canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Nothing Fell Today But Rain
by Evan Jones
Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2003

A Further Exile
by Tom Henihan
Ekstasis Editions, 2002

This Flesh These Words
by Sharon H. Nelson
Ekstasis Editions, 2002

Reviewed by Zach Wells

Nothing Fell Today But Rain is a difficult book to get through. Tedious, in fact, is the word for it. These poems are high on concept, but shy on execution. They are cluttered with allusive bric-a-brac, giving the book a pretentious air of postmodern preciousness, which was never a good thing, and is now not even in fashion. Evan Jonesí references showcase his erudition, but do little for the poems themselves, which do not traffic in ideas so much as present the poet/speaker as an avid consumer and regurgitator of half-digested thought. With few exceptions, they lack emotional intensity, intellectual alacrity, humour and verbal audacity, and are therefore unlikely to satisfy the tastes of many readers outside of Jonesí circle of acquaintance.

It is clear that Jonesí ambitions are surrealistóbut the poems are more often about surrealism than surreal themselves. He mucks about with imagery and syntax, but in a very self-conscious manner, so that the poemsí oddities are rarely startling. Often, he abjures the attempt to write a poem in favour of the obsessively mindless enumeration of random objects. One poem shamelessly announces itself as an "Inventory" and goes on for three pages like so: "Many symbolic drawings of fish/Mark Rothkoís Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red) 1949/Marble-shoed Tiresias"; another is a sort of mock dictionary and another a mock guide book. If the intent of these pieces is to numb, the author succeeds admirably.

The one glimmer in the ashbox is Jonesí translations of Greek poet Andrťas Embiricos. Unfortunately, there are but seven of these arresting poems presented here. A full-length collection of such translations would make a significant contribution to both Greek and Canadian poetry.

My suspicion, upon reading A Further Exile, is that Tom Henihan is not a person, but the name of a computer programme set to generate random metaphors. Henihanís typical method, in other words, is to heap metaphor upon metaphor, with little to no connective tissue joining them. He draws his tropes almost exclusively from a set of elemental stocks-in-trade (light, fire, water, stone, earth, etc.), presented in a manner that is repetitive and commonplace to the point of bathos. Because of the aforementioned lack of connective tissue, he is often unable to keep his metaphors separate, and they melt into each other like so: "The yellow wax of her memory/exhales a flame/that holds a blue sabre."("Asylum")

Occasionally, Henihan turns a nifty phrase, as when he speaks of the "feral hand of the river," ("Absence") but these isolated nuggets of ore are sunk so deep in the impenetrable bedrock of his verse that theyíre not worth digging for. Henihan does have a certain facility for verse technique, particularly in the use of rhythm, assonance and occasional rhyme. These poems might be convincing to a reader devoid of critical and analytical perception, as they boom along in the bardic voice of a poor manís Yeats. However, this skill, in combination with the banality of his modifiers and the clumsiness of his metaphorical method, succeeds in being only vaguely tragic.

One poem, "The Night," is much better than the standard fare of indistinguishable sameness, as it is far tighter in its structure and more original in its presentation of the standard Henihanian archetypes. It is nonetheless plagued by such unfortunate constructions as "a solemn orchard of water and flesh," which negate the poemís strengths.

On the editorial side, this book contains an atrocious number of typos and ungrammatical solecisms.

Sharon H. Nelsonís This Flesh These Words is not so much poetry as it is armchair philosophy, social commentary, comparative religion and feminist theory presented in lines that donít make it to the right margin of the page. Nelsonís verse is at best arrhythmic doggerel, and at worst (far more often the case) didactic prose chopped into short lines:

Now we are told
to play safe
and that there is no such thing
as completely safe sex
;
condoms break or overflow
latex dams slip or split; we know,
as everyone has always known:
life entails risk,
and loving life
entails risk;
playing it completely safe,
separate and celibate,
courts death:
life is not lived
in chronic, acute
alienation.

(from "The Best Minds of My Generation")

Nelson samples from a wide array of secondary sources. The italicized lines in the sample above, for instance, she tells us "are a composite of some of the common content of AIDS prevention/education materials printed and broadcast during the early 1990s." (Note to "The Best Minds of My Generation) Common is the word alright. Other sources she quotes include the Bible, both OT and NT (Revised Standard Version, another proof of her deaf ear); texts on Buddhism, and book reviews, to name a few. She appends eight pages of her own pedantic notes to seventy pages of already pedantic text.

This book is the work of a well-meaning liberal with all the correct ideas and an artistic soul. It bears no resemblance, however, to poetry.

Zach Wells lives in Halifax. His first full-length collection, Unsettled, will be published by Insomniac Press in the fall of 2004.

 

 

 

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TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

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