Selected Poems II:
Poem Selected and Near 1976-1986

by Margaret Atwood
176 pages,
ISBN: 0195405617

Second Nature

by Libby Scheier
120 pages,
ISBN: 088910297X

Selected and New Poems

by Anne Szumigalski
152 pages,
ISBN: 0920079210

Post Your Opinion
Victims of a bleak universe.
by Bruce Whiteman

In "Coping with Bad Karma," a gently selfmocking poem about the injustice of unrewarded virtue, Libby Scheier remarks in passing on the source of some of her poetry. Against undeserved provocations she counters: "How I've learned to control both/my homicidal and suicidal tendencies,/rechanneling my violence/ into the creative act of writing poems." Writing as therapy is a time-honoured plea of bad poets, and it is therefore dismaying to find it so baldly stated by a poet of some small reputation. Second Nature hears her out, however, for it contains rather too many pieces whose psychoprophylactic impulse has not been adequate to transmute them into genuine poetry. It is difficult, without seeming like an unsympathetic son of a bitch, to turn thumbs down on poems about rape and child molesting when the poet herself has been the victim of these crimes. I can only say that it is not the experiences themselves that leave me unmoved but the writing in which Scheier has tried to come to terms with the experiences.
My overall impression of Second Naturals that it is the work of a poet who is so emotionally entangled with her subjects that the writing itself is secondary. Or perhaps it is fairer to say that Scheier has not yet consistently located a language commensurate with her feelings. Scheier's poetic essays (the word is hers) about sex and sexual politics seem prosy ("I've noticed a lot of writing about organs lately") and self-important ("What is it about genitals that inspires/destruction by the mentally deficient?"), not to say bathetic ("Heart and brain are the organs that interest me./I think Jung was on to something with the overmind./ My insights are plugging into that"). The perfervid focusing on her own personality and opinions becomes tiresome.
The book does, however, contain some poems that bear witness to Scheier's talent. "Cotton Day, New Year's Day" is a lovely comic poem about football that made me want to cheer:
Occasionally one of the large young men gets disgusted
grabs the ball and runs like hell to the end of the field
The spectators go wild.
No wonder.
!t is the only interesling thing they've seen in two hours
and it's the middle of winter.
Their feet are cold as shit.
"Artificial Respiration" is a powerful poem, and some of the prose poems, in which one is more prepared to accept unadorned statement, work well. Scheier is admirably honest, unabashedly hard talking, and patently concerned about the right things (sexism, social injustice), but Second Nature shows that she is still not often able to embody her vision in powerful poems. I hope that future books will contain a smaller proportion of work from her bad days when, as she says, "I felt I had only clipped and homicidal/ language to offer my addiction to verse."
Anne Szumigalski's Dogstones brings together selections from her four previous books and 12 new poems. At 64, with two nominations for the Governor General's Award in recent years, it seems logical for Szumigalski to publish a selected poems. Since Doctrine of Signatures (1983) she has been writing a good deal in the prose-poem form, one to which more and more Canadian poets are turning as the old forms decay under the weight of the postmodern consciousness.
The earliest poems in Dogstones show tremendous self-assurance and a shrewd, almost unnerving psychological acuity:
Ah the cliff edge - where ago many murders are
Can't you are the body among the boulders
Far down on the beach?
While seagulls scream they are filming
A frail girl in a thin nightgown
Prone an the distant rocks
The speaker of this poem turns out to be the victim (shades of Survival, with which it is contemporary), and in the end it seems Gothic in perhaps too predictable a fashion.
In the poems from her first two books (Woman Reading in Bath and A Game of Angels) Szumigalski vacillates between a loose, almost conversational style (or more properly monological, as the poems frequently depend on the assumption that a single voice distinct from the poet's is recounting her experiences) and a tighter, more imagistic approach best exemplifed in "no Usual Dream About One's Own Funeral":
salt crust on the slough's lip
licked from the teeth
tasted in a strong westerly
looking out on a sea of dry grasser
bent all one way

while the pale girl
combs her snarled how
with a bone white as fishbone
dipped in the brackish
curl of water

seas diminish, diminish
and die, as she laces
a green ribbon
through the knotted swatch of her hair
The small-scale, classical music of such lines reminds me a little of Basil Bunting's Briggflatts, and though Szundgalski only rarely achieves that level, this is still high praise.
Szumigalski's more recent poems are curiously unsatisfactory, though technically more adventurous than those in the fast half of Dogstones. On the surface, her choice of the prose poem appears apt for the monologues of consciousness that she likes to write, whether they are comparatively straightforward, like "The Gang" ("The gang made its home in a tumbledown wooden building at the backend of City Park"), or more surrealistic, as in "Procession - The Poem As a Dark Familiar":
the presence of the dog her connection to the church of the ashes the diocese of the holy broth her interpretation of stained bones as she gnaws and teats with her spittle tire calx remains of a pitted ulna
Oddly, it is perhaps the resolutely human scale of her work that makes it seem somewhat limited inside the open and flexible form that is the prose poem. In a longer poem like "Flight," Szumigalski is reduced to a narrative with fairy-tale overtones. Szumigalski, it seems to me, has not by a long way exploited the full resources of the prose-poem, despite some fine moments. If her next book is more successful in that accommodation, it could be very fine indeed.
There is no gainsaying Margaret Atwood's technical finesse. Once in a while, perhaps, she will let a poem go in a manifestly imperfect state ("Nightshade on the Way to School," one of the new poems in Selected Poems II is an example), but almost without exception her poems are written with astonishing presicion and assuredness. A poem from Interlunar refers to that much used word "voice" as the distinguishing characteristic of a poet, and there is no mistaking the fact that Atwood possesses one of the most recognizable voices in Canada. As a master of the line she is on a par with some of the best: Laforgue and Creeley, among others.
Her vision of the world is another matter, and one that I find both troubling and troublesome. In Selected Poems II the hellish landscape is rarely illumined by a ray of light. Yet there is no prophecy of doom here, no prominent personal inability to escape the individual demons of history and conscience that dominates Malcolm Lowry's books, for example. Rather, one gets a sense of a kind of detached negativity, a sort of Upper Canadian Presbyterian focusing on all in the world that is post-lapsarian and irredeemable. Love, language, politics all become exemplifications of the decrepit state of man and the world. Myth is rewritten and now bodies forth individual consciousness in its worst moments, and memory is largely the recollection of pain and inexplicableness.
The claim for bleakness ("This is the universe/too, this burnt view") is irrefutable though one may be permitted to turn aside from what occasionally seems a rote attraction to horror ("[an animal's] body/an eye crushed by pliers"). In another poem, Atwood writes that singing is either praise or defiance, and then corrects herself to say that praise is defiance. If you disagree with that, then Selected Poems II will annoy and exhaust you, as well as astonish you with its technical brilliance.

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