of poems stand up to these ideals? If
you only know Solway from his polemics on the state of the art,
it's not what you'd expect.
Franklin's Passage is one long essay in a series of untitled poems,
using the history of the Franklin Expedition as its jumping-off
point. The mystery and legend of the fatal search for the Northwest
Passage is treated as a search for bearings, direction and meaning.
Its narrative is complex, stranding its way from the 1840's to last
Wednesday night, its voices shifting and often hard to place. But
"its function remains the same, / to clothe the bones that lie
beneath" the legend one makes of oneself. The Northwest Passage,
in these poems, becomes the meaning to a life that is part story,
part map, part allegory and part "light in abundance."
The search is for a "navigable route / to the distant coast,
/ land of shadow and cold."
Assembled (according to Solway's "Note") from cannibalized
text, documentary records, invention and fantasy, Franklin's Passage
has its fair share of "complexity of means." Deliberate
rhyme and repetitive formal meters aren't among those means. Instead,
with one exception, his sparely-used rhymes are relaxed, more echo
than chime: "the men slaughtered" carries the additional
off-rhyme detail of "bones scattered helter-skelter",
while a snow-and-sunlight mirage shows "images pegged in
air" and is explained as "precise analogies of what is
there." His cadences may sometimes come from the Psalms
("Here, at Cape Riley in the southwest corner of Devon Island,
/ only the debris of a stone hut / and a torn scrap of paper bearing
the words: until called") but are just as likely to come from
a simple questionnaire ("Can you navigate in fogDo you know
what to do when the radio goes deadDo you have alternate plans?").
The crux of the poem -Franklin's Passage is in spite of its multiple
stories a single poem held together through various voices' by its
themes of ice, darkness, and discovery-is nailed in the final
stanzas. "DS" is in a desultory mood, watching TV, flipping
from a documentary on the Franklin Expedition to a hockey game:
as I move from ice surface to ice surface
achieving perfect passage
from one world to another,
keeping the story going.
In the "vast number / of radiating story lines" he presents
in these poems, Solway moves beyond the Sartre line ("A man
is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his own stories
and those of other people, he sees everything that happens to him
in terms of these stories and he tries to live his life as if he
were recounting it"). His is the gamble that in telling countless
stories, he will in some way survive: "when the story/ stops,
everything / stops."
After World War II, the samurai were disbanded. A new type of warrior
evolved: those who wanted modernization and industrialization. David
Solway's poetics and poetry declare his allegiance to the modern
development of a literary tradition. It's a tradition that speaks
clearly to its audience and tries to respect the reader's investment
of time and effort by being anything but trivial. In the "provoking
belligerence" of the essays in Director's Cut, and the patient
and deliberate course of Franklin's Passage, lie a commitment to
precise language, an elegance of thought, and a resistance to
abandoning "technical means." Solway is always ready to
confess his faith in "the tradition of forms, themes, principles
and hieratic dispositions" that nevertheless manages to speak
to its own time in a thoroughly contemporary voice.