Thursday, March 26, 2009

Four Canadian Poets: McKay, Solie, Thornton, and Barwin

Yes, the Canadians write poetry too. And you’ve not read any of it. What about that Ondaatje fellow? And Margaret Atwood, she did a novel recently; oh what was it called? Fear not, Canadian poetry is not crowding out the fiction and non-fiction on Canadian bookstore shelves, despite the Griffin Prize for Poetry, the ReLIT Awards, and the Governor-General’s Prize for poetry. Readers new to Canadian poetry should watch out for Nature as a battleground, country mice in the city, spiritual searches, and surrealism, to name but a few of the concerns Canadian poets have on their minds. I could write at length about whether form matters at all in
poetry but I haven’t the space. Think of what follows as a very brief (and subjective) review of four of Canada’s leading poets in an effort to show some of the range of Canadian poetic writing.

Don McKay (Apparatus, Another Gravity, Vis-a-Vis)
Short-listed for the Canadian Governor General’s award, Apparatus is the central book in McKay’s career. This is the one where he articulated first and best his

. . . attempt to focus on those elements of the natural world that we’ve claimed, and made tools of. I made a very conscious effort to do that, and to look at landscape that has been made into apparatus, or even worse. So apparatus . . . is wilderness that we have relieved of its anonymity, its autonomy, and made ours, owned for the life of that object . . . I was also interested in this because of environmental devastation and my sense that it stems partly from our capacity to own tools permanently, to extinguish their wilderness. The thing will be ours forever. A manic ownership. (McKay, Where the Words Come From, p. 52)

What really draws Canadian readers to McKay, more than his ability to join together the concerns of culture and the environment, are his “virtuoso vocals” which seem to be applied to common Canadian situations in the most powerful way. His poems have a firm construction and yet they are very playful. Line breaks are continually going against expectations. His handling of the emotional moment is nuanced and fresh. Though there are philosophical overtones to his work, (Levinas, Heidigger) everything is accessible. If only one example of his poetry can be quoted here, let it be this little gem where McKay shows how creative the lyrical impulse can be, if we can put aside the weight of the poetic canon:

Song for the Song of the Wood Thrush
For the following few seconds, while the ear
inhales the evening
only the offhand is acceptable. Poetry
clatters. The old contraption pumping
iambs in my chest is going to take a break
and sing a little something. What? Not much. There’s
a sorrow that’s so old and silver, it’s no longer
sorry. There’s a place
between desire and memory, some back porch
we can neither wish for, nor recall.
(McKay, Apparatus, p. 27)

Karen Solie (Short Haul Engine , Modern and Normal)

To some extent, Karen Solie’s amazing poems have broken through to wide admiration on the back of McKay’s work in moving Canadian literary attitudes about nature forward. McKay’s poetry has helped other Canadian poets to treat things of the earth and air with more familiarity. Solie has a farmer’s attitude towards the wilderness, or one should say, towards the land. Romance and eroticism in her work are often below the surface or obscured by grittiness, small town banality, and the disparities of sexual power. Many poems are set in cars, or on the road, or inevitably, in motels. She has an ambivalent posture towards men, and yet a conversational, precise, and canny approach towards language emerges. The dialogue sounds offhand, but it’s serious. Half of her art is in what she chooses to personify, as in “Ill Wind”:

Farmers are at home watching topsoil call it a day
and lift off toward Manitoba, watching roots
of nursery poplars lose their babyish grip, wishing
they could gather it all in their arms.
(Solie, Short Haul Engine, p. 77)

Her female narrators, like the one in “Possibility,” want something they can only articulate by pursuing it. Escape from one’s crummy life is one possibility, but escape to what?

A rented late-model car. Strewn gear. Clothes,
books, liquor, one good knife for slicing
limes. Motel the orange of an old rind, bud green
and remaindered blue for trim. Some schemes

shouldn’t work, but do. A square room
with balcony two floors above the strip. Real
keys. A man sleeping on the bed,
or pretending to. It will be alright. It’s not

too late. We left on the sly and nothing bad
happened. Every desire ponied up, in fact,
down to the nod, as though our due. The roads

are there.
. . . .
On the fourth day we repacked
and drove back in.
(Solie, Modern and Normal, p. 16)

The line breaks add peculiarity, disorientation, and in the case of the one good knife, menace. There’s a refreshing kind of vigor and energy (one might even say violence) in Solie’s poetry which is very distinctive and attractive.

Russell Thornton (The Fifth Window, House Built of Rain , The Human Shore)

In the best of Irving Layton’s poetry readers discovered the spirit within the flesh. One thinks of “The Bull Calf” or “Against this Death.” In much of Russell Thornton’s poetry too, we are given powerful insights about the spirit in the flesh and wilderness at the edge of civilization:

A Memory of a Deer
It had come down into the city
out of the mountains in the night
and gotten lost, had sensed the dawn
heard car noises at the corner,
heard the police station and the hospital
across the street, and, bewildered
come into this silence and deeper dark
within the still-dark morning to hide.
Now I, a human, had approached it.
And the deer stood there like a child
caught doing something wrong.

Once I was told that years ago
in summer, deer would come down
out of the humming mountains
through the night and keep going,
swimming the mile-wide inlet
from North Van to downtown.
The city wharves would stop them,
and they would struggle for hours,
trying and trying to get ashore.
In the morning, men would drag up
exhausted or dead deer
like fish into the nets of their arms.

And once, desperate and dazed, I entered
those cold dark waters, held on
to a broken old wharf that sat there
near the foot of Lonsdale Avenue,
then pushed myself into the inlet
with the intention of swimming out
further than I could swim back.
But came back, with no idea why,
with no need to know why,
only my own weeping and laughing.

It must have been the memory
of that underground parking lot deer
already coming to life in me
that took me down to the water
that night and made me swim out
and also made me turn around.
Then, the memory must have been
just a pinpoint hidden in my body,
but a light which would begin to burn
and lead me without my knowing it
through time to another night
and to where the deer stood in the dark —
so the light could become the deer,
and the deer, a vision of the deer:
its strong delicate-looking head
and neck as it swims across the water,
its forelegs, flexed haunches, and hind legs
as it lifts itself onto a wharf,
and begins its run through the city
to a forest and a secret herd.
(Thornton, The Fifth Window, p. 68)

Thornton’s poetry is full of this kind of rich, haunting story-telling. In “Fifteenth and Lonsdale” (The Human Shore) we see “the mountain sits, dressed in trees, and endlessly clear [. . .] It never ceases turning our gazes back to us — it has no prophecy other than this.”

Thornton uses the Canadian west coast environment (and other specific locales) as a means of
exploring the divine. Often a whole poem begins to feel like a pulsing metaphor. These searches, or fundamental observations of his poems, often extend into meditations on spiritual matters that are so distinctive they are part of his poetic voice.

Gary Barwin (Outside the Hat, Cruelty to Fabulous Animals, Raising Eyebrows)

Gary Barwin often starts with a normal setting for a narrative and then departs for surreal territory as quickly as possible. Everything in the literary tradition, (and for that matter, in the contemporary world), is subject to Barwin’s funny, sharp, and energetic treatment. Images pour out of Barwin's narrators like water in a fast tumbling river.

Street Sign
Mike Harris made me eat my dog
he made me eat telephone poles
he made me eat a map of Moscow
he was there while i was waiting at a bus stop
i was about to talk to him
to walk right up and enter into a discussion
about the governing of Ontario
but then the bus came

and i opened my mouth
and the bus drove right in
and it was full of little people
told by yellow signs to
move to the back
yes further please
still further
thank you the signs said
and a young man
who had himself just opened his mouth to a bus
began to feel the people moving back beyond his molars
back to where he had trouble flossing
and a few slipped on his wet tongue
and it was like Disney on ice except there was no Goofy
and they made frantic calls to their lawyers
and then suddenly Goofy appeared sporting a fedora
and his nose
suddenly his nose was Ecuador
and i could see the imaginary line of the equator
arcing across the sky
(Barwin, Outside the Hat, p. 47)

He parodies and puns cleverly and many poems become trips in a mind-altering sense, a journey to who-knows-where, yet with the purpose of tearing open the materials of modern life to give them closer examination. The insides of the body, particularly the digestive and reproductive systems, are often used as settings, although the poems also go under water, into outer space, and ramble into ancient history as often as not. Parodies of literary forms, Chaucerian language, antique book illustrations, and creative typography all find their way into Barwin’s books.

Many poems run two pages or more and when Barwin reads them, they are delivered in a precise, rapid-fire voice, as if one is witnessing a poet in a jam session with his imagination. What makes all this work however is Barwin’s discipline as a writer, and the enormous erudition he hides under his hat, to adjust the title of one of his books.

While there at least another fifty Canadian poets alive today who are writing at the level of McKay, Solie, Thornton, and Barwin — these poets have been selected for their range, freshness, and their wisdom with language. My apologies to the other fine (and award winning) Canadian poets who could not be mentioned. Additionally the influence of many poets such as Al Purdy, Earl Birney, Gwendolyn McEwen, and b p nichol — all of whom have passed away in the last thirty years — could not be touched on. This essay gives only the smallest taste of four Canadian poets’ work and they must stand as representatives of a thriving Canadian poetry scene.

by Chris Pannell

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