When Four Equals One

yoko

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.

-C.F.

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