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Poets' Corner Words On The Page
by Barbara Carey

Richard Lemm's affecting lyrics, Mari?Lou Rowley's imaginative spacing, and Thelma Poirier's cumulative power display verse's various virtues THE AUDIENCE for poetry may indeed be relatively small, as Cary Fagan has lamented in these pages ("Aversion to Verse," October). But yearning for a poetry "spacious enough to embrace us all" is probably a mistake simply because all of "its" are so different. Instead, we have a flourishing crop of poetries, with a diversity of styles and themes ?and followers. This column, which will be a regular feature in Books in Canada, surveys new and noteworthy contributions to the field. Prelude to the Bacchanal (Ragweed, 96 pages, $9.95 paper), Richard Lemm's third book of poetry, is restrainedly lyrical in manner and confessional in tone ?? hut far more than personal in its focus. Beginning with a moving sequence of poems that examine family relationships and male/female roles, Lemm probes the private ?? and public ?? wounds of trying to live up to society's notion of manhood. What is most compelling is the poet's stance: he is less the judgemental observer (often the case with poems making a political point) than a participant acknowledging, though struggling with, his own complicity. The poem "Eavesdropper" recalls a domestic quarrel from the viewpoint of a child: She never looks up. He builds a wall of cigarette ash. The long tail of work whipped around him... I can't understand what she yells, what he mumbles into cushions where I later find coins The insights arrived at are never easy; in fact, that's part of their power. A few poems take a rambling route or, more rarely, a cheating short cut, but even these don't seem an imposition; you're carried along, content with the pace, as if comfortably matching stride with a trusted friend. Umberto Eco has written that "blank space surrounding a word, typographical adjustments, and spatial composition in the page setting of the poetic text ... create a halo of indefiniteness." So it is that the most successful poems in Mari?Lou Rowley's debut collection, a Knife a Rope a Book (Underwhich, 64 pages, $7.95 paper), are those that experiment with the space of the page, that crack words and phrases apart and send them skittering into uneasy alignments and odd, revealing conjunctures. The unconventional form enlivens a familiar theme, since much of the book focuses on the power struggle underlying sexual relationships: he gets up to get a beer & I want to rifle through drawers, afraid to find them sans socks sons underwear instead a knife a rope a book. on anatomy ("sans socks") Thirty?seven doctors laid down their stethoscopes and picked up their pens to contribute to The Naked Physician: Poems About the Lives of Patients and Doctors (Quarry, 183 pages, $14.95 paper), edited by Ron Charach. Apparently this anthology is selling briskly, but it's difficult to figure Out Why ?? unless the buyers are hard?working doctors themselves, keen to see their experiences in the operating theatre and hospital ward given life on the page. There is, of course, plenty of dramatic material here. But too often the writers put their poems out of joint by straining for literary effect or baldly sermonizing, as in Mladen Seidl's "Stricken by Flu," which comes Clumping to an end like this: Viruses creep into our lives, and go, but first play on all of our frailties; and it's not so had so long as thew leave us heated, and more sensitive to prostration in all our fellow men. There are exceptions: Charach himself has a nimble, inventive way with syntax, though the blackness of his humour is sometimes off?putting; Kirstin Emmott and Vincent Hanlon write with a directness that rises above the predictable. Medicine and metaphor can mix, as William Carlos Williams proved; hut the mixture in The Naked Physician is mostly disappointing. Shakti's Words: An Anthology of South Asian Canadian Women's Poetry (TSAR, 92 pages, $10.95 paper), edited by Diane McGifford and Judith Kearns, has its disappointments too, but they are, on balance, minor. The eight poets featured here all set personal insight within a social frame ?? one that includes cultural conflict, marginalization, and racism ?though their styles and sensibilities vary considerably. Himani Bannerji writes crisp, confrontational poems so fine?edged they bite: Why do we need a metaphor! Why does Zeno's arrow fly through the space and not hit the mark! Why do we buzz, like bees around the petals of reality? Reality opens its mouth and swallows us up. ("Why Do We Need a Metaphor?") Lakshmi Gill shifts from visual poetry and syntactical play to brief, haiku?like poems and lyrical meditations; Uma Parameswaran's sequence of poems portrays the experience of immigration from many viewpoints within a family, including that of the older generation left behind. Shakti's Words is a diverse Collection, as personal as it is politicized. In Jungian dream analysis, a house often symbolizes the self The central section of Robin Potters Interior Designs (The Muses' Co., 52 pages, $20 cloth, $10 paper) opens with a quote from the Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, so it's not surprising that this first book is a kind of psychic journey ?through snatches of memory, dream, and monologue ?? toward feeling "at home" with the furnishings of the self In one poem, Potter speaks of rolling down a hill, "eyes shut into a dizzying life," and there's something of a dizzying, surrealistic tumble to Much of this inward? looking collection. I was often snagged by Potter's imagery ("She lies back in a hammock, / rocked by the yellow hand of cancer"), but sometimes found the poems too cluttered and psychology ?talkative. If Potter seems to spill words onto the page, Thelma Poirier, in Grasslands (Coteau, 79 pages, $8 paper), rations them out as sparingly as dippers of water in a drought. Poirier is a rancher living in the badlands of southwestern Saskatchewan, and this book began as a brief submitted to public hearings, held in 1976, on the development of a national park there. Forthright, unsentimental but obviously deeply felt, the poems offer a portrait of the region and those who have lived there, beginning with the Cree and other Native peoples. Individually, the poems can seem slight; as a Collection, though, they have a quiet, cumulative power, like blades of grass combining in one long, undulating wave when swept by the wind: If I had been Wiyaka Skawin four hundred years ago I would have named this month the moon of talking grass ("naming") "Quiet" would also describe J. D. Carpenter's Lakeview (Black Moss, 83 pages, $9.95 paper), his third collection, which brings together the distillation of 10 years' work. One of the cover blurbs promises poetry in which "private epiphany explodes into universal recognition," but this is hyperbolically misleading. Carpenter's voice is tempered and temperate; he has a shrewd eye for detail, and he runs it over the disturbing ?? and absurd ?? oddities Of urban life as well as the terrain of rural memory and family ties. His style is marked by an easiness of speech ?? though its a groomed vernacular, acutely aware of rhythm and Sound ?? only occasionally marred by clunky phrasings, little bumps in the smooth path of enjoyment. These are likeable poems of unforced insight: Among woodsmoke, raw pine wet reek of wool Wally showed his biceps ivory in stoveglow let us ?stare at the blue girl on his arm But the older boys would laugh as he knelt to loosen a knot or bent to feed the fire ("Wally") Given these qualities, this collection still seems slightly dissatisfying ?? perhaps because, for me, it lacks that promised "explosion" of deeper resonance. The quiet composure and emotional distance of Lakeview make it appealing, but also a bit static, as if fired only by the pale energy of contemplation. "Desire is the motor that moves us," Michael Redhill writes in Impromptu Feats of Balance (Wolsak and Wynn, 79 pages, $9 paper). It's also at the heart Of this second collection, a silverydark lyrical flicker that runs throughout the poems, which explore the poet's sense of connection with family, history, and lovers. There's a hard glint here and there, and a dry humour, such as in this portrayal of a lover: I was getting used to the way you cracked the skeletons of shrimp in your mouth and pulled the pink bodies out through your grin. (untitled) This is an impressive book, even if the "poetic" sensibility, in its solipsism, seems too deliberately constructed at times. A little unbalance ?? or perhaps just a glimpse of teetering ?would make Redhill's work even more engaging. There does not seem much point, apart from the publisher's commercial considerations, to Margaret Atwood: Selected Poems 1966?1984 (Oxford University Press, 320 pages, $19.95 paper); all the poems, give or take a handful, are already collected in Selected Poems (1976) and Selected Poems II (1986). Not that I'm complaining, exactly. "The 20th?century human condition demands a poetry of witness," the American poet Carolyn Forche has written; Atwood's poetry delivers this, combining chilly technical brilliance with a determined, though bleak, moral outlook on the violence ?? past and present, psychological and physical ?? of our world. Still, if I admire the deadpan, harrowing Atwood of social conscience, I have to admit I'm attracted to some of the later poems that display a tremor of, not optimism, but a kind of grudging, glimmering refusal of despair: I carry my precarious heart, radiant and already fading out with me along the tiled corridors into the rest of the world, which thinks it is opaque and hard. I am being very careful. O heart, now that I know ?your nature, who can I tell, ("Heart Test With an Echo Chamber")

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