Other Strands of American Influences
I missed Christopher Patton in the New Canon. Perhaps because the poems chosen for that anthology had such tonal similarities that after a while it seemed they were all varieties of the same poem (and at points that Canada was populated only by one kind of poet and no diversity whatsoever). In any case, the poems in Ox leap off the page with their ecstatic longing for communion with nature. They seem divined to view the most minute details and report back with verbal acumen. Not, as the book cover suggests, a whole new scale of Canadian nature poetry, but rooted in it, and in Gerald Manley Hopkins, and in the American school of quietude as well (and the Columbia/Paris Review tradition too).
The problem with this variety of poetry is that it is often beautiful, but emotionally vacant, or as some have suggested, “about nothing.” Funny that “about nothing,” is seen as such a terrible aspect of language poetry, or the avant garde, but if a verbally innovative poet can keep a sense of realism, suddenly it’s fine to just be about nothing, or about sound.… (Is Hopkins about nothing? Of course not. Is Heaney about nothing, of course not, but many of those working under their influence certainly are.) But okay, fair enough, the book is described as being a “new scale” of nature poetry, so what is it about? What moves here below the surface of the ear? What depths does the poet, and therefore we plumb? “A seed is a sound,” the poem “Seed,” begins, and we get beautiful alliteration, a whisper over ice, over seed pod, rattle of fall, a few flashes of wind, but nothing transforms. Nothing surprises after the first line: a seed is a sound. Yes, it is a sound, wonderful, and then?? A carafe is a blind glass. That’s a new scale. I also kept thinking of Stevie Wonder’s Secret Life of Plants, circa 1979 which knocked me out, but more practically, I thought of Lilburn who does this while taking us inside the sound, inside the smell of earth.… Still, about something, new in scale or not, this is lush poetry and an absolute pleasure to read. One of my favorite sections is “Weed Flower Mind,” a further venturing,
of viscious, noisome feelings, unprofitable graine
encombring good corne: darnel, onion grass,
crabgrass; surging, useless.
Untangle me. —Lost in the fallow,
you swing a rusted sickle and it takes you down.
But look, self-heal, heal-all. You are your own
Beautiful syllables rolling on the tongue, very fresh. But, remember the first time you saw Microcosmos and wondered how a filmmaker could create such drama out of a ladybug, such erotics from a snail? Remember hearing Un for the first time? Well, this doesn’t give us that kind of wonder, doesn’t leave us shaking in newness. It it is beautiful. I’m making much of this because I think presses should be held accountable for their blurbs, particularly when they seem intended to diss what has come before. Why? To what end is that a good move?
But also because it’s simply an interesting question. Here is a poet furiously at work and it isn’t his fault that his work is being spun a particular way. His work is doing this – this sound, this line, this beauty. Fair enough. Line after line of it, a delight to the ear: “breeds and breathes; scythe and seethe,” just gorgeous. Not leaping off into a new way of thinking about anything to do with seed pods, “Weed-leaves hiding leaf-faces,” no, not quite new – as we might find with someone like Dennis Lee, for example, or as many-stranded, as we find in Steven Price, but lovely. Another impressive debut. One you must check out.
Lemon Hound (October 2007)