by Joe Denham
ISBN: 0889711941

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A Review of: Flux
by Jennifer Varkonyi

Peter Richardson's second book An ABC of Belly Work possesses the ability to fulfill Tom Wayman's fondest wish: to see the subject of daily work come into its own as a worthy theme in writing; a high-realist, dirt-under-the-nails contender to challenge the reigning big three themes of death, love and nature. This is not to say that this poets bears the mark of Wayman's agenda-driven influence. Rather, he does something much more interesting: the best poems in this book succeed in such a way as to both prove and disprove Wayman's contentions regarding art and culture in society. Perhaps that's too enigmatic, too cutely paradoxical a statement (Wayman would no doubt be irked by its potential obscurity-factor). But there's truth in the paradox.
In 1976, Wayman, writing in Inside Job: Essays on the new work writing, considers the subject matter of the prevailing literature and its effect on contemporary Canadian society. Significantly absent, he argues, is a body of writing that deals with the experience of working for a living. Meanwhile, the available literature, according to Wayman, contributes dangerously to "cultural escapism":

"this writing is part of a larger culture industry that, in all its branches, does not encourage us to examine our daily lives, to understand the sources of our problems, and to act individually or collectively to improve our existence. The negative term for these products of our culture is that they are escapist. And as long as our literature overwhelmingly leads us into the bondage of beautiful dreams, or into following the imaginary problems of impossible people, our inevitable return to daily reality will be a disappointment."

It goes without saying, of course, that the subject of working for a living is certainly a worthy one. . .I dispute, however, Wayman's call for such a rigid prerequisite to a particular artistic endeavor. Further, the fact that this prerequisite actually has everything to do with vaulting personal experience above skilled expression seems to me to undermine any potential such an endeavor might have as art.
Wayman wants writing able to reflect the experience that the majority of Canadians have of working for a living. He has, in his demagoguery, made many assumptions on behalf of that majority. The most specious of these is that which maintains that this majority cannot read or interpret literature or art that functions on more than one level. He typically brandishes examples such as the poetry of Eliot and Pound to make his case air-tight, citing their "difficult and extremely cloudy" nature as reasons people believe that poetry is something they cannot-and possibly are not supposed to-understand. Granted, maybe Pound's Cantos isn't the best way to initiate a group of people familiar with auto-manufacturing rather than Modernism, but that's not to say that the sole alternative is to read or write poetry whose only formal quality (as bolstered in Wayman's tract) is the "anecdote".
Joe Denham's collection of poems takes a cue from its title. Flux is apt due to both the prominence of water as theme and image in the poems, as well as the arrangement and movement of the poems themselves. Just shy of 100 pages, this book-especially for a first-is too fat. If you're looking for more poetry bang for your buck, it should be in quality, not quantity, and Denham would have benefited from a slimmer book, if only to make more prominent the strength of his ability. The opening poem, "Dowser", is linguistically lukewarm. It has some technique: some internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration, but they seem more like the compulsories in a poetry-event rather than integral and authentic tropes. The voice is affected ("Took to sleeping under Perseus and Cassiopeia, / dream-body free to wander beyond / wall, rafter, window, roof."), the images are willfully vague ("my hand's sleep-flail / hungering for the hunt as-yet-unnamed."), and there is a trite inversion of the caterpillar-butterfly theme ("Cocoon my butterfly wings. / Come out caterpillar.") The brightest note, to my ear, is the simplicity of the lines "Pluck nose hairs and slouch/ over work. Shovel and grunt." They are probably the most interesting due to the fact that they are utterly un-self-conscious and unaware of themselves as "poetry".
Which brings me to the first and best section of the book, "Night Haul, Morning Set". This suite of sixteen 16-line poems (originally published as a chapbook by Toronto's Junction Books) is steeped in Denham's experience as a prawn fisherman, and each poem is packed tight by the force of the work it describes. It is fitting that many of the titles in this suite are gerunds: "Sorting", "Setting", "Gutting", "Dragging", "Mending", "Splicing". These and the others all stand out for their linguistic concentration on the task at hand. The opening poem is "Night Haul":

I etch ephemeral sketches in flat, black water,
swirling the pike pole like a sparkler wand,
the steel spear tip igniting fairy-dust krill
as we drift in to haul up our catch.
An industrial gramophone, the hauler
churns a music of creak and moan
over the rumbling whine of diesel
and hydraulics, the echo of our exhaustion.

The cadence of the lines beautifully mirror the mood of the poem, evoking the steady slow sail of the boat into shore and the fatigue felt by the fishers. I wish I could provide the suite in its entirety, as the poems are the collective achievement of this book. "Between Strings", of which I will quote only the last half, proves itself in the bright way of the previous poem:

It's this lullaby of the boat's
slow roll through wispy chop
that lightens and sustains us:
as the main hums below deck
we watch our measured approach
to the next string, like musicians
anticipating the wand-wave to allegro.

These poems-which stand as a free, joyful challenge to Wayman's strangled-specific classifications-demonstrate the success of writing in which choices are made with an eye and ear driven by literary fidelity to what one perceives or experiences. The tangible quality of the work done here lends itself to rich word deposits, which Denham uses to his, and the reader's, advantage. The verbs, qualifiers, punctuation and syntax of these poems are far from arbitrary; their source is not the desire to simply recount an anecdote or a personal narrative. The poems strive to convey vivid and meaningful-and hence memorable-images, such as the men on the boat as musicians waiting on cue; of the music in the boat's "industrial gramophone"; of the tight-fit on the ship, as one is "bent into the boat's cramped belly."
A few other poems in this collection distinguish themselves for this very reason. "The Great War Memorial Hospital" has a smart circular form that begins precisely where it ends; "Snowscape" is sharp and instinctual; "Love Poem" conveys an elusive and illusory facet of love. All three flirt with form in their own way, each drawing strength from it, rather than being tied down to it. The main criticism I have of the rest of the poems is that they do not display enough of the qualities found in those already quoted. There is much youthful energy, much angst unpacked and put out, but it is not enough to carry the attention of the reader. One needs to be more than keenly perceptive and observant. One must be able to precisely interpret and express what is perceived, particularly in poetry, which demands a kind of condensed language. Thus, every word must be vetted. Every word shouldered to the next must stand to form an extremely strong line, one that leaves no room for any other word to enter, to break it.
To bring it all back home, this collection not only proves-a la Wayman-the suitability of "work" as topic for poetry (even "adhering" to the kind of work writing Wayman advocates: concerned with events, referential, and providing an insider's perspective), it also demonstrates-contra Wayman-that form and linguistic striving need not be relegated to the realm of the difficult and obscure. I'm reminded, here, of how Simon Armitage once praised Ted Hughes's poetry for its proof "that clarity and complexity can exist simultaneously, like clear, still water, into which a person can see to a ponderous depth." Perhaps when confronted with what seems complex, we just need to relax into it a little, trusting that our instincts will most always give us a starting point for a drop into that "ponderous depth." Certainly it seems to me that this poet-whose poetry flexes the muscle of language and pulls the weight of the stuff of life-hopes that his poems will "work" on readers in exactly that way.

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