canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Said Like Reeds Or Things
by Mark Truscott
Coach House Books, 2004

Reviewed by John Baglow

The jacket notes of Mark Truscott’s debut collection make references to haiku: “a shadow of Basho in the mix,” “haiku shadows.” We are offered “concise, cerebral poems,” “micro-poems,” “little pieces of perfection.” They “empty their wallets into the nearest storm sewer, inviting you for a night on the town in the process.”


It must be said, though, that the book offers precisely that spurious invitation. There is not enough in it for a real night on the town. The references to haiku are completely misplaced: the commentators appear to mean “short.” There is nothing of the complex organization of haiku in most of the “micro-poems” here, including one actually entitled “haiku”:

XXmptyXXso what
is it


Instead, we have page after page of what can only be described as verbal doodling. Examples:


a ha agh ha ha


so so so


so so so


image is seven

Each of these takes up a page in this slim volume, and there are many more. Not that they aren’t clever on occasion:


It’s thcre

The deliberate misspelling here is playful enough, and there are others that are oddly evocative:





Oh, it
But too many others are casual echolalia:

light lines
limn limbs
lift lids
like light

like light
lifts lids
limbs limn
line light

one a
or our
an or
and an
But luckily this is not all there is to Truscott. Some of his less costive pieces evoke the wonder of the moment; the flood of sense data that arrives to us every instant is stopped in its tracks, and odd juxtapositions remind us that we ourselves must make sense of our world and our own consciousness that forms a part of it. Words allow us to do it, to a point, but they are not merely passive material: they, too, arrive with the baggage of connotation and denotation, lexical, syntactical and semantic rules and so on, and Truscott positively delights in the unpacking and breaking of his medium. Sometimes, as above, this is just the flash and dash of an enthusiast taken with his own discoveries, but when the frivolous mood wears off, he proves to be capable of much more.

“Bio,” the introductory poem in the collection, manages to sketch both problem and solution, indicating the futility of finding patterns in the myriad sense-data we perceive, including our own memories, while at the same time demonstrating the possibility of creating a rough, intense music from the bits and pieces.

Sometimes this bricolage works like a charm: “Snow,” for example, and “Schools,” and especially “Some Mornings I Mistrust Synthesis,” capture the moment of creation and hold it to the light:

The limit of resonance is the fading that reveals
My participation scratches, it scratches
In the white field what is it rings like a bell

“Mystery” and “Traces” and many other shorter pieces make meaning, or the sense of meaning, in a connection of images brought together in a single consciousness at a single point in time, and they come off with a flourish. Nor is Truscott without genuine humour: “Canadian Poetry” is proof that he can do far more than play with words.

But jarring combination, that old surrealist trick, is not always enough. The images in a poem need to build their effects, but in such poems as “Lifestyles,” and much (but by no means all) of his four-part “Eights,” the effect is much the same as assembling first lines of poems in a modern poetry anthology, or even of op-ed pieces:

She voted Liberal for fear the Alliance would win

The scratches in the paint seemed to aspire to a minor

The CBC logo has recently changed from multicoloured
XXXXopacity to digital, clearer-than-clear, ‘gelled’

The crisis of influence is an example of the rebellion
XXXXagainst the tendency toward homogeneity
The book is often recursive, about the very act of writing it, the moment and act of creation an integral part of the substance. That produces mixed results, but at its best the poetry gives us sequences of images that convey with tremendous clarity the workings of an observing mind. If Truscott can abandon the self-indulgence of “It Was,” and give us instead the more lucid and compelling contents of his mind’s “succession of torn envelopes,” that night on the town will be well worth waiting for.

John Baglow is a young poet trapped in an old critic’s body. His latest collection is Journey Under Glass (Penumbra, 2004).






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