Riding the Long Black Horse

by Raymond Souster,
ISBN: 0887509029

Steam-Cleaning Love

by J.A. Hamilton,
ISBN: 0919626688

This Desert Now

by Yves Prefontaine, Judith Cowan,
64 pages,
ISBN: 0920717667

Inside Passage

by Doug Beardsley,
64 pages,
ISBN: 1895449154


by Anne Swannell,
ISBN: 1895836034

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Brief Reviews - Poetry
by Bruce Whiteman

DEPENDING how you Count, Riding the Long Black Horse (Oberon, 90 pages, $23.95 cloth, $11.95 paper) is Raymond Souster's 40th hook-length collection of poetry in just less than 50 years. We tend to forget, but there was a time when Souster's writing and editorial activities were at the cutting edge of Canadian poetry. Without him, much of the efflorescence of the 1960s and the continuing presence of the Williams-esque domestic lyric would he unthinkable. Souster himself eventually located a voice that lies somewhere between lyric and narrative, and it became his identifiable trademark despite experiments with found poetry and longer narratives such as a continuing "Pictures from a Long-Lost World" series. Much of Riding the Long Black Horse deals with the recent death of Souster's father, with two sequences, "Stand Down, Cover Up" and "First Annual Report to a Battery Bombardier," arising from that decisive intimate event. "All the Long Way Home," the long first poem in the book, also deals with a memory of his father from half a century ago. As always, the writing sticks to the details of the everyday, and it is entirely typical Of Souster that the beautiful, reflective third section of "Annual Report" -

Time more and more seems like a bottomless pit into which the lives of those dear ones around us step off one by one, drop soundlessly in to total darkness

-- should lead him to begin the next part with the words, "But there, I didn't mean to get poetic, / not with you of all people." Souster has always been suspicious of the "poetic"; it is one of the qualities that has made him a fine poet. Riding the Long Black Horse is a worthy addition to an already huge and impressive body of work. Anne Swannell's Mall (Rowan Books, 70 pages, $12.95 paper) is, by contrast, only this poet's second book. I admit that the very idea of a collection of poems about the West Edmonton Mall made my eyes roll, and the desktop-publishing-style decorations and photographs included did not help to alter my prejudice. Perhaps only Phyllis Webb's over-kind blurb, in which she claims to see Mall as "social comedy and cultural critique in the Canadian tradition of F. R. Scott, Raymond Souster, and Irving Layton" kept me from consigning the book to the "no" pile. (Readers of this column might like to know that the reviewers are sent 10 or so books from which five to eight are to be selected for comment.)

Phyllis Webb is right in a sense: Scott and Souster, and to a lesser extent Layton, did make it possible poetically for a book like Mall to exist (though it is hard to imagine Souster, for example, writing more than a poem or two about Toronto's Eaton Centre). But enough and too much. The social satire here is broad and obvious, and more dreary still is the poetry itself. Nowhere is it redeemed by any obvious talent for image or rhythm or form. Instead, the poetry is merely taken as a given, as though a serious newspaper or magazine piece on the mall has been pumped up with mechanical inspiration and thus vaguely poeticized, as in "Truck Room: Fantasyland Hotel, West Edmonton":

On wall, YIELD sign. Elsewhere in room I several Nets of traffic lights. Plaster cop in corner, over Jacuzzi. Parked in centre of room yellow half-ton pickup truck -- bed in back black spread, yellow -stripe.

Despite its singularly unappealing title, J. A. Hamiltons Steam-Cleaning Love (Brick, 96 pages, $11.95 paper) is a more interesting and accomplished collection. (The title has moved the books designer to create an image of one of those rug-cleaning machines one rents at a chain grocery store, and it appears on the three section titles and the back cover. Why this particular image was chosen to represent the passions of the book remains a puzzle.) Most of the 58 pieces are lesbian love poems, either wholly or in part, and Hamilton has an attractively skittish sort of voice that lends the work a very individual cast:

It was the ladder I saw the raw clop of hammer and nail the wordless, tedious years between the provinces, between the scars and who you think I am. My hunger was unavoidable, though you assailed it. My laughter was dense, a terrified thing running.

It was the placement of rungs too far between

or the six years of mornings

or the miles of provinces.

Your hips, drawing them over and over,

tongue to skin like pencil.

I didn't knoll, what I wanted.

Love. A plane ticket away.



This poem, quoted in full, is representative of the degree to Which desire, sometimes thwarted and sometimes exercised without constraint, dominates Steam-Cleaning Love. The "fleshy mess" of the body, it, sights and smells, its urgencies and crazy calculations, is the basis for much of Hamilton's imagery. The sometimes stilted syntax and formal clumsiness arise presumably from the same source.

Doug Beardsleys Inside Passage (Thistledown, 62 pages, $11 paper) is also a book of mainly love poems, addressed to a woman Who has left. (A group of poems on aboriginal themes in the middle of the book seems to me rather thin and unsuccessful.) Beardsley is an experienced and accomplished writer, and some of the work in this new hook -- the title poem, for example -- is convincing. But I am troubled by -a number of cliches and hopworn bits that mar many of the poems: "your weight weighing my walking in this World," or "when you come We will make a sweet circle of fire," among others. Consider also the echt Laytonian Kid spirit driving, all admittedly slender poem such as "One Word":

At the height of human passion

on this globe

you cried out to me


You can do almost anything you want

and I knew from that moment

to we were doomed,

for no matter

it hat I'd say or do again

I'd never be able to get rid of that almost

Inside Passage is a better book than these excerpt suggest. Perhaps a stronger editorial hand was needed. Having recentIy worked with Francis Farley-Chevrier on a draft of a translation of poems by Francois Charron, I was interested to see how Judith Cowan managed her version of Yves Prefontaine's This Desert Now (Guernica, 9 3 pages, $10 paper). Though I have riot compared the entire book word for word ovith the original, on the ,vholc her translation both faithful mid reasonably poetic. Occasionally the EngIish is a little too literal ("at the frontiers of cry" for "aux frontieres du cri," or "the force of children" for "la force des enfants"), and awkwardnesses mar a line once it) a while ("and the lovely tempIes are lost since lot),," oi- "in other stonelike things, / and in dead thing'.'"). But most of whatever is strange in Cowan's English is mirwe ill the French too. (I was amused to find that one word that gave Farley-Chevrier tier mid me an hour of head-scratching, "non-lieu," baffled Cowan. Her decision finally to leave it in French, as the title of a poem, does riot seem altogether happy.)

Prefontaine is from Montreal and was born in 1937. He is roughly of an age, then, with John or Margaret Atwood, but his language could not sound more dissimilar, being far more inward and metaphysical. It is hard to imagine any English-Canadian poet beginning a poem, "I really was waiting for the Word to be made flesh; / I laboured hard and sternly at that Opus." Part of the whole thrust in modernism ill English-Canadian poetry, after all, was to get that upper case "W" off the word "Word." Prefontaine's two poems that deal with China, to take another exampIe, are far more abstract than a similar piece thin a Purdy of a Geddes might have written, though the image of "A billion hands waving in the primal work of survival"

is wonderfully vivid.

But if Prefontaine's language sometimes sounds abstruse, I his concerns -- politics, death, global ecological problems, love, and so on -- are anything but it. This Desert Now is the first of his books to be translated. It would be wonderful to have more of his work available in English.


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