Inviting Blindness

by Bill Gaston,
120 pages,
ISBN: 0889821453

The Undoing

77 pages,
ISBN: 091941737X

Radical Innocence

by John Pass,
96 pages,
ISBN: 1550171070

Collected Poems

by Ralph Gustafson,
260 pages,
ISBN: 155039052X

The Slow Reign of Calamity Jane

by Gillian Robinson,
ISBN: 1550821172

Ragas from the Periphery

by Phinder Dulai,
144 pages,
ISBN: 1551520214

Post Your Opinion
Plain Speaking
by Scott Ellis

REVIEWING POETRY IN CANADA is like being class monitor in a one room, country schoolhouse when the teacher's away. As an example to your thin-skinned, vocal students you want to observe all the proprieties of consideration, making positive comments and the like. On the other hand, some pupils need some plain-spoken, unapologetic criticism. You do both from the same lectern, in front of the same audience. And of course, you're not really a teacher, just one of the class. People will be holding you to account tomorrow, as well they should. So you watch what you say.

It's especially difficult when the subject is recently deceased, and deemed a Great One. I found myself in a tight comer, reviewing Ralph Gustafson's Collected Poems: Volume Three (Sono Nis, 263 pages, $24.95 cloth). Gustafson was a Member of the Order of Canada and recipient of many honours. The promo package quotes adulatory reviews in the most prestigious publications. Faced with all this evidence of literary virtue, I kept interrogating my perceptions as I read and reread this book and found most of it ... slight. Take, for exam -- pie, "Flowers for Hiroshima":

A scorched watch timed the blast

At 8:16. 8:16

Is a little early for me but gardens

Wait even as violence I

Both according to the intensity

Of how life is loved, not too long

A wait but sufficient

My wife cultivates

Easter where the crowded lilies are

We are our own crucifixion.


That people die.

To my mind, the parallels drawn here are entirely too easy, even falsely, disgustingly so. That the poem draws upon a long metaphorical tradition of Garden as Haven and Consolation (Marvell's "Upon Appleton House" comes to mind) only makes it a junk bond trading on the reputation of good currency.

Perhaps critics are impressed by Gustafson's allusions: he does have impressive referential range, something that stands out in a field as willfully parochial as most Canadian verse. A quick glance through turns up Delius, Einstein, Faulkner, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, among many others. But the voice that lays claim to these rich materials lacks any sustained intensity, choosing to noodle out banal riffs on old standards. Occasionally Gustafson reaches the simplicity he strives for, a "clarity and the calm of knowledge" that speaks of passions reconciled, tribulations accepted, while still being open to the pain of the world. But more often he dissipates his good moments in a kind of tepid, professorial dither. Perhaps I should blame Sono Nis for throwing the kitchen sink into this handsome, hard-cover edition, when a smaller, more ruthlessly pared volume would have served the poet better. A frustrating and, all too often, bloodless book.

John Pass's Radical Innocence (Harbour, 69 pages, $9.95 paper) succeeds where much of the Gustafson volume fails. His territory is much the same: jumpcuts through the emotions and ephemera of middle-class post-modernity, highly allusive and depending for effect on juxtapositions between styles and subjects. But Pass's sinewy Christianity gives his material a vigour that Gustafson's lacks. In "Lost in the Material" a nativity is played out as a woman "high in the stirrups as Cortez" cries "make them give me something," while "(i)n the orchard the trees/are putting on their lingerie." Here there's a sense of testing, of vigilant unease, that sharpens the work. Pass's poems, when they work (often), draw you past their opalescent linguistic surfaces to a passion that's variously joyous, musing, or gruff.

No one could accuse The Slow Reign of Calamity Jane (Quarry, 123 pages, $14.95 paper) of lacking passion. Gillian Robinson, who lives in the Yukon, conveys the desolation, terror, and greed of the early prospectors and settlers, who came west bearing a patriarchal ethos from the small hamlets and crowded cities of Europe, to face a land richer, bleaker, and more free than they could imagine.

'Her Jane is an unsaintly holy woman, a mother, healer, whore, and killer, a pariah riding a black horse named Satan, seeing and suffering for the sins and loneliness that all around her deny, as in this untitled piece: "I look out at this town rushing for gold, / driven, leaving one more town empty / with only cans and shacks for the wind and dust to join."

Martha Jane Canary led an eventful life, marrying Wild Bill Hickock, burning down a hotel, nursing smallpox victims, drinking and travelling hard. Robinson has her also buying Hickock's death after he left her, supporting a daughter she gave up, taking comfort and torment with many lovers. 'Me language, appropriately, is often ripely Gothic, which usually works in context. 'Me one cavil I have, and this didn't hamper my enjoyment, is that much of it is, well, prose. Good prose is its own reward and shouldn't be pushed into another form to fill out slim volumes.

If Calamity Jane's terrain is the harsh, empty West of lost dreams and squandered affections, Bill Gaston's Inviting Blindness (Oolichan, 80 pages, $11.95 paper) is set in love's cityscape, a place where the chiaroscuro of passion gives way unpredictably to the chilled tints of distraction, time, and self-interest, then, just as quickly, reasserts itself. With a characteristic blend of romanticism and downrightness, Gaston's speaker in "Try a Younger Man" tolerantly catalogues rivals for his lover's attentions:

Or try Vince. He will finger your confusion with a maxim, binding time and mystery as you grope your cheapest route out of hard and shiny clothing. Recall my love is heron's walk, poise on ancient stilts and your love is the flashing of minnows.

This is Gaston's first book of verse and it admirably shows off his talents as a dry-eyed lyric poet, one to watch.

Phinder Dulai's debut, Ragas from the Periphery (Arsenal Pulp, 137 pages, $12.95 paper), is an ambitious attempt to meld the forms and concerns of two cultures. So Dulai says in his introduction, which stresses the "momentum and fluidity" of Indian classical music, likening it to a "river of consciousness." To which I'd reply that raga is as formal as it is free: a rubato alap that introduces and develops the scale in which the piece will be played, followed by the contrapuntal raga proper with a complex metric pattern. I mention this because it seems to me shortsighted to take some of the terms of a culture's art, in order to avail yourself of its "freedom." In this same intro, Dulai situates himself as a "South Asian writer," but when you get past the multicult talk (which seems aimed as much at funding bodies as readers) much of the book is fairly conventional verse by a young, academic poet:

My lesson is hard and brittle it's Miller time without the beer and testes ("Vancouver: Bharat Matha Removed")

Elsewhere, Dulai indulges in some pretty stale language: "eternal embrace ... .. sleeping soul." But you do get hints of what he was trying for: an uneasy interplay of one tradition with another, neither fully comprehensible or acceptable to the other. Take this passage from "Birth?" for instance:

I am the nurturer of battling visions shiva is poking out of my soul

I creep out of the snagging soil where the d{h}an{te}lio{h}ns g{h}row

But these are few and momentary. Being any kind of poet in North America is tough, and I'm not suggesting that Dulai was somehow coddled in getting this book. Nevertheless, he's got hard work ahead of him.

In The Undoing (Netherlandic, 77 pages, $9.95 paper) Brian Vanderlip is also concerned with traditions, those of the small-town Baptist church versus the modem world. Here, family and religion are more a trap to be escaped than a cultural difference to be examined and defended:

If father loved God then why didn't that love spill over all those children he made .... Perhaps a father's love is suffering bitter knowledge unpaid debt God doesn't change some things....

("The Father")

Vanderlip's is a common thread in Canadian poetry, that of the white poet from a fundamentalist background, a protesting Protestant, part of the invisible minority of the formerly faithful. Perhaps because I live in a heavily Anabaptist area, I can name any number of poets who tell essentially the same story, many with a predictability Vanderlip does not escape. It's hard to speak of this without sounding petty, but a later section of the book, "Dangling Affirmations," where Vanderlip celebrates a renewed faith, seems formulaic in light of his earlier struggles against organized religion. It's such an oft-told CanLit tale, this brand of religious confessional poetry, that maybe it's tapped out.


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