canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Bruce Taylor
Signal Editions / Vehicule Press, 1998

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook

Bruce Taylor's "Facts" opens with a poem about doodles, identifying a "Muse of Incoherence" and, taking up Auden's "poetry makes nothing happen", lays out an ironic ars poetica:

And that is what my poem wants as well,
to make things happen, but without exertion -
baffling arabesques unfurled
like faxes from the underworld
in one authoritative motion.

Taylor's poetry is essentially whimsical, ironically celebrating "Idleness" and "Errata" (the titles and subjects of two other poems), and its strengths are a casual tone, ironic humour, and original metaphors. Formally, free verse is Taylor's preferred technique, though, as can be seen in the couplet in the quotation from "Doodle", rhyme and metre are occasionally used. These more traditional devices are rarely dominant, however. (The exceptions - "Bus Station" and "English Lessons", prove the rule of Taylor's talent as satirist: in both poems, the formal strictness is mocked by the oversimplified syntax and nearly nonsensical content.) Rather, a stanza or couplet or rhyme will occasionally pop-up in a poem. The rhymes are rarely created by the use of regular metre or stanzas.

The following is an example from "The Ancestors":

Now he is a bridge too, a big one, stretching
from the island to its other shore.
The trucks massage his spine all morning.
In the evening they come back for more.
Below his beamy, buttressed gut
the virulent St. Lawrence carves a rut
from here to the Atlantic. This is what
we boil for coffee, shifting in its crust
of suds and motor oil and rust.

Reading such poems, I was suddenly reminded of the willful and playful work of John Skelton and the almost arbitrary use of rhyme in the so-called "skeltonics". The "skeltonic-like" structure of "The Ancestors" is well suited, of course, to Taylor's essential tone and themes (the ironies of life, human silliness).

Occasionally, Taylor's ironic technique of seeming free-association and haphazard rhythm is ineffective, however. For example, "TV" is a poem in free verse of wildly varying line and stanza lengths; its theme is the ironic relationship between real, private life and it's seemingly arbitrary representation. Almost in the middle of the poem, we get the following stanza:

I have a feeling I've been here before.
None of it seems new.
But I seem to be dying just as quickly
no matter what I do.

Presumably, the intended effect of this rhyme and regular metre is dark humour: the sentiment of the quatrain is rendered ironic by the form. The problem is that the stanza is greater than the poem in which it finds itself. The poem fails the dignity of the lines. Given the abstraction and the rhyme in this stanza, a reader gets the feeling that the lines were merely picked up from old notes for unwritten poems, dropped in among the lines on TV, that their inclusion is arbitrary, which suggests the arbitrariness of the poem as a whole (exaggerated by the relative radicalism of the free verse). Taylor fails his own poetics here, as identified in "Doodle".

The title poem of the collection, "The Facts", unfortunately reveals the weaknesses of the book. While typical techniques are used - though metaphor is minimized - there is a serious tone, an earnestness, and the sheer length of the poem (7 pages) suggests a major aesthetic and ethical statement. The point of the poem is, as the last lines clarify, the desire for a "real", "rock-hard", "well known world/ with the power to pulverize/ theories beliefs and conjecture/ under the flat rough stones of the facts." - a world the poet "could never imagine" as opposed to the white, anglo, bourgeois world in which he finds himself and its narcissistic adventurism.

The poem is clearly an attempt to record and understand a spiritual journey, the point being the tragic futility of such adventures in the world the poet knows. In a way, "The Facts" is Taylor's anti-poetics and the point is to prove the grimness of the world and the spiritual necessity of metaphor by overloading the reader by the mere facts of a narrative. It works: we're bored.

A much briefer poem,"X-Ray", is much more successful in making the same point as "The Facts", and despite Taylor's trademark metaphorical whimsy, the gravity of the message is clear, the reader not lost or bored in the wood of narrative facts. "X-ray" is a rumination on the poet's own x-ray, which assumes a life and character of its own. Here is an example of Taylor's effective, original metaphor and rhyme:

...What you see
here belongs to me, is me
without the hidden thread
that strings the cannibal
necklace of its spine
to the grinning trophy of the head.

The character's (the x-ray's) ambition is:

... not [to] be a ghost, a vaporized human,
a bad feeling at large,
but his own strict self
staying on to discredit the lie
that life, all life,
is one shivering tender
mass that throbs and quails
under the harsh light
of the facts.

These are beautiful lines; and "X-ray" achieves the tragic dignity at which it aims while preserving a sense of humour. "X-ray" is the centre of "Facts" and Taylor's vision: the dream of the spirit compromised by the flesh of facts; this is the basis of great poetry. Taylor's poetry would take to the various stages of the Montreal spoken word scene well. Otherwise a reader may wish the poet had learned from the economy of "X-ray" how to edit "Facts".

Geoffrey Cook is one of The Danforth Review's Poetry Editors. He currently lives in Montreal. His poetry was featured in The Danforth Review #1.







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