Post Your Opinion
You Don't Have to Explain
by Libby Scheier

Erin Mouré began her (published) poetic life as a "work poet", as an adherent of the school of poetry developed by Tom Wayman, who maintained (and still does, I think) that people's daily workplace lives are and deserve to be the stuff of poetry. As a railway worker, Mouré qualified, and her occupation made her one of the more romantic poets of the school. Her first book, Empire, York Street, came out of this period, and was nominated for a Governor General's Award (while she was still in her early twenties). While the "work poets" included good and interesting writers (like Mouré, Wayman, and Phil Hall), there was a social-realist centre to the project that weighed it down and delimited it. Empire, York Street, however, did not fall into any social-realist bog. While Mouré's experiences as a railway worker figured prominently in the collection (and why not?), the poetry was filled with linguistic energy, innovation, and wit; she was recognized as a smart writer, cerebral, her language muscular. A diverse group of writers and critics, including male writers such as Al Purdy, gave her well-deserved and widespread admiration.
Mouré soon became a proponent of the women's movement, and feminist ideas were among the many that deepened and layered her work. Always fond of language play, she was naturally drawn toward postmodern language-centred writing, and found the circle of brilliant feminist writers in Quebec a fertile creative environment. (This circle has achieved international recognition and includes Nicole Brossard, Gail Scott, and Louky Bersianik.)
Her pursuit of a feminist poetic within a language-centred approach achieved sharp expression in a 1988 collection to which she characteristically gave the angular, edgy title, Furious. It won the Governor General's Award.
Since Furious, Mouré has deepened and broadened her poetic-linguistic travels, games, and thoughts in WSW (West South West) (1989), Sheepish Beauty, Civilian Love (1992), and now in Search Procedures.
Feminist "themes" are not directly pursued in Search Procedures, although they can be felt as a subtext for the reader familiar with Mouré's work.
An asterisked "footnote" to one of the poems in the book's "Nureyev Intercostals" series defines "search procedures" as "attempts to establish new connections between brain activity and a changed environment". The putative footnote tells us that the reference is from a section of Rosenfeld's The Invention of Memory which discusses the "depression" that may occur when one member of a pair of birds is cut off from the other, and goes searching for its mate. An attempt to establish new connections between brain activity and a changed environment may be seen as Search Procedures' "theme". Mouré would probably not fancy the notion of "theme", and I do not mean it in the traditional sense of thematic content, but rather as that which informs the book's formal structure and spirit of linguistic exploration.
Mouré writes here as a poet whose mental Geiger counter is scanning her changed landscape for danger and safety and new ways to live, and whose travels in language-land raise the complexly-layered question of what "determines the passage of everything into language" (from the poem "Strike"). This question of course leads to many others, and to many poems. The question can also be a game, a tableau, an incantation. So I mean here by theme "how she writes in this book", what themes are implied by the form and language of the poems.
Search Procedures is a wonderful book and I was glad to see it honoured by a Governor General's Award nomination. It is full of strange and scintillating gestures and detail play, from language legerdemain to punctuation deconstruction (which, here, is surprisingly interesting!) to visual play with page formats, typefaces, and small line drawings.
Mouré maintains an overview as she goes along, and a line in one poem repeats a line in another, slightly rewriting and recontextualizing; the form and format of one poem are rearranged but echoed in another poem.
In the poem series "Memory Penitence/ Contamination Eglise", lines and verses with recognizable words alternate with "paragraphs" of jumbled type and punctuation for three pages and, on the fourth page, recognizable words begin to appear at the beginning of the jumbled-type paragraph-like chicks hatching from eggs. The words decompose into jumbled type mid-paragraph; the verse ends with the word-chicks half-born.
Mouré plays with the poetic tradition of "meaningful" imagery and narration, sometimes creating the illusion of imagery, by thrusting forward what at first glance looks like your usual repeated lyrical image, which then, however, does not connect up sensibly to objects or themes. Through these illusions, bits of scenes (like out-takes on a cutting-room floor) and snatches of overheard conversation splutter by. Mouré makes ironic asides to the desire (hers? the reader's?) for sense and meaning in poetry as in life. One poem "footnote" says, "Maybe in another lifetime Mouré will smarten up," while another announces, "There is an opening for a real poet in these pages."
Autobiographical elements weave in and out of these poems, popping up like touchstones in the search procedures for "new connections between brain activity and a changed environment". There are several references to asthma, and there are many references, by proper name, to important people in Mouré's life.
If Susan Sontag is against interpretation, Erin Mouré is against explanation. A section divider for a series of poems toward the end of the book quotes from Carla, by Alan Davies: "And then there's explaining. What does explaining do? Explaining takes up space. It convinces even one way or the other. Explaining begs trust. It makes up for actions we would have intended if we had known better how. Explaining is an aside. Or what about avoiding explaining? Like in poetry." This, too, could be a "theme" of Search Procedures.
Oddly, a short way past the middle of the book, a ten-page series of poems appears; these are quite "accessible" in the traditional sense of modernist poetry: accessible via narration and imagery. The series begins with "Tales of the Sumerians (Auburn, NY)" and ends with "Halls" (an earlier poem in this series is also titled "Halls", the only difference being a larger typeface). Attractive and lyrical, these poems almost seem to be here to show the reader that Mouré can do this if she wants to, thank you very much. There's more to it than that, of course, as one of the poems makes a selfconscious reference to "the syncope of narration" (a phrase which suggests that traditional narration presents an artificially abbreviated reality and is therefore less "real" than discontinuous, multi-track narration). There's also an arresting central image in the series, borrowed from earthquake language, about "the fault-line of the planet" and of the body ("Fault-line by which others can enter the body/ by accident")-suggesting that traditional narration presents an unreal perfection, without fault-lines.
The end-poem of the collection is appropriately titled "Language", and it tells us that "Use-value, usefulness are in the saying," a line followed by its contradiction: "we do not know this or anything otherwise." Similarly, the poem ends with two lines that seem to contradict each other:

thought is sediment. laid down, beautiful
ar yp al oï

The first of these lines places values on thought, while the second line appears to be meaningless, without thought. Like Walt Whitman, Mouré is content to contradict herself. Life, after all, is filled with contradiction, something "explanation" seeks to resolve, but poetry prefers to let stand, to explore, to play with.
In a Mouré book, the text proper can blur into conventional textual addenda. This happens here with the acknowledgements, found at the end of the collection, titled "Acknowledgements (found, surely)", and ending with a paragraph in French which asserts that unconditional love is, for the author, freedom, personal and absolute freedom. This paragraph appears to present a kind of credo informing the "search procedures"-it appears in disguise, however; that is, it is written in French (in a book which is 98 percent English), but it is an easily penetrated disguise. Nothing appears afterwards to contradict it, and as such it jumps out from the rest of the text, a statement of belief. This disguise allows Mouré to be somewhat indirect, removed, from this act of statement, so uncharacteristic of her poetry.
Trains still figure in the work of this poet and railway worker (now manager), as in "Some Stops Along an Interpretive Walk in New Jersey", which begins:

People who take trains solely from a desire to
register themselves
the desolation of landscape

It seems appropriate that I wrote this review on the train from New York to Toronto.

Libby Scheier is the founder and director of the Toronto Writing Workshop and the author of five books, most recently Saints & Runners: Stories & a Novella.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us