canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

stone, book one
by rob mclennan
Palimpsest Press, 2004

Reviewed by John Baglow

mclennan spins an atmospheric yarn here, although this is not simply narrative in cadence. The poems are more like a series of connected observations, and stand uneasily on their own. At their best, they are dreamily evocative, the country of the past and the present moment of reflection blending seamlessly:

...she said yes. in the dried out plains.

a treeline has its shape of stones, of open gaps. a
space in the fence to squeeze through, for those

who want a shortcut from the road.

This is from the first poem in the sequence, “the only serious border,” combining the literal and the metaphorical, a promising beginning, a tale to be told. It’s a poem about poetry, and about the act of remembrance. It sets the almost elegiac tone that continues throughout the book.

mclennan can capture in just a few phrases the present moment of remembering and the clarity of what is remembered:

thoughts cave in. the wind blows by the barn. well water seeps
into everything. worries that the pipes will freeze. goes

into town & doesn’t even need to say his name.

(“the swerve of small town eyes”)


into the ground, & fixed back his only reasoning.
of ice for the cool, a cube, and small

wash-basin. the browning of summer, leaves
& lawn-patch. having to change his shirt

& a million more. the tonal residue
gets bent. radio waves refuse to linger,

get caught in the moisture somewhere west.

(“the sun drove a man a stake”)

The recurrent image of stone in the book summons up the solidity of a well-kept memory, but also its lifelessness: the young woman of decades ago, and the experience of being with her, is buried in the past. She carries stones in her pockets, her shoes, there is “stone/ in her breath” and “stone beneath her tongue as she speaks” (“you never know do you”). The immediacy and clarity in such poems as “the rarely visible, & nocturnal” is juxtaposed with a generalized history of the place:

…boat mix, west of where is
where. walk three days just to know. maybe you

should turn the tape recorder off. were not moving.

(“the citizens hail their fellows”)

The past is the past: mclennan can never let his visceral sense of it overwhelm the excruciating fact of its absence. Indeed, the on-going expression of unrelieved tension between the present moment of creation and the stuff of memory is perhaps mclennan’s chief strength in this collection.

But the book as a whole simply doesn’t come off. To begin with, mclennan’s staccato utterance becomes disconcerting over time —frankly annoying, in fact—like a tic, distracting from the movement and pulse of the thing, endless braking on a country road.. It’s a great trick for immediate effect, but it wears out with overuse, like writing an entire book in italics. Instead of the rhythmic flow of cinema we get a series of stills, a collection of snapshots. Not that some of the snapshots aren’t memorable, but they too often fail to connect with each other.

It is perplexing that inventiveness is clearly there in the poetry, particularly in the strong evocations of life in the country, and yet somehow intensity is missing, there’s a failure to excite. Limber verbal excursions, peppered with odd cerebral asides, and those accursed full-stops, do not cohere. Some of the poems turn in on themselves completely, the subject their own creation, and the wisps of phrase become a little self-conscious:

the very bone of collaborating

through his open mouth & eyes. what she can see. the baseline
of the whole operation. she opens her mouth. articulated

in gutteral swipes. time to work it in. what she has
heard & yet not heard. such cracks lifted

as a given. the shape of the last eighteen months, &
the muscles in his stomach. to fortify her

attention. to keep her surface clean & clear, at
the time of doing. one particular perception of art as apart.

The titles of the poems, as well, while sometimes clearly part of the poem, too often come across as merely clever-hip labels.

Overall, mclennan’s text and memory blur and combine as “these myths in paper time,” and the poet shares his memories as “pleasures of the text, if/ the window is my book.” As noted, there are strengths and weaknesses in what he does. But perhaps his dilemma, as well as his method, is best summed up by the poet himself:

the one that stuck to my ribs

what is the fine arrangement. lilacs, flown home, & put
in her grandmothers vase. dropping off in some dead zone.

the hearts empty patter. a cl;utter & dismember of stone.
listen for your breath. the glass between the garden

& the field. insect hopes. the structure of her own
became transparent. a book that floors me. a list

that doesn’t make sense to anyone else. when
i can temporarily frame.

John Baglow is a young poet trapped in an old critic’s body. His latest collection is Journey Under Glass (Penumbra, 2004).







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