The Good Life

by Brad Cran
79 pages,
ISBN: 0889711836

Killing Things

by John Degan
91 pages,
ISBN: 096865228X

Cartography and Walking

by Adam Dickinson
99 pages,
ISBN: 1894078225

Post Your Opinion
Rural and Urban Mapping
by Andrew Lesk

If I could step beyond this page and give Adam Dickinson an award for his wondrous debut it would have to be . . . well, I'm not on any jury, but I do have this space. And I'll use it to say that Dickinson's poems are luminous, subtle, and exceptional. How could any book, you might ask, with a title as awkward as Cartography and Walking, signal something so auspicious? Perhaps it does because Dickinson's work needs no adorning; his poetry's sharp economy of language and relaxed rhythms eschew any bells and whistles. So deftly does Dickinson mine the rural cartographies that his poems evoke not merely nature but one's place in the world. The reader, taken with the spirit of this poetry, therefore comes to feel a sense of arrival, that this is the child-like thrill of home-free married to the mature, adult settled-and-content sense of home.
Dickinson's feel for the local¨he grew up in Bracebridge, the lake-speckled countryside that announces the impending, rugged North¨also embraces quiet corners of the intellect. The opening poem, "Disappointment in the Masonry", concerns bats, which "dart in the cover of tree tops / as though rushing from bathrooms to dress." One in particular is found above the fireplace, "cramped in its brown shiver, / the body of an old man / hunched before a tub." Dickinson's unusual metaphor doesn't rob the bat of its quality as much as remind us of how we try to assimilate the mysterious world beyond our door into reflections more obvious and, therefore, more comforting. This working of the intellect, nevertheless, cannot dispel the bat from the house. The occupants leave, with windows opened and lights turned off, suggesting that people must yield to the rhythms of the natural, in a manner similar to that of a poet finding words which will not supplant but, rather, inherit the raw material found around us.
Dickinson's world of birds, trees, water, clouds and bridges soon realize the promise of his volume's title. The notion of cartography is a human working of the landscape; the earth has not asked for a map and does not need one to demonstrate its very geography. Rather, walking over the land while taking quiet account of all the words we have invented might better help to synthesize the natural and the intellectual, and demonstrate that the latter need not lord over the former in order to acquire deep-rooted knowledge. Thus, in "Having to Start the Garden Alone", the narrator finds that the spring soil "is a tap that has been running, / its cold is thick with slurred speech." There remains little more to be said from the earth; its narration is plain and it will not yield more than its congealed essence. This feeling infuses the gardener¨and, one likes to think, Dickinson¨who calmly discovers that "it is frost / that bells within me now when I work."
I wish that Dickinson had also benefited from the publicity afforded Brad Cran in the Writers Unfolding project, a pilot venture which advocates for small-press literary titles by showcasing eight works in independent bookstores across Canada. It's not that I don't think Cran worthy of the exposure¨indeed, I think he was a great choice for the project. It's just that Dickinson becomes a hard act to follow.

Cran's firm roots in urban topographies (mostly Vancouver) lend fresh energy to living on the western edge of things. This is definitely not the Vancouver I remembered, from when I had lived there. The poems in The Good Life fly off the page, fierce, urgent and fun. The lines of verse almost pile up, trip up, one after and over the next. Cran dares you to keep up in this pell-mell rush through cityscapes. "Leaving"¨there is movement even in the titles!¨speaks of rooming houses, of half-cemented relationships, of assertions that "down your spine / the secrets of posture pop to the percussion of demise." The imperatives of "Spider's 3 A.M." are clever and sharp ("Here is the art of stopping the world with the cheapest rum sold / between this bar and the tip of Orion's sword"), and the verve of the urban swirl that is "Cityscape XI", with its "[l]ife of unpacked boxes / and searching for a union job," is exhilarating. But too often pedestrian images don't live up to the promise. "Overcast whims shut out by rain"¨from "To Discontentment"¨is emblematic of the somewhat labored phrasings one is liable to find in this collection. "Neighbours" seems to be a poem about living in a state of anticipation ("All summer waiting for something to happen. / Checking the mailbox, listening for birdsÓ"), and of being disappointed:
Still nothing much happens. Still I sit on my stoop
and watch the fat man with turquoise shorts.
Sometimes he sings. Sometimes I listen.
Once he stopped singing when I started whistling.

Have we just read a diary entry? Perhaps Cran is enamored of the vigor and immediacy of the city and is, here, telling us that without energy, a poem cannot succeed.

Neither am I sure about the success of John Degen's smooth yet unremarkable selection of poems comprising Killing Things. Like Cran, Degen is rooted in the urban (mostly Toronto) but absent is the energy and dash. I get the sense Degen's fascination with the city is grudging, which is fair. But his simple observations of local events that appear to hold a particular meaning to him don't translate for the reader. In "Dog's Grave Uncovered", Degen compares the stench of the dog to "boxes of old potatoes / at the market on Christie Street." Christie Street? I live near there and can't think of which store (indeed, there isn't really a market on Christie Street, in the sense of say, Kensington.) Christie is a rather quiet place. Perhaps the odorous Spadina markets might have been more evocative of smells. And in "Wave Theory", he writes of a red light at the corner of Howland and Wells. I live two blocks away and know that there is no light at that corner. While I don't begrudge Degan artistic license, I am not certain why poems so rooted in place aren't really faithful to that geography. Degan accomplishes some fine lines¨the ending of "My Longest Relationship" come to mind¨yet the gaps between these are too wide. ˛

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