canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Mocambo Nights
Patrick Lane, Editor
Ekstasis Editions, 2001

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Anthologies are the most difficult books to review. Instead of a single voice expressed by a single hand, collected prose or poetry from disparate sources is often discontinuous, or even at cross-purposes: what one poet or writer says can contradict or oppose what another maintains a few pages earlier. 

Another reviewing dilemma: how to castigate a well-intentioned book that suffers not from editing but from a dearth of talent? Should a book be commended for its two or three superb contributors, or instead be crucified for the same statistics? Criteria such as these are a litmus test for the reviewer, whose biases are brought forth by the anthology. Questions such as ‘How good should a book be?’ and ‘What makes for good writing?’ are only ever answered according to an exclusive taste – the reviewer’s. 

This goes double for the case of poetry anthologies, for the adjudication of poetry is even more subjective, the number of poets able to be featured in a book quite large (as opposed to prose), and consequently the number of styles on display can be quite disconcerting to the reviewer, who may only favour one or two modes.

This anthology adds to the usual confusion by lacking a particular theme. Themes –say, love poetry, the colour red, or frost-free freezers- are the fallback position for the reviewer, who can usually churn out a review based on how he understands the book treats its theme. But when a book devotes itself to chronicling a Reading Series, appraisals of quality are ridiculous. The best course is to place the book into a context.

In these sorts of anthologies, the editor tries to balance the print quality of the poems vs. the quality of the original oral performance, all the while keeping an eye to the renown of the name attached to the poem. These three factors are commingled in an admirable effort to recreate the ‘atmosphere’ of an evening spent at the venue hosting the series, in this case Victoria’s Mocambo Café. Nothing can ever approximate the actual experience itself, try as the editor might; there are just too many variables competing with the actual written poem to make a fair simulation. The poet may have read wonderfully, the crowd may have been particularly attentive and substance-enhanced, the lighting may have added effect, even the smoke and the furnishings contribute. None of these sensations are translatable from the spoken to written word.

In Mocambo Nights, there are good poems, bad poems, and mediocre poems. Pat Lane’s own predelictions as a poet favouring a tough and natural ascetic are apparent, as he has selected poems that broadly emulate his own style. There are guns, masculinity, and lots of morbid imagery, mostly nature-derived. In this book, even a deft, ephemeral poet like Don McKay sounds like a rough-and-ready Lane!

The book sets off a proximity alarm- it’s primarily populated by British Columbian poets, although a fair amount of room is made for those from the Prairies. A smaller number hail from Ontario, and fewer still arrived from Atlantic Canada. Thus the ‘atmosphere’ of Mocambopo possesses a West Coast ethic, which is understandable since Victoria isn’t a convenient commute for Easterners. Our man in Fredericton will have to keep quiet for now, although it’s easy to miss him. The Café features some serious talents.

Appearing at the beginning of the book is an anemic foreword penned by the editor. Functional, devoid of effort, skimming along the superficial history of reading series in Canada (a very selective listing, current as of the sixties, and oblivious to other contemporary reading series in the country), this foreword is typical of current Lane industriousness. Over the past few years, the man has added several volumes to his publishing credits by insta-editing several books (Addicted, The Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan, Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets, and now the anthology under review.) 

In order to justify the purchase price, Lane could have done a little more work, looking to other reading series in order to find what makes The Mocambo series unique. He could have written a more comprehensive history of his own reading series. He could have written about anything, really. About drunks in the bar, heckling. About the pleasures of watching people read early in their careers, witnessing their development over time. More about the university students, not just that they were there, more about the construction workers, the plebes, the local celebs. People are thanked in this foreword. People are named in this foreword. People aren’t made compelling in this foreword. Even the enterprise- the reading series- as described by Lane appears tame and bland, and the poems in Mocambo Nights are done a disservice by their quickie editor. 

Anthologies become important not only for the poems contained within, which indirectly point to a moment in cultural time, but also for the contextual essay inside. This essay has the potential to integrate the anthologized poems and, if this is impossible, at least to celebrate them. Instead, we get a meager two pages. Part of this fluff is devoted to Lane’s own days as a young whippersnapper, another part features reminisces of Gwen and Margy at Toronto’s Bohemian Embassy. In my day

At least a reviewer can spot a trend. Mocambo Nights is part of the lazy Lane lineage of late, the middle-aged writer’s propensity towards bibliographic inflation. Then again, Addicted anatomized our editor’s double-barrelled cocaine and alcohol addiction. 

Mocambo Nights cannot help but be compared to the I.V. Lounge Reader, a volume edited by Paul Vermeersch that assembles together poets who appeared at the I.V. Lounge reading series. The Reader was released in the same year as Mocambo, and offers a few contrasts; the former allows most poets the space to expound, showing their range in two poems or more. To it’s detriment, Mocambo allows only one poem per poet. The former’s expansive strategy permits a greater sense of an oral reading, and therefore more of the series’ ‘atmosphere’ is channeled. Conversely, by being more selective, Lane improves the baseline standard of the poetry, which in I.V. was much more uneven. Unfortunately, both books show a similar lassitude with respect to the foreword, easy variations on the showman’s "Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to feast your eyes on this!"

The most interesting difference between the two books lies in subject material. The I.V. Lounge, located on Dundas Street, in Toronto, is obsessed with urbanity; the Mocambo Café bears a nature fetish. I.V. contained more ‘difficult’ poems, the kind that sacrifice meaning upon a grandiose altar of wordplay; Mocambo prefers narrative, especially about relationships and things that grow. The differences here can largely be ascribed to the locations of the Reading Series as much as to the selection processes of their respective editors, this ironically in keeping with the difference in opinion one reviewer would express about these books as another reviewer.

Where reviewers would agree, however, is the vitality these collections possess. We would also agree that they affirm the importance of their respective reading series by honouring the proceedings with print publication, thereby exporting the series to the minds of poets and readers who otherwise would never have been aware of the Mocambo Café or the I.V. Lounge. These venues offer a grand opportunity for young poets to try out material and meet other poets. They serve as loci of transmission, melting pots that disseminate a message to the immediate area by means of the live series, but also nationally by means of the book’s diplomacy. From these books, we can take Canadian poetry’s pulse, comparing and contrasting each other’s methods and sensibilities. 

So why doesn’t somebody take up the challenge?

Shane Neilson is one of TDR's poetry editors.






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