canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Shadow Cabinet
by Richard Sanger
Signal Editions / Vehicule Press, 1996

Reviewed by Dan Reve

When Joseph Brodsky died in 1996, a memorial reading was organized at "The Library Pub" in Toronto. Several well-known Canadian and American poets, a couple academics and a number of younger, lesser-known writers read from Brodsky's work. The only reader who read Brodsky with the proper pacing, tone and emphases was Richard Sanger.

Reciting poetry well does not necessarily indicate that one is a good poet, but at least Sanger understood the poetry and participated in the poem better than those who should have known better. But Sanger is a very good poet. And Brodsky seems evident in Shadow Cabinet.

Here is a slight echo in the final stanza of a poem titled (coincidentally), "Emigree":

Home is a neutral state,
Improvised in the small functional flat
She returns to now, seething with relief.
Nights she learns the grammar of the land:
Each verb ends in a treaty,
A skirmish of forces beyond herself.

And again: "The sea may very well smear the froth/ Of its adjectives on our shores, litter the beach/ With fetching analogies and figures of speech..." ("Goodbye"). Metaphors constructed of grammar, of parts of speech, is a typical Brodskian device. And as one might expect hearing Brodsky in a poem by a young English poet, W.H.Auden's echo is even more ubiquitous: the technical virtuosity, the ironic, intellectual tone and point of view, the political concerns, even some of the imagery in Shadow Cabinet recall the English master. Here's an Audenesque image: "I saw a whole country turn to dust, and stop, / While the choirboys recited all they knew."

"Lines in the Sand", from which I am quoting the final two, is an excellent poem - perhaps the strongest in the book. It is also the most obviously indebted to a reading (at some point) of Auden, as, I suspect, are "Case History", "Nocturne", and "Odysseus and Calypso" (which also recalls Brodsky's "Aeneas and Dido"). The point is not that Sanger's work is derivative (indeed, the poems include some of Sanger's best), but rather the size of his talent and the high caliber of his mentors. I may be wrong about Sanger's reading, but I'm certain that we have a poet of the first rank here - one who can digest such great poets.

Shadow Cabinet is divided into 4 sections, though these divisions do not impose strict thematic (or any other) distinctions: "Echo Drive", "Past of Snow", "Spanish Divan", and "Talk of Statues". "Spanish Divan" is a self-contained sequence of poems on Spain that won the E. J. Pratt Memorial Prize and Medal in 1992. ( Sanger's play on the same subject, "Not Spain", was awarded a major drama prize). The sequence is also the most sustained exploration of two of Sanger's basic themes: romance and politics. The general tone and perspective of Shadow Cabinet may alienate some, or some sometimes.

Sanger's obviously well-educated, cultured protagonist and his bourgeois family can afford their cynicism (doing good betrayed as merely doing the world); and bids for a reader's unconscious identification with the language and ethos of such groups can not just fail but annoy. ("Touring the Atrocities", for example, though a fine satire of the western, intellectual 'artiste', includes the line "A little something to fight the blahs of Feb.", a discourse, no matter how ironic the intent, which alienates me, at least.)

And yet the intelligence and wit of the poetry must be appreciated. If the poet is 'sensitive' toward the psychological subtleties of human experience, he does not compromise an intelligence manifest not just in the dealing with complex social-political issues, but in the ironic and at times tragic perspective.

From the point of view of the sentimental, irony is an act of violence, and violent imagery and tone of Shadow Cabinet moves outward from the private, psychological violence of cynicism first to the familiar (family is Sanger's other basic theme) then to the foreign, from the personal to the ideological - the erotic being a woof to the weave of the other themes. Thus, "Racoon" is neither a Hallmark portrait, nor a respectful, realistic Hughes- or Lawrence-like example of "negative capability", but anti-romantic, ending,

"I know all the awful things you've done
And weigh each one in my hand like a stone
- the kind of stone I'd like to brain you with -
As you malinger in the bush. Take this. And this.

The sexual education described in "Low Down" teaches the adolescent poet to be a "cataloguer of cleavage" who, in the end, compares the sperm erupting from masturbation to lemmings drowning. When the 'real' world of desire, in the form of a girl, enters the life of a boy who has only sat inside and read, "Pages were lost. Heads rolled." Poems about family relationships almost always end with violent imagery: "I saw, for a moment, my own reflection; / The astringent water curdle; something shatter." ("Family Romance"); the end of a "Thanksgiving" portrait is "a plateful of ashes".

"Travels with My Aunt" traces the aggressive, rising -to-consciousness of incestuous desire, blending the 'family portrait' type poems with the erotic poems in the collection. Almost all the erotic poems involve some form of political clash, desire being provoked and pronounced by power, by cultural (and racial?) disjunctions. Thus the woman in the southern country in "Touring the Atrocities" only understands the poet's curiosity as lust, and instead of answering his questions, strips for him.

"Spanish Divan" has a few portraits of cultural/erotic friction: "The Byron Syndrome", "Dilemma", "Heaven and Earth", "Latin Lover", "Odysseus and Calypso", "Goodbye". The analogy in the poem about the Quebec Referendum, "Pillow Talk", is a lover's dialogue.

As "Heaven and Earth" puts it: "Love, said the old man dying in Venice, / Is the product of insufficient knowledge", and the speakers in these poems make sure they have the upper hand, or, in the case of the two female speakers, spew their resentful bile at the departing Canadian Casanova: the woman 'colonized' by the visitor in "Goodbye" throws the colonizer's confusion over 'motherland' (treating the local as a political entity that needs 'saving') back in his face: he can save his manipulation of political and personal "to regale your next patch of dirt. That, and all the boredom of literature".

Born in the trap of the western liberal intellectual bourgeois, the poet in Shadow Cabinet satirizes the pretensions and follies of his heritage: family relations, male desire, religion, politics, imperialism, art and the artist. The first poem of Shadow Cabinet, "Madonna of the New World", opens with an image that combines the themes of family, sexuality, politics and religion:

God the Father has skipped town
And left them homeless and frozen,
Two figures caught in the family snap,
Immigrants to a cold zone.

And the poem ends with this image:

Beware, though, that arm raised to prime
Her breasts, the fingers
That can't quite grasp the point
Of such bounty, such emptiness.

If "God the father has skipped town" in this new northern country, the son - Christ - is "the Scarecrow in the cornfield, / Away with the birds" ("Case History"). Which is to say, everyone seems to end up in an ironic "Northern Pastoral" (appropriately Canadian): "What remains are nothing but the debts / Of a season the weather left behind. / They feel at home in the sombre tones of winter..." Or, as the poem "Old Snow" puts it, the poet meditating on the cod liver oil a relative (mother?) fed him as a child, "What come[s] back?...The fishy swill coughed up in my mouth?" And the last lines of the collection, from the poem "Late in the West", describe the collapse of the culture so thoroughly satirized in the book:

Like diplomats clutching their valises,
The songbirds, my love, await their next posting.
Say you find such florid statements strange.
Familiar, though, this intrepid brood
Setting off to breast the winds and draw the curtains,
Little troublemakers, pedantic twitters,
Stringing their requiems across the western sky.

A "shadow cabinet" is "a body of advisors appointed by an opposition party in a legislature to evaluate and comment on government activities, with each advisor assigned to monitor a particular ministry or department". The metaphor recalls Shelley's claim that the poet is the "unacknowledged legislator" of the world. Sanger's collection also brings out the more psychological implications of the term: the dark side of erotic desire. Shadow Cabinet is one of the most exciting, sophisticated and achieved of recent books of poetry in Canada, one that all readers and writers of poetry should enjoy and study.

For Sanger, with luck and persistence, will be one of our most important poets, one whose work will find an international audience (it is already in American journals), instead of being lost in the mediocrity, the pillow fights, of so much Canadian poetry and "all the boredom of literature".

Dan Reve used to be a lumberjack. He's still okay.







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