canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh
by rob mclennan
Talon Books, 1999

Review by Michael Bryson

The title of Ottawa-based poet rob mclennan's third book of poetry of 1999 (he also published bury me deep in the green wood (ECW) and Manitoba highway map (Broken Jaw)) begs the question - what is The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh (11 a's!)? Nowhere in the book is the title explained. Nor does the book include a note on Brautigan's identity - though that can be found in a note in the back of bury me deep (which includes a sequence of poems about the U.S. poet). The note in bury me deep calls Brautigan "the last of the beat poets out of San Francisco in the late 60's." The title is obviously a homage to Brautigan - who died by his own hand in 1984 - one mclennan surely means readers to research further themselves.

Meanwhile, we have mclennan "pushing and expanding his line forward" (as the back cover note proclaims), which is probably as concise a definition of mclennan's poetic project as there is ever likely to exist. The poems in Ahhhhhhhhhhh seem to go two directions at once. On the one hand, the free verse poems echo the joy, skepticism and eternal searching quality (for transcendence?) of the best of the Beat project. That is, many of the poems speak with a consistent narrative voice, which is often located in specific places (bars, street corners) - and which is also moving through time with bemused curiosity, lightness and grace.

For example (from "valentines day"):

XXXXXXXXXXXXin hindsight, of all the saints you could have turned to.
thats what you get, & nothin' says lovin'
like bein' in a coven. no one likes being alone.
tales of red hearts, yellow moons,
XXXXcloven hooves, produced on a shoestring.
i dip my arrows in poison, cupids aim
way off & tearing thru trees i then adore.
funny how time flies.

mclennan's lyricism recalls Kerouac's happy jazz, when Jack rode the be-bop train - before he slipped into the blues. On the other hand, there is much about mclennan's work which shows he's not only learned from the Beats, but learned to move beyond them (or at least carry the best of them forward into our media saturated times). The poems reference the Challenger explosion, a Sarah McLaughlin song, an episode of M.A.S.H., suggesting correctly that we do not simply project our personalities (a la Kerouac) onto the world around us, but we absorb events through electronic sensation, events that are displaced from us in space and time but which we nonetheless experience as real - and of significant impact. 

However, it remains a monumental aesthetic challenge to lift a media event beyond a cultural cliché. The Challenger explosion has iconic status for mclennan's generation - a Sarah Mclaughlin song may also, but the audience is obviously smaller, and the reference subjective. mclennan's media references do not always work within the individual poems, but they help build the context of the sequence as a whole, which builds to a surprisingly candid conclusion (which will not be disclosed here).

mclennan remains a delight to read. The freedom of his structure is breathtaking; the mixture of lightness and weight is inspirational. Northrop Frye says all good poetry speaks with the voice of God, the voice of the eternal. mclennan is less of a prophet than Kerouac or Ginsberg, but like those American masters his line is pushing forward into the past.







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