by K. I. Press
by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden
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|Second Books, Second Chances
by Ian LeTourneau
If a first book of poetry is the equivalent to walking onstage with the appropriate props and costume, the second should be a refined and expressive soliloquy. Both K. I. Press and Diana Fitzgerald Bryden have attempted this confident speech in their sophomore efforts. The results are mixed.
Press's Spine displays a poet serious about her craft. Using humour and wit, her poems examine and dissect the sometimes messy interactions between literature and life. Here's the first half of "Madness", found in the first section of the book:
How easily they go mad in books, sport rare defor-
How boring to read of lives unmarred
by homicidal wives and hunchbacked uncles.
How slippery the slope. How the woman in the
raves, how she burns
the house down.
How unfortunate the pretty girls lapsed into
How mysterious the mute in the orchard, the blind
in the castle. How the good old madwoman
is mad mad mad how
nurses roll up their sleeves
and doctors shake their heads.
At first blush, this appears to be a variation of the typical list poem. The poet laments, taking inventory of the conditions of the mad through the repetition of "how". There is, in the refrain, a degree of madness as well: the mad, or those we perceive to be mad, must always explain themselves or justify their madness. But notice the last line of the second stanza: "is mad mad mad how". This line works as a unit unto itself. "Mad" is repeated three times in the centre of the line, emphasizing a central function. Book-ending the madness, providing shelf space as it were, are two words ("is" and "how") that imply a question, therefore keeping the debate of madness open and promoting empathy. "Is" suggests being and existence, and resonates through the book as the speaker wrestles with the uneasy junction between fiction and reality. Notice, too, how up until this line all the sentences are grammatical; the lack of punctuation means we read quicker, we gloss over what is in front of our eyes. This is exactly how most of us confronted with the "mad" might react. So by using repetition and a careful break in her line, Press yields an added authenticity that mere prose could not match.
I can't leave this poem without addressing a matter at the heart of both of these second books. A poem, I believe, should be able to stand alone, no matter its importance to the thematic whole. This is certainly the case when we think about anything that is canonical. Do we need to read the book in which "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" was first printed in order to fully "get" or remember the poem? What about W. H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" or W. S. Merwin's "For a Coming Extinction"? Although the original context might enhance our appreciation, context should not provide the interpretive blueprint for any single poem under scrutiny. A poem is important because it has a life of its own. I suspect that was one reason Robert Lowell loathed the term "confessional". Context and background are interesting, but hardly essential if the poem is to be memorable after the book goes back on the shelf.
This brings me to concept. While there is an overall concept at work in Spine-and Press is much more successful at its implications than Bryden is with hers-the poems stand on their own. The book's first section is called "What are little girls made of?" and the poems that reply are called "Madness", "Science Fiction", "Freckles", "Consumption", "Anne and Jane", etc. Cute, yes, but also suggestive, because while we read the poems as a group, they are also distinct, freestanding answers to that question. It's this polyphony that gives us a cross-pollination of ideas and associations that cause us to examine our relationship with the world, both through the imagined sphere of books, and our concrete, visceral reality.
Press is also aware of other necessary poetic techniques-namely rhythm, sound, cadence. The rest of "Madness" serves well as example:
How Lady MacBeth flits about.
How full the sanatorium. How the consumptives
can't straighten their backs and the cripples
take to coughing fits. How hidden
children and wives are kept
in their rooms
reading books about wives
kept in their rooms reading
books about girls reading books
in their rooms about fires
burning them down.
Notice how punctuation slackens, the rhythm spirals out of control, and how all the "s" sounds that conjure a sinister feeling synthesize a sensation similar to madness slowly gripping the psyche. Elsewhere in the book there are poems about gardening, poems about typography, and poems about the interweaving of books and relationships-incidently the subject of my favourite poem in the book, "Art and Artifice". The conclusion of this poem packs (for me) the emotional punch reminiscent of Ezra Pound's Cathay. By the time I reached the end of Spine, Press's passion for books, words, technique and tradition were obvious. I look forward to her next book.
In Clinic Day, Diana Fitzgerald Bryden perhaps places too much emphasis on concept, leaving several poems feeling watered-down. There are three characters in the book: a secretary, a surgeon, and a homeless man named Blake, all of whom "enact an intricate urban dance of separateness and (usually unseen) connection," according to the back cover blurb. There is a fine poem about a construction site and copious name-dropping of Toronto landmarks, but I fail to detect an "urban dance". It isn't entirely lost on me that the derelict Blake is meant to conjure a certain Romantic poet of the same last name. "Visionary" gets tossed around in another blurb and I really don't equate the book as a whole to visionary experience. Ambitious, yes; however I'm not convinced that the pieces cohere successfully. You can make the case that they were never explicitly meant to, but I'm still not sure that Bryden has found a confident voice for this governing idea. If judged by my caveat that each poem should stand on its own, then a healthy portion of these poems-poems forced to toe a vague thematic line-certainly fail.
Having said that, when Bryden focuses her attention on an object it often stands out like Williams' red wheel barrow. Consider this image from "Bridges": "the river, rumpled silk / its sheen / / rubbed off, is creased, / unrolled, then ironed smooth / again." This is a beautiful image and anyone that has sat on a riverbank can attest to the truth of this metaphor, not to mention the precise vitality of the rhythm. This image confirms Bryden's ability at capturing reality in a metaphor and letting it speak for itself, rather than dreaming of some idea and then awkwardly trying to squeeze metaphors into place against their will.
In fact, "Bridges" appears in the section entitled "Age and The Secretary", a section where the clearest, most precise poems are found. Unlike elsewhere in the collection, these poems don't have a co-dependent relationship with other poems. Consider the short lyric "Fire Drill":
All elevators stop.
A minute, then the stairwells
are echo chambers, concert halls
sprayed with gunshot coughs.
Laughter, running-any break
in dry routine is warm oil
easing the machinery of the day.
A little click, whir, restart,
purring now, no longer groaning.
These descriptions are apt; we recognize the metaphors, and hear the mechanisms of an elevator in a completely new way. Notice, too, that there is not one superfluous word disturbing the delicate rhythm established. Bryden has chiselled this poem to near perfection. In other places, Bryden employs rhyme, or half-rhyme, but then pulls back and withholds the rhyme, often for desired effects. There is music in these pages. But there are poems where Bryden's chiselling has been excessive, rhymes seem accidental, the rhythms stunted, so that we are left with poems that sound contrived, unauthentic. Here's "Painting", for the most part a fine poem from the same section, but one in which the first stanza unduly suffers from what I can only call "unrhythm":
Child sits under carved stone
bench, on which lies prone,
face-down, a marble man.
The room is smeared with light,
And on the wall, indented, small
translucent heads, recessed.
The child sucks his thumb.
Having seen a reproduction
years before, she knew the scene
as funeral parlour, boy crouched
beneath his father's coffin.
The light was different, too.
Inexplicably, Bryden chooses to drop the articles "the" and "a" in the beginning line, yet uses them freely in the rest of the poem. Why not "Room is smeared with light"? While the poem uncomfortably explores loss, these deletions are unnecessary. Perhaps she would have done better to delete the articles in the last stanza, thus heightening the sensation of loss. Regardless, I can't reconcile the absence of the articles to anything going on in the poem itself. Nothing I can detect justifies it, other than perhaps paring down the language to its necessities, and in that case why not consistently apply this method to the remainder of the poem? Is she hinting at an inexpressible loss? Or is this the much-touted "urban dance"? In either case, I'm afraid it doesn't quite work.
Bryden's diction is often precise and evocative, such as in the poem "A Daughter", where the secretary's friend has undergone a C-section and in the closing lines sleeps in "a cradle of drugs." But Bryden's rhythms do not always reflect the importance of the poems. My overwhelming impression is that, in getting tangled up in concept, Bryden loses touch with the specifics. When they are chosen intelligently those specifics connect together individual poems much more effectively and suggestively than any program ever could.
Ian LeTourneau lives in Athabasca, Alberta.Most recently his poems won the CBC's 2005 Alberta Anthology and will be published in a special anthology by Red Deer Press.