by Evelyn Lau
by Stephen Laird
Post Your Opinion
by Ian LeTourneau
The cover photograph of Stephen Laird's Charlatan shows a "Charlatan puppet", a figure that looks like one of Darth Vader's red-robed imperial guards from Return of the Jedi, except this figure has a large beaked nose. Most intriguing is that attached to his index and middle fingers is a saw. In his acknowledgements Laird provides an explanation: "The reason Charlatan is figured with a saw in his hand is that, in the 15th century, he was portrayed as helping people "who are lost in their mind" by opening up their head and extracting the disruptive matter. Yes, I thought: exactly the thing Canadian poetry needs.
Yet Laird falls short of his worthy aim. Many of his poems contain strong bits, whether of image or metaphor. And Laird knows a thing or two about technique. For example, the trick of embedding a large word among a nest of smaller ones is used effectively in "Under the Terms of Wear": "The inderacinable feeling of love: / it is a sifted boat of snow, if you want." The complex Latinate adjective "inderacinable" sounds pitch-perfect when describing this particular feeling. There is other wonderful writing that stands out: "brass foot of God"; "the drudgery of trees will still make a forest"; "blue eclipse / of the river"; "footnotes and fancy free". These phrases demonstrate a free-ranging and playful imagination that, when it wants to, gets down to serious poetic business. But on the whole, I felt that the majority of poems needed more time. Here's "If I had an Accent" in its entirety:
If I had an accent
things would be different
between us. Your interest would be piqued
I wouldn't have to speak
loudly to be heard
just slowly to be understood.
Your familiar English syllables
would wax and wane undecidedly
on my tongue like an unfamiliar view of the moon
rising and falling over rooftops at Kowloon.
My cadences would rock you slowly
the movement of stone over stone over time
and the off-rhyme, misplaced
and mispronounced, would make you want me
to speak over and over
the slow mesmerizing words of love-
all this and the true beat of my heart
if I had an accent, and yes, a scar.
This poem has many charms, not the least of which is the off-rhymes (accent/different, piqued/speak) which work their magic by suiting the poem's subject matter: The prounciations of persons new to English would, indeed, be different or "off" . However, when Laird calls attention to it in the seventh couplet, the effect is lost. A successful poem should work on an aural level as well-that is, we should be registering the off-rhyme and the misplaced rhyme and nodding our heads because the poem sounds right. We don't need a cue from the author, saying, "did you catch the off-rhyme?" It breaks the spell. We're not drawn back to the poem. Instead we flip the page, maybe mutter something about how clever it was, then forget. Am I too hard-headed, or does this charlatan have a rusty saw?
Evelyn Lau's Treble disappointed me as well. Having read only her memoirs, I had high expectations: her prose is hard-hitting and effective. For the most part, Treble was filled with unsurprising, pedestrian narrative poems. As they are needlessly long, I won't quote any in full, but here's a fairly typical example, "The Sinking Houses":
It was only a landscape painting,
tucked away in the back of the gallery-
a green peninsula scattered with houses,
a boat drifting in blue water.
But there were no boundaries
anywhere in this reflected world,
no gardens or fences or shielding trees
between the houses that were sinking
as if into quicksand, their tiny doors opening
onto darkness, the people gone.
I wanted to tell you a story
about the people with no boundaries,
to see the pain on your face like a flame
that burns neighbourhoods down,
but instead I told you about the dwarf
trapped inside the littlest orange house,
condemned to live alone forever.
We walked laughing out of the gallery . . .
Narrative poetry, I'll admit, is not my cup of tea, but I can appreciate it when it's done well. And by "well" I mean that it contains a vocabulary that is not anemic, has purpose, and still contains some powerful (or at least useful) metaphors and images. In "The Sinking Houses", the narrative jumps around too much; there is no clear context for Lau's descriptions or for details such as "the dwarf / trapped inside the littlest orange house, / condemned to live alone forever." It might be unfair to compare Lau to Ted Hughes, but for a fine example of narrative poetry the late Hughes' Birthday Letters instantly leaps to mind. The opening lines from Hughes's "The Rag Rug" demonstrated the difference I'm speaking of:
Somebody had made one. You admired it.
So you began to make your rag rug.
You needed to do it. Played on by lightnings
You needed an earth. Maybe. Or needed
To pull something out of yourself-
Some tapeworm of the psyche.
The clarity and urgency of these lines is the standard for which more Canadian poets, when writing narrative poetry, should aim. Side-stepping the charge that he was relying on the well-known tragic aspects of his life to evince emotion, Hughes creates the remarkable metaphor of a "tapeworm of the psyche", a powerful line of poetry that I don't think will ever leave me. The disjointed, all-over-the-map quality of Lau's poem contains nothing as memorable.
Many of Lau's poems are too melodramatic for my taste. Poems like "The Corn Maze" come with language that scores high on the histrionic scale: "other couples / stumbled in defeat. They crushed past us / in the heat." Still, Lau, like Laird, can write a decent line, such as in "Domesticity No2", where she writes about a face "folded in on itself, / an origami of anger." That's a brilliant image. But it's too bad she chokes the rest of her poems with unnecessary verbiage. Even the title of the book curls back to bite her: treble, in Britain, means something that is multiplied by three. And for me, there is certainly three times too much in these poems by way of explanation and irrelevant details.
One of Lau's more successful poems, "Migraine", works because she focuses her language. The poem develops slowly, methodically, as a migraine does, and-in contrast to so many of her other poems-logically. This creates a paradoxical tension because migraines have no relation to logic. Here's roughly the first half:
The aura is a rumour
of thunder in the distance,
building into a storm
that rattles the shutters
and the beads of the chandelier
before punching a hole
in the load bearing wall.
The tap of construction
through the double-glazed windows
splinters your skull.
A forty-watt bulb blazes
like an eclipse on your retina.
The language verges on meteorological clichT, but then Lau punches through with the unexpected "hole/ in the load bearing wall."And rather than inserting insignificant details in the next stanza, she continues, appropriately, with the more interesting language of construction. This poem is far more effective than "The Sinking Houses." I even like her ending: "Finally the surrender / to drugged sleep . . . in the absence of feeling, / an angels' chorus." I don't know exactly what that means, but somehow it's evocative enough to land on this side of comprehension and I continue to puzzle over it.