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Selected

by William Hawkins
168 pages,
ISBN: 1553910346


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Nanve Primitivism
by Shane Neilson

The publication of a Selected is a major milestone in a poet's career, and one usually hopes those having a passing familiarity with Canadian poetry would at least know the lucky poet. Alas, not in my case. This was the first time I had read William Hawkins, and to be fair to the poet I read Roy MacSkimming's colourful introduction after I had read the book, which helpfully explained the reason why Hawkins is incognito: he hasn't published since the early '70s. So this book is more than a Selected, it's a resurrection.
Still, some things might have been better kept hidden. Hawkins is a poet of the ubiquitous ampersand, of shorthands like "yr", and of dead-obvious rhymes. Consider "Sunrise", the first "poem" of the book:

Day break me a day of no regret
Regret is the names of the days I get
Day break me this day for I've not lived yet
Cuz
O
I would bring
Lollipops to all bad sad boys and girlsÓ

Set to guitar, this little ditty might impress, but on the page the dead rhymes (regret, get, yet), the grandiloquence of the egregious "O", the bastardisation of the word "because" shows a carelessness, and the sing-song rhythm to the piece betrays a complacency with regards to craftsmanship (in this poem, any ol' O and Cuz will do)¨all this suggests, at first, an adequate song lyricist but subpar poet.
Yet there's an endearing zaniness to the collection. For example, one of the poems is titled "King Kong Goes to Rotterdam", and in another poem called "Postage Stamps" the protagonist runs

Down the Mall
and Bank Street too
my head covered
with postage stamps
crying
mail me!
mail me!

It's funny, in a bizarre sort of way. As can be detected in this excerpt, though, the typography of a Hawkins poem is haphazard. There's a lot of effort expended in spreading words around on the page, but not enough attention is spent, to my mind, in figuring out which word is the right word. The style is conversational, akin to Al Purdy at his most garrulous; quite a lot of Purdy can be seen in the following lines taken from "Two Short Ones":
My friend Hamann is painting the end of it all
It's all square to him
and I don't understand
I tell him
in an elaborate manner
that I don't understand
and he is elated
My friend Hamann also likes birds . . .

Like Purdy at his most loquacious, one might ask: what's the point of this disclosure? The anecdote, one that isn't particularly interesting, hasn't quite made the necessary transformation to poetry. This is representative of a larger failure throughout the whole collection. The poem should come first, but Hawkins is, instead, all about story.
Since I'm already on the topic of influences, I should mention that I spot a good dollop of Patrick Lane in these pages, especially when the mostly rather agreeable poet-persona adopts a tough-guy stance, or an I-live-in-the-harsh-natural-world stance, as in "The Vision of King Mountain":

Surrounded by the myth of big men
And the reality of girl-boys
I
neither big man or girl-boy
Stand alone in these Autumn-exhausted hills
Praying for rabbits
hating the cold
and wishing that the obvious vision of King Mountain
would reveal itself to me

If there was a blind taste-test, could you tell the difference? Would it help if I told you that Hawkins refers to women as "chicks" and "possible fucks"? Or that one of his poems is about suicide by car crash? Another about drug abuse? Stock Lane. And like Lane, there are overblown moments, like in "The Only Flag", when the poet writes of a love affair,
Let's go back to bed
lie down together
& forget our fears,
hearts pounding
to the rhythm of love . . .

It may be that Lane and Hawkins merely share the same influences, but to my mind the resemblance is striking and worth mentioning. But enough of my dislikes. One of the real successes of this collection is Hawkins's sense of humour. It's often crude, although it gives the book its charm. Hawkins is good at satire, like when he imagines King Kong participating at a Prime Minister's conference.
If I had to describe the collection in a few words, I'd say nanve primitivism. There is no elegance. And yet, Hawkins, despite an over reliance on the song form and the typographical soup, sometimes stumbles on some real poetry. "For Jenny Louisa Lockyear" has one of Hawkins's moments, which are difficult to excerpt in just a few lines:

You holy and now dead old woman
You who so loved Rupert Brooke
and cried for him
annual tears
speaking softly to me of wars
and the ultimate adagio of death . . .

How blooms Yeats' roses this year, old one?
Can you smell them?

This selected, at 167 pages, could have been shortened to a tenth, but so could the Selecteds of most poets when boiled down to their essential poems. The frustrations of reading these book¨of poems that are derivative, loquacious, slight, clichTd, and the marring tough talk, ham-handed spirituality, the second half's greater inconsistency¨do not outweigh the pleasures (the biting satirical voice, the occasional quiet and unadorned insight). I would recommend Dancing Alone to anyone, especially on the strength of the shorter poems that are boiled down to their essentials. "Youth" is one of those:

laughs against the April rain,
where nothing ages
nor grows old with grace ˛
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