canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Disturbances of Progress
by Lise Downe
Coach House Books, 2002

Reviewed by Laurie Fuhr

Apologies to anyone who could place Lise Downe precisely in literary history, cite her influences and use zounds of impressive critical jargon. I can’t. But I know what I like, and I think ya’ll ought to know about this book.

Now, I like to think of myself as open-minded about a lot of things, poetry included. If I had to pick a favorite kind of poetry, however, it would probably be a poetry of ideas that rewards both poet and your average (or at least, non-literary) Joe, since that’s what I’m trying to do with my own work. The reading material poets gravitate to most tends to be written by those whose vision is in some way similar to their own. Agree?

Disturbances of Progress doesn’t fit any of my previously-established literary bills, and might not fit too many of yours. But it’s so fresh, so well done, that it dodges prejudice and underlines, with a shiv to the jugular, the importance of keeping an open mind. Lise Downe aims for the throats of Canada’s poets, and even draws a little blood.

Random spillage of poet’s blood:

No single irregularity prepared us.
Simply the street, its men of letters bestowing
convivial and constant attention upon the most
bewildered of two substances.

from Opportunity Knocks

Tremble, escared! Those Canadian poets who have read her feel the sharp pressure, too. Happyland author Kevin Connolly and Eunoia’s Christian Bok, fearing for their successful lives, sacrificed words for back-cover blurbs to appease her. A little nervous myself, what with hearing the duct-tape-muffled moans of pain and pleasure from poets in basements and closets somewhere nearby, I gave the book a more than once-over – albeit under duress. I’m talking about the mortal fear of missing something exciting and important, the same one that keeps kids up spying on grown-up parties bound to break out as soon as we sleep.

Random eavesdrop from parents partying:

Habit chancing those slim days
playing the company off by heart
then forgetting what it was for hours
- really grammatically -
as if to say, ‘Not really listening’.
Presuming one ought to have an accent
or something.

(Some ecstatic impulse that leaps in spite
of them there there my child.)

from Necessary Surface

That odd sense of duty or obligation gave me the chance to escape the everyday and discover how insidiously Downe’s quirky but serious, fragmented, half-sensical and succinct (in other words, completely original and unique) poems grow on me every time I pick up the book. Like going directly from one lover to the next, it’s a glorious and harrowing escape from one set of bonds into another: from a comfortable known to a scintillating unknown. Okay, enough already with the bondage refs, though on the page between dedication and table of contents it says, "From this wrought sense we do escape." What I mean is, being a Coach House book, it’s expected to be somewhat unexpected – but this could be a still more unexpected form of unexpectia. Escapes from wrought senses doesn’t happen daily.

Random example clarifying unexpectia:

A day of stained glass and spellbound
washed and graduated
the way without knowing
a cruel tenderness.

When    in presence of mind
a change introduces itself
with elegance and frequently impractical demands
to simply visualize the indefinite moment
(not one we’d grown accustomed to)
provides a graceful bow
uncurling and membrane.

from Sweetheart of Commotion

I love how, after some exercise with these poems, my brain begins to automatically fill in blanks and open ends. So sometimes, I think I know exactly what she’s saying; but even if I don’t, the solutions my mind comes up with spontaneously produce the sensation of discovery-moments I get when I’m writing a poem.

Random discovery-moment sensation producer:

Many hours crave a slender paddle
flocking distinctions on either side of
a glass plane.
We ourselves a friction that emulates
the distance between days.

To stretch equatorial this long age.
Tide pool.
Neat oval of stones.

from But Oh To Ride Her Marvellous Exception

Hark, all you casual readers! Do glance at Disturbances of Progress if you must, but don’t be frightened away from all poetry if you can’t figure out what’s going on. Danger lurks for you herewith! Not that you’d be reading this review anyway, right? I maintain a tragic brand of hope.

For the rest of you, revel in the sweet frustration. Buy this book, get your paws on it now, before it’s too late! Get ready, cause Lise Downe is coming for you. She’s the popcorn jumping in dark corners when you’ve stayed up too late, the weird tired-eye shapes that joggle menacingly in shadows.

Random dark corner-jumping popcorn:

When light accompanies elsewhere
steady blackout and reverence
go with them
like an influx.

from These Far-Off Days

Protect yourself! Read this book more than once so you can experience the joy and guess at the purpose of eclectic eccentrica in Lise Downe’s thought-language. Getting unsexy, amateur-scientific for a moment, reading these poems is like peeking through that most private of barriers – between your mind and another person’s – while thoughts pass between the amygdala (emotional memory storage, wordless, the first spot experiences go) and the hippocampus (languaged memory storage). In other terms, you’re there at the place and time thoughts begin to find words, catching them In Progress. You’re experiencing, along with the author, lovely disturbances of the usual, apparently calm stasis of body and brain. Or, as Downe puts it, "Telegrams from the interior materialize without warning."

Allow me to end this pre(long e)sentation with a not-so-random sample verse. It seems a good defense for the poetry Lise Downe writes, pointing out a flaw in reasoning by others who try and fail to interpret cranial ‘clouds’ with linear language:

Hard to estimate the depths to which
a cluster of verses might sink, superimposing
novelty and action on what appear to be
clouds of dust on a once-distinct horizon.

from Angle of Approach

Laurie Fuhr has poems in the anthologies Shadowy Technicians: New Ottawa Poets (Broken Jaw 2000) and evergreen: six new poets (Black Moss 2002). She edits Blue Moon (email







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