The Cottage Builder's Letter

by George Murray
99 pages,
ISBN: 0771066724


by Carmine Starnino
52 pages,
ISBN: 0773519076

Days into Flatspin

by Ken Babstock
81 pages,
ISBN: 0887846580

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Out with Purdysim! Let the new poets sing!
by Derek Webster

AlPurdy was a mediocre poet, but his influence is seen in so many poets that his importance to our national literature is undeniable: whatever has happened so far, Purdy has been a part of it. I wish I had known Al Purdy, because he was, by every account, an incredible man. Still, part of me is not sad, for meeting him would certainly have made that much harder the task of distinguishing the man from his work. I'm not straying from the three poets here under consideration, for there're some lines in "Bottled Rabbit," by poet Ken Babstock, that got me thinking about Purdy's ghost:

Perhaps we are what we remember we ate, but
I've no memory, now, of what that rabbit tasted like, though I'm

tempted to say it tasted like rabbit. The host, here, pipes in unbelievably with "Wow, it tastes like chicken . . ." And thusly a nation is born, I thought, or something fuzzier that meant
that, as I was still barely awake.

Ken Babstock

A lot like Purdy, isn't it? The modest humour of the modified clichT, the metrically irregular long lines, the plain-spoken tone and country irony, the slight irritation and regional defensiveness, the "homeless" narrative of the Anglo-Canadian, whose hazy ethnic story has been subsumed into the history of the country proper, leaving him slightly without identity in the new Canada. The contrast of inner and outer states: the groggy speaker is experiencing a memory of those roots, eating his grandmother's rabbit, while on CBC the intrepid central Canadian reporter journeys to darkest Newfoundland and lives to tell of eating rabbit. And the brilliant: "And thusly a nation is born, I thought, or something fuzzier that meant that." Good poets, in the name of economy, would probably cut "or something fuzzier that meant that"¨and they'd be right to do so; except here, where it prolongs in the reader's mind the distinct scent of this country. An extra tail is essential for such a subtle effect. So like Purdy; yet in all his poems, Al Purdy could never do this. It's too subtle! Babstock could not have written this poem without Al Purdy, who lives in all its parts, but this is still Babstock's artisty: his final transforming effect in these lines makes Purdy worth something more than Purdyism."Purdyism"¨the national reticence to sound intellectual, the tendency to scaffold a poem's vision with "ah shucks, I'm just kidding."

A social construction is at the heart of Purdy's poems. It effected male poets first, and later found its female voice. It is lame-moose free verse; it is "Bottled Rabbit" in the untransforming hands of the immature or imitative. Purdyism has become a unifying expression of patriotic mediocrity. It offers proto-poets the chance to be one of the boys or girls within their own poems, encourages them to strive for clangingly obvious stanzas, to resolve all meaningful tensions, and hints at a promised land wherein poets' feelings of social alienation magically disappear.

Anyway, there is more to Babstock. As in Mean, Babstock's stellar first collection, animalistic quick syllables reminiscent of Ted Hughes scatter across the page¨without Hughes' lurking self-pity, but also without his flair for dramatic endings. There are poems in Days into Flatspin that idle mysteriously like a cat in a corner, trying to scratch and sniff their way back to the scent of poetry. Though the unexpected and overwritten result is smooth, this suggests too much honouring of the original intent, and the spectre of Purdyism shivers the spine. But on the whole this is a more dense, consistent book than Mean. "Gull," "Tractor," "Boot Mat," "Anorak," "Flat," "Working the Lakefront," "Drinker": speak these poems aloud, and they will come to life. Or go on-line, www.radio.cbc.ca/programs/outfront/2000/poets.html, to hear the mellifluous Babstock read an earlier version of "Bottled Rabbit." It has an amazingly different ending. An interesting question is whether the earlier version is better.

Carmine Starnino's Credo is the most polished and least Purdyfied of these collections. His poems favour narrative elaboration: none of these three poets, in fact, starve their readers of context in a bid to impress them with brevity. The majority of lines in Credo flow past ten syllables and some splash at fifteen, a fact which subtly takes them out of comparison with the intuitive line of Shakespeare and the English tradition (a comparison that few withstand), but, happily, into a more expansive mode.

Starnino proceeds at his own distinct pace, which is smooth, relaxed, and meditative. One finds in Credo the direct but un-self-conscious address to the reader, the unstintingly rational aesthetic, the Italian immigrant stories all begun in the author's first book The New World; but there is something new here, a conscious revel in language and individual words, that has swelled at the core of this poet's work and transformed it into a truly new world. Leading the way is the brilliant sixteen-poem "Cornage," a poet's investigation of medieval English. Also "The Goblet," "Short Essay on the Tweed Cap," and the sublime "Malocchio"¨which is such a finely controlled display of protean metaphor, it renews my faith that young poets exist who can craft their poems with something other than a chain-saw.

God the bright wattage of an oil-lamp
on a kitchen table. God the whiff
of woodsmoke. God the clarifying zinc sound
of a goat being milked into a pail.
God idling above us like a thundercloud

Starnino reminds me of no one so much as Joseph Conrad. His language moves with eyes wide open to possibility: not restricted, like the speaker whose home language is English, to intuitive habits of what word "naturally" follows another. Montreal-Italian, born into a linguistically proactive Quebec, influenced by Heaney (another slanted speaker of English), Starnino is on a journey to the heart of language. Not the intuitive brilliance, real-time unpredictability and drama of Anne Carson, but the accumulative genius of detail and narrative craft, humility and wonder. I feel I could identify poems by Starnino if given them anonymously. They have an unmistakable watermark. Earlier, I called Starnino unstintingly rational, but cracks in his aesthetic armour are showing. Section Three of Credo should be called "Night Poems," because they ask more difficult questions than the rest of the book and exhibit the dark hue of tension. The painter imagines his self-decapitation in "After Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath," and the poem ends: "Dear Berryman, dear Lowell, / will I ever be asked to dispense / such justice? Is it my own head/ I will one day grip by the hair?" An ambivalent moment, both fear of, and desire for, the mad visions of the self-destructive poets. I think Starnino is inviting a limited decadence into his work, like a vaccine; "Rome," a poem in an entirely different tone than the rest of Credo, hints at things to come. How will the poet grapple with chaos, and what arrangement will be made in future poems? The next book may take years. It will be worth the wait.

If Babstock writes out of the red heat of emotion, and Starnino from the white light of truth, then George Murray writes out of a combination of these. Whereas the "Drinker" in Babstock is a fermenting mash of instinct and pagan icons, a silent drinking fills every page of The Cottage Builder's Letter, a few extra pints in the belly of each poem; and though this is a source of sadness and tension, with the alcoholic at the door and in the heart, the poems benefit from this presence. Likewise, if religion in Starnino has the luminescent feel of the New Testament, in Murray's hand it becomes a more painful contortion of justice:

I stood with the calm of a hunting stork,
the patience of a scarecrow: arms outstretched
for balance, one foot drowned to the ankle
in the floodwaters, the other tucked
inside a knee, one sole gripping my leg,
the other palming like a fist that highest peak.
("The Last of the Sinners Waits on a Rock for Noah")

George Murray

There is a fine balance in Murray that makes his poems deeply persuasive. The sites of The Cottage Builder's Letter feel like Canada, but not the country we hear about on CBC and see on our coins. This is a northern Ontario of religion, drinking, former wars, weather (it's always turning to winter), pent frustration and Irish dislocation. There is quite a lot of dying, too. But these are balanced by the forces of wit, endurance and creation:

When the not-yet-father asks no one in particular, Who sells a church? the not-yet-mother slaps him absently
on the arm, rubs her belly, turns back to the unkempt grounds
filled with wild ivy, hoary willows, poplars, aged swords
of grass, impressions in the earth that might be graves

and there between the cedar post fences of the converted
schoolhouse and the converted mill they pause, think
of how this could be the last remaining mark of other lives
that once stood at the concession corners, and how
everything at one time was about the coming to crossroads;
("A Good Life in the Converted Church")

Carmine Starnino

The impulse to list the things of his world (lines 4-7) builds surprising narrative momentum. Long lines, most often leavened into manageable triads, allow for a fullness of description but do not overwhelm the reader as in Babstock. Time is not linear in these poems: instead, there is an atmosphere wherein past and present, the before and after of events, mingle to create the timeless history of a place (see also "The Train"). In "The Unrecorded Life of Seamus MT FTin" (which apparently means "Seamus Myself"), Seamus "wakes" after years of sleeping in the bottle, not even sure of his own identity, wanting to experience the people and places of his life for the first time. Deeply moving, his life told to him as "you," this fine long poem makes meaningful what in other writers is merely a poetic convention. It had my Adam's-apple bobbing in my throat for the entire read, and its images remain vivid in my mind.

O but please tell us that the art said it all,
said nothing with purpose, without meaning,
Is a record, an archive, the simplest of listsű
("Nostalgia for the Second Just Past")

The tide in Fundy rolls high. These new poets are the transforming seventh wave. There are others, of course, but Canadians will be reading numerous poems from these collections for many years to come. With only their second books, these authors are testament to the improved vitality of our verse. Rubbing shoulders with their predecessor's work, these poems will be a welcome corrective to some of the schlock held up in Canadian anthologies as examples of literary excellence , and may even solidify their young authors' talent. Out with Purdyism! Let the new poets sing. ˛

Derek Webster's poems are forthcoming in The Antigonish Review, The Boston Review, Bomb and The Nerve Anthology. He is founding editor of Maisonneuve, a new literary magazine to begin publication later this fall.


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