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