canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Northern Prospect: An Anthology of Northeastern Ontario Poetry
edited by Roger Nash
Your Scrivener Press, 1999

Reviewed by Dan Reve

Sprawling, politically-divided, geographically diverse countries always get the term "regional" stuck in their throat, choking them on the notion of their own culture. In his introduction, Roger Nash defends Northern Prospects as follows:

Northeastern Ontario is a large region... bursting at the seams with poetic activity... Yet the region has been sadly under-represented by Ontario publishers, who generally prefer the cost-effectively cosier route of publishing poets from large urban areas in the south. This is a great loss to Canadian poetry, since alternate voices go unheard, voices that often have something importantly different to say from those more shaped by homogenizing trends in large centres... [O]ur economy... threaten a rich diversity among poetic voices, that can safeguard vitality in a poetic tradition.

True, good poets can come from marginalized places, but marginalized places don't have to breed them. The whole point of good poetry is how it defies the biographical - including the geographical, or anything literal. Northern Lights includes a few pages each by 14 poets (politely half male, half female) whose only common denominator is geography (and the English language).

There is, as Nash argues, a great diversity of voice in the anthology: Lorraine Janzen's mixture of simple, direct concrete images of the actual with visions and sudden scenes of cultural ritual in her "Discovery Poems", discovering her Native American Indian heritage; Robert Dickson's listings of items to be found in Sant Carles De La Rapita; David Barlett's folk song "Railway" - of a passing age in Northeastern Ontario; Jennifer Broomhead's ironically banal notes on serendipity, time and love in "The Bus Stop Poems"; Tom Gerry's miniature epic lines on the Niagara River; Trevor Laalo's passionate poverty; and Marianne Schafer's gay vocabulary of the Bay of Islands. It is, generally, an informed, informal tour in a particular area from perspectives few of us know.

In his introduction, Nash also identifies his criterion for good poetry, which I will summarize: a spontaneous, sophisticated response to life expressed in language which is metaphorically original and semantically indirect yet efficient, and this language is structured in a formally purposeful manner. We can all agree with these clichés of contemporary poetic methodology (the insights and experiments of modernist poets watered down through Creative Writing Programmes and tired high school teachers). What really matters in poetry, however, is articulate vision; and we shouldn't be afraid to demand this of our poets. If they do not have this quality, they are not our poets and do not safeguard any tradition.

The popularized modernist method - the free verse tradition - intimated in Nash's introduction is also evident in the dominant techniques of the poets in the anthology. When recited, poetry's rhythm helps establish syntactic units, dramatic pacing, pauses, phrasings and phrases of colloquial speech. But traditional syntactic structures and punctuation do this as well, often better.

Besides, on the page, free verse devoid of punctuation, capitalization, and often wholly arbitrary in line breaks (somewhat better in stanza breaks - those these only establish sentence, image or narrative units, not intricate echoes and patterns and ironies and transcendences of rhyming stanzas), free verse of the sort dominating the anthology, is cryptic. At worst, the page clearly betrays the weaknesses (implied above) of the poems.

Clearly, the influence of popularized poetics is problematic: yes, a nation of poets can be recognized; but what are the implications of the requisite lowering of aesthetic standards, and in the long one, moral and intellectual ones? There's something of the naive political agenda about the collection: you can't help wondering about the wholly arbitrary nature of this product, the scent of political correctness, whether a marketing ploy (if not a whole aesthetic and education) has replaced discrimination in projects like these.

The overall impression of Northern Prospects is a catalogue of the images of a region: images both literal (there are many lists of things in the book) and created. And that diversity of voice: 3 moderately-lengthened poems, certainly 6 will let you hear a voice - it's timbres and pitches; it's originality and potential. Readers are encouraged to sample the anthology for themselves, since reading is so much a private affair. W.H. Auden haikued: "A poet's hope: to be / like some valley cheese,/ local but prized elsewhere."

A reader can take hope in Julie Cameron: hers is the most distinctive talent in the collection. I have space to quote only one of her shorter pieces:

Paris, when it's naked (p65)

half a block away
a moth confesses
to a single naked bulb
like a mythmaking angel
staggering to the oracle again
i tell it i don't know you
as sleeves touch and we cross over
through a puddle
and a foreign light
it's not cold but i'm getting there
and you
dazzled by every curiosity shop
and smoke-filled bar
on our way back to
some distant room
where we might have met before
and i am mesmerized by
the light and rain coupling
on the pavement
a beautiful woman passes
and i could swear to her
that i never knew you
your arm suddenly surrounds me
a reckless taxi passes
the vacant witness
to an unhurried kiss
sheltered by the singed wing
burning on the altar.

Dan Reve was once a lumberjack, but he ain't no more. He's still okay.







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