canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Crossing the Salt Flats
by Christopher Wiseman
The Porcupine's Quill, 1999

Review by Geoffrey Cook

... Somehow my line survived.
I cling to it, hoping the earth will hold me up.

These lines, from "Village Cemetery, Scotland", employ the central metaphor of an important new book of Canadian poetry. Crossing the Salt Flats, Christopher Wiseman's 11th volume, is a exploration of personal and cultural identity. The lines quoted above not only describe the thematic focus of Wiseman's book - heritage and destiny -; they are a metaphor for poetics - i.e., Wiseman's experiments in forms and his confidence in traditional metrics, rhymes and stanzas: uncommon and wholly welcome in contemporary poetry in this country.

The central subjects of Crossing the Salt Flats are places - from cities to salt flats - and people - family and friends - encountered in fact and in the present or recalled from childhood memory or imagined in the few monologues of the collection. The settings of the poems are divided fairly equally among Britain and Canada (the mother country and the present home), and Scotland and the United States (familiar haunts). The dominant mood of the collection is, of course, nostalgic (though not sentimental), and, as explorations into the past and one's heritage must, an elegiac note is often explicit.

Thus, while there are several poems which 're-create' a lost past (for example, a bike and books of Wiseman's childhood), the ironic conclusion of such quests is their partial, transient, merely imagined re-possession and assurance: the past is longer, larger and heavier; the dead are manifold and insistently, literally, absent. Ideally, the elegy doesn't lie: neither about the permanent loss nor the significance of metaphor - that "turning up at the end", as Brodsky once described the ethics of the genre. Interestingly, Wiseman's strongest poems are three elegies: "The Gravediggers", "The Visitors", and "By the Mississippi". Appropriately, these poems appear at the beginning, middle and end of the collection, and deal, respectively, with a child recalling his father killing cats, the son-as-adult apparently visiting the father's grave with the wife/mother, and the death of a colleague - the movement in time correspondent with a movement in space: from England, to the New World - and being caught in-between.

A poem is, in itself, a re-creation, a re-possessing of the world; but the best poems are self-conscious of both their faith and their sleight of hand: dubious, that is, of the apparent moral victory of imaginative transcendence. This is what Wiseman's elegies imply, as does the final poem of the collection, "A Summer Estate 1899" - a description of the (servants') opening of the summer home of a Russian Count and Countess at the anxious closing of the last century. At the close of ours, these are the last ominous lines of Wiseman's poem:

So it was, you think,
And wonder, if they ever had time to look,
These people, at the shivers on the lake, or wonder
If the howling they heard at night was coming closer.

Clearly there is an authentic, achieved voice in Crossing the Salt Flats, though it wears its aesthetic (and, in some ways, its ethical) influences openly at times. Take, for example, the first stanza of the opening poem, "Two Loves Had I":

Polished maroon and gold, chrome dazzling,
my proudest possession as a teenager,
it was a bike envied by friends, looked at
by strangers, kept immaculate by cloths
soft as clouds. Every spoke was cleaned.
I kept it locked at school, let nobody ride it.
It was a deep pure passion.

The echo of James Joyce's "Ulysses" ("Blonde by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing...") may be unconscious, but certainly Seamus Heaney's sonnet sequence "Clearances" was recent reading material ("Polished linoleum shone there. Brass taps shone..."). The sequence "Ready Now" also suffers by the inevitable comparison with Seamus Heaney's "Squarings" - the form, and partially the concept of which Wiseman uses in his sequence on childhood books re-discovered. Wiseman often sounds that ethical and aesthetic pose of Heaney's carefully practiced tone of the naive country boy whose experiences of the phenomenal world are so pregnant with transcendence, though Heaney's language is equally grounded in and the grounding of the thing-itself.

For Wiseman, however, narrative and descriptive details sometimes weigh down the potential transcendence we always seek in poetry, as in the sequences, "Ready Now" and "Grandfather, The Somme, An Invoice". The lines of these poems are tied up in catalogues (though the oppressive banality of the stock-taking is relevant to the war elegy). At other points, the poet seems to get scared of or unconsciously avoid the dramatic momentum of a poem, as in "On Julia's Clothes".

Formally - technically - the book is very accomplished. There are a number of well-crafted free verse poems, but more interesting is Wiseman's practice of traditional poetic forms. Besides the dominant blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentametre), there is a sonnet, and numerous experiments with faux terza rime - the vehicle of Dante's descent and transcendence -, which is technically logical, since Wiseman is undertaking his own odyssey/descent. Other forms are also very well-suited to their particular subjects; the most obvious, if ironic, example is "The Duchess Takes the Waters: 1732" in heroic couplets. There are also rondels and a number of other more extreme artifices (suggesting the influence of French poetry) disarmingly employed by Wiseman.

Wiseman's work is a confident assertion in this country of the continuing relevance and effectiveness of formal verse, of the tools of rhythm and rhyme and the weight of traditional forms. The poet's accounting - of culture and self - is a fragile peace-making with fate. Crossing the Salt Flats resonates with the humility of middle age; a Dantean enlightenment. On the other side of the salt flats - the plains of dried tears - is not necessarily water (salty or fresh); at best there is a sense of the survival of the line and the irrelevance of tears. Sorrow is human; but no poem comes from the silence of despair.

Geoffrey Cook's poetry has been published in "Pottersfield Portfolio", "The Nashwaak Review", and "Descant (#104)". Originally from Nova Scotia, Geoff currently teaches English at John Abbott College outside Montreal, where he lives. He is seeking a publisher for his collection of poetry, "Postscript".







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