Franklin's Passage

by David Solway
ISBN: 0773526838

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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.

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