canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Strength of Materials
by Rhea Tregebov
Wolsak & Wynn
80 pp $14.00 CAD ISBN 0-919897-76-2

by Stephen Cain
120 pp $15.95 CAD ISBN 1-55022-455-7

Reviewed by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden

While reading two very different books of poetry, Rhea Tregebov’s The Strength of Materials and Stephen Cain’s Torontology I was struck by each poet’s stance with regards to language. Everything stems from this: what language to use; how to situate one’s work in relation to previous poetry in English; how (or whether) to express the current vernacular. Having made very different choices, each of these poets has a distinctive voice. Rather than make specious comparisons between the two, from now on I’ll treat their work separately. First, though, it makes sense to name the tradition that, in my understanding, each inhabits. Tregebov is a contemporary lyric poet and Cain a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet.

This is Rhea Tregebov’s fifth book of poetry, and it exhibits a mature poet’s confidence. Her voice is warm, confiding and intimate, secure in a sense of its own authoritativeness. While the poems aren’t showy or technically exciting, they have their own integrity. The Strength of Materials is a series of “elegies” for various elements of quotidian life: lost clothes, time, love, family unity after a divorce, etc. – poems of middle age, when loss has started to impinge in the usual ways on those whose lives are mostly secure. The tone is melancholy, though not morbidly so (tone is paramount here, rather than image or form). To steal a line from her “Elegy for the Wild, ”Tregebov’s voice is “a soft, mournful siren.”

One of her methods is to take a lyrical moment and encapsulate its passing, such as “ Elegy for the Gift”, quoted here in full:

Sometimes, when the subway car
comes briefly out of the tunnel,
we don’t look up, miss the light.
And it’s as though, inattentive,
we’d never had that moment
of brightness. A life might be full
of such small losses or full,
equally, of small, dense gifts:
the child on that same car
dipping her face into her mother’s,
that perfect regard.

(A reader can see here what the poet’s mode is: to identify a discrete event and its emotional frame of reference.) Some poems are more attenuated than this, linking disparate images or experiences, such as “Subway Elegy,” which attempts to draw together sexual love, compassion for a stranger whose child dies in a foreign war, love and fear for the poet’s own son (“to her my body replies,/mouth drawn inward, teeth/pulling at my bottom lip/and I go for my own boy’s unscathed/head, pull his body back to me.”), and the same son’s awareness of arbitrary death.

Tregebov does not succeed more in one of these modes than the other. Some of the looser poems drift too much (“The Black Mitt”) and some of the tighter ones are too stingy (“Gift: Elegy”). What I began to notice and appreciate most was her language. Clearly an inheritor of the Romantic tradition, with very little of Modernism, say, or the Confessional poets, Tregebov’s language is as simple as it can be, with few moments (and this is no criticism) of lyrical flight. It’s as if each poem is constructed from the plain “materials” of every day life; as if she wants to identify herself as an engineer or carpenter. When it comes to vernacular, or to situating the poems in their urban landscape, any specifics – “the old guy, Zeller’s, Shopper’s Drug Mart” – are generic and seem incidental. Traveling incognito Tregebov creates a satisfying lyricism with a narrow palette. The work itself remains largely uninflected by other voices (references to other poets are through formal epigraphs) and retains a pure evenness of tone that is pleasing but whose consistency is sometimes the equivalent of cruise control.

As a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, Stephen Cain faces at least one common challenge with a contemporary lyric poet: how to respond to inherited concepts of poeticism – what to do with the language of his predecessors? Should the various sources and diction clash or merge? Should any distinctions be ignored? An obvious inheritor of Pound and Eliot, from the evidence here, Cain faces an even denser landscape than theirs, one where language has purposes unforeseen by them (think of the internetspeak now second nature to so many of us) with ever more arcane levels of specificity and banality. In this world quotations may be made free from identification with their source, the results being sometimes serendipitous, sometimes ludicrous and almost always predictable. (“Spring has sprung” in at least three Toronto ads this year, including one for jeans and another for lap-dancers. And how many times does a sitcom drearily misquote the “Wherefore art thou….” line from Romeo and Juliet?).

As a reader I ‘ve come late to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (which I sometimes suspect places undue faith in the computer’s facility at generating “text” and in the impromptu wit of typos), but I’m interested in some of its effects and intentions, and mostly I enjoyed reading Torontology. When Cain rifles the poems of others, he toys with their words and embeds them in his own poems in ways that mock the kind of ad-speak mentioned above (Coleridge becomes “In Kathmandu did Chaka Khan a greatly measured moan by me”). To name a few sources, he calls on Eliot (who is everywhere), Pound, Shakespeare, Yeats, Coleridge, Whitman, Hardy, Gertrude Stein and Leonard Cohen, mashed up with a plethora of movie references and advertising slogans. Many of the “quotes”(often puns) used by Cain don’t demand more than a schoolboy’s acquaintance with any of the texts, and this may be one of his purposes – to point to the subliminal yet shallow familiarity many of us have with “the classics,”as they stand alongside our more vividly inhabited present: movies, music and fashion sense.

A good portion of the poems in the book take their titles from films and their directors, among them Denys Arcand, Atom Egoyan, Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles (whose name, unfortunately, is misspelled), but the relationship between title and content seems quixotic. Most of the movie poems are longish, and repeat the last word of each line at the beginning of the next, in altered context. This device fails to justify itself consistently, being sometimes hypnotic, other times slack.

One of my difficulties in interpreting the poems (and yet, paradoxically, one of their more interesting aspects) is that all language is given equal weight. The result is a flattened affect, and the prevailing tone is ironic in a way that has become familiar from other sources (including movies). Meaning and emotion are not necessarily what these poems strive for, but Cain does have a knack for using the currency of everyday speech with weird effectiveness. Take “Basic Plug,” which I’ll quote in full:

Down 4 thinly washed waifs in 2 gulps of regret, stirring the
recollection with a wooden implement. In 20 rotations sprinkle 10 cc’s
over the surface. Add 6 mercy fucks, garters & collisions. Boil, cover your
tracks for 10 metres. In a fireproof hotel room place 1/2 the bread on the
nightstand. Cover each piece with a piece. It will take a little more than
1/4 of an hour. The respiration will rise to the surface. Put the case in a
375 degree preheated monstrance for about 20 acclimatations. Shave off
all your baby hair.

All the poems are soaked in this vernacular, which colonizes literary allusions and commercials equally (Yeats and Irish Spring take equal place here). The results are oddly baroque, alluring or banal by turns. Despite my impatience with some of Cain’s methods, or with his methods some of the time, there’s an engine here that throws up sparks, and beneath the flattened affect, a sensuous love poem or two.

Diana Fitzgerald Bryden's first book of poetry, Learning Russian (Mansfield Press, 2000), was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award. She used to write a monthly column on poetry for The National Post, has reviewed fiction for The Globe and Mail, and now writes freelance reviews of both poetry and fiction for The Post, Books in Canada, The Literary Review of Canada, and The Danforth Review, among others. Her second book, Clinic Day, has just been completed.







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