canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Carbon Filter
by Seymour Mayne
Mosaic Press, 1999

Reviewed by Dan Reve

Breathing through the detoxifying
carbon filter of poetry
you move like a latter-day Franciscan
from one station to the next,
your devotions never blocked by guns
or stones but by further words.
Tomorrow you will have the apocalypse
on your mind again, and you will rise
with the Pharaonic sun
and pray with every one of your languages,
each interpreting your face
by way of obedient lips.

This, the title poem of Seymour Mayne's 15th collection of poetry (counting translations), employs the essential moods and metaphors of the book. Poetry clears the air, the poem contends, as does prayer; aesthetic and spiritual uses of language - with the requisite humility and learning - transcend our blunt world of guns.

Poetry is like prayer in that the addressee is absent, though at our best and most imaginative we hope to prove that words make that absence a presence. The legitimacy of the analogy between poetry and prayer is most apparent and convincing in reference to an elegy. And if righteous humility is the essence of imaginative and spiritual revelation, the elegy is the poet's proving ground. It is a place where one is particularly in need of a carbon filter - for the ego: one can have no secrets before the dead (what, indeed, would be the point?); they know better, having seen all of life, so to lie to the dead - to pontificate - is to fail the insights of both the aesthetic and ethical uses of language.

Elegies can make us honest. Yet while there is insight in the analogy, poetry is not prayer, nor are poets necessarily priests (or saints as "Managing the Impossible" implies: "[A] full-fledged member/ of the writer's tribe/... some will say in your profession/ that's the first station/ on the way to sainthood"): indeed, good poetry is often written by the devil in us. One has to be careful with equating the aesthetic and the spiritual, hubris being so likely an effect.

Containing 41 short poems, Mayne's book does a fair filtering job. Besides the several elegies, there are exhortations for friends and mentors and, one feels, disciples - while mourning and honouring dead writers, Mayne champions and chides living ones. Every poem is written in memory of or for someone, and while these subjects include Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, Adele Wiseman and Alden Nowlan, most will not be known except by other friends. In this sense, Carbon Filter is a personal testimonial. Just as Mayne complements his elegies with his exhortations, his prayers with his poems, he balances strictly-metred, rhyming poems with works of free verse (and the subtle experiments employing both forms, as in "Carbon Filter"): the successes here suggesting that the heart of poetry (and prayer) is more than mere formality - more than technique.

The poems are well-written, the language and metaphors clear and precise, but they do not always allow the reader to assent to - to recognize emotionally or intellectually - the poet's claims and implications. While predominantly humble, humourous and wise, at times the tone grates with righteousness, and the poems do not always convince us that either poetry or prayer is an adequate response to the world of compromise, betrayal, disappointment and death. Some pieces are too personal - that is, superficially personal, since one could also say they are not personal enough; they do not risk as much, do not require the individual soul to take on - let alone transcend - the horrific perspective often demanded by a world of guns and that of death.

Perhaps the disjunction in tone is an effect of combining addresses to the living with addresses to the dead: it is as if the humility of the elegies had to be compensated by the stridency of some of the exhortations. The self-denial required of the elegy (for in the face of death - The Absent and Infinite -, what mature person could not feel humbled?), resulted in the self's melodramatic reappearence elsewhere: Mayne's authoritative words of age, wisdom, conviction to his descendents (literal and metaphorical - i.e., poets). A reader may want, at times, more discretion: a voice 'reeking of mortality' - with the perspective of the dead - would probably not be so anxious as to exhort any poetaster's denial of death and pretence at transcendence.

Carbon Filter is as honest and as spiritual a book as it can be - and this is it's success. Note how many potential contradictions the poet attempts to balance: the dead and the living; humility and righteousness; rhyme and free verse. A mature poet praising, encouraging, exhorting, remembering and memorializing the life and lives he has passed through, Mayne's breath comes easier as his poetry filters the extraneous and noxious.

Dan Reve was once a lumberjack, but he ain't no more. He's still okay.







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