canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


by Stephanie Bolster
McClelland & Stewart, 2002

by Stephen Brockwell, 
ECW Press, 2001

Reviewed by rob mclennan

Between here and my birth hospital a pavilion

(p 52, "Dream with Antique Ash")

The most impressive of her three poetry collections, Stephanie Bolsterís Pavilion continues her interest in painting, but less as a passive glance at the art. Impressive not just for the pieces, but how the book as a whole is built, Bolster writes a violence and a real sadness that infuses this new work, although still at a short distance. In opening the collection, she references the suburbs where she grew up, Vancouverís Burnaby, establishing the view:

This is the window I grew up inside.
This is the Japanese maple that grew beside it
and still does, obscuring the view. It is
the view.

(p 3, "Window")

Written in seven sections, and titled around the third, "The Japanese Pavilion," written of one of the pavilions built for Vancouverís Expo Ď86, a city known for its large Asian communities, Bolster moves closer toward a sparseness without the feeling of restraint. In the title sequence, she writes a haiku-like sparseness in small stanzas, spaced out upon the page:

Says a Sanrio company rep: "Without the mouth,
it is easier for the person to project
their feelings onto the character.
The person can be happy or sad
together with Hello Kitty."

(p 23, "The Japanese Pavilion")

or in what feels the most "Japanese" of the sequence, with the question at the end of this stanza:

Each Expo set out the future
we never had. Mountains
in the distance. In Osaka and Vancouver, overcast. What if the sky had opened?

(p 27)

There are a number of things going on in this new work that feels different from what she has done before, allowing more of her emotional self through beside the details, and even chiding herself slightly - "All this writing about me, itís most / unseemly." (p 28, "The Japanese Pavilion"). She even lets in some jouvenalia, the oddly charming bit,

First poem, grade two, haiku:
My mini garden
of crocuses and snowdrops.
Tiny though lovely.

(p 21)

Pavilion builds upon some of the structural aspects of her two previous collections - White Stone: The Alice Poems (1998, winner of that yearís Governor Generalís Award for poetry) and Two Bowls of Milk (1999) - with poems on artwork, dreams and her childhood home. In the "Antique Glass" sections, she writes titles that allude to her GG winning debut - "Dream with Antique Vase" (p 15), "Dream with Broken Glass" (p 16), or "Dream with Camera, Missing" (p 17) - writing ghost-like images of wandering through characters and places of her childhood. Of the seven sections, every second is "Antique Glass," interleafed between the action, almost as though we are to read Bolsterís "Dream" poems as Greek Chorus - to further the action while outside of it. As well, each dream has no conclusion, simply fading away, with internal punctuation for each stanza but left open at the end.

Take, also, a similar reference to home from Two Bowls of Milk, as she reworks similar ground: "This dome opened / the year of my birth. / My whole life stands / on this wooden bridge, arched / over water." (p 6, "Life and Death in the Conservatory").

Of the artwork pieces in Pavilion, the last section, "Girl", writes both of the late Anya Brebner, daughter of the Ottawa poet Diana, who was struck and killed by lightning almost two months to the day after Diana succumbed to cancer in 2001 (the book is dedicated to both of them), and the painting "Girl With a Pearl Earring" by Johanes Vermeer, c. 1665, a poetic topic that Bolster and Diana Brebner shared -.

A girl, a real girl,
died. Lightning
hit her. Her mother dead
not two months. And so,
art? Tell me something.

(p 3, "Girl")

Through Vermeer and Anya, the sequence reads as an homage to both Brebners, as well as to Diana Brebnerís own writing, specifically the poem sequence "Head of a Girl" (also named after and written from a painting from Vermeer) from her own second collection, The Golden Lotus (Netherlandic Press, 1993):

There is still life, after death, a way
of carrying on. Dear Lord, the life we had

together cannot be taken from us.

(p 55)

Considering the closeness between Bolster and the elder Brebner (Diana worked with her on White Stone, and afterward as well), it might account for some of the emotional quality coming through, as well as Bolsterís own maturing as a writer, which adds to only increase the dimensions of an already strong sense of craft. In many ways, her winning the Governor Generalís Award so "early" has seemed a freedom, as she has dealt with the increase in attention, accolades and attacks better than one would imagine.

In a bid to perhaps diffuse it, she even acknowledges her own distance, as shown in another section of "The Japanese Pavilion":

Of course I made up

most of these initials.
See how carefully I choose
what to see? Arrange mosses into a garden or leave them and call it a wild one.

(p 35)

Bolster writes about the things that donít easily leave you, and of an early view that colours future perceptions. There seems more of a freedom in these pieces than those of her first two collections, emotionally and sensually, with the exception of her chapbook Three Bloody Words (above/ground press, 1996), which until now, had remained my favorite of her works. Itís as though over the last few years, she has allowed more of herself to come through, as shown in the sensuality of the poem "Lamp" from Shadowy Technicians: New Ottawa Poets (2000, Broken Jaw Press):

Just sitting there,
it might be a bulbous sculpture
with someoneís hat left on it.
Bigger than a vase, smaller
than a bookcase. When I told you

it was not yet dark enough, where
was my other hand?
Why else their curves?
Their magnificent shadows.

(p 14)

After thirteen years between collections of poetry, Ottawa resident Stephen Brockwell has moved beyond the eastern Ontario rural landscape of his first, The Wire In Fences (1988, Balmuir: Toronto) to more introspective poems, staring up at the sky instead of at the ground. In Cometology, Brockwell works the idea of comets as "harbingers of doom," as even the Incas believed, or Montezuma, who saw one fly by in 1613, just before the arrival of Cortez, the killer.

A boy stands in the rain forest
looking through a hole in the canopy
at Betelgeuse: the shoulder of the hero.

He stares at the star. His feet
grip the forest floor.

(p 1, "Betelgeuse")

While still writing of the rural, Brockwellís gaze goes further, providing thick sculpture to events, even as the charolais bull "collides with a passing truck, / falls slowly, head / rolling. Steam rises from the crushed / red hood and radiator of the truck. / People gather, shocked by oil pools in the blood." (p 26, "A Bull At The Cattle Show"). Running through the collection like a thread, is the "Episodes" series, found in episodic bursts to correspond with years when a comet would have appeared throughout history, each with a small runic-style line drawing of a comet, writing between intent and consequence in subsequent stanzas, as in the poem "1986":

The steel, burning cabin
of the shuttle Challenger
explodes into the Atlantic.
The faint tail of Halley disappoints
a face behind binoculars.

Opening the door to her daughterís
bedroom, Mrs. Allison finds
two moving naked bodies,
closes the door, never
speaks of it.

(p 5)

Not all of the poems are disasterous, as in the poem "1066", which references both the Bayeux tapestry, and the battle of Hastings, but ends:

After a bitter winter,
a farmerís son
ploughs from the muddy furrows
his fatherís gold cross
thought stolen the previous year.

(p 15)

Brockwellís poems are thick and even curt, and his vision best seen in the poem "Classical Observations", that starts with the question, "What shape of your tail / should we most fear?" and ends with "These are the tools of your study: / astrolabe, gnomon, / telescope, / torquetum, / baculus, / eye." (p 13). One of the few Canadian poets to work scientific principles into poetry (wildly different than, say, the work of Christopher Dewdney), merged with an interest in "classical relation," the collection moves from history and rural geography, to astrology and science. Toward the end of the collection, in the section "Constructive Geometry," Brockwell writes poems on geometric shapes, such as "Tetrahedron" (p 65), "Cube" (p 67), "Monkey Saddle" (p 71), and "Klein Bottle" (p 81). Writing poems of science and explanation, even if to say how things canít be, Brockwell situates himself in the poetry of theoretical sciences, as opposed simply to the prosody of fact, as in the title poem to the section:

You cannot build with your hands
all possible shapes
you can imagine.
You cannot imagine
all possible shapes.
Your hands are the limbs
of an age

(p 62, "Constructive Geometry")

rob mclennan is an Ottawa-based poet. TDR interviewed him a long, long time ago ... in a galaxy far, far away.







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