Red Blood, Black Ink, White Paper: New and Selected Poems, 1961-2001

by Phyllis Gotlieb
ISBN: 1550966014

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Not Lost in Space: Phyllis Gotlieb
by Susan Briscoe

The literary community is often uncomfortable with the crossing of genres, and writers who are successful in one are rarely so well-received by the critics of another. This has certainly been the case for Phyllis Gotlieb who, favoured with lasting popularity as a science fiction novelist, has received little attention for her poetry. In fact, since her previous collection was published a quarter-century ago, she has been virtually forgotten as a poet.
Gotlieb published four books of verse between 1964 and 1978, an output closely paralleled by her science fiction in the same period. But while she has continued to write sci-fi at a steady pace since then, she dropped poetry after her last collection, The Works. She also gave up on mainstream fiction after her only novel, Why Should I Have All the Grief?, failed to achieve commercial success. As her award-winning science fiction is much anthologized and remains in print (her 1963 Sunburst is a classic of the genre), it would seem that she decided not to bother writing what people weren't going to read.
Gotlieb, however, has satisfied some of her less lucrative literary urges by experimenting with genre. She brings much poetry into her science fiction with extensive literary references and by indulging in poetic phrasing and imagery. But the impulse to mix genres works both ways for her, and the themes, settings, and characters of her science fiction frequently appear in her verse. In one poem the robot's daughter wishes for "a hot heartbeating centre / a flickering cloud of brain." In another a grasshopper seems more alien than earthly with its "complex of triggered legs" and "mobled thorax." While exploring the potential of dramatic verse (she has had three scripts commissioned by the CBC) she has also crossed this genre with fantasy, creating innovative sci-fi verse dramas.
Now with her recent Red Blood, Black Ink, White Paper, Gotlieb's poetic oeuvre demands a reassessment. This New and Selected offers a wide sampling from her four previous collections plus some newer poems. Few reviewers of her earlier books appreciated her work, some complaining that she was too cerebral, too ingenious in her constructions. Re-evaluating four decades of her poetry, it is harder to dismiss a mind that marvels at small, familiar miracles while it creates morally complex and closely imagined worlds. M. Travis Lane has commented that Gotlieb's imagery is "as magical as that of Chagall or Tchelitchew, and combines the fantastic and the mundane with Dickensian rigour." Other critics have recognised her intense joy in creation, her originality and energy, seeing in her a poet unafraid of being at once intellectual, moral, and imaginative.
There is certainly a refreshing freedom in Gotlieb's poetry, a sense that she has written to please herself rather than the critic, allowing her pen to roam across the page, mapping the meanderings of her mind. And her mind wanders in some very strange places: thousands of years back into Adam and Eve's old-age bed and just as far forward into freakish fantasy worlds peopled by characters with names like Sevenix and Klavvia. In between Gotlieb looks in at jarred embryos in the lab, visits ms and mr frankenstein, reads pictures in a Danish sex manual, and now and then pops in on an old Jewish relative. And all the while she is pondering the nature of love and mortality, thinking about art and history, questioning God.
Gotlieb is a poet of wide imagination, both in subject and style. She has as much fun looking at Toronto through a nostalgic lens as she does translating French medieval poet, Franois Villon, or conjuring futuristic humanoids for her verse dramas. Indeed, what is most engaging in this volume is the playfulness of her imagination, a delight in both words and ideas. She creates lots of compound words like "fathombeast", "noplacetogo", and "mouthstings", and frequently sends her reader to the dictionary ("dream not of the kind/ amnion but the moon/ of the eye's microtome"). But her far-out vocabulary feels true to the poems, the natural offspring of her love of language and scientific curiosity. There is never any intellectual posturing, nor is Gotlieb trying to be exclusive: the reader is always invited to join in her game.
It is not surprising that such a playful poet enjoys writing the world of children. As the mother of three, Gotlieb was particularly attuned to the sounds of this world when she was writing her first collections. Though she received her MA in English Literature in 1950, her first child was born the same year and her literary career was pretty much on hold until her last child reached school-age in the early sixties. One can imagine that time spent raising children, the rhyme and rhythm of their songs echoing through poems for years before being set to paper. Gotlieb usually handles these poems with a well-developed sense of irony, though the pathos of her major long poem, "Ordinary, Moving", inspired by children's verse games, treads uncomfortably close to the sentimental at times. There are also moments when her wordplay is too facile-"a little curly surly in a plaid dress"-but her lyrical sensibility is unique and usually interesting, and her feeling always sincere. Gotlieb also refers to her own childhood in several poems, recalling Saturday matinees at her family's movie theatre. This past has tuned her ear for dialogue-lending glib, distinctive voices to the odd assortment of characters in her narrative verse-and given her a sure sense of story that serves her lyric poetry as well as her dramatic verse.
There are, sadly, few recent poems in this book, despite the long wait. Among the newer poems are the uneven "Thirty-Six Ways of Looking at Toronto Ontario" and more "riffs" to add to her 1960's work on Villon. There are a few more personal and reflective pieces as well, including the title poem, "Red Black White":

blood ink paper have been my life I bore
children in a slush of blood
dreamed in a scratch of ink
and that damned white paper
with words to be written everywhere

The book concludes with Geffen and Ravna, a sci-fi romantic tragedy in four sestinas, a strange experiment in form and crossed genres that may especially appeal to SF fans. With genres blended to this degree there are bound to be readers who don't have a taste for much of the material, and this may account for some of the critical ambivalence to Gotlieb's poetry.
Always eager to explore new linguistic and imaginative worlds, Gotlieb has proven herself to be a poet worth reading. With this retrospective we have a second chance to appreciate her work-and have some fun reading poetry.

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