Blue Pyramids

by Robert Priest
ISBN: 1550225545

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A Review of: Blue Pyramids: New and Selected Poems
by Robert Moore

Near the end of Robert Priest's Blue Pyramids: New and Selected Poems you'll discover a prose-like narrative poem running to several pages called "The New Opportunity". Ostensibly autobiographical, it tells a cautionary tale of how a poet narrowly missed having his principles compromised by a brewery that asked him to contribute material to a new ad campaign: "This poem is not brought to you by Molson's," it begins, "but it was close, believe me" Priest's speaker, with a family to support and too long between work-in-progress grants and Canada Council B grants, fancies himself a "new knight" being "tested by the god," in danger of losing the "voice [he's] kept so pure." Just before our poet-paladin summons up the wherewithal to pluck his mitt from Mammon's pocket, he discovers several of his favourite Canadian poets doing a Dante-esque stint in the waiting room of "Comfort Sound Studios." Principal among them, not incidentally, is "The new poetry editor for a certain press" who "wonders if he can have a look at my next book/ This book."
A poem only by the most relaxed definition of the term, "The New Opportunity" constitutes a rather strained little homily on the care and maintenance of an authentic poetic voice. After all, it's couched in a book that isn't ashamed to have itself plumped by Mike Bullard ("A hilarious book!"), a celebrity whose only claim to our attention is surely that he's somehow ended up in a position to make a claim on our attention. And how are we to assay the putative purity of a voice that can without irony proudly eschew the tit of commercialism even while lamenting the length between feedings from the one marked "Canada Council B Grants"? These and sundry other reservations notwithstanding, I'll bet this self-regarding poem slays in performance.
Why? Because a fair estimation of Priest's oeuvre-at least as represented by the material in this collection-obliges that a distinction be drawn at the outset between poems calculated to live on the page and poems measured to engage a room of reasonably-attentive, gamesome strangers. At least since the dissociation of sensibility, we don't take in half as much with our ears as we do with our eyes; what is therefore only mildly diverting on a page might easily strike one on first hearing as perfectly deathless. Accordingly, potential readers of Blue Pyramids should be advised: Robert Priest is by all accounts an enormously gifted performer, and a significant percentage of the poems in this collection assume the close support of those gifts.
What Blue Pyramids most of all confirms is that Robert Priest is not only a master of light verse, but a dab hand at even lighter verse. With respect to the former, the series of poems included here on parts of the body are a bona fide hoot and the book's eight installments of what he calls his "Time Release Poems"-"slogans, sayings, corrections, koans and connections"-are, in the main, minor miracles of wit. When he gets serious, however, he tends to get sentimental (the traditional weakness of the clown). In "Poem for my unborn child", for example, he solemnly puts aside irony, together with his usually reliable ear and a manic gift for the generation of felicitous association, to deliver stillborn tropes like the following: "Ihave heard your heart like a frantic butterfly beating/ beautiful and full of light/ in there." If nothing else, such lapses illustrate that Gide's oft-quoted admonition to writers-"it is with fine sentiments that bad literature is made"-will always be timely.
Poems which look further afield than a wife's navel for objects upon which to arrange fine sentiment rarely fare much better. "Meeting Place" and the collection's title poem "Blue Pyramids: A Proposal for the Ending of Unemployment in Toronto" succeed neither as poetry or as politics. In the latter, Priest proposes that the unemployed be put to work erecting pyramids on Yonge Street: "You and I know," the poem concludes, "We must begin building/ the blue pyramids of peace." Notwithstanding what I gather are certain pretensions to satire, the poem's modest proposal for simultaneously ending unemployment and creating world peace doesn't have a genuinely subversive or Swiftian bone in its body. (Had Swift placed such confidence in the ameliorative powers of whimsy, the Irish might still be featured item on the English menu.)
When Priest isn't indulging a weakness for attitudinizing-for preaching to the choir of received opinion and approved sentiment-he's capable of nuanced and controlled performances on the page. "Christ is the Kind of Guy", for instance, is an adult poem that affectingly dramatizes the complexities of our relationship to Christ, the figure we can't help recrucifying no matter how deliberate our attempts to rescue him.
Blue Pyramids may be a testament to the scope and scale of Priest's output over the past thirty years (he's the author of fourteen books and numerous recordings), but he's not well-served by this putative selection', principally because it isn't selective enough. By my count, slightly better than half of the poems in this book merit the return trip they've been granted by ECW press. Too many slight and too many baggy poems are on show with the result that genuinely estimable works-of which there are literally scores-are all but lost among trifles like "On Hearing that Ghandi tested his Brahmacharya" or groaners like "Ode to the Bum". And do we really need to revisit the lyrics to "Song instead of a kiss", a hit for the lovely Alannah Myles but a poem only to those who weigh a poem's merits by the relative insistence of its rhyme ("It is to those who like to cling/ It is to those to those I sing")? The book, moreover, arranges the poems holus-bolus, without benefit of introduction or editorial paraphernalia of any kind. As a result, there's no way to know from which works individual poems were taken or even whether the poems have been arranged in chronological order. And perhaps most lamentable of the book's many editorial lapses is the fact that in this "New and Selected Poems" one has no way of telling the new from the old.
The result of this book's lack of editorial discrimination is that Priest comes off, in toto, as consistently clever but only occasionally compelling, a poet whose weakness for the wisecrack blunts the force of the comic vision subtending the best of these poems. Less inclusive, this book would have been far more complete.

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