canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Pattern of Genes
by Rosalee Van Stelton
Frontenac House, 2001

Swallowing My Mother
by Catherine Moss
Frontenac House, 2001

From a Call Box
by Bob Stallworthy
Frontenac House, 2001

Static Mantis
by Arran Fisher
Frontenac House, 2001

Reviewed by Richard Stevenson

Good news: Alberta has a new press devoted to poetry and fiction! This will be especially heartening to younger poets trying to make a name for themselves, for, of course, there is no backlog of MSS clogging up the pipeline for their work and the mandate at Frontenac House is to publish risky, edgy work in any aesthetic. (Poets will want to check out the Call for Submissions to Quartet 2002 link off the home web page and have until the end of June to submit poetry mss. Plans for prose MSS will be announced down the road apiece. Or write the editors at 1138 Frontenac Ave. S.W., Calgary, AB, T2T 1B6.)

Meanwhile, Quartet 2001 introduces three new Alberta voices and confirms the arrival of a fourth with his second collection. Van Stelton, Moss, and Stallworthy all write spare anecdotal realist lyric/narrative, whereas Arran Fisher writes a long prose poem language poetry sequence (anecdotal rites of passage (auto) biography folded into a playful stew of quantum mechanics, language theory, entomology, and leaping, surreal non-sequitors.)

The quartet idea is not unlike Thistledown Press's New Leaf Editions, presenting handsome, well-designed, first books with complementary sepia or two-tone covers, running headers and footers -- or, in the case of Arran Fisher's book, running dingbats -- generous gutters, good paper stock, perfect binding, glossy paper covers, standard photo and back bio note. The back covers list other titles in the series and present author photo thumbnails with accurate, descriptive text on white background, banded neatly with white logo on black end bands. The design reminds me of the old City Lights Books, but, the books are standard - not digest - sized.

I wouldn't bother with all that description, except that the design care is evidence of the no-nonsense, respectful presentation new poets so desperately need and deserve, and so seldom get with first books. The editorial hand here is steady and sure as well.

Rosalee van Stelton's work has been widely published in newspapers, periodicals, and anthologies and has won several awards, in addition to being translated into Dutch, French, and Braille. She is a member of the Tuesday Night group of The Alexandra Writing Centre in Calgary and credits the group for helping to hammer these poems into shape. Her book is divided into three sequences: those of her Winnipeg Childhood, Poems of Place, and Poems of Loss. The sepia tone family album cover shot of four smiling siblings, posed with arms around each other's shoulders and waists and the title, Pattern of Genes, establish the familial and familiar rites-of-passage focus.

The virtue and reward of the poems is not in the innovative use of form or novel content, but in the dexterous imagistic strokes, the economy of means. Van Stelton knows how to turn a line and how to use the sonic glue of assonance, alliteration, sibilance, slant and full rhyme - and Williams' variable foot rhythms -- to rein in the syllables or loosen the lope of phrase and image as they uncoil down her page:

we lived on the edge
of town, three streets
from infinity

the world was not round
but flat flat as a flounder
Mother said

although we had never seen
such exotic species, we took
her words for truth, enjoying
their ring in our ears

Like Glen Sorestad or Alden Nowlan before her too, she doesn't strain for her effects, being content to wrest metaphor out of direct observation or settle for delicious subtleties of nuance or tone. Thus, there isn't a lot of fanfare; her poems are mostly quiet and still, evincing the sweetness of nostalgia without falling into sentimentality; or the delight in wit and irony that comes with experience and the knowing acceptance of loss in our middle years. Here, for example, she recalls a neighbourhood parrot, Congo Billy, slipping from the flamboyant swashbuckler description of the bird in the first stanza, to the telling working class diction in his mimicry of the human voice at the end of the second:

Leonardo di gizmo
is his true nameXXXbut
when babbling to himself
on lazy afternoons he croons
this song of seduction: hello
bubba. want to go upstairs?

A little like a box of licorice allsorts, in the sense that there is no over-arching narrative, the collection nonetheless represents an able culling of telling moments. I had the feeling of re-discovering my own youth and smiled a lot. There are plenty of poignant pictures and I didn't feel like a bored relative sitting still for the family slide show, but couldn't help but wonder what narrative threads might emerge if the poems weren't placed in rigid thematic groups. This is the standard problem of first books, of course: we assemble them; we don't write them.

Catherine Moss has a similar aesthetic and lapidary way with words and employs the same tripartite structure in gathering the poems of her first book, Swallowing My Mother. Her lyric/ narrative poems range in subject matter from childhood memories, and landscape and travel poems, to carefully observed meditative set pieces. She also writes with a short line and carefully spaced phonological phrases and drop lines, juxtaposing remembered speech with description, but, for the most part, prefers the long loping strophe to three-, four-, or five-line stanza groupings and only twice varies the menu with a long-lined Szumilgalski-like poem on a painting and split column variation on the Old English mid-line caesura accentual poem, so, formally, there is a little less variety here. The content runs deep, however.

Again the cover photo provides a clue: trunk and lower foliage in the upper third of the picture, cross-section of roots in a full-bleed image. It is as though the poet were pulling weeds and wanted to give us the whole plant, dirt-balled roots and all, or was as much interested in arresting perception, as the Projectivists and Objectivists were, as in burnishing urns. Unlike the Projectivists, the images don't come so much from leaps of perception as from a slow panning left to right or top to bottom, and a honing of image to elemental bone:

I bury the cat
under trees
among self-sown
Iceland poppies and blue columbines
I dig down to the frost line
a ritual unpliable
as rigor mortis
his old body
cranked to fit cardboard
winter boot box
his lips retractedXXstill
smelling the metallic taste of death
fur furrowed by the first
shovel of dirt
blackXXmarmaladeXXtabby
it's a pattern
I follow
a memory of absence
filling in
for kindred and affinity
the dead
I've never attended ...

( from "Ceremonies" )

There is more syntactical ambiguity afforded by the lack of punctuation and line breaks here: more ways to wrest metaphor out of the elemental narrative and description. Moss also moves slyly from descriptive to declamatory speech, allowing the poems to burrow from straightforward narrative and description to archetypal symbol. I like that: it looks easy, and I know it isn't. The fact that Ms Moss is well-traveled shows not only in the variety of her landscapes, but in the dexterous camera work.

Bob Stallworthy's From a Callbox is a worthy successor to his first book, Under The Sky Speaking (Snowapple Press, 1998) and leans more heavily on the anecdote than does Moss's work. While evincing the same honing of line and image as the previous two poets - the style by now is almost a prairie prerequisite - Stallworthy is more of a socio-political than metaphysical poet; more of a storyteller than imagist. A former social worker, his mentors and models - fellow former and heart-rooted Maritimers Nowlan, Thurston, Lemm, Cook, and others - are poets of witness, narrative realists. The strengths are thus in the careful observation, wit, irony, and understatement.

To this kit bag, Stallworthy has added recurrent motifs: images and metaphors for communication gaps and gaffs drawn from the specific diction of telephone use: call waiting, party line, call forwarding, cold calls, life line, being on call, etc. Hence there are no section breaks, but the subtext of alienating technology and urban sprawl, of growing further apart, in spite of increased pressure to co-opt the technology that would bring us closer together in complicating knots, undergirds the narrative at every point, making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. It's an ambitious undertaking and Stallworthy pulls it off for the most part. Only occasionally does a poem feel workmanlike or forced.

It's harder to excerpt lines from a narrative than from a lyric, of course, so spot quoting doesn't do justice to Stallworthy's technique. Suffice to say, he usually eschews metaphor in favour of the unadorned narrative, but uses anaphora and other rhetorical strategies along with drop lines, double columns, catch phrases, bits of overheard conversation and regional dialect, subtle alliteration, assonance, consonance, variable line length and open Purdy-like strophes, along with a likable first person persona or more distant second person observational stance to record the subtle nuances of an event or recounted narrative. As with Wayman, the "I" of Stallworthy's poems is often that curious but befuddled everyman who smiles inwardly as if to acknowledge the fact that we're all bozos on this bus, but the sort of guy you trust and want to engage in conversation. Stallworthy is a good deal more economical with his phrasing and scene development than Wayman, and more inclined to keep you waiting for the punch line.

His timing is as impeccable as the working class raconteur's; he knows when the coffee break ends, and how to keep you waiting until lunch. He prefers understatement to hyperbole, so doesn't cut up the way Wayman can when he's having fun, but the poems frequently delight the reader by nailing the telling image in the final line or stitch.

Static Mantis requires a totally different kind of attention - attention to what slips through the lacunae in disjunctive narrative; attention to the non-sequitor; attention to surreal leaps of language and thought.

Poet Arran Fisher more closely resembles a poet like Ron Silliman than a poet like Charles Bernstein. That is to say, the leaps aren't so much etymological - governed by word association - and cerebral, dense knots of polysyllabic, polysemous delays and disruptions of syntax - as they are a series of dislocations of scene and narrative momentum.

The poet disrupts his narrative with metafictional Úlan to ask us every so often if we're having fun yet. How much fun one finds in the discontinuous narrative of the long language poem, of course, depends on how much investment one wants to place in the conventions of the Freytag triangle and how willing one is to play the metafictional game of dislocating meaning.

There are elements of conventional narrative - rites of adolescent passage as it turns out: our intrepid narrator guy goes to the library - the lie prayery for the punsters and punters in the crowd -where he promises eternal devotion in exchange for the chance of getting laid before he graduates, but we don't get the conventional bric-a-brac of protagonist, antagonist, initial conflict, rising action, climax - or any MacGuffin to pursue in great earnest. What we get are jump cuts, edits, splices where the narrative turns on a dime and takes off in some new direction. The jump cuts aren't hard to follow; the desire to go there may be.

Indeterminacy of meaning as basic modus operandi sounds great in theory: indeed reading the theory of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets has always struck me as inherently more interesting than most of the works written in adherence to it. As with the French Surrealists before them, who turned the pocket of consciousness inside out to reveal all the gum wrappers, lint, pennies, and sticky bon bons that they found there, there is nothing ostensibly coherent or interesting in the process of defying closure or conventional narrative structure. The dislocations may turn up bits of interesting effluvia, and the reader will struggle by dint of his or her intelligence to make meaning or complete the contract between writer and reader. Hence, multiple readers and multiple readings will turn up multiple meanings. On the other hand, the reader may ultimately be left with a handful of lint, sticky candy, pennies, and belly button lint.

Realism isn't ostensibly more interesting than disjunctive narrative or vice versa, but in the absence of conflict or complication puts very real pressures on the pleasures of the text.

I'm happy to report I did have fun reading this book. What's it all about, Alfy? That is a tough question. The cover blurb doesn't help much this time. Though accurate in its description of the narrative as a kind of electron accelerator, whirling electrons -- read phonemes, graphemes, words, phrases, sentences - about, we can by repeated readings determine the trace an electron may take, when fired down the chamber, but cannot say at any point where it will be. This puts the onus on the reader to connect the dots, which this reader did - from time to time - and in defiance of the indeterminacy of it all.

The author, of course, wishes us to know that conventional narrative isn't any less of a shell game: it's just a more accepted and familiar - soft, warm, fuzzy convention.

So where do we go from the library? Do we get the girl? Where and what is the McGuffin? Do we get it? What we get, friends, is access to the mind of the author in free fall. Bits and pieces of social observation, scientific insect and atomic lore:

The treason of black ice, seasonal adversity like an annual extermination of insects dropping like flies in the face of comfort and joy. An anti-plague of buglelessness, a doublecross the street-like rink, over ploughed snow a sideboard of all this refrigeration. ...

You get the idea: because even the syntax refuses to hold subject and object in a relation through the aegis of transitive verb et al, I'm sure to forget what I experienced at the instant I experience it. What you get out is what you put in. The difficulties aren't with the diction or the science, the way Dewdney can be difficult say, but in holding all those flying parts in orbit around a theme.

Is the game worth the candle? I think so. As I say, I had fun observing the flora and fauna. And its nice to know that a new press in Alberta is open to all kinds of schools and practices. Nice to know the "new" writers out there aren't so struck on the new fangled ways of making meaning that their work is impenetrable.

Richard Stevenson's twelfth book, Live Evil: A Homage to Miles Davis (Thistledown Press) was released in 2000. He teaches at Lethbridge Community college and can be reached at richard@pi-flora.com.

 

 

 

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TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

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