canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Cutting the Devil's Throat
by Andrew Steeves
Gooselane Editions, 1998

Reviewed by Dan Reve

Andrew Steeves is the ambitious, young editor and publisher of "The Gaspereau Review" and "The Gaspereau Press" in Wolfville Nova Scotia, and he has already done a lot for literature in the province and the Maritimes. Cutting the Devil's Throat is his own first book of poetry.

Steeves' title refers to the sound like a hollow gulp made when the flat stone you have thrown hard and high falls into the water laterally, not flat or horizontally; it is the bubbling of a diver's perfect entry instead of the splash of a belly-flop. The phrase is a metaphor for achieved effect, for aesthetic consummation. The title also implies a moral (religious) triumph, miracle even - defeating the Devil.

Revealingly, there is no title poem in the collection which takes up the challenge of the phrase explicitly. Steeves' book is composed of 6 sequences, 3 of which are of 8 ghazals each; there is also a sequence of 4, 3-stanza, unrhymed tercets (the other sequences employ no formal structures). The sequence, per se, has been a ubiquitous form in modern English poetry since the late 19th century. One may even argue that it served an essential role in attempts by modern poets to deal with the intellectual, cultural, spiritual and ethical crises of meaning in modernity (one thinks of the oppressively sprawling "Cantos" of Ezra Pound, though there are several other famous and more successful examples).

It is also, of course, particularly interesting to note that the majority of Steeves' work is in the ghazal form. A medieval Persian verse structure of great technical complexity and traditional, limited imagery and themes (such as love, drunkeness, spirituality), the ghazal appeared in English following the experiments of the Modernist poets and the rise of vers libre as the dominant poetic form. Emphasis is on the image and on imaginative re-creation of meaning in the almost arbitrary sequencing of images in a ghazal. It is a rarified, peculiar and therefore powerful form, yet limited. John Thompson is to be credited with the introduction and dissemination of the ghazal in Canada. His "Stilt Jack" is one of literature's odd, incommensurable works of genius.

The book - the form - made and un-made the poet: his previous book, "At the Edge of the Chopping there are No Secrets", however strong individual poems, pales beside the cohesion and (tragic) vision of "Stilt Jack"; and Thompson died - suicidally - as he completed the work: it is posthumous.

P.K.Page, Margaret Atwood, Lorna Crozier and others have practiced the form in Canada since Thompson, as has Adrienne Rich in the United States. The ghazal, per se, is almost unrecognizable as practiced by English poets: the elaborate rhyme scheme is gone; as are metre, music, vocabulary, and other minor, yet traditional devices. What remain are the vague shape (about 5 or more couplets), the non-narrative structuring of imagery, and some of the themes: love, drunkeness, fate, mortality, the physical and the ghostly. It is the triumph of John Thompson's "Stilt Jack" which gives the form its virtue in English (though some of Crozier's poems achieve an equal beauty).

Otherwise, the English ghazal can be seen as somewhat 'decadent' - a symptom of an exhausted cultural and literary tradition. Of course, one could argue that the ghazal has potentials that can be richly exploited in English. The debate is symptomatic of the explorations of new forms of poetic expression in English in our century: an ancient, highly structured, musical form has been borrowed from another language; it's original, innate musicality foregone in preference for imagery.

There has been lengthy argument over the translation and English composition of ghazals concerning, foremostly, rhyme: should the original scheme be followed? Should couplets be used? Some other, compromising scheme? Or is rhyme exactly what the ghazal was imported and manipulated to overcome? Should the discontinuity be preserved and exploited? Can the form be adapted to a more narrative, logical structure? What gives the ghazal, in English, coherence and consummation? Are these questions of form merely academic, or should we just read ghazals as vers libre and exploit the elasticity of the form?

Anyone writing a ghazal deals, willy-nilly, with such aesthetic issues. And with the ghost of John Thompson/Stilt Jack. And yet this is a heritage - particularly for Maritime poets: Thompson lived, infamously, in New Brunswick and taught at Mount Allison University). By choosing to write ghazals, Andrew Steeves wears his heritage on his sleeve. There is honour in such allegiances; unfortunately, Steeve's ghazals are disappointing: his one technical innovation is decidedly mistaken - he's removed punctuation.

Presumably Steeves wanted to augment the resonance of the lines by leaving syntactic relationship ambiguous - yet grammatical obscurity, indefinite rhythms, and insecure reading is the result. By contrast, punctuation was a studied effect in John Thompson, establishing the rhythms, the grammatical and semantic logic, coherence among images and themes - all in a form which challenges such logic.

The following is the fourth ghazal from the sequence "Naming":

any more children and I'm out
of knees XarmsX and names

I doubled back at her birth Xremembering
lost sight of them both Xand of you

approaching an accident Xan impossible
thoughtX my heart in a dank cellar

wood pile Xthoughts needling
nothing inside me works tonight

snow comesX but my boy's in bed
by morningX puddlesX nothing

Presumably the exaggerated spaces between words are substitutes for a form of punctuation; however, since we don't know what precise form, how do we read the poem? In line 3, for example, who remembers and what is remembered? Does "you" approach an accident in line 5 or the speaker - i.e., to which clause does the word "approaching" belong? What part of speech is it? These and other obscurities in the poem are just that, obscurities, not suggestive ambiguities. John Thompson's sometimes cryptic phrases and sentences were hauntingly beautiful, not confusing. Half-way through the second sequence, "Passages", a female character is suddenly introduced; she has apparently died in the past, and the sequence becomes, arbitrarily, elegiac.

The sudden shift of focus, disrupts, fatally, I think, the fragile thematic and imagistic coherence of a ghazal sequence. Ghazal 6 of this sequence reads:

when her name also disappeared
from the lips of casual conversation

everyone fearing recollection
ruins a good day

she died the second death
dismemberment Xthen disassociation

(broken body
forgotten word)

speak her back into being
name her over and over

every mention
a resurrection

Line and stanza divisions here are based on syntax, gaps replacing commas, periods, semi-colons etc. Such decisions are the weakest and most arbitrary techniques of bad free verse. Nor is there any particular beauty or imagination in the language here: puns and a poor couplet only. Nor does this poem follow one of the supposed principles of the ghazal: non-narrative logic: clearly, Steeves' poem is narrative, the lines composed of at most two sentences.

Not that ghazals must eschew narrative or more traditional forms of coherence in lyrical poetry. The first ghazal in "Passages" works well:

there is no one word for love
water rushing off every corner of the roof

rain has come again in fist fulls
making running foolish undignified

this is the sea
a place of drifting

forget sleep that drowsy metaphor
pull off those cumbersome clothes and come to me

cover me in living syllables
a gentle drumming

Here a fair balance is struck between the logic of narrative and that of ghazal; the imagery coheres, and the final couplet in particular is lovely. "Undignified" and "cumbersome" are awkward - yes, I realize "awkwardness" is the point, but only from the point of view of the idea, not the virtue of the language. The fourth ghazal in the first sequence, "Beginnings", is also more 'narrative' than most, and works well, and is the most obviously influenced by Thompson in the mention of a frozen house, salt, rust, and the warmth of a woman. Unquestionably, Steeves was also attracted by the traditional themes and images of the ghazal (and in this case, "traditional" includes those of "Stilt Jack"), particularly love, family, women, home, the spiritual, and the sanctification of objects and nature.

Steeves needed Thompson, but the young poet doesn't seem to have gotten out from under the shadow of his mentor, or what innovations were attempted, do not work. The weaknesses of the ghazals are also found in the other poems of Cutting the Devil's Throat: the free verse poems that do not use punctuation are awkward and obscure, ideas and images determining rhythms and relations (on the simplest level, line breaks) instead of sound (and punctuation).

These poems are also, generally, the more "lyrical", as opposed to narrative or character portraits. The exceptions are instructive: "Three Short Songs fro the Departing", "Mythologizing a Friend's Adolescent Children", "An Unemployed Man at the Dunrobin Post Office" and "A River Psalm" all eschew punctuation; however, they are all portraits and narrative-based, so there is no syntactic or grammatical confusion. It is precisely in the narrative-based and/or character portraits that Steeve's talent is evident. And here the mentor is clearly Alden Nowlan.

Steeves, unlike so many imitators of Nowlan, shares the humility, compassion and ironic humour which legitimate the terms "poem" and "poet". It is this quality of vision and the "language of common speech", not a sophisticated use of language or form, which are Steeves' strength, and suggest more quality work in the future, once some technicalities are worked through and eventually mastered (and a slight tendency to preach, as for example, in "Celtic Revival", is outgrown). "The Last Cowboy of Summer", "Haunting", It's a Wake", "Re-examined" and "Metamorphosis" are all fine poems.

The first and second in this list reveal, I think, the centre of Steeve's vision at this point. "The Haunting" is about the poet's resentment toward the strangers who, unappreciatively (from the poet's view), occupy a house in which he once lived. The story and sensation is familiar to most of us, though the myth of dispossession is particularly resonant for Maritimers. The poem's major analogy is particularly subtle, equally universal, unexpected yet apt, and well-developed without distracting from the immediate subject of the poem: the poet's resentment over the new tenants of what was once his home is compared to "what it's like to have once loved a stranger's wife / and to bump into them now on the street".

"The Last Cowboy of Summer" is a 5-page diptych: the first gives a child's naive reaction to a theme park's or rodeo fair's staged cowboy fight; the second is the matured poet re-creating the backstage erotic antics of the players of that past scene. The poem is a moving reflection on the loss of innocence, the assumption of knowledge/experience, and the subtle relationship between art and life.

Readers can look forward to Andrew Steeves' further explorations of such fundamental questions, for he is a literary figure of boundless energy and goodwill.

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







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