canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Collected Poems
by Eldon Grier
Ekstasis Editions, 2001

Reviewed  by G. Wesley Purdy

Eldon Grier began his professional life as a commercial artist.  In 1945, he traveled to Mexico to study under Diego Rivera.  Some ten years later (at 38 years of age) he published the first of nine books of poetry, in Majorca, Spain.  Amongst it all he managed to travel extensively and to meet interesting people.

It is no shame to say that the success of his poetry relies heavily upon our interest in those people and places.  The past 45 years have been difficult ones in which to be a poet.  Mr. Grier is not a poet of astonishing talents and so many who did seem to have such talents came to so little.  That he should use his interesting biography to effect was a wise choice and is a delight for the reader who comes to the Collected Poems.

There is the additional benefit that it saves the volume from being provincial.  Many of the poems are set in Canada and the Pacific Northwest.  While they are quite appropriately of special interest to readers associated with the areas, few poets are able to bring the foreign eye to their own backyard which is necessary in order to give it wider implications.   With a few exceptions, this poet falls within the majority in this respect.  The Canadian venues are a pleasure in themselves but the poems which contain them generally are not among his better.

Having no considerable training from a university writing program, Mr. Grier has retained the underrated habit of imitating what he likes in the work of others.  Among the finer pieces in this volume ("Neruda", p. 47) is shamelessly derivative of Neruda.  In a line like

a tireless worker with his red sweatband of words

he gets at the Chilean's definitive, deceptively simple choice of image.  Elsewhere he imitates Marianne Moore ("Marriane Moore", p. 188), e. e. cummings ("GUNLOVEGUNLOVE", p. 231), Charles Olson (the third section of "Flying with Claude", p. 247) and even the poster-art lettering of the artist Pierre Bonnard ("Bonnard and CJzanne", p. 240).

Imitation has been an unpopular trait in a poet for some time.  It seems probable that he has carried it over from his life as a painter, copying paintings still being the accepted way to acquire skills when he was a student.  The Collected Poems argue that he has co-opted (and eventually personalized) a number of the methods of these poets to the considerable advantage of his subsequent poems.  Occasionally, the imitation itself has turned out to be an excellent poem in its own right.

Not only does the author of these poems have the advantage of being a painter as well, he has the immeasurable advantage of being multilingual.  The effects are muted but occasionally lead to constructions which are just a little more expressive, precise.

That Mr. Grier was born in 1917 is also to his benefit.  The exciting new poets he eagerly read during his formative years were clearly modernists.  Something of the modernist style lingers with him and is moderately sprinkled throughout otherwise contemporary (confessional/anecdotal) pieces.  Historical names (though they seldom go back beyond Cezanne) and European venues grace the earlier work in particular.  The occasional line is in French or Spanish.  These traits have been all but totally banished from contemporary poetry and it is refreshing to meet with them again - more refreshing, still, to find them employed so unselfconsciously.

The taint of modernism (or perhaps the birth date, or both) may also be the source of his most consistent strength.  While he has succumbed to the omnipresent confessional "I," it is a much less intrusive I than in the majority of contemporary poems.  It is an I that does not seek to draw attention to itself.  As a rule, it is a point of departure - a statement of coordinates in space, of perspective.  By this alone he has managed to avoid much of the unfortunate baggage so closely associated with confessional poetry.

This is a poet, then, with a wide range of resources at hand and a solid sensibility.  At times during his career he has also been a poet who has gone beyond the sum of his parts.  Even the happy convergence of his advantages can not explain some dozen poems, or sections of poems, which are perfect in their way - can not always explain the dozens more that are well worth a reader's time.

But he is also a poet who has written many poems that are standard fare.  If there is a subtext to this volume, as a whole, it is the poet's struggle with the numerous re-evaluations of poetry, since the fifties, which too often arrived at faddishness and cul-de-sacs, and his somehow having come out the other side surprisingly intact.  The peer pressure is immense.  Along the way numerous turns are taken.  He can not honestly do otherwise: he is not meant to be an innovator, only curious.  The effects are generally not positive and only a stubborn good sense saves him from the worst.

The landscape through which he travels, in the process, is littered with the wrecks of more talented poets.  He, on the other hand, manages to succeed beyond what might have been expected.   Even where he is trapped within the conventions of his time, he often breaks out by virtue of a single striking image that redeems a poem.

In his long poem, "An Ecstasy" (p. 97), for one example, there is ironically little ecstasy in evidence.  The components of that trait have been decidedly declassJ for decades now and the poet is careful not to challenge expectations to such an extent.  As a result, his strong first section, with its look

at the gentle rivers flowing like smoke,
at the women, young and erect,
at the marvellous invitation
of their breasts.

is tasked with carrying the suggestion through most of 18 pages and 23 sections.   Again, in section 22, there is the thoughtful image of the city adding rings of development each year like a tree - in 23, the image of a volume of Apollinaire resting on the poet's chest,

a transfusion of fine little letters
dripping slantwise into my side.

In between, (with the notable exception of section 12,) the reader traverses considerable stretches of poetry that suggest prevailing conventions make this kind of poem all but impossible.

The same unexpected infusion of a striking isolated image lifts even the more successful poems above themselves.  In "Eskimo Sculpture" (p. 77), Grier asks:

What have you to fear but truth,
The ugly iron boat which each year
Left invisible lances like the sun's rays.
(The snow torn with sudden blood -
Your blood this time.)

Suddenly the sculptor is transformed into a great sea-creature pursued by the truth like a boat filled with Eskimo hunters.  Throughout, in poems of varying success, the poet gives us his own deceptively simple imagery of flowers that "jostle in the yard," factories with "their muscle of smoke," his own "tile cool eye," "the sad cat cleaning of the waves," as well.

In those poems in which the poet rises above himself - those dozen or so poems such as "Neruda" (p. 47), "Summer Night" (p. 52), the wonderful fourth section of "Poems from San Miguel" (p. 130) and "Walk" (p. 155) - the images come one after the other.  They no longer flare like little supernovas in a general sky that may be more or less interesting in its own regard.  This is no simple matter of concatenating isolated images.  The poems are all of a piece.  They are the moments when something at the far-reaches of the explicable happened - the end result of a long attentiveness that may or may not arrive at such poems.

The volume itself is divided into sections.  In the final section, the reader discovers one tradition of the craft which has successfully crossed over into each successive stile nuovo: the aging poet, now laden with honors and respect, is read as a comfortable old friend - and writes as one.  The reader is reminded of the subtext: these are the final poems of Eldon Grier's journey through a transient age.  He has largely gone where poetry has gone.  These poems have shed nearly all traces of modernism.  They are almost entirely in the prevailing mode.  Yet, here he once again shows flashes of the striking imagery, suspended in an otherwise unremarkable poem, "Flying with Claude" (p.247), making of it something outside the ordinary.

The Collected Poems of Eldon Grier is one of those honors.  It is the sign of his success and closes the story of his passage.  It is published "with the assistance of a grant from the Canada Council and the Cultural Services Branch of British Columbia," and goes without end papers, nonetheless, in order to save printing costs.  A good many poets whose publishers have lavished considerable advertising revenues and provided end papers for their books have not written nearly so well.  It is all part of the story.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy’s work in poetry, prose and translation, has appeared in many journals including Poetry International, Grand Street and Slant.







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