canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Full Magpie Dodge
by Lyle Neff
Anvil Press, 2000

Reviewed by Kathy Shaidle

Remember that guy from your old high school - maybe that guy was you - the one always talking about starting a rock group, but never got past thinking up a cool name for the band?

Well, Lyle Neff reminds me of that guy. Actually, lots of Canadian poets remind me of that guy, but it's Neff's book I'm reviewing.

What I mean is: like so many kids these days, Neff is great at coming up with clever titles. His book, for example, is called Full Magpie Dodge, which has a fine cryptic ring to it. And the poems inside are called things like "Buried with the Right Name," "The Many Ways Light Betrays You" and "First Notes on a Brain in a Jar." But like they say in Texas, Neff is "big hat, no cattle" - his poems don't live up to their intriguing names.

Too many read like slightly unfinished creative writing assignments. With "My Skin," one can almost hear the echo of Neff's teacher's instruction to "write about some part of your body":

I have a lot of skin,
it has character.

I grew it myself.

I'll tell you a secret:
I know how deep my skin goes.

Neff even broke out Gray's Anatomy so he could stick some Latin, epidermal words into this poem - a clumsy trope that merely calls attention to itself. I just wasn't moved, provoked or amused.

And of course we're treated to the usual obsessions of so many young, mostly male, Canadian poets: shoplifting, alleyways, "shit," drinking, eating and sleeping.

Poems like "Searching Behaviour" are indistinguishable from hundreds you'll hear at dozens of open mikes and creative writing workshops:

Drunks and junkies scour the pavement,
Wastedly sure something
Was forgotten, left behind, treated
Thoughtlessly. As they were.
Scags, bums, whores - scan the bricks for hours

You know, just cuz you move to The Big City and live on Kraft Dinner while you're a grad student, doesn't mean you're qualified to expound on the causes and effects of poverty. Poems like that give off a "tourist to tragedy" vibe, like a suburban Peace Corps volunteer's postcard from Ethiopia.

This whole fascination with Life's Dark Underbelly is just so 1974. Put away those Tom Waits records and get some fresh air, for Christ's sake! We live in one of the richest, free-est, most beautiful countries on earth, but you'd never know it if Full Magpie Dodge - and 99% of other new poetry collections - were your only reference guide.

Neff's poems are populated exclusively by faceless, nameless, characterless men and women utterly devoid of humour, insight, courage or charm. Perhaps these poems are actually "about" something, but they just weren't stylistically engaging enough to get me to explore them further. I was reminded of Don McKay's early "Lependu" days: those poems he wrote in the 70s that now seem like half-blind gropings toward the incandescent stuff he publishes now. 

One of the blurbs for Full Magpie Dodge is a rave from Michael Holmes, making the breathless, hyperbolic claim that "from here on in, almost everybody else is playing catch-up" to Neff. I'd counter that it's Neff who's got catching up to do. This is a book of apprentice poems. He's at least ten years away from deserving that kind of critical acclaim.

Kathy Shaidle's first collection, Lobotomy Magnificat (Oberon) was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award.







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