Douglas Barbour: Canadian Poetry as Eclectic in the best sense

The following is an excerpt from a longer paper, on contemporary Canadian poetry, presented to a Canadian Studies Seminar at the University of La Laguna, on Tenerife, in December 1998. In that paper, I argued that there is a healthy diversity and eclecticism in Canadian poetry today, and that the willingness of people in different `camps' to recognize each others' value was not a bad thing.

What the 1998 Governor General's Award Short List tells us

The five books short listed for this year's Governor General's Award in english-language poetry were: Stephanie Bolster's White Stone: The Alice Poems, Louise Bernice Halfe's Blue Marrow, Michael Ondaatje's Handwriting, Lisa Robertson's Debbie: An Epic, and Kathy Shaidle's Lobotomy Magnificat. It's an impressive list, not least for its range and diversity. Two are first books, two are second books, only one by a well-known and established author. The respect given to new and unknown writers deserves praise (of course, the first time Ondaatje won the award, for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, the same year bpNichol won for a bunch of little books, the jury acted with the same willingness to embrace the new). I suspect that a group of books ranging from a well known writer's latest work through a native writer's uncovering of earlier voices, a collection of strangely religious rants and monologues, a fine addition to the Canadian tradition of the documentary poem, to a formally exacting and innovative deconstruction of the patriarchal epic tradition would not make up the short list for prizes like the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. And I think this speaks well of the Governor General's Award jury.

I want to offer some introductory commentary on each of the five books, as a way of showing something of the kinds of poetry being practiced in Canada in the late 1990s. I enjoyed all five books in their different ways, although I certainly had my favorites. The winner was a bit of a surprise, but I have long argued that the real recognition comes with making the short list, as there's never a single best book of the year although there usually are four or five which stand above the rest.

I'll begin with a first book by an author I had never heard of, as that in itself marks the diligence and willingness to seek out the new that signals a good jury. Kathy Shaidle, the small biography in Lobotomy Magnificat tells us, was born in Hamilton in 1964, lives and works in Toronto, and writes a popular column in Catholic New Times. This latter information may help us to understand her fascination with sainthood and martyrdom, but doesn't explain why so many of her martyrs belong to recent history, even if they lived and died before she was born. They include politicians, priests, artists, and murderers, as if it could never be easy to distinguish among them: Jack Kennedy, Jack Ruby, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Frida Kahlo, James Dean, and Evelyn Dick, who was found guilty of murdering her husband and child in Hamilton in 1946. A taste for strange violence seems to prevail in Shaidle's work, yet I think there is a strong current of possible redemption as well. The back cover copy mentions her `landscapes of pain and grace,' and quotes Kevin Connolly's comment that `Hovering over Shaidle's tragic, doomed icons is a dark existential chill the Spanish poets used to call duende, an awareness of the lingering presence of death.'

In its way, Lobotomy Magnificat is both disturbing and compelling, but I still don't know quite how to `read' the poems as poems. They seem to work beautifully at one moment and to descend into `mere' prosaic rambling in the next. Partly this is because she tends to create complex sentences that thrash their way across many lines of more or less free verse. Although funny, the opening of `Contacts with Trotskyites' is much closer to a sketch than even to a narrative lyric:

I discovered one hundred dollars too late that
my round-wire glasses
attract a certain type of man
attracted to an uncertain type of woman and you know
the least they could do is conceal their disappointment when,
to quiet their drunken insistence, I finally do remove them.
They mumble their "You really should get contact lenses" party line,
and suddenly have to go home. (25)

After comically taking us through a demonstration, where at least one male tells the women that non-violent revolutions simply don't work, the narrator watches another woman flirt with him and concludes in short, tight, nastily funny lines:

And I wanted to tell her that
she was all wrong.
That it wasn't his stomach
or his crotch
or his eyes
she should aim for;
that the way to a man's heart
s through a small incision
just beneath
the breastbone. (27)

This is not Lobotomy Magnificat's usual kind of poem, although the final image belongs there. Many of the poems seem to be dramatic monologues, yet the speaker remains an ambiguous presence, and sometimes shifts back and forth between a named character and `the writer.' It can be a rather strange speaker too, as in `St. Laurence's Gridiron Disguised as an Electric Fan in Thomas Merton's Bangkok Hotel Room, 1968,' where the eponymous figure begins:

Into that promethean year I swept -
earth's core made lace -
to scoop those God-tossed well-coins
you call saints.

First monks, then whole cities
shadowed in gasoline shame.
Here I was disguised as a white-lined road.
There, a noon-baked motel balcony.
But my favourite disguise was an accident.
After all, Bangkok is hot,
and my real name
Necessity. (14)

And concludes:

Good one I know you are
why not wear the Deacon's smile
when one day I surprise you
as a blistersmelting engine grille
and smash your bones back home. (15)

This begins to give a sense of the overall mood of Lobotomy Magnificat, which celebrates the will, as well as the resistance, to evil in a universe where choice is always left to us. Or maybe it's just a twentieth century fin de siècle sense of gothic trauma. At any rate, Shaidle orchestrates a strange dance of death throughout the collection. She uses certain tropes of violence and violation with great verve, and applies an interesting twist on shifting nouns into verbs to create strong metaphors, as when Kahlo tells Trotsky that she `diva'd your ocean's applause' and that her `face adobe'd like our windows when you came' (71). In the end, the power of her images of violence and death, the wit of her figuring of them, and the forcefulness of her vision compel respect. The book shudders to its end in the voice of Therese of Lisieux (perhaps: remember those ambiguities), in a terrifically sharp three lines:

autumn and i are spring burned alive
what will you die of? they ask me
death I reply. (79)

Louise Halfe's second book, Blue Marrow, seeks to give voice to its Cree narrator's ancestors, especially her grandmothers and their histories. A series of prayers, fragmented narratives, visionary spirit dances, and autobiographical musings, it slides easily from one speaker/story to the next. On one level it insists on the whole inheritance of story-telling, with a lengthy prose induction that also insists the whole book is a kind of walking with ancestral voices: `The walk began before I was a seed' (1). It is an intriguing situation she posits: `Long after my Grandfather died my memory went to sleep, I woke in the mountains lying in the crook of my white husband's arms, cocooned in the warmth of our tepee' (1), she says, then adds with a slow buildup of details the steps she takes on a spirit journey to the truth of her origins, which finishes in a long catalogue prayer to all the women, mythic and real, from whom she inherits the stories.

There's a winning innocence to the statements of gratitude and faith the writer plants in both this opening prose section and the acknowledgments at the end that repeat much of the induction's respects to family and friends, a naiveté I take to be deliberate in its representation of the communal work such a telling must be. The various speeches appear to be straightforward, even to the almost parodic bad english of one trapper (that reminds me of nothing so much as William Henry Drummond's Habitant Poems), but the story is an old one. Of cultural and economic colonialism, especially as it operates through sex. In these passages, both native women and conquering men have their say, and most certainly the church does not fare all that well.

I waited for him all night in my buffalo robe,
laid against his door.
. . . . . . . . . . . .

      A bundle of black buffalo
      lay at my doorstep. I lifted the corner,
      saw her dark eyes, hair sheened
      with bear grease
      against the piercing snow.

I lay outside his cabin
night after night, my buffalo robe
wrapped against the wind.
The heat of his breath inside my cloak.
Night after night he came.
Fist raised to his god, lips
pressed against the man hanging dead
around his waist. He entered like a charging
buffalo pounding his chest
against the race of arrows.
I received those spirits.
I lay, my guts exposed,
the loud moan of my need freed
into the night sun. Oh god,
how we sweated in
the thick skin of a dead buffalo.
(24-25)

In fact, this passage gives a good idea of Halfe's method in Blue Marrow. The various voices play off each other, powerful forces of natural sensuality carry people along in their wake, an unforced use of internal assonance and consonance with occasional rhyme helps to keep the rhythmic pace up. As well, the natural images work as powerful cultural symbols, the buffalo, still being killed off makes a highly ironic bed on which the white and native have their `intercourse.'

Halfe's book is strongest when it simply lets such voices speak. Blue Marrow successfully represents both its narrator's past and her continuing battle to live up to it in a world that can't stop forgetting. There are passages that seem a bit unfocussed, and the intense rhythm of the best parts too often falters. Still, it is a strong addition to the poetry by native Canadians that has grown so strong in the last decade or so.

White Stone: The Alice Poems, Stephanie Bolster's first collection, won the Governor General's Award this year. It fits into a strong Canadian tradition, that of the post- The Collected Works of Billy the Kid book length documentary. Like Ondaatje's ground-breaking text, White Stone plays with its various documents, invents some, and finds ways to introject the writer into the documented story. Bolster could also be seen as something of a neo-formalist, especially with her use of (unrhymed) couplets, tercets and quatrains, but she also offers longer freer poems and prose pieces, shifting from one form to another as the story of both the written and the writing subjects demands.

White Stone is a very approachable text, but it does not let its readers off all that easily. Nor does it take a simple, (what anti-feminists would call) `feminist' approach. It is mostly about Alice Liddell, especially her life after the split with Charles Dodgson, but it also sympathetically portrays the man who immortalized her in his fantasies. It treads with deliberate ambivalence across those Victorian lawns and has the propriety not to impose today's standards upon a culture we can never fully comprehend. Which is not to say either Bolster or her book would support any form of child sexual abuse, but rather that the documents simply do not reveal any.

But the danger of such a documentary poem is that it might engender only such useless arguments. White Stone is a more interesting book than that, partly because it does investigate so many aspects of Liddell's life, if only by asking unanswerable questions: `What father has your honesty / betrayed?' (25); `What use in posing as a goddess / who would not be seduced -- / when there's no danger of seduction / now?' (26); `Why, having slept with upward / gaze and hunger every Eve / hoping to be shown your future / husband, must you now be her?' (27), this last concerning St. Agnes, one of the figures Julia Margaret Cameron had Alice pose as in 1872. Such questions are inflected by their association with these photographs of the older Alice, long after she had posed as a little beggar girl for Dodgson. Others, as in the bitter `Close Your Eyes and Think of England,' question the whole way of life that eventually led to so many youthful deaths in World War One, where her two eldest sons died.

But the poems are as much speculation as interrogation, as a section of annotated `portraits,' in which the poet imagines Alice as perceived by characters from the Alice books, or in conjunction with other 'legendary' figures. The funniest and sweetest of these being the `Portrait of Alice with Elvis,' as they compare their fame, and enjoy each other's company, and `In Which Alice Is Born 100 Years Later,' where she becomes a hippie and looks for herself on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. There are also the various poems in which the poet enters Alice's world or brings Alice into hers, such as `In Which the Poet and Alice Are Suddenly Old':

Side by side in our chairs, we are two bent women
at a leaded window. It's overcast. I take notes
as you intone your catalogue of loss, sons and sister
gone, husband, love, who's left? I reach

for your wrist but you tear yourself from me,
cry Go away, as though I've backed you
into this corner. Did you dream me old
to cure your loneliness or have you become

the grandmothers I didn't sit beside as they died?
I was young, a hundred years beyond you,
and let myself fall from full colour into
monochrome. We're grey with loss of childhood,

we make believe it was all perfect then.
Remember, you begin - and all shimmers to a bit of sun.
To not foresee: that lack was what we had, and lost
as we enlarged beyond our photographs.

You still believe a shutter-click will reunite you
with yourself. I take my camera out. But, my aged
mind elsewhere, I leave the cap on:
aim at you and photograph a blackness absolute. (36)

Using a generally pentameter line with lots of rhythmic play in it, Bolster neatly catalogues Alice Liddell's life and her own always declared failure to capture it whole. The Miltonic allusion at the end ironically undermines her own ambition for this text while demonstrating the already indeterminate quality of any life, even the most fully documented. The whole of White Stone supports such a reading, while offering moments of intense perception and interpretation of another's inward life. Although this is fairly standard lyric verse in form, it offers a clear yet ambiguous series of portraits of its subject (and she is a subject not an object of these poems).

Handwriting is Michael Ondaatje's first new book of poetry since Secular Love in 1984, and at first reading, its poems seem to be less demonstrative, more understated, than his earlier poetry, but this apparent minimalism is rather devious (to use a favorite Ondaatje word). The more I read them, the richer and more beguiling these poems become, and I have come to realize that they render up their secrets very slowly. The result of return trips to Sri Lanka between 1993 and 1998, they deliberately take up the matter of Ceylon Ondaatje so carefully refused in his stunning memoir, Running in the Family. In Handwriting, he has chosen, with great deliberateness and passionate intelligence, to explore the poetic history of his birthplace, a history, as he acknowledged in Running in the Family, of continual colonization, yet what is most interesting is how the poet remains absent as a speaker almost throughout. In the first part, history itself seems to speak, and the text seems willing to `appropriate' the indigenous voices of Ceylon; in the second, `The Nine Sentiments,' desire speaks through the centuries, and love is wonderfully evoked, but without the disturbances of the writer's personal life; in the third, the writer enters a few poems only to fade behind the arras of writing once again, letting story itself tell all it will.

Of course, politics enters such poems, but that too is understated, a matter of allusive implication. `The Distance of a Shout' provides an early example, as an historical `we' speaks of living `on the medieval coast,' `during the ancient age of the winds / as they drove all things before them.' This voice insists there were no books of either forest or sea, then adds, `but these / are the places people died.' The quiet finality of that sets a tone for the whole book. The poems keep making these unqualified statements that shouldn't belong in poems, but do. `Handwriting occurred on waves, / on leaves, the scripts of smoke, a sign on a bridge along the Mahaweli River' (6). And throughout these poems, it will occur just as ephemerally, just as permanently, for that is the nature of poetry.

Although the writer has hidden himself, the deliberate fragments (sentences unfinished, images abruptly altered or lost, a syntactical refusal of predicates) force us to make connections and to create narratives out of the small details the text allows. Ondaatje hasn't lost his touch for the telling detail, whether it be an historical remark or a quick and laconic perception like the following:

That tightrope-walker from Kurunegela
the generator shut down by insurgents

stood there
swaying in the darkness above us. (5)

Many of the poems range through history, especially a group about how people preserved stone Buddhas by burying them in the jungle. `The Nine Sentiments' is based on Indian love poetry, and it both creates conditions of desire and maintains a strict propriety in its refusal of Western lyric practice. Possibly one of Ondaatje's finest artifices, it's a beautiful demonstration of the emotional authenticity of pure art. To quote a line out of context would only undermine the care with which so many different moods are juxtaposed, collating various images and conventional romantic phrases to make a palimpsest of desire through time.

The final section brings history and desire together under the rubric of story in a series of complexly self-reflexive poems. Especially moving is `The Story,' which alludes to tales within tales and still leaves it up to us to complete the various possible endings. The wonderfully titled `Last Ink' tells of `Life on an ancient leaf / or a crowded 5th century seal // this mirror-world of art / -- lying on it as if a bed' (73). Here we discover that erotic desire is as much for the story as for the other, or rather that the other is always part of a story. And that is all this history is then, Ondaatje seems to say, no matter where or when. My first reading of Handwriting left me a bit disappointed, as these were not quite the kinds of poems I was used to with Ondaatje. As I have reread, however, I have come to both greater respect for them and greater delight in them. Ondaatje has not chosen to repeat himself in Handwriting, but rather to push his art in new directions.

Lisa Robertson's Debbie: An Epic manages to be both experimental and highly entertaining. Robertson is a member of The Kootenay School of Writing, which has strong connections with the LANGUAGE poets in the United States as well as with an earlier generation of innovative poets in Canada. She is a strong feminist but her work insists that a forceful politics best expresses itself through formal exploration and not through conventional `transparent' writing. Debbie: An Epic, her third publication, is a funny, hard hitting, highly rhetorical attack on what she calls `styled authority,' inherited from the patriarch, Virgil, himself. Her prose `argument' at the end of the book contends that `if Virgil has taught me anything, it's that authority is just a rhetoric or style which has asserted the phantom permanency of a context.' By this time, we know that the `context' in question is patriarchy itself.

It's difficult to describe Debbie: An Epic, because it's such a complexly designed book. Robertson admits that she was very lucky to be granted so much input on the design, possibly because it was the first book of poetry New Star has published. With the designer, she made full use of computer graphics. The book has half-tone titles that overlay the actual poems as well as particular words in different shades and sizes. There are also what she calls `the screens,' two page spreads with large type, various shades of type, all of which interrupt the ongoing poem even as they provide a kind of sly commentary upon it. Wittily, it also numbers the lines, as any authoritative version of an epic does, and includes footnotes, albeit as other poems. In other words, it is a delightful text just to gaze upon.

But, of course, there's the poem. It's impossible to give a sense of this multiplex text with just a few quotes but I want to register certain aspects of Robertson's jujitsu encounter with the epic. What with angry nurses as muses and Debbie herself as a majorette, Debbie: An Epic clearly dissociates itself from the tradition even as it reinvents it. Throughout, the text shifts from an apparent obedience to the rules of the genre to a casual fragmentation of syntax and symbol. Even when Debbie speaks, she speaks to and of Lisa Robertson's fellow poets:

I Debbie with spurred ankles and purple knee-skin 125
stand free to forget
species anxiety. What happened to the century?
the ship's planks sing
a lithe keel twins
ears of Catriona, hair 130
of Kathy, Dan's fine nape, Christine's corded
hips, Susan's sea-scarf
moving with me as philosophes
into felicity and in the midst of elation
the thrones of Erin's vowels 135
a liberal dose
or I have not hauled this waxen heart
from the gnarled bole of a great tree
nor fleshed it with portents
and new sports 140

Playful, yes, and not least in its sly intertextuality, paying devious homage to, among others, both an aspect of Homer and Ovid (as well as Virgil) and Pound's first few Cantos, especially Canto Two. But there's also wit, a delight in maintaining a sense of argumentative movement even as the syntax begins to slip, but never so far as to wholly undermine sense. Such passages occur throughout. Much later in the book, as its argument plays toward a statement never to be completed, the speaker delves into the problem of singular selfhood and discovers, once again, multiplicity and indeterminacy:

      Yes perhaps
I stack these auguries, expedient
as speculative heart in cry: I
am the middle one. I was present at 565
nothing. I maintained certain memories.
I was both a man. I was fated. I
did not relax. I stay where I always
stay. I am the last to take part. I was
its absentee. I should not know. I am 570
afraid. I get thankful for sleep. I was
made responsible. I feel certain.
I stayed where I sleep. I was no small
part. I will begin. I fear I have no
place. I fulfill its proper duty. I 575
I begin. I fear I have no place. I
call your names. I get it to witness. I
both ascend. I will even to forget.
I have made no wall. "Human!" How shall
it call out so that you will pity me? 580
Good Evening Modernism.

Rhetoric? Most definitely, even if it's a rhetoric designed to undermine the very concept at its patriarchal heart. Debbie: An Epic is a prime example of what Marjorie Perloff calls radical artifice, and it never loses sight of the art that makes it go, a craft as pure as Debbie's baton flinging. The argument insists `Slick lyric blocks history,' and so it resists the conventional lyric impulse. `I follow this shepherdess because I want her.' Who speaks here? We can at least imagine the feminine author grabbing her own authority while also reifying writerly `desire.' But here the object of desire, Debbie, gets to talk back, to write back. One woman to another. To another. This is a deliciously subversive poem.

Works Cited

Bolster, Stephanie. White Stone: The Alice Poems. Montreal: Vehicule, 1998.
Halfe, Louise Bernice. Blue Marrow. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
Ondaatje, Michael. Handwriting. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
Robertson, Lisa. Debbie: An Epic. Vancouver: New Star Books, 1997.
Shaidle, Kathy. Lobotomy Magnificat. Ottawa: Oberon P, 1997.