Disruptive

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Phil Hall, Notes from Gethsemani.  Vancouver: Nomadis, 2014.

http://www.nomados.org/nomados.htm

The modest chapbook is a paradoxically capacious receptacle, able to accommodate a seemingly endless variety of texts and images.  One category that makes good use of the chapbook is the public speech–too short for a book, perfect for a single signature.

What happens to a speech when it is read rather than heard?  Somewhat like a play, I suppose, it loses the voice, the occasion, the dimension of time, and the communal experience but gains in close and even repeated reading, in the possibility of note-making, looking up words or references, etc.

Notes from Gethsemani was originally presented at Queen’s University on November 14, 2012 as the  inaugural lecture in honour of Joanne Page.  Page (was a Kingston-area poet then in her late fifties and it was Hall’s idea to begin a lecture series in her honour.  Page has since died–in 2015, of cancer–but the series continues under Hall’s guidance.  It is only on Googling the series (a luxury that his original audience didn’t have) that it has become clear to me that Hall’s lecture is a play on the poet’s last name–Page.

The spoken word, then, becomes a text, turning this from a speech into an essay-poem (as Jay MillAr usefully calls it on the back cover) made up of 278 fragments, sometimes in related strings and sometimes not.  Despite the title it’s not a religious work, unless you consider Hall a worshipper of the page itself.  The many pieces  make up a loose, rambling discourse on the nature of the book, the page, and the mark.  It begins more or less with a memory of a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky where Hall spent time in the monks’ library and archives and examined the personal library of Thomas Merton.  The visit becomes an opportunity for him to think about the page blank and printed, from incunabula to recent books of poems.

He makes points by quoting many writers; some sections are a string of quotations. These words of Guy Davenport catch what Hall is after: “When language emerges–the verb to draw is the same as the verb to write“.  He reaches imaginatively back to pre-writing in the form of cave drawings and connects it to poets who like to draw or scribble on their poems–an arrow drawn by Erin Moure, a slash mark reproduced in Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Found from a notebook of her father’s, a child’s drawing at the end of a George Bowering story.  It seems to me that he is trying to emphasize writing as a physical act, as a gesture (his word) of the body as well as the mind.

All of this takes me back to the first line of the speech, which I imagine raised a laugh from his audience:  “I have killed a bug on the page I am reading.”  He doesn’t say it, but in the context of what comes after, this must be considered an act of writing itself, just as many pages on–

The Australian Aborigine fills her mouth with ochre & spits over her hand against the rock–her hand is written there by its absence.

Elsewhere he speaks of the impulse to drag a stick across the sand.  He wants us to think of writing the way we think Cy Twombly (who he references) painted.  He wants, I believe, to return our thinking of poetry to something elemental, ancient, active, violently creative.

The form of Notes allows for meanderings into related byways, such as a series of quotations from writers who, Hall believes, have gotten a word so right that it becomes branded by that use.  Near the end he returns to the library and, despite his suspicion of the well-ordered work (which drives him, he tells us, to always tear up a copy of his own new book) one feels him heading towards his ending.  He concludes–generously, as if presenting us with a collaboration–by offering a line from Juan Ramon Jimenz: “If they give you lined paper–write the other way”.  And is not crossing the lines a kind of slashing of the page?  Of course we must write, Hall seems to tell us, but there is no need to be polite about it.

-C.F.

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Canadian Soul

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Sonnet L’Abbé. Anima Canadensis. Toronto: Junction Books, 100 numbered copies, 2016.

Guest review by Bruce Whiteman.

It takes guts, or something, anyway, to call a book of poems “The Canadian Soul,” in Latin no less. Was there ever a Canadian soul? Is there one now? Does Kateri Tekakwitha embody the Canadian soul? Louis Riel? Maurice Richard? Leonard Cohen? Harold Innis? Or perhaps a young writer with the undeniably perfect name for a Canadian poet, combining a poetic form with a French surname, although she writes in English? The Canadian soul should comprise poetry, bilingualism, and youth. Or so it seems to me, at the beginning of a year in which Canada will celebrate the sesquicentennial of the British North America Act (30 Victoriae Cap. 3). Anything that has a sesquicentennial surely ought to have a discernible and veritable soul.

This is Sonnet L’Abbé’s third book. McClelland and Stewart published her first two books, A Strange Relief (2001) and Killarnoe (2007). Anima Canadensis is a much more modest book than the McStew collections, consisting of just thirteen poems in a book of thirty-two pages that looks and feels like many a Coach House Press or Porcupine’s Quill book (Zephyr Antique Laid paper, etc.). It consists of two sections, the first entitled “Permanent Residents’ Test” and the second “Love Amid the Angloculture.” Ten of the poems are prose poems, in various ways, and only three are conventional lined poems. “Permanent Residents’ Test” parodies questions presumably asked on such a test, with questions that sound, well, not unreasonable (“Answer the following questions,” etc.), though the body of the answers is always a bit surreal. That is her point: take a semi-reasonable question, put a bit of spin on it, and fantasize an answer that goes off the deep end of poetry. This will yield an unsatisfyingly stultifying line such as “Our [blank] rituals and quarterly rituals are a social medium of ritual,” a strange line such as “Everywhere the green smell of cis-3-hexanal” (apparently what you smell when you smell freshly cut grass), or the rather repulsive line, “They [the bugs that live in our gut] know bad milk and bad touches and can transform into a stun spray of defensive puke.” Well, maybe, but as poetry? I don’t think so.

“Love Amid the Angloculture” is equally unsatisfying, unless you like lines like these:

Light leaves
and I am grounded.

My motility lays itself in a bed
of cotton.

Sleep closes
the corona of datastream.

“Sleep closes/the corona of datastream” is just a clumsy way of saying that, when you fall asleep, you stop dealing with input from your senses. It’s not really very beautiful, frankly. If you hear Christopher Dewdney behind these lines, you would not be far wrong. The scientific language sounds unintegrated to my ear, and hence pretentious. And yet, in that same sequence, occurs a poem of brightness and a down to earth quality that shows what L’Abbé is capable of when she is more direct. It is a prose poem entitled “The Trees Have Loved Us All Along,” and it eschews the words which, in other poems, will send every reader to the dictionary, if every reader cares to take the trouble. It opens like this:

That trunk there is alive. Up out of a paved patch in the concrete sidewalk at Main and Broadway and strung with blue lights in the middle of summer, that trunk there is alive. I’m in its space. It doesn’t give me a hard time about it.

This is real language imagined to respond to a real experience, and the fact that this poet can locate such language, even once, demonstrates her talent. I wish she had written more poems like this one, and fewer that hover at the edge of accessibility and play among a vocabulary that is not that of real poetry.

Bruce Whiteman is the author of Tablature (McGill-Queen’s Univesity Press) and many other books of poetry.

(My)self

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Jeff Latosik, Helium Ear.  Anstruther Press, 60 copies, 2016.
http://www.anstrutherpress.com

Jeff Latosik’s poems are tricky to read but it has taken me a while to put my finger on why.  It’s that they are very much concerned with the self but not with myself, with the being but not the individual.  As a result, the reader gets few glimpses of J.L. the person or even the practising poet, despite the fact that Helium Ear is so often about what existence feels like from the inside.

One of the most relatable poems and so a good place to start is “On Meeting a Former Self.”  Imagine meeting that earlier, younger version of yourself with the knowledge you have now:  “You know everything he will not listen to. / and he knows some, as well, that you won’t hear again.”  This poem where “the person you wanted / to be is talking to the one you couldn’t become” might have been very different.  Another poet might have used details (real or fictional) to show this contrast: you couldn’t have known your father would die so young; if only I could tell you that your loneliness would ease one day, etc.  There is absolutely none of that ordinary stuff.  Instead, Latosik spins out his idea in a more abstract manner.

These are clever poems–clever in a good way, meaning astute and quick witted as opposed to canny and slick.  The first poem, “The internet,” is one of the rare ones to use the first person, and although it never gets personal (detailed, yes), anyone my age can easily relate to it:

I first heard about it in a Burger King.
Its aims seemed elusive as the stock ticker
or why some people stayed in marriages.
I bused tables with a cloth that mucked the laminate sheen
and, just that Spring, an annular eclipse ringed the sky
like we were suddenly looking down a cabled conduit.

These lines have a very pleasing cadence, and sound good read allowed.  Latosik’s smarts make it easy to take for granted his finely chiselled language.

The other poems are as interesting and, yes, as tricky.  I’ll finish off with “Mind” since it takes as its subject what seems to me Latosik’s main interest.  “Having one means you’ve got to be / at least two about most things,” he begins jokingly, but then the poem works a different binary idea, not the mind against itself but the mind wishing to disassociate from the body, to rise above “liver, spleen, and heart” as something not only superior but able to know all without the body’s knowledge.  “Where was in all of this…?” wonders the poet, his own recognizable identity somehow lost in this labyrinth of ideas.  It is a question that might be asked of this fascinating, elusive little collection of graceful, poetic thought pieces.

-C.F.

Heaven’s Gates

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Yusuf Saadi, Sonnets on a Night Without Love.  Montreal: Vallum Society for Education in Arts & Letters, 115 copies, 2016.
http://www.vallummag.com

The other day I tried a little experiment.  I stopped ten strangers on the street and asked each if he or she knew of any poetic forms.  Four came up with haiku and a whopping eight offered the sonnet.

All right, this did not actually happen.  But I suspect that if I were really to accost ten strangers about their knowledge of poetry, the results would be pretty close.  Many people in the west think of haiku as something children write but the sonnet–that’s the delightful form that Shakespeare used as an address of love.  The extraordinary thing is that poets still love the sonnet form; one finds it used and re-invented and turned on its head all the time.  It’s a favourite way of connecting to the tradition even while making it new.

Yusuf Saadi’s chapbook has two parts, the first of which consists of five sonnets.  Each has fourteen lines and there are some rhymes but (at least as far as I can tell, my knowledge being hardly perfect) otherwise Saadi doesn’t feel too rule-bound.  Some begin with a trivial premise, others are more serious from the start, but all of them are gorgeous things, rich in rhythm and sensual language and ideas.  Here are the first lines of the first, “Love Sonnet for Light, which is exactly what it is called:

I know a star in Andromeda broke
every colour in your heart.  That you
shivered yourself to sleep in a meteor’s
crevice or moon’s crater whose dust

is now my skin.  Beyond my finitude
you dream a wave and particle at once.
Know I love the way you warm my fingers
and pour gilt on my hardwood floors.

This infusing of the self’s mind and body into the larger universe is a common strategy for Saadi.  There is the love song to an actual person, “Pedagogy,” in which the love object’s rather common, monosyllabic name gives a sentence its surprisingly abrupt, down-to-earth stop:

Ghosts stalk our thoughts at two a.m.  Silence
shawls the temporal: night wraps a black sari
around your skin.  I memorize each strand
of your hair, Jess.

Other poems have a wonderful sense of play as they meld formal tradition with easy casualness, the high with the low.  There’s a sonnet to a “Forgotten Twix Wrapper” which, ironically, sounds the most Shakespearean, and one to sound that reminds us that Chopin, a child’s screams, and a flushing toilet are all perceived with the same sense.

The best, though, is  “Love Poem for Nusaybah’s Hijab.  I’m fascinated by the way it combines the subject matter of Islam with a western poetic form (the sonnet was born in Italy).  I had to look up Nusaybah to learn that she was a female companion of Muhammad and a “warrior of Islam” and that Uhud was the site of a battle between the Muhammad-led Muslims and the Meccans in 625.  It opens with a word worthy of Joyce but its mix of erotic sensuality with the result of violence almost overwhelmed me with its sickening beauty.  I take the liberty of quoting it in full.

Cloudflesh gaped, and skies above Uhud
revealed the moon’s kneecap.  Survivors
crawled among the dead–eyes salivating.
Your cotton hijab was caught in windmoans:
it spelled its threnodies in Arabic
calligraphy, while angels rolled the moon
across the sky.  Behind you, mountains flexed
their muscled arms among the shadows dark
as pubic patches.  Yet no stare had claimed
your body.  Pupils slithered down your cotton
veil, their gazes scrambling for a form to fix you.
Even I can’t write your hair, each strand
a bridge to heaven’s gates.  Although
I glimpse your heart which nearly blinds me.

The chapbook contains another section of five poems and while I read them, the sonnets were still too much in my thoughts to make much sense of them.  I look forward to reading them, and the sonnets again, as well as any more poems by Yusuf Saadi that I can get my hands on.

-C.F.