Mountain Tea: & Other Poems

by Peter Van Toorn
ISBN: 1550651692

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A Review of: Mountain Tea
by Zach Wells

For readers and writers of my generation, mention of the name Peter Van Toorn was apt, until recently, to elicit a shrug. He was in the audience of a poetry reading I attended in Montreal three years ago and I hadn't the faintest notion that I was in the presence of an original genius. None of his work was in print and his poems were not to be found in any of the standard anthologies. But with Signal Editions' re-issue of Van Toorn's magnum opus, Mountain Tea, all that should change.
Originally published by McClelland and Stewart in 1984, Mountain Tea was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award that year, but soon slipped into obscurity. This is due, perhaps, to the fact that the author has published nothing since. But this is a weak excuse, an indication that our cultural values are biased more towards production, promotion and personality than towards the preservation of excellence and originality. It's more than a little tempting to think that the source of this poet's neglect is the jealousy of his would-be peers, very few of whom can hold a candle to him. As Van Toorn puts it in a version of a ballad by Villon, this revised edition (which, along with new work, includes a number of poems left out of the prior edition) should be enough to "shake'n bake their envy-schooled tongues."
Van Toorn's poetry is as rooted in various ancient traditions of verse as it is in jazz rhythms and the vernacular of the Canadian present. He is equally masterful in free verse-

sound of wind:
good grass out front, bad brush behind.
Try feeling at home
and the loon reminds you-smack in the gut
boatmiles off
of travelling way out alone.

-as he is within the confines of the sonnet:

Hey, Denise, soon as you're in the room,
I feel jumpy in my head. Why hide it?
Next to you, even sunrise looks like gloom.
As long as you're in that crisp, white outfit,
I'll never be able to get my fill
of you, except in ink. Cheat on my chart:
fix it so I can leave this hospital.
My fever's gone; I feel sharp as a dart.

Poetry like this explodes the false dichotomies of postmodern and classical, formalist and avant-garde, traditional and experimental. The above sonnet, called "Mountain Nurse", is, believe it or not, Van Toorn's version of a poem by 16th century Italian poet Giambattista Marino. Mountain Tea is studded with this sort of idiosyncratic translation of poets, often obscure, from diverse regions and eras. His take on translation makes something like Erin Moure's translations' of Pessoa appear rather wan, joyless and self-indulgent in comparison.
Van Toorn's poetic resources seem almost limitless. He uses repetition in all its forms (anaphora, epistrophe, symploce, anadiplosis as well as less regular patterns) better than any contemporary poet I know of, in a way that almost always appears effortless and natural. As in the following lines from "Mountain Fox", his inventive diction, alliteration and stress patterns remind me often of Hopkins:

And how does the fox get rid of his fleas-
red fox, blue fox, grey fox, white fox, black fox-
not just the ordinary case of fleas
a choker of chalk dust can keep in check,
but a case the moon charges to the chase,
a pack of them, from his brush to his ruff,
falling in fast falling flakes for his fur,
sticking to his skin, and clicking like clocks,
licking his blood for a way to his ace
from the scoops of his ears to his dew socks?

But ultimately, Van Toorn is, as David Solway says in his introduction to the book, sui generis. His verse embodies Lao Tsu's maxim, which Van Toorn quotes as an epigraph to "Mountain Fox": "Woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant." Mountain Tea is a lesson to poets about dedication to the craft, of how to make the work of hours, as Yeats put it, "seem a moment's thought." Beyond that it is also a howl to read, especially aloud. Allowing it to go out of print once was a mistake. To do it again would be a crime.

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