Poetry and Money


Stephen Collis, First Sketch of a Poem I Will Not Have Written.  Ottawa, above/ground press, 2017.


An emotion not felt so often in poetry is anger.  But I certainly feel it in Stephen Collis’ long poem (something above 150 lines) – anger at contemporary culture, at the stubbornness of capitalism, and perhaps at the corruption of poetry itself.  It’s full of interesting contradictions, the main one for me being that it is no flag-waving manifesto or populist call to the masses but instead intricate, fragmented, and often as not difficult.

At borders, frontiers, reaching
into the historical moment of listening
to insurrection and speech /
spur and limit
in place of the street / we have Facebook
Google is a universe we
No longer have to search the limits of
the revolutionary subject lies elsewhere
can we revive?

Sometimes he sounds like a tired and aging, but still raging lefty, hating the opium of the internet and pop songs that “tell us / nothing” (surely an unfair generalization these days).  He might be in an old-fashioned working man’s tavern, talking to a half-listening friend (“and sometimes David when I say politics / I mean poetics”), feeling defeated but with still some of the old energy in him.  His thoughts jump around, as if he might be half drunk or falling asleep-

swing low
Campanera. Missing. Cellphone. Rift. Blank. Space. Rosebud.
What body is general? Autonomous?
Gras. Roots. Bit. Torrent. Detainees. No one.  Illegal.

There’s another moment when a name is mentioned, likely a wife or partner: “Late now. Sound of the furnace. Cathy out. Girls asleep.”  This also gives the impression of a restless and unhappy soul wrestling with defeats and losses in the dark hours. But the lines always have a clean, sharp edge, expressing an intelligent consciousness that feels to me trapped inside a spiral of argument, trying to find a way out:

I ponder Empedocles and volcanos
the history of the oppressed
“If you go out and look for the economy
it is hard to find”
desire to become cosmos
to live in the limitless
connection of all things

As I read I began to expect some kind of uplift or release, some hope in the end, if faint or bleary.  Instead the poem ends in cynicism or perhaps just resignation: “god didn’t die / he was translated into money”.  But I took this as a momentary feeling, as if another moment chosen (five minutes before, one minute after) might have given us a different ending, a sense that the fight – in the street and on the page – must go on.



From the North



Christine Stewart, The Odes. Vancouver:Nomados, 2015.
Brian Dedora, Two at High Noon. Vancouver: Nomados,  2015.


Guest review by Bruce Whiteman

I am tempted to say that I do not understand a single word in Christine Stewart’s collection of odes, but that would be untrue. I do understand the words, all of them. It’s the lines I do not understand, much less the poems one by one as poems. Oh there are occasional lines that make conventional sense, such as “Men pass out over cups of wine,” or the more metaphorical “Your closed fist of cunning,” or even (two lines together) “I’m not big on details and/Would rather sing of the Olympics.” The latter lines even contain an apposite allusion to Pindar, the great Greek poet whose epinikia or victory odes alone survive complete, unlike the remainder of his poems, and comprise hymns to the winners of athletic games. It makes sense for Stewart to invoke the inventor of the ode. I’m surprised that she did not also invoke Keats, though perhaps she did and I missed it.

In large part these thirty-three poems are built out of lines that puzzle and obfuscate. Take “Sons of Orange Julius,” for example:

He had round limbs where he laid his simples.
The mini mall re-warmed him.
He had sores from his selves.
The hungry light of the highways
Treaded cars in soft cantations.
Swoosh, swoosh.
He should stop paving my yard with
Blacktop and the honeyed songs of pansies.
But still, I sing him here and there.
A slanderer does herself no good.

The title is the first oddity. Orange Julius, the drink? Like most of Stewart’s odes, the line is the basic unit, and enjambment is rare. (There is one example here in the seventh and eighth lines.) Most of the time the individual lines are perplexing. Who, in the opening line, is “he”? Why are there simples (medicinal herbs) on his “round limbs”? Why did he need “re-warming” and why did it take place in a mini-mall of all places? How does light tread anything, and why is the light of the highway hungry? “Cantation,” as Stewart uses it here, is last recorded by the OED as occurring in 1656, and even then it was in a book of hard and uncommon words called Glossographia. I like rare words too, so I cannot fairly object to this one. The subject of this poem, the “he,” returns in the penultimate line, but why is he celebrated “here and there”? The final line reminds me of Creeley’s famous line, “the unsure//egoist is not/good for himself,” from “The Immoral Proposition.” But who knows, in Stewart’s poem, whether she is making a general statement or chiding herself? The poem contains so many uncertainties and so little to go on. This reader, at any rate, is left frustrated and unconvinced.

Other poems are even less accessible. “Sons of Candles and Batteries” begins with four brief statements that add up to nothing, really:

Your spears flower.
Where shopping is more peaceful.
So keep quiet at home.
Cast out your swift wife ships.

The opening line could be powerful if it lead to anything, but what it leads to is just a collection of strange bits of language. “Your swift wife ships”? I guess I have to count myself, or get counted by the poet anyway, as among those who are addressed directly in the final, two-line poem: “After the singing, don’t bother me with invasions./I’m from the North.” I’m from the North too, and really, it’s not an invasion to hope for something to hang onto in poetry. Incidentally the two blurbs on the rear wrapper of Christine Stewart’s chapbook are as immune to meaning as her poems sometimes are. Blurbs should be seductive, not rebarbative.

Brian Dedora’s Two at High Noon can be opaque at times too, but usually the reader can understand his poems despite occasional obscurities. Dedora’s chapbook consists of two sequences, “Status” in conventional poetic lines, a poem dedicated to Robin Blaser, and “Lawnchair,” a series of prose poems. “Status” ranges widely through emotions, propositions, and experiences. Birth, copulation, and death, to cite that ancient trio, seem its inspirations, the things that create in Dedora a “text-urge,” his somewhat unappetizing shorthand for poetic inspiration. At its outset the poem invokes a very stark and intimate birth, with “juices” and the “warm wet” trajectory of the foetus emerging into breath and daylight. The “continual friction/between self, the world, the writing” produces both pleasure and glumness. A lover grows bored, and the poet, thinking that his name has been called from across a street, finds that “no one is there/not even you.” A confrontation with sexual identity seems to lurk everywhere beneath the surface of this poem, but sex is not just a source of difficulty. It is, at least when the poem ends, a joy too: “the unplanned kinder/ frolicking in the garden.” It is charming to learn that people still think of sex as frolicking. It sounds so much like a Boucher or Fragonard painting.

The prose poems of “Lawnchair” are, like most successful prose poems, focused on sensual experience and the possibilities of the longer sentence. Dedora’s typical poetic line is short, often so short as to mitigate against music. But in his prose poems he is not limited by phrase or line ending, and the results are mostly happy. He allows himself a richer vocabulary, for one thing, as well as more openness to the sound of poetry. A short example demonstrates his skill:

Noon, when summer heat becomes sleepy, birds hush, leaves droop, and people seek shade. Scarcely a sound save for the shrill chirp of cicadas when one sweats the vast weighted background of silence.

The repeated use of “s” sounds here contributes to the meaning. “Ess” is the sound of summer, after all, and Dedora creates a captivating susurrus in this short text. Many of the themes of “Status” return in “Lawnchair,” the “warm wet,” the idea of crossroads, where choices have to be made, the placing of ones finger on a point of initiation, “the point where it all starts.” The idea of “decision” is central to Two at High Noon. It represents what is built upon, the carrying forward of “the fragile structure of your living, naked…” The excision of the noun in that phrase–living naked what?–is the point, in a way. Mystery remains, and in fact the ellipsis after “naked” leads not to a noun, a thing, but to the adjective “forked”:

Heave crash and splinter of decisions made so long ago upon which you build, as you see now, the fragile structure of your living, naked…forked.

Of course humans, as Lear said, are little but a “poor, bare, forked animal,” but Dedora also wants to keep the more metaphorical meaning of “forked” here, its sense of admirable doubleness, its richness rather than its duplicity. The title of his little book, after all, encapsulates the same idea.

When Four Equals One


Yoko’s Dogs, Rhinoceros.  Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, Devil’s Whim No. 31, 600 copies, 2016.

Not long ago I reviewed a chapbook by an anonymous collective with a strong political motivation called the Blunt Research Group.  Yoko’s Dogs is another collective, not quite so anonymous (being made up of four women poets whose names aren’t hard to discover) and with something perhaps less serious and more fun in mind.  Writing since 2006, the members of Yoko’s Dogs, each living in a different part of Canada, have been inspired by what they call Japanese linked poems to bring their four voices together as one.

This is their second publication (the first, Whisk, was published by Pedlar Press), an accessible, vaguely Japanese-feeling handful of poems.  Reading them, I couldn’t help wondering how much our reading experience is influenced by prior knowledge.  By the reputation of a poet, say, or what we know of her experience, or about how the poems were written.  In this case I knew in advance there were four authors and I found it virtually impossible to think of these as texts from a single voice.  While reading I was convinced that this awareness was caused not so much by prior knowledge but a feeling that each successive stanza came from a different pen.

Take, for example, “The Sphinx Moth’s Riddle”:

she’s never met the wife
yet knows the husband’s garden

today he thinks
his male nurse is a novelist
he rejected

Nabokov was also famous
as a lepidopterist

in the greenhouse
with a torch –
night-blooming cereus

the answer to the sphinx moth’s riddle is
not man

To me this feels something like that game where somebody in the circle starts telling a story and the next person continues.  In fact, I have no idea how the poems were written, whether by stanza or line, or with revisions that erased the question of who wrote what.  Some seem too short to have four hands on them.  This is really just an observation, and even if I’m right there’s nothing wrong with imagining a series of voices contributing to one poem.  But I did feel a discontinuity –  jokiness one moment, lyricism the next, haiku after that, etc.  On the other hand, they usefully confounded some of my expectations of what a poem should do.

There is also the interesting effect of English-language poems in Japanese forms – forms which, no doubt these poets understand far better than I do.  I enjoy reading English haiku, for example, without ever quite forgetting their transplanted nature.  Here’s a brief poem from the collective:

seagulls over no sea
the ballpark empty
though footprints run in the snow

The work in Rhinoceros is skilfully composed and enjoyable to read.  I would consider it a sort of appetizer to the individual work by the four poets – Mary di Michele, Jane Munro, Susan Gillis, and Jan Conn – all of whom are well worth knowing.


Just Visiting

museum poems

Lucille Lang Day, Dreaming of Sunflowers: Museum Poems.  Blue Light Press, 2015.

Lucille Lang Day has been to a lot of places – St. Paul, Washington, Paris, Florence, Orvieto, Barcelona.  And like most tourists, she has visited the museums and found herself thinking about her own responses to what she has seen.  Sometimes the result is a  descriptive impression, say of one of Monet’s water lily paintings (“Pink and yellow, they float…”).  Sometimes it’s a more obvious emotional reaction, as after visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington when the poet looks at the people around her:

this way and that, each one lucky,
each one blessed.  Their shoes will not
molder in piles, coated with ash and dirt.

These are perfectly human, perfectly ordinary responses, and the language is serviceable and plain-faced.  The places visited and things seen are rather typical; the poet and her husband have a pizza in Piazza San Marco, she looks at works by artists we’ve all heard of.  She offers feelings without showing any real vulnerability, in much the same way that her travels never seem to take her anywhere off the beaten path.