Box of Legs

38 pages,
ISBN: 0969587694

One Night

38 pages,
ISBN: 189657100X

A Break in the Clouds

50 pages,
ISBN: 1896571026

Post Your Opinion
New Poems Out of Sight
by Don Summerhayes

In a broadsheet entitled "How to Write Poetry", which includes the advice, "just try to write down some words & then stop writing/ down words & then later you can start again," Jay MillAr also advises,

publish it yrself
in small sturdy editions that are given away to people
you know would like it.

It is an old truth that the good health of any poetry relies on what is going on under the blanket of official culture. In fact, "culture, as it turns out, seems to occur at a very small, localized level," as the editorial of the first issue of HIJ: Journal of New Writing (also published by Boondoggle Press) puts it. Making a virtue of the necessities of being poor and almost invisible may allow for some other useful shifts of value: "literally, boondoggle means to carry out useless and trivial acts with the appearance of doing something important.& this, perhaps, is the challenge, to admit that the `important' is trivial or that the `trivial' is important" (from "a boondoggle festo").
All of these titles offer examples of these "alternative press" principles. Without funding or access to distribution, they join hundreds of other "small sturdy editions" of self-published poetry that circulate sporadically but persistently in cities and towns across the country, out of sight of most readers, but working tirelessly in the cause. A few words about presentation may be useful. The books come in different sizes and formats. Box of Legs, the earliest, contains twenty-five poems of varying lengths printed on thirty-eight unbound sheets in a paper sleeve (7 1/2" x 6 1/2"). One Night contains thirteen poems printed on one side of fifteen scrap pages, stapled on the left edge (9" by 7"). A Break in the Clouds, the longest at fifty-two pages, and the most "conventional", contains fifty-two poems of varying lengths; the cover is illustrated with a colourful painting, and a colour photograph of the poet and his muse is included on the back cover; it is bound with Japanese stitching (9" x 7"). On the Fly contains sixteen poems on thirty-eight pages; the cover is illustrated with a watercolour of a green frog; it is bound with Japanese stitching (9" x 7"). Wrapping Paper is the most recent book and the smallest in size at 4 1/2" x 5 1/2"; it contains forty-one poems on twenty-three pages; the cover is illustrated with a small gold mandala; it is bound with Japanese stitching. Lovingly produced, generously presented.
What I like about these poems in these books is the energy that crackles and spits through them. They're excessive, too much!, from the cheeky one-liners to the sprawling eight-pagers; they don't seem to care whether they're good poems, they're more interested in playing themselves out, seeing where a first line will take them and what unexpected ideas might emerge-like the offhandedness of a good blues lyric. Certainly they challenge the assumption that poetry is "necessary" and "deep" by demonstrating persistently that it may be quite successfully arbitrary and contingent, and that surface is where the action definitely is. And, most pleasing, they have a wonderfully sunny disposition, which comes, I think, from knowing that anything-just anything!-can be put "down" in words: detailed cooking instructions, early morning or late night fantasies, a sandwich, a car trip to Windsor, fake Errata, and clutter. For best effect, they need to be read in quantity, which makes quoting a bit difficult. But take these lines from "Coming Attractions" (On the Fly):

I can't say I'm terribly happy today
I'm sitting on a bench on Bloor Street West
Outside the post office
It's 1:23 P.M.
The trees are budding & the sky is blue
I badly need a haircut.
And I'm tired of clichés
I'm tired of a lot of things
Least of all life.
Or these from "Thinking of You But First I Wake Up"
(Box of Legs):
H is the colour of my true love's hair
colour of two table legs found diagonally from each other
a phrasing of words in the book I am reading
is the sound of you drinking a glass of water at 5:23 a.m.
a hand against your naked hip

"To get something `down' & then ignore it. Everyone says. It's a perfectly natural thing for a human to do" ("Little Acts" in Wrapping Paper). The casual arbitrariness of the beginnings and the progressions promotes a mild suspense about what may be coming next, and how it may relate, but more to the point, the reader of lines like these soon learns to be a little more attentive to the unfolding details themselves and to the process as process. There's a kind of sens vide or "empty sense" here that subverts the usual expectation of linear meaning; "it's/ the only way i can get your attention/ dammit," the poet says in "Small Notes in the Afternoon" in Wrapping Paper. There are also, among these apparently negligent postures and movements, graceful echoes of other texts and poets; here Neruda, for example.
Subverting "meaning" is a surrealist strategy also, of course, and MillAr spots surreal images more or less at will throughout the poems in these collections, sometimes explicitly full-blown, and refreshingly limber and unforced, as in these opening lines from an untitled poem in Box of Legs:

i'm sorry but i have to kill you now.
like a magical brick layer's dream. Order
desert first. order desert first. it's convenient,
i find, to order desert first, perhaps pudding. Perhaps
O mother oppressor under brick layer under.

Or these, from "Pretty Aprons" in A Break in the Clouds:

"When February water suddenly erupts in a pale lonely snowtime, temperatures get disillusioned to watch your clothes."
"All the carvings are left facing lazy violet pictures near pencils without babies."
"Shells cry, displayed at the blowing green modern collection of ocean grocery."
"It's my shoes that crawl, making the garden proud."

These bravura pieces are useless in the good sense: you can't do anything with them except read them, and perhaps write them. Their apparent imperfections and unevenness are part of their illusion of spontaneity, like the "bunches" Whitman claimed to "toss negligently" on his pages. They're not aimed at the classroom. They won't analyse the family or explain injustice or even express grumpiness. Oddly, for all the evidence of personality in these poems, the writer is there mostly as an intersection of textual manoeuvres, somebody at loose ends, keeping in touch, a kind of lucky onlooker trying out the illusion that he is writing what language is doing, taking his chances, seeing what can be accessed. The poems just show off some of the virtuosity language will perform when the writer's personality is on vacation. The toys will play when the lights go off. "It is how you say a joke."
This strategy of "taking what comes" governs some of the poems that look like becoming favourites. The longest and most charming of several love poems, "The Flower", for instance, from A Break in the Clouds, starts casually and meanders into a delightfully extemporized meditation on the arbitrariness of language and the surprise of associations-like a jazz improvisation:

A flower in a storefront reminds me that I love you
So I buy the flower & it costs me something like
$1.43 & I carry it home in a little plastic bag.
The bag is made out of very thin plastic,
I can see shapes through it, such as a murky leaf or a petal
If I hold it up to my eyes & $1.43 is not the
Monetary value of my love for you
The same way the word love is not my love for you
It is the word love & has nothing to do with my love
Or perhaps with any love at all
Other than its amazing ability to refer to it

and on for three pages, playing goofily and brilliantly with his love of words and his words of love, full of confidence in his ability to go on with "no idea what I'm talking about or what I'll think of next," reminding us that nonsense is the favourite language of lovers.
Another favourite language is sound, and it shouldn't go unmentioned that these poems are often filled with gorgeous phrasing and multiple bonding, as in these opening lines from "Things To Do In December" (A Break in the Clouds):

Up from the bed
sheet's dishevelled dreams,
Get dressed in something sweet for December:
green sweater.

Jazz, surrealism, "automatic" and "collaborative" writing are obvious resources of the improvisational patterns of these poems, but there are other more direct literary affiliations. The final sheet of Box of Legs contains a quotation from Frank O'Hara's poem "As Planned" that echoes MillAr's approach to writing "down" words: "for they are words that you know and that/ is all you know words not their feelings/ or what they mean and you write because/ you know them not because you understand them.you do/ what you know because what else is there?" O'Hara's "I-do-this-I-do-that" accumulation of details is obviously one of the important priming concepts for MillAr's poems. And one of his funniest, simply entitled "Poem" (A Break in the Clouds), begins "Frank O'Hara has egg yolk on him" and describes how biting into a fried egg sandwich somehow squirted egg yolk over the book MillAr was reading, "the very collected Frank O'Hara", and "somehow landed on Frank's word `begin'."
Other ghosts walk through these pages as well, notably Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, often explicitly as in "After a Line by Ted Berrigan", or by inference in the series of interlocking sonnets of A Break in the Clouds and the "language" poem "The Overcoat", as well as in the prevailing mood of sly foolishness and nonsense. But the gusto of "The Sandwich" and "Shopping List", and the inspired perplexity of "Epitaffeta", and the piling on of absurd images in "From the Lake in My Ocean" to arrive at "the bunches of wet white morning/ flowers which I know you secretly/ hold in your breasts", and the persistent foregrounding of the act of writing ("It's so much trouble to forget/ How to write & then do it anyway") are all MillAr and all fascinating and highly pleasurable. These poems are acts of giving, the poet allowing you into the flow of his mind, into the making of poetry.

Don Summerhayes is the winner of the 1994-95 Stephen Leacock Prize for Poetry. His latest collection is Remembering Sleep (Deor Editions). He teaches at York University.


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