canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Guys named Bill
by Leslie Greentree
Frontenac House: Quartet 2002 Series

Science Fiction Saint
by Nancy Jo Cullen
Frontenac House: Quartet 2002 Series

Before a Blue Sky Moon
by Weyman Chan
Frontenac House: Quartet 2002 Series

Tom Three Persons
by Yvonne Trainer
Frontenac House: Quartet 2002 Series

Reviewed by Richard Stevenson

Back again with three new Alberta poets and one veteran we haven't heard from for some time, Frontenac House has just issued its second quartet. (Quartet 2001, if you missed it, followed the same format, issuing new books by newcomers Rosalee Van Stelton, Catherine Moss, Arran Fisher, and a second book by Calgary poet Bob Stallworthy .) Once again, the volumes are slender but well-edited and handsomely produced and designed by EPIX Design Inc. Three boast startling cover illustrations by Sam Weber, while Yvonne Trainer's book, subtitled a Multimedia Poetry Sequence, integrates black and white photos from Glenbow Archives on the cover and throughout the text, along with spot illustrations, map, period poster, and various other design colophons that augment the text.

As with the last quartet, as well, the poets represent a broad range of aesthetics and thematic preoccupations.

As the title, Guys named Bill, implies, Leslie Greentree employs a vernacular line and anecdotal realist aesthetic with a droll delivery, devastating understatement, quiet wit and irony. Her poems aren't flashy and largely eschew metaphor and other tropes and rhetorical schemes. For that reason, the reader needs to slow down and pay close attention to what is being said in the lacunae between statements. The effect is largely cumulative: poem leads matter-of-factly to poem, but the whole gives us a sum greater than the parts.

The subject matter, again, as the title implies, is quotidian experience: everyday occurrences and events, rites of passage that form our character and demark and contain important relationships. The book traces the narrator's journey from childhood to adulthood, through a marriage and beyond. The various characters named Bill become a recurrent thread or droll motif that runs throughout the book; they appear like so many anti-Kens or Prince Charmings at meaningful moments in the narrator's life, and represent various way stations along a path of emotional and spiritual growth.

Here's a poem that is fairly typical and short enough to quote in full. The symbolism arrives nicely out of casual observation, and while definitely not flashy or obtrusive, serves to raise the poem beyond mere anecdote:

after you left

you should have washed your hands
before you left me
how will you explain the scent of
my naked need
on your fingers
or the wine on your breath
I washed nothing XXX went outside
placed a cigarette carefully in my lips
lit it XXX drew it deep into me
looking at the evergreens
seeing for the first time the pale
new fringe of mint green growth
edging the dull dark needles

Lower case letters even in the title, as if to underscore the unobtrusive, quiet, matter-of- fact tone and approach, but the subtle assonance and half rhymes of left/scent/breath/went balance against the sharper sounds of deep/evergreens/seeing/green needles as if to underline the heightened senses of the speaker nicely. The craft is there; the voice is sure. A nice debut collection, even if the fireworks are muted somewhat, and it repays several readings.

Science Fiction Saint by Nancy Jo Cullen is an entirely different kettle of fish. Aesthetically, it draws from both the oral performance poetry tradition and imagist- objectivist tradition as practiced by Williams, Creeley, Olson et al in equal measure. The poet acknowledges the able assistance of Erin Moure, Claire Harris, and Fred Wah in the Acknowledgments and one can detect elements of Ms. Harris's longer line, and open form strophes, and Ms Moure's and Mr. Wah's proprioceptive approach to language as well, though the voice here is Cullen's own, and she is very much in control of the kind of poem she has chosen to write.

There is a good deal of formal variety as well prose poems, open form lyrics, experimental use of appropriated non-fiction forms such as Likert rating scales, bulleted sub-paragraph lists, and journal entries, as well as revised "takes," language play with parentheses, lexical and syntactical ambiguity and whatnot. In other words, this poet is much more conscious of the materiality of language per se and more deliberately experimental in seeing how she can push the vernacular envelope.

Having said that, her work is far closer to the mainstream than the title might suggest and never strays too far from outright declamation or anecdote/description. Again, she largely eschews metaphor in favour of metonymy and irony and wit. She also shares Ms. Greentree's preference for brash declamation in street vernacular, making a virtue of her decidedly anti-poetic diction:

boys dream of some greatness

they burp on command and drive their cars fast
when you put on your seat belt they say why
every night your mom sits in her chair waiting for you to
come home

girls dream of some boy

( "Girl Dreams," p. 14 )

There are five sections here: four of occasional lyric/ narrative pieces and one open form long poem sequence, "when we."

The poet has a real gift for juxtaposition, setting different language registers against one another, punning, and generally torquing up the language of the quotidian in interesting and unexpected ways, often setting abstract analytical discourse against close focus imagist passages or recognizable cants and literary pastiche passages from, say, nineteenth century Grimm's fairy tales or crude scatological language. The leaps are adept, exciting, and often amusing, even, occasionally, breath-taking:

you should tell the baby
reality only becomes real when measured
thus, who holds the ruler is the equation

instead you tell him
what does the doggy say
woof woof woof

("better to eat you up," p. 62 )

*

I had a little hen, the prettiest ever seen

surprising you say how alike the fantasies you & a lesbian have

( "entrance antiphon," from when we, p. 70 )

*
love is a many splintered thing

another mom creamy as a statue of the holy one

( "hyperdulia," from when we, p. 72 )

The subject matter, again, is rites of passage, relationships, sexuality, but the language is anything but pedestrian, and the echoes of post-modern precursors such as Gertrude Stein and her immediate mentors aren't worn on the sleeve, but deeply earned and woven well into the fabric of Ms. Cullen's poetic. The language hijinks never get in the way of accessibility, nor do they pre-empt the message. This collection is a very welcome debut.

Weyman Chan's Before a Blue Sky Moon is a lyric/narrative work firmly rooted in both the documentary realist and romantic lyric traditions. It is a sequence of three long poems that focus on a Chinese upbringing in Calgary. Moving through childhood reminiscence, family history, losses and redemptions physical, emotional, spiritual the author examines the immigrant experience of his own family, and all the meanings of erotic and familial love, from finding one's place in the bosom of family, to becoming a lover, husband, and father oneself.

Sumptuous is the first word of description that comes to mind in describing the aesthetic here. Indeed, I spent more time reading this collection than the first two under review; that is to say, I found I couldn't read it in one sitting; I needed to pause and reflect on the richness of the language and the narrative content, rather like one does in reading a good literary novel. The text is comprised of a mix of open and closed lyric and narrative passages, sequential lyrics, and prose poem/anecdotes that are fairly dense in themselves, but also add up to a sum greater than the parts.

The epigraph here provides a useful touchstone:

Why all this grief and turning pale?
XXXDon't look at me.
Like any face reflecting other light,
XXXXXXthe moon is a source of pain.

-- Rumi

The moon, night imagery, the landscape imagery generally function as a series of romantic motifs undergirding the narrative. In addition, the poet draws from the classic tradition of both Far eastern imagist poetry and western romanticism, bringing a fresh eye and fresh metaphors to the page:

Plain and simple, I wanted you.
Wanted your eyes burning mountainsides,
hanging sunsets that stop our flat earth
from pouring over the edge.

I made a wish
Rising up on dragonbacked karsts
XXXrumoured by joss smoke
XXXXXXXwritten on air

( from "I give you back these animals," p. 12 )

Much of the ground covered will be familiar to readers of Canadian immigrant literature: the poet's early experiences with racism, the Canadian child caught between the heritage of his parents and the culture of the everyday urban world of the vertical Canadian culture he inhabits, the importance of ancestors, studied remembrance, ritual observances, the delights of the oriental palate and rituals surrounding food preparation and dining, etc. The autobiographical elements, however, are fresh, and the speaker's ambiguity in dealing with a mother's death, estrangement from the father, family breakup, and keeping the children and family together through the bleak passages of life in an orphanage are deeply poignant and moving.

Occasionally, I found the pronouns problematic, and would have been happier if the poet had used the universal "she" a little less liberally when slipping from the mother to the beloved and back again, though I recognize the speaker's desire to conflate the emotions and emotional problems of attending to both relationships here. Sometimes the antecedent noun would have been preferable. Generally though the shifting tableaux and accretive narrative built up from intense memory fragments are well handled and convincing.

Weyman Chan can certainly hold his own against his Chinese Canadian forebears and brings an interesting perspective to that growing body of literature as well. I don't know how old he is ( Biographical information is sketchy and no birth date is listed on the copyright page ), but, while his work has appeared in important anthologies and journals for the past fifteen years or so, I suspect he's still a young man and brings a young Canadian born man's perspective to an already rich tradition. This is an excellent first book.

Finally, we come to Yvonne Trainer's much-anticipated collection, Tom Three Persons. I say much-anticipated because it has been some years since I had the pleasure of hearing this work in performance here in Lethbridge. A lot of water under a lot of bridges, no doubt. The poet has been to Texas and back, has enrolled in a PhD English program in Winnipeg, which she is now completing, and has spent a few years engaged in labour- intensive academic pursuits and teaching.

Those familiar with Ms. Trainer's anecdotal realist style of homespun narrative, and her incomparable delivery ( She memorizes and performs her work rather than reading it ), will be pleased she has lost none of her chops and has extended her reach as well.

The subtitle, a Multimedia Poetry Sequence, is a bit of a reach, given that the term multimedia refers to author software, HTML, Java applets, Flash, and any number of computer-generated visual and text presentations these days, and not simply to a combination of text and visual elements, but that caveat aside, the archival photos, found correspondence, journalistic entries, xerography, map, song lyric, text decoration, and imagist and narrative/lyric elements work well together here. No, the poem is better described as a long poem sequence in the tradition of The Collected Works of Billy The Kid, Bloody Jack, and The T.E. Lawrence Poems; that is to say, an extended lyric/narrative sequence featuring one character in which the visual/ archival elements set a variety of voices and mythic elements against the personal biography of a legendary character.

Ms. Trainer's subject is the famous Blood rodeo star from the Standoff reserve who rode in the first Calgary Stampede of 1912. Tom Three Persons is celebrated not only for his feats of horsemanship, as the foreword makes clear, but also for his completion of grade 12, and his rise from extreme poverty to successful rancher who owned 200 head of cattle and 50 race horses by the time of his death. A larger-than-life figure, Tom remembers his three wives, recalls his two sons, and reflects upon his own emerging mythos.

The approach here is less post-modern and more straightforward than the metonymic collages of Michael Ondaatje's Billy or Dennis Cooley's Bloody Jack; at the same time, the archival photos and found text elements function in much the same multiply ironic ways they do in those two volumes. They don't simply illustrate, but they "comment" on the developing mythos as well.

Indeed, the text here is deceptively simple: a series of monologues, anecdotes, and observational lyrics that build a character and speak eloquently of a bygone era and heroic life. As a performance piece, this is a highly successful work; as a book, it may seem, at first, a little thin. But then librettos for operatic performances may seem thin taken out of context as well, and the reader need only declaim the lines or have someone who can read dramatically read the poem to him or her aloud to see Ms. Trainer has produced something quite singular here. More is the pity the book didn't come with a disc of Ms. Trainer reading her poem.

But let's look closer at Ms. Trainer's technique. The book begins with a haunting lyric fragment that is picked up like a bookend at the end of the narrative. The tone is plaintive:

Where are you going in your feathers and your leathers, Tom?
Where are you going in your feathers and your leathers?
And why so sad, Tom? Why so sad?

The effect is like that of a simple blues stanza; it sets the tone for the whole collection. We then get an image of a black piece of negative with a dissolving image of a man walking reduced to an outline of snowy flecks ( reminiscent of Ondaatje's empty box ), and Tom speaks in his own voice, the opening monologue:

My name is Tom Three Persons
I'm no relation to the American
Tom Three Persons
Named because he killed three men
I never killed anyone
Nor robbed a bank

Right away we're thrust into anti-heroic turf: this is not to be yet another legend about a mythic outlaw, but rather the story of a simple man whose life's parabola took him outside the confines of the expected trajectory :

I was named because of three women
mother saw walking past the door
the moment of my birth
Father claimed there were no women
The door was closed
I am not even sure there was a door
I may have been born in a teepee

I haven't the space to do the work justice; suffice to say the three persons motif becomes the three wives and the simple biography comes to speak for more than the man. The language is simple; the narrative uncluttered; the lines spare and clean in the way Bert Almon's or Glen Sorestad's lines are clean: this is prairie realism as it should be, born of the soil. The poetic is as true to its subject as the short grass prairie is to the soil. There is no straining after effects or self-conscious posturing or rhetoric. If you think it's easy to do this, try it! I for one am happy Yvonne Trainer is back with a virtuoso performance.

Quartet 2002 then: more good news that stays news.

Richard Stevenson teaches Canadian Literature, Creative Writing, and Business Communication at Lethbridge Community College. His thirteenth collection, Hot Flashes: Maiduguri Haiku, Senryu, and Tanka, was published last year by Ekstasis Editions.

 

 

 

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