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.

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