Steve Luxton: Luna Moth and Other Poems

81 pages,
ISBN: 0919688918

Salvatore Ala: Straight Razor and Other Poems

61 pages,
ISBN: 0973588101

Erling Friis-Bastaad. Wood Spoken: New and Selected Poems

101 pages,
ISBN: 189675810X

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Fluttering Without Soaring
by Linda Besner

Almost all of Erling Friis-Bastaad's poems address, in some form, Yukon landscape and lifestyles. The early poems in Wood Spoken (which contains selections from one previous book and three chapbooks) give us bears and bartenders, gold prospectors and dancing girls who stay for a season and vanish, leaving the author behind for the winter's long endurance. The most memorable item of this first section, "Local News", concerns a young minister driven to nervous collapse by the seasonal crop of autumn suicides among Dawson's young men. "Every loud noise made him jump," Friis-Bastaad writes, "each splash in the river." The better toughened townsfolk "complain/ that their holy man consorts/ with the loose and the addled./ The response seems so obvious/ the doctor doesn't share it/ with his sedated friend." When Friis-Bastaad honestly pursues the unique animating forces of his chosen setting, the result is a clear window onto a life which, for most readers, will be awesomely unfamiliar. The ungenerous landscape occasionally vouchsafes his striking epiphanies, as when the poem "Fortune" admonishes us:
Here a mountain
chooses not
to topple upon us
There a river
confines its rage
between two banks

and we return home
convinced that our lives
are a matter of light

that one more day
has been handed down to us
through our eyes

The landscape is so large a presence that it needs only to be hinted-at to clinch the emotional import of the author's reflections:

I never intended to live
so far from the sea
The boy I was
could not have fathomed
life on a mere river,
could not have fathomed
mere life

Friis-Bastaad is very good at using concrete references that ground emotion in experience. Rivers, marshes, and the sea wet the refrain of his speaker's longing for "home", a place or sensation he has lost all hope of reaching or even describing. The early poems, like "The Poet Divides His Time" are chiefly occupied with the speaker's fruitless efforts to settle down and stay put, and although the author seems to have ultimately reconciled himself to the choice he has made, an anxiety over place still chafes his work. In "Boreal Summer", he frets:

I wish to register my concern,
my distress, with this
annual suppression of darkness,
this revocation

of our right to stars. How
are we to locate ourselves
if we look up, only to discover
a few blood-stained clouds

in our sky?

In his battle with language Friis-Bastaad seems to have decided that only the simplest, most monolithic words will do; words like "ancient", "earth", "flames", and "song". There is something windblown in the diction, a decision that it's best to begin already sanded down, using only those adjectives that can survive eight months of ice. This type of bare lyric has a heroic quality about it, presuming an authority, a hold over our attention. Wood Spoken is also a decidedly backward-looking collection, both in that the author is revisiting the poetic output of his younger self, and because even that young self seems to have wished he were someone a little more legendary, living in an epic age that has already passed him by. Friis-Bastaad's insistence on referring to himself as "the poet" only highlights this sense of wanting to step into a readymade archetype. Odd then, that for all his secure self-identification, his poems, in the end, emanate a sense of failure: "the words, once/ again, too/ small", "words fail", "Our initials will serve/ There are already too many words."

The idea of "the poet" plagues Salvatore Ala's Straight Razor and Other Poems to a much more harmful degree. Despite Ala's obvious ear for cadence and the occasional subtly-reversed phrase, Ala's reverence for literary tradition has misled him into thinking that simply injecting the word "poetry" into what he writes will magically elevate his musings to the level of poems. Scarcely a piece goes by without invocation to this muse Poetry. Yet one can't leave it all to the benevolence of the gods: the author has to be willing to do a little work of his own.
Like Friis-Bastaad, Ala has a liking for large-scale, mythic vocabulary. Ala's, however, is soft and melting: love, beauty, garden, wave. Ala has many gliding, romantic city poems, some of which succeed in tweaking the reader's expectations just enough to nudge us into gentle realignment:
After rain, marble is sticking to wet leaves,
Walls are dripping with ivy,
Monuments and memorials
Cling lightly to the air.

In these cases the euphonious ease of Ala's writing carries the contradiction ("marble is sticking to wet leaves", "Monuments and memorials / cling lightly to the air") so lightly it penetrates our minds before we have a chance to resist it. Often, however, it is this very smoothness which prevents Ala's poems from achieving a lasting impact. The syllables flow so mellifluously that the words slip by without snagging on, and being held by, ideas. Because there is little on the level of language which must be confronted, clashed with, they feel oddly noiseless. Take the first two stanzas of "Visions of a Country Road":

On each side of the country road
Lean tall old trees far into their shadows,
And you feel a desire to turn off
Into the landscape of yourself,
To the end of a road that never ends...
And all that solitude yours.

Go deeper, to where fence posts end,
Beyond the rusted out car
Now stranded in vines,
Where farm land becomes meadow and woodlot,
And the meadowlark is a clear song
Of space and light.

This poem is pleasant, innocuous, mild. No great revelation is expected, and none arrived at. While inoffensive, this approach pulls the collection in a rather unremarkable direction. Many of the poems deal with Ala's Italian heritage, with a series on barbers dedicated to "my father, uncles, and cousins". These tend towards a melancholy nostalgia which occasionally lights into eloquence, as with "Family Tragedies":
"My dear mongoloid cousin and namesake,/ Wallet-maker, scholar of bus routes". Some, like "A Childhood Pharmocopoeia", or "Unloading Watermelons at the Windsor Market" swell with sensual detail. Elsewhere, however, Ala's handling of the sensual is marred by an extraordinary earnestness which leaves no room for humour. In a painful poem called "Love in the Catacombs", he writes with no apparent irony, "Though we go solemnly/ Through the catacombs,/ alone with you among the dead/ I sense the swelling of my sex,/ I become engorged in the catacombs/ And feel the hardness of death". This is not to say that a hard-on in the catacombs is not a fit poetic subject; do tell. But with this opener, the writer's only salvation is either a healthy sense of the ludicrous or an aggression of which Ala is not capable. He seems completely unaware of his readers' probable reaction, and without this power of anticipation becomes untrustworthy as an interpretative eye. In other places, where Ala does set the reader up to expect a profound statement, the result is disappointing:

Does anyone stand at a window tonight?
Is there another person in all the world
Who grows transparent,
As the night and the stars
Pass into him?

Well, yes, one imagines so. Or,

So faint the imprint of this fossil leaf
It seems the thousand year old shadow
Of a falling leaf

The brevity of this poem is meant to invest it with the concentrated energy of a haiku. Yet this choice exacts a philosophical repayment, a debt to the reader which is not here discharged. In his last line, Ala closes the circle of meaning so quickly that the reader is left in coat and hat at the door with one hand on the handle.

Although Steve Luxton does, in his new book, occasionally refer to himself as "the poet", for the most part Luna Moth and Other Poems escapes the excessive concern with poetic identity and the act of writing that mars the other two books under review. This, Luxton's third collection, opens with a piece which enforces the primacy of physical experience, its power to move the mind. At four years of age, the speaker is picked up by his father and set on top of a seven-foot privet hedge, a "vast stiff brush beneath, a rolling wave,/ myriad rough palms and elbows that could not quite agree to hold me/ or shrug me helpless off." This introduction does much to crack open Luxton's mental world, and the collection confides to the reader not a few of these surprising and original pictures. "Silver Whiskers" displays the figure of a dead mink found in a cedar hedge who "waxes pharaonic":

Gone the feline sinews,
the lithe flesh,
fattened on mice and trout,
then spring-water slaked,
molted the furrier's plume,
once svelte ermine.

Rigid on my palm,
mighty Cheops in miniature,
except for marvelous,
intact, silver whiskers.

With the dead animal being viewed with such curious, respectful interest, the apt comparison is a credit to both pharaoh and animal. Luxton seems to be the most unburdened of the three poets under review, which is odd since a modest few of the poems published here deal with his experience of life-threatening brain cancer. In fact, many of the pieces address death and illness in some way, whether as spectacle (the mink, Hermann Goering, a long poem about a JFK assasination theme park) as myth and song (Doc Holliday, a favourite character of his) or as something closer and altogether more frightening: his father, the universe, himself. In these, as in the majority of his poems, Luxton handles his subject matter best¨without indulging in self-pity, that is¨ when he confines himself to shorter pieces.
However, it isn't possible to grant the book unmixed praise. While Luxton's sense of irony and his ability to zero in on the unusual instant invest the book with quirky truths, the words chosen to convey these truths feel approximate; elements cohere, but don't quite fuse. Much of the blame for this is to be laid upon less-than-keen editing, as often the grammar and punctuation of these poems gets in the way of their meaning. One extremely curious element of the punctuation at work here is a lavish use of that contemporary grammatical underdog, the exclamation point. While it is perhaps admirable to reclaim melodramatic punctuation as a form of protest against our staid declarative, the effect is decidedly bizarre:

Soon, it is like someone upstream
blew the big old beaver dam,
floating the sky-high pile in the barn
through the kitchen into the bedroom!
"To See a Bull Moose"

On the river trail past dark
in phosphor moon
in fresh snow-piled
deadfallsÓ runes! "Boreal

Rising daylight reveals
a full-scale galleon!
"Spider Bend"

In addition to these surface irregularities, the collection suffers from a haphazard arrangement of its individual components. The poems dealing with Luxton's hospital time are so randomly interspersed that there is no chance for them to hold each other up, and denied the dignity of a group, they bob to the surface in a rather ungainly manner. For all Luxton's humour, and his sympathetic rendering of his environment, Luna Moth flutters without soaring.

Linda Besner is the Book review editor for The Dominion. She lives in Vancouver.

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