canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Ken Babstock
House of Anansi Press, 1999

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook

The term “tragedy” derives from the ancient Greek for “goat song”; and the goat (among other beasts) is associated with Dionysius, arguably the central figure of tragic myth and drama. Ken Babstock’s Mean immediately sets us on the tragic high-road, the first poem, “Camping at Glendalough”, opening with

A goat-track, for hours, a gorse-edged trough
that fanned to a dusted bristle of heather.

The camper in this poem, having pitched a tent only to “bad-mouth the long trek back”, nonetheless imagines

we’ll stay, push on, higher, west where
the haze of cirrus fades to a passport
black, star-stamped and shut, not just
expat but exhuman; gone hairy, sure footed,
at home with our funk, reading the cairns
of warm dung like prayers before lunch.
I wanted to say something then, just mouth
the option but an old law hung like a beard
in my head. Still unsure: theoretical physics
or high-flown Yeats verse, the thrust
of it was how conditions may
shift from bad toward worse.

The last three lines resound as a couplet because of that internal rhyme, “verse”/”worse. That effect is heightened because we’ve been rocked in and out of iambics (note the central 7th line is regular iambic pentametre) by the force of “something”, of “it”, - vision? -, but we’re kept just off-kilter enough by the substitutions of feet (trochaic) to recall those sheer goat paths. The metaphor in the 2nd to 3rd lines is great, wrenching two discourses together: the image of the passport evokes the sophisticate and political, immediately following which we’re handed a grotesque image of studying shit. But what is that “old law”? What relationship exists between “theoretical physics” and “high-flown Yeats verse”? What is that “option”? Staying? Praying to shit? Becoming goatish, Dionysian? I’m not sure, but the conviction of voice, the range of diction and the intricacies of rhythm in this poem are triumphant.

“Mean” is divided into three parts, the titles of which are also highly suggestive: “Means”, “Head Injury Card” and “Measures”. The tragic tone and content of “Mean” is central. I admit it is a fact of dubious merit, but I’ve actually counted the deaths in the book: somewhere around 40. The preoccupation with mortality is certainly not gratuitous nor merely symptomatic of a young poet (for whom love and death are typical themes). For Babstock has had, it seems, his own brush with death. While I think other poems in the book are stronger, the pivotal sequence, “Head Injury Card”, is a core text in “Mean”. (I would use the clichŽ “still centre” or “touchstone” about the sequence, but these metaphors are too ironically inappropriate considering the subject of head injury). Indeed, the epigraph from Tomas Transtromer (translated by Robert Bly) is a key expression of Babstock’s aesthetic and ethical goal and achievement:

Task: to be where I am.
Even when I am in this solemn and absurd
role: I am still the place
where creation works on itself.

The immediate relevance of this credo is the entirely original, haunting, charming, Siren-song lyrical mediations or records of the six poems in “Head Injury Card”. Yet the credo - “to be where I am... where creation works on itself“ - applies to Mean as a whole. Being who you are, sounding your self, finding one’s voice, identifying with one’s place, are truisms of the poet’s quest for authenticity. And yet just how hard and how important this quest is, is revealed by the huge energy and wide-eyedness of Babstock’s poetry: language muscling toward vision. Singularity of language is, I think, the most significant criterion of an important poet. In “Head Injury Card”, Babstock pulls out the stops:

* Unusual drowsiness
As if some swell beyond, below the sea’s belt
had bone-chilled us, bale-wrapped and banded
our tongues. Sentenced to stillness, a columnar,
wet-hemlock church. A sharp creak sparrows out
from the shed... slack-drum thud from the shrubs...
It starts in. Pray for its passing
That first sentence - especially the second line - is wonderful, weird stuff: Anglo-Saxon in its alliteration and rhythms, even in its subject - “the swell below the sea’s belt” - and diction (the hyphenated, noun + past participles) - “As if some swell beyond, below the sea’s belt / had bone-chilled us, bale-wrapped and banded / our tongues.”

“Head Injury Card” is the idiosyncratic, experimental edge of Mean. Most of the poetry is free verse, though Babstock occasionally employs more traditional forms: sonnet, terza rime, quatrains (rhymed and unrhymed), tercets, couplets. Yet while these are often consummate pieces, their genius is not formal or structural, but linguistic, again. In many cases the line breaks and layout of the lines on the page seem arbitrary, but unimportant given the engaging language and rhythms. Form is a secondary concern; the linguistic energy overwhelms the structure. I do not mean that Babstock fails the form; rather, the particular form is primarily a vehicle, or a form of allusion, merely (the unrhymed tercets are clearly an allusion to Dante as opposed to a practise of the stanza). 

As engaging as “The Gate” is, for example, Babstock sounds a bit caged-in by the sonnet structure here (it even seems to force awkward conjunctions and development of metaphors of a garden gate and a bottle). Instructively, the 24-line “Flea Market: A Love Story” is an ‘exploded’ sonnet - which, I suspect, is a result of the poet’s unwillingness to rein in the language and fix (in the sense of make firm) the metaphors. I speculate that the poem was intended to be a sonnet (that love theme is there, the sense of epiphany), but the story got the better of the piece. The point is not that Babstock has mucked up a sonnet; rather that he’s taken what’s useful for the poem at hand. And that economy must always dictate formal decisions in poetry: otherwise a poet is cheating the audience and him/herself by lying or being clichŽd.

“Crab” is rightly quoted on the flyleaf of Mean as an example of the quality of verse in the book. The second stanza epitomizes Babstock’s virtues and vision:

Stacked up in tide pools,
in tangled leg locks, they were
brittle old men, grotesques thrown ashore by the sea.
For hours I gawked at plasticky joints,
spotted, knobbed claws, and
wispy ferns at the mouth, how the sea’s lens made
the shells swell, shimmer ‘til
perspective was gone and their name
had washed up on my tongue - Dungeness, Dungeness.
The boy I was edged closer to them,
brine-spattered, waterlogged, less.
Note the energy of the awkward, staccato rhythm, the alliteration, and the apt imagery of “For hours I gawked at plasticky joints / spotted, knobbed claws...”. “Plasticky”, in its awkwardness, is a great term for the tangled, clicking mass of upended crabs’ legs. Notice too, the mouthful of internal rhymes: ‘“gawked”, “spot”, “knobbed”, “claws”. The intense, compacted alliteration and internal rhyme of “the shells swell, shimmer ‘til”, with its four stresses in a line of six syllables (and that caesura), almost tripping up the lips and tongue, is a brilliant stroke to introduce the climax and shudder of the last four lines - an ABAB quatrain - which leaves us, the readers, in the boy’s position. For those last three adjectives seem to refer to the boy instead of the crabs, as the grammar seems to indicate. We are not made master by the Adamic moment of naming here; we are “lessened” by the overwhelming otherness of the image, humbled by all that is not captured in names and terms.

These humbling encounters with the natural world of beast, bird and bush are important motifs in Mean. There are poems on animals (dog, wolf and crow) and plant and mineral forms of life (lichen and lava). Like those crabs, other aspects of nature leave the poet - and therefore us - with more and less: more world, less arrogance; more identity, less illusion. Like D. H. Lawrence, Babstock seems to enter the very being of these non-human lives, but through language instead of posture:

High meadow mind, I am
scree-slope, dreaming.
(“Wolf Tells”)
Stone-chip beak a bone-thorn
in the sun’s rib. Squinting, Crow
wags out of its ditch:
Bachelor. Ex-con. Slut.
(“Crow, for the Time Being”)

Oh, granite trying
to be snow, you sleepless, sleep-
proof, trod on and sniffed
at reverie -
(“To Lichen”)

Monstrous night, great wing of no
weight. These stars slotted in chinks
between dark and dark, sequestered,
numb, and undone in the racket of ever...
Tent flap. Plains breeze. Pre-sleep’s
a cattle guard my mind’s caught
its hoof in...
(“Montana Nocturne”)

Extraordinary, lyrical lines. (The character of the Crow recalls Ted Hughes, another poet preoccupied by the natural world and myth; yet “Nass Valley Lava Field” with its opening line, “The fox did not enter me -”, seems to allude to Hughes’s “Thought Fox” only to differentiate the poets.)

In “Sawteeth”, “...a gerbil / was kept, fed, to piss and quiver / under a stunned boy’s / gaze until it ran itself out on the wheel”. What is “[run] out on the wheel”? the gerbil or the gaze? Babstock’s syntax is again suggestively ambiguous: in either case, the poet does not avoid raising discomforting questions about his own vision.

This gaze recalls the gawk of “Crab”. As opposed to intellectual, veiled “gazing”, “gawking” is honest, engaged staring. “To gawk” is as active with moral sense as passive with surprise and humility. A young poet with talent “gawks” at the world, and it is this type of looking which helps us characterize the poet and his world, as well as the ambivalence, even agon, of achieving a poetic vision. In the portrait of the poet as a young man, “Notes for His Big Novel”, the “main character’s fate”

is to saw off his days
in one of two ways: last match, unstruck,
dead-frozen, and whey-faced or racing
to outrun the tidal bore of himself
and always, always only
slightly outpaced.

“To be where [you are]”, to recall Transtromer’s lines, is, as I mentioned not easy; but it is to be “where creation works on itself”, and in “Notes” - as in “Head Injury Card” - Babstock does not flinch from the implications of that truism of knowing who he is - contradictory, in crisis - and how he is worked on; he does not flinch from working on himself. At the end of “Mainland Boy in Eastport”, a poem about the difficulties of reconciling urban and rural views of the world, the mainland boy jigs a cod which has “the awful, ageless grin / of a bottom-dweller in a dinosaur book”. Then,

At dinner,
squeaking his chair across lino,
a mainland boy fidgets while grace
is mumbled through, he’s sneering
at the choral amen, at these supplicants,
their decorum, having seen what he’d
raised from the bottom.

The sneer implies judgment and superiority; yet that phrase “mainland boy” is pejorative (when used by an islander). Babstock doesn’t skirt the issue of his divided heritage and his own ambivalence. That is, as fully realized, proud, fierce, determined as the poetic voice in “Mean is, it is equally humble; it is a position won from an unpretentious engagement with the world. Thus these images - almost Heaneyesque - of a gawking boy or adolescent in many poems, and thus, too, the testaments of apprenticeship in poems like “The Gate” and “Finishing”.

The unique content and perspective of Mean is a result of a socio-cultural context which I find familiar, and which is a welcome relative novelty in Canadian poetry (David O’Meara shares some similar territory here, as does Purdy, to invoke past masters): the perspective of an educated, working class poet whose sense of place or home includes both country and city. (The poetry also deals honestly with the inevitable violence of male adolescence). The at times near schizophrenia of this experience, as in “Mainland Boy”, is, I suspect, more common than is known or represented in Canadian literature. But to use pathological metaphors exaggerates the tension; one could also easily make the case that Babstock manages a more transcendent view, or allows potential transcendence of the dichotomy, a perspective which implies a larger vision of one at home everywhere and nowhere, since ultimately a poet’s home is language and the structures he or she creates there. 

All of this, though, is really an effect of concentrating on the immediate world - whatever it is - and the linguistic struggle to not just represent but recreate that world: to make it ‘mean’. Thus the significance of the title Mean: as an adjective it evokes the self-consciousness of the poet - an attention to one’s own vision and destiny, which others may find cold-hearted and selfish -, as well as the notion of balance, average, efficacy. The adjective also signifies poor, dispossessed, humble (ironically). Finally “mean” is the verb, to intend. Ken Babstock means well for poetry.

Geoffrey Cook is one of The Danforth Review's poetry editors.







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