canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

bagne or Criteria for Heaven
by rob mclennan
Broken Jaw Press, 2000

The Cottage Builder’s Letter
by George Murray
McClelland & Stewart, 2001

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Cards on the table. I know both of these poets. I’ve shared beers with each of these poets. I haven’t a bad word to say about either of them. ... Now on to the books.

bagne is mclennan’s fifth full collection. Written (according to the postscript) "as a response to that swell [at the end of the last century]. a reaction, perhaps. of the arbitrariness of the triple zero score & the movement that occurred despite reason, & the subsequent hangover that would happen the following morn."

bagne is 93 poems, each one numbered and dedicated to a different Canadian poet. The title of each poem is taken from a poem by the poet it is dedicated to.

bagne is typical mclennan. Its poems soar wildly in all directions, integrating news events, philosophical concepts, snatches of conversation, memory, fantasy projection, and just plain old confession.

Some people like to read typical mclennan. Some people don’t. I count myself among the former. Most of the time. I read through bagne, folding back pages of the poems I liked, thinking that I would return to them in this review. I folded back 20-odd pages, or about one-fifth of the poems. A grade of 1/5 may not help you get your engineering degree, but for this reader that’s a decent grade for a book of poetry. It doesn’t mean I disliked all of the other poems; it just means the poems I set aside for comment amounted to one-fifth of the book. Which is far too large a fragment to squeeze into this review!

And so – let’s start with the negatives. This is a book of serious name-dropping. I stopped reading the dedications to the poems not even ten pages in. I didn't want to know the names of all those other poets. I wanted to read mclennan, and not read mclennan trying to draw tedious connections to half the Canadian poetry scene. (why, rob? why? stop doing that shit). Second, some of these poems just drift off into a sea of abstractions. Nobody ever went wrong sticking to nouns and verbs. Think William Carlos Williams. Think Ezra Pound (okay, not all of Ezra Pound, but the Imagist School). mclennan can do that, and he does it with consistency, but he also consistently throws the reader a poem that reads like a half-formed undergraduate essay. bagne was edited by Judith Fitzgerald – a fact some people think is significant – but still it contains these poetic abortions. (sorry, rob. but that’s how i feel. the next beer’s on me).

Now on to the positives. mclennan has a nimble mind. His best poems jump from image to image, leading the reader on a process of discovery. Movement is key to reading mclennan. All of his books jump with kinetic energy, and his loose form free verse weaves down the page, a visual metaphor of poet’s own freedom. mclennan’s work doesn’t so much push against boundaries, as deny boundaries. His punctuation and capitalization are irregular. If there was a system to his language, it was beyond me at this reading.

As for subject matter, the millennium switchover may be a dead letter sooner rather than later, but it is an appropriate moment to mark in poetry. mclennan may even be the perfect poet for the job, since process is his game – and the millennium switchover was a false crisis of process. The month before the switchover I went to an open-stage poetry reading, and was amazed how many of the poets felt a need to make a comment about "the end of the world as we know it." mclennan is not of that school. bagne is a more considered reflection. It is also a full-speed ahead blast of language, full of wit, insight, name-dropping, and soon-to-be-dated cultural references. Is this mclennan at his best? No. But it’s another stop along the path until he gets there.

When I read through George Murray’s The Cottage Builder’s Letter, I did not fold back any pages. Not because I didn’t like any of the poems; but because this is such a darn beautiful book that I couldn’t bring myself to damage it in any way.

The Cottage Builder’s Letter is Murray’s second book (his first was Carousel), and with it he has vaulted into the big leagues of Canadian poetry, one of four poets launched in the spring 2001 poetry list from the venerable McClelland & Stewart.

And it’s a good book – so buy it & read it.

It is also an interesting book to read back-to-back with mclennan’s bagne, because where mclennan is all freeflow and loosegoosey, Murray is formal and almost mock Victorian. At times mclennan seems stuck in the 1960s, while Murray seems never to have entered the 20th century.

I made some notes about The Cottage Builder’s Letter (which I have since lost), and I remember marking down the judgment that "these poems ache for the pre-modern world." They also ache for a world that reveres religious metaphor, and a world that contains the awe of the ancients, a recognition of the mystery of life. This are old fashioned poems, and they blow Bliss Carmen out of the water – but Bliss Carmen’s work is over 100 years old!

(I should also say at this point that I don’t understand all the hoopla about Anne Carson and her neo-classicism. To me, her work seems like aesthetic cowardice in the face of post-modernism. A throwback to an age that never was, and an inability to live in real time.)

But back to George Murray. This guy can write! There’s no doubt about that. He may even be responding to the same kind of cultural anxiety that mclennan attempts to articulate in bagne, but in contrast to mclennan, Murray works in silences. He returns to the old stories: Noah’s flood, Christ’s manger scene, Moses at the Red Sea. He focuses on marginal players. The sheep at Christ’s birth, for example. The title poem is another example. The cottage builder is mythologized. He is not a great man, but he is worthy of a story. Murray’s poems are big-hearted. They are clearly plotted, and they stick to nouns and verbs, avoiding abstractions and ideas.

At the same time, these are not naïve poems. They are not sentimental, but they do occasionally become pat. They become pat when they settle for mystery, and do not attempt to probe deeper, or – let’s be more frank – explode the unknown. Murray’s narrators sometimes sound like priests advising their parishioners not to inquire too deeply into the ways of God. This is a note mclennan would never strike. He is all probing and no rest. Murray too often advises rest at the expense of the TNT.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







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