Fictions and Films

174 pages,
ISBN: 1894177002

Necropsy of Love

0 pages,
ISBN: 1894177010


0 pages,
ISBN: 1894177037

Patrick Lane in Cab 43

0 pages,
ISBN: 1894177045

Gordon's Head and Hitler

0 pages,
ISBN: 1894177061

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Cyclops Revolution
by Darren Werschler-Henry

If the idea of not just one new compact disc filled with poetry but an entirely new line of poetry CDs leaves you stone cold, you're probably not a poet (or, that rarest of creatures, a non-academic poetry reader who doesn't write poetry her/himself). Poetry recordings will never be a popular form of entertainment, it's true, but they do serve a significant archival purpose. And, after the anti-speech polemics of the many poets who stressed the importance of the word on the page during the 1980s, there does seem to be a reassessment underway of the importance of `voice' to poetry (see Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies, edited by Adalaide Morris, which comes with a CD of contemporary poetry performances, and Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, edited by Charles Bernstein). So, in many respects, it's the ideal time for a project like Cyclops Press to appear.

Launched in September of 1998, Cyclops Press, the brainchild of Clive Holden and Alissa York, has produced five full-length poetry CDs (and one accompanying transcript, in book form) to date. Smartly designed in black and red by Clint Hutzulak of Rayola Graphics, the Cyclops titles have a distinctively hip, neo-constructivist look about them. In combination with the prominent use of the word `Experimental' in the pressmark, that look might lead a potential listener to expect a series of poetic performances evocative of the modernist avant-garde, but these recordings are all very much in the conservative mainstream of official CanLit verse culture.

The five Cyclops releases to date feature Lorna Crozier, Clive Holden, Patrick Lane, Al Purdy, and Ricardo Sternberg, with CDs forthcoming from Séan Virgo and Alissa York (the Crozier CD was not available for review). The sound quality on all Cyclops titles is impeccable, capturing the subtleties and nuances of each poet's interpretations of his or her own work. The selection of titles for recording is also reasonably good, reflecting a solid knowledge of each poet's oeuvre. The Purdy disc contains the widest range of material, including some of the writer's best-known poems. The Sternberg selection is the least successfully edited, largely because of the decision to sandwich a series of excerpts from Map of Dreams, a long narrative piece, between short lyrics from The Invention of Honey. Because of the lack of context, the net effect for a listener unfamiliar with Sternberg's work is bewilderment.

The only real annoyance pertaining to the structural and editorial aspects of the Cyclops discs is that the readings themselves are peppered with interview clips. None of these clips is long enough to provide any really valuable information about the poets or their work, so their only real function is to provide anecdotal coloration to the proceedings. Perhaps intended as an analog to a poet's asides during a live reading, their inclusion smacks more of the kind of producer's indulgence too often found on remastered jazz discs. A single, in-depth interview with each writer after the reading tracks would be a more elegant format. However, this is a minor complaint; the interview clips ultimately don't create any difficulties that a programmable CD player can't fix.

As for the CDs themselves.

Everyone loves a grumpy old poet (which is a good thing, because this country is full of them). Necropsy of Love, the Al Purdy collection, features the octogenarian at his crusty best. Weighing in with twenty-four poems (not including the interview excerpts), this CD provides a good basic introduction to Purdy's long and impressive writing career, and is an important archival document.

The disc's highlights include some of the finest lyric poems written in the annals of modern Canadian literature: "At the Quinte Hotel", Purdy's signature piece and the disc's opening track; "The Cariboo Horses"; and "Lament for the Dorsets". The poet's dry, near-indifferent tone always contains a hint of self-mockery, playing counterpoint to the masculine burlesque of barroom brawls and cowboys rolling their "stagey cigarettes". Still, his cheerful misogyny, the product of another era, often falls very flat, as in "Concerning Ms. Atwood", where the humourous aspect of Margaret Atwood's (perceived) sense of self-importance is flogged long past the point of its death.

The whole Purdy disc positions itself as a kind of monument to impending mortality. Aside from the title poem and the photo of the mausoleum inside the liner notes, the selections overwhelmingly concern the theme of impending mortality: "Funeral", "Piling Blood", "The Names the Names", "Elegy for a Grandfather", and "The Dead Poet", to list a few. The epic tragedy of "Lament for the Dorsets" provides perhaps the disc's most thought-provoking moment. The poem's evocation of an aging race of "terrifying old men", hunters, artisans, and heroes all, takes on an entirely new poignancy as self-portrait and potential eulogy for both Purdy himself and the ethos of `manly' poetry that his persona helped create.

Nevertheless, there are still a few believers in he-man verse, as Patrick Lane in Cab 43 demonstrates. Partially recorded in a taxi cab (presumably for reasons of gritty ambiance), this suite of readings belongs firmly to the school of poetry that Charles Bernstein lampoons with the lines:

I can't touch my Iron Father

who never canoed with me

on the prairies of my masculine epiphany.

Lane's writing attempts to confront a violent world and, specifically, the violence of his father through the catharsis of poetry. His writing is not for the squeamish, and has come under fire in the past from indignant liberals because of its high atrocity count. One could reason that Lane's poetry is pure reportage from a life lived unflinchingly, but to do so would be to assume that the decisions a writer makes about style and vocabulary are free of ideological baggage. As critic Marjorie Perloff argues in Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, though, the language of memory and "genuine experience", especially the language of a conventionally masculine experience, has been co-opted into the sentiment of the late capitalist world of advertising and mass media. In such a milieu, poetry like Lane's rings hollow not despite, but because of its attempt to directly grasp some sort of essential truth through images of dead kittens and alcoholic truck drivers.

Taken at one sitting, the poems of Cab 43 present a weirdly simplified, bipolar version of sexuality, mired in conventional and ultimately reductive tropes. If "Because I Never Learned" and "Mountain Oysters"-infamous for the image of a man biting the testicles off of a live ram-detail masculinity (as though it were a unified whole) as a monstrosity that must be opposed, the correlative is femininity (as though it were a unified whole) as a font of life that must be worshipped. This latter aspect of Lane's poetry manifests itself as two separate but equally awful paeans to the female genitalia, "Vulva" and "Cunt". This sort of thing may go over big at Wild Man retreat weekends, but is guaranteed to reduce pretty much anyone else, regardless of gender or orientation, to paroxysms of laughter.

Ricardo Sternberg's Blindsight is a considerable departure from the Purdy and Lane discs, trading wild horses, loading dock workers, and small-town drunks for angels, mermaids, and princesses. Born in Rio de Janeiro and now living in Toronto, Sternberg is a narrative poet, whose work has much in common with fairy tales and magic realism.

Despite this fascination with and deft handling of the trappings of classical fantasy, Sternberg's writing is most compelling when the imagery veers into the surreal, as in "The Invention of Honey", where bees become "small engines running on honey". Sternberg's more whimsical, vernacular poems, such as "Mump and His Manners", demonstrate that he delights in the sounds of words-

Mump's the one

braids words to a rope he'll hang you with on

half a chance

drown you if he could in sheer verbiage

-and that his mellifluous lines are well served by oral presentation.

This CD begins to flag at the halfway point, though, with the introduction of excerpts from the long Map of Dreams sequence. The series of prose fragments from the fairly conventional adventure tale of a boy at sea lacks context, leaving listeners wondering if the fragmentary structure is deliberate, or if there really is some vital connective tissue that is missing. The net result is a lot like speed-reading through Treasure Island.

The fourth Cyclops disc, Gordon's Head and Hitler!, features the work of series editor, producer, and recorder Clive Holden. You have to admire his energy: in addition to taking on the enormous workload of coordinating the Cyclops series, Holden finds time to make experimental films, publish Fury, a printed book of short fictions and film transcripts, animate his poems on the Internet, and work with Max Murphy's jazz band. The overwhelming sense I get from Holden's work is that quantity has triumphed over quality, and that a little more focus would produce less shaky results.

The chief difficulty with Holden's output is the implicit assumption that all of the component parts of his two experimental films about his schizophrenic brother, Niall, the fictionalized Gordon's Head and the more biographic Hitler! (one of the few words Niall can say), are capable of standing on their own. However, the film transcripts, are, well, transcripts, and the soundtracks, with their more-or-less arbitrary jazz sax noodling in the background, come off as a sincere but amateur Kerouac pastiche (for the real thing, try Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen's Poetry for the Beat Generation, available on Rhino's WordBeat label, or, for a more successful recent take on the poet-as-jazzbo, Peter McPhee's The Sound of Filling Hollow, available from the performer at scream@interlog.com). A section of the assembled product of Holden's efforts, Hitler! a filmpoem, which is viewable as a QuickTime movie on the Cyclops Press website, is considerably more satisfying than the bits and pieces.

Fury, Holden's book, is similar to the Cyclops CDs in that its design is eye-catching and innovative, but its contents leave the reader thinking that the promise of the packaging remains unfulfilled. The book itself is an unusually trim size (about six inches tall by four inches wide), and has the immediate attractiveness that all palm-sized books have. The inclusion of thumbnail frames from one of Holden's films in the upper right-hand corner transforms the text into a flipbook similar to the old Big Little Books. This is an interesting idea in theory (possibly the only other time it's been tried in the annals of CanLit is in the first edition of David McFadden and Greg Curnoe's The Great Canadian Sonnet), but the images don't really connect to the plot, so once again, a structural element that could have added an extra dimension to the work ends up looking gratuitous and misplaced.

Other than the already-mentioned film transcripts, Fury contains five short fictional pieces, and the titular novella, which is the most successful part of the collection. It tells the story of an Irish immigrant bus driver named Jacky Fury, and that of his daughter Wendy, a Métis TV news anchor, and her hard-case Québequois lover, Jules, who expresses his pent-up working-class rage through acts of industrial sabotage. The writing style is naturalist fiction that, when it's working well, is reminiscent of Gabrielle Roy or David Adams Richards:

Reaching the heart of downtown Wendy stood over a Metro vent as a train roared by under her, the stale draft drifting to her face. There was a mild hysteria in the crowd, fueled by the temperature but held in check by people's desire to move slowly and avoid sweating. There seemed to be hundreds of young men in cars driving slowly by, bass speakers shaking the ground. Her heart galloped for an instant as a voice from a doorway hissed at her but she realized it was just a hash seller. People stepped around her without a glance.

When the writing stalls, it's usually because Holden has succumbed to the lure of macho cultural clichés and shopworn metaphors, as in the novella's opening scene, where Jack is (ouch) using a jackhammer in the Vancouver dockyards:

...lifting it up, rain along day, raining muscles, biting it-lifting it, it's dancing in his pants, it's his thing, the tight skin on his inner thigh, staining raining his industrial steel, his hard lifter, heaving it up, out and up, biting harder-it's raining down on him, in, into his open mouth, legs bent, weighted down, his groaning muscle, his hard loving hammer all day.

Evidence suggests that Holden is a competent enough writer to proceed without this sort of silliness. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from Fury is that writers should never act as their own editors.

The Cyclops Press project is an impressively ambitious, if uneven, set of offerings. Given time, it could become an important part of Canadian literary culture because it has the potential to fill a niche that's been open for far too long. I'd like to see Holden and York range a little farther afield stylistically in their search for poets to record; CDs of performers such as Paul Dutton, Beth Learn, Nabuo Kubota, Steve McCaffery, Clifton Joseph, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, bill bissett, Wendy Agnew or Christian Bök would all be extremely interesting, and, what's more, would fufill the promise made by Cyclops' use of the adjective `experimental'. 

Darren Werschler-Henry is a poet, a critic, and the editor of Coach House Books.


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