canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Alberta Anthology 2006: 53 Award-Winning Stories, Monologues, Essays & Poems Presented by The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Edited by A.G. Boss, Frontenac House, 2006

bulletin from the low light, j. fisher, Frontenac House, 2006

A Summer Father, Joanna M. Weston, Frontenac House, 2006

Taqsim, Zaid Shlah, Frontenac House, 2006

Reviewed by Richard Stevenson

Every year I look forward to the new crop of books in Frontenacís Quartet Series, now in its sixth year. Every year brings something different, something new, be that a new aesthetic or different poetics from the anecdotal realist mainstream of the growing stable of Frontenac poets Ė by now the range runs from imagism to Beat to spoken word -- or an ever-expanding e-book profile series on Alberta authors. Eclectic has become a watchword of this small press. This year brings two surprises: a CBC contest anthology and a book of online blog poetry, literally a memoir in verse.

I wish I could be more excited about the anthology, which, in addition to the four genres specified in the subtitle, is further subdivided into first, second, and third place winners in Professional, Amateur, and, Youth categories. The Youth category is represented only in the story section, and the bulk of the material Ė professional and amateur, represented by sixteen items apiece Ė not surprisingly, evinces a higher level of composition skill.

I say "higher level"; in truth, the bulk of the selections are merely publishable or competent; I wasnít particularly bowled over by anything, even in the professional category. I suspect this is attributable more to factors of maximum length and broadcast time constraints than any limitation in skill levels of the respective authors, however. Or perhaps the purse just isnít high enough, and the professionals are sending their best work elsewhere. ;-) In the case of the authors and poets I was familiar with, this certainly seems to be the case. There may have been an unspoken gentility factor too, as one would expect with a family broadcast, so the bulk of the material is of the kitchen sink, realist stamp and isnít too adventurous in either thematic reach or use of language.

The standout story is first-place professional winner Leslie Greentreeís "The Brilliant Save," about amateur hockey heroics and male braggadocio: how the guy who can stop a puck with his tough exterior becomes a metaphor for a life cut short by adolescent bravado. Nothing new, but the extended metaphor is handled well throughout, and the story is terse and economical, handling the conventions of the Freytag triangle with wit and grace. Other pieces in the Amateur category Ė second place "Rainy Day, Big City Street, for instance, or first-place Youth category winner, "The Vacuum Cleaner" by Sarah Feutl Ė arenít really full-fledged short stories at all, but, one assumes, autobiographical sketches. Oneís a postcard story. All rely on situational or dramatic irony, which the reader can see coming a mile off. The best that I can say here is that the dialogue is credible and the characters are well drawn. Much is derivative of modern realist masters like W.O., or Ken Mitchell though. One hopes the younger authors will find their own voices down the road.

The Creative Non-Fiction pieces deliver more on their initial promise, and I find a number of pieces quite compelling and resourceful in the use of language. Professional first-place winner Rebecca Bradley turns in the standout performance with her "Wedding in Sepia," a meditation on a wedding picture, circa 1911, Calgary, which makes much of body language, eye contact, and poise and pose to adumbrate the lacunae in Victorian manners and behavioral/dress codes, and speculate from empirical evidence on future relations. Second Place, Professional Category winner Caterina Edwards offers a similarly laconic, masterful piece of retrospective narration that contrasts a little girlís perceptions to the larger movements of history. The timing is perfect and the control of colloquial speech rhythms and the Mother Goose melodies of childrenís sentence inflections note perfect.

This section runs the gamut from personal memoir and/or reflection to character sketch and travelogue. I only wish some of the pieces were three times as long as they are, so they could turn up more perceptions and play more with creative non-fiction plot and narrative technique.

Editor A.G. Boss kicks off the dramatic monologue section with a piece of his own, "Reflecting Reason," as if to set the tone or show the others how such a marvel of concision can be constructed. Itís a short metafictional piece that plays off the mirror Ėmirror-on-the-wall motif and fairy tale language to tell a story of a son who repeats the sins of the father in rejecting his feminine, intuitive side as represented by a Queen mother who dies shortly after he childís birth. Her death leaves the husband bereft and he retreats into a rational existence, naming his son Reason. The naming and modeling of everything functional and acquisitive leaves the son looking at his fatherís face in the mirror until he is able to find his feminine side in a storage locker of his motherís things. He finds happiness by throwing off the utilitarian yoke. Itís a clever, witty piece, a kind of cartoonish fractured fairy tale. One of the few pieces that goes beyond realism.

For my money, the other pieces pale beside it, though I admired first-place professional winner Marty Chanís handling of the obsessive lurker in "Waiting"; loved the claustrophobic sense he creates in a few scant pages. Second-place winner Connie Massingís "Death by Chocolate" too is a confection of pure language delight, witty and perceptive on an all-too-familiar relationship between a lonely woman and her friend the fridge treat.

I find the first place poetry and poetic prose professional category winner Garry Garrisonís "Grand Canyon Phantasm" oddly prosaic by comparison. The lines are rather flat and chatty, and the poet tells more than he reveals. Too much adjectival flab, too little concision in image/metaphor. Second-place professional category winner Rosemary Griebelís "The Helen Poems" fairs slightly better, to my way of thinking, if only for their more cinematically effective use of cutaway and concise scenography. The language is still too chatty. The rest of the poems go from bad to worse, ending in the amateur category with slice-and-dice prose anecdote.

Nothing is particularly horrible, and the anthology offers some smiles of recognition and a good, quick read on the beach; it can be dipped into or read through with much pleasure, if little in the way of discovery. By and large, the language and writing are adroit, if the turns to which much of the narrative and observational zeal are addressed seem wanting.

Perhaps the best writers just arenít entering CBC contests with the same hope and spirit of youthful idealism as they once did. Or perhaps Iím getting too old and cranky. Iím surprised the crop was so thin on the ground though. I love the CBC; I expected more.

J. Fisherís blog book, bulletin from the low light, is disappointing too. Again, heís going for the Charles Bukowski wannabe aesthetic: free verse swatches of what passes for self-analysis in self-flagellation as he documents incident after incident in the daily round of drinking and drug debauchery, visits to counselors, the struggle to maintain dignity while one is just struggling to get by. How much do you want to watch a drug addict and alcoholic abuse himself? How long before you tire of the long swatch free verse strophe, minus the polyphony of a Purdy or a Gervais? I mean, heís in the pocket a lot of the time and knows how to write the street poem and knows what passes for street cred and rhythmic panache, but the content gets tiresome, and I wish this poet would get the help he needs and quit with the poet maudite pose already. Itís been done before; itís been done better; the poet did it one better in his first book.

The problem this go-round, I think is the premise: the notion that one could keep a blog in free verse and pass off the daily or weekly entries with all their dross as high art. It just isnít. Itís poetic memoir, to be sure, but could be so much more if the lines were burnished a little and the poet made several passes to layer the poems, add a little of that Purdy-like polyphony that it could sustain. More irony, less bravado, please; less confessionalism Ė even the Confessionalists dug deep in metaphor and burnished the urn Ė more exploration of image. Poetry should be more than the next fix Ė for poet and reader both.

A Summer Father is short on ambition too: while adding to the literature of war, in making use of an absent fatherís own war poetry, journals, and letters home to begin a dialogue, rather like Natalie Coleís reach across time in electronic duet with her father on "Unforgettable," it is poignant and spare in all the good ways. Yet it doesnít push imagination or invention as far as it might and it never comes up to the power and concision of the great war poets like Wilfred Owen, Sigfried Sassoon, or, more recently, Yusef Komanyaaka and W. D. Ehrhart.

I would like to see more engagement with the poems of her fatherís book: de-construction, palimpsest, word- and line-weaving, pastiche even. Not just the use of her fatherís verse in epigraph and postscript.

To be fair, the book is about absences, lacunae Ė specifically, the longing for a father-daughter relationship over many miles of ocean and over much lost time; the idea is that a daughter might be able to patch together a quilt of memories and keep memory warm. There isnít a lot left of the father but a few poems, a few letters, a few domestic front memories. The focus is necessarily domestic: is as much about what the father missed, as about what the daughter missed by his supreme sacrifice. Of course, all wars are horrible and waste resources and energy and consume everything in their mad path. No need to dwell on that; itís obvious enough.

Not surprisingly, the poetís father is no Wilfred Owen either; heís a post-Georgian poetaster, writing mostly doggerel or workmanlike sonnets or accentual-syllabic pieces, declaiming more than exploring, or merely describing felicitous landscapes or weather, or so one assumes on the basis of the extracts and one full sonnet included from his one published volume. Still, thereís gold in the juxtaposition of the more modern sensibility that longs to reach out in terse, imagistic lines; gold in the juxtaposition of the youthful sketch and photo of the grey-haired daughter. Itís not nostalgia that we experience but quiet, poignant grief.

I like this poetís terseness and sense of play:

we played follow-the-spitfire
ring-a-ring-a-pilot-gone
the bomberís bridge has fallen down
hereís one fair-lady-o
buried with no funeral
in the crook of a tree
hidden by blossom
so no one can find me
for I am the child
whose bones were ground
to make bread for war.
(A Nursery War," p. 19)

Sheís opened a fertile dialogue and Joanna W. Weston makes up for the lack of ambition in a quietly plaintive voice that spares the reader of any false heroics or sentimentality. I would have liked more emotional range, but the poet eventually won me over.

Iíve saved the best for last. Even so, Zaid Shahís book, Taqsim, is a mixed bag for me. I admire the poetics: the poetís use of open-form free verse poetics Ė adept, expansive, catching things in the warp and weft of the fabric; I like the formal variety, from short-lined, almost haiku Ė nay, renga-like Ė stitches to ambling, multiple-margined strophes and closed form stanzas in various nonce forms Ė triplets, quatrains, etc.

Perhaps the frontispiece will help to nail down the content:

A taqsim is an improvisational Middle Eastern medley in which the musician moves between formal musical structure and free-flowing improvisation. In Taqsim Zaid Shlah writes within the formal structure of the lyric, but incorporates an innovative lyricism that agitates between his Iraqi and Canadian heritage: a history of music, food, war and love in a space as wide as the mountains and prairies of his native Alberta to as far away as the land between two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Line for line, stanza for stanza, strophe for strophe, Shlahís the best poet here. He turns a mellifluous and highly rhythmic line; he successfully weaves the stuff of history, familial memories, landscape, even cuisine into his poetry, performing a kind of word jazz that improvises on the blue notes of recent Iraqi history and the rich madrigals of his motherís remembered speech. He riffs on his unique place in the world, the double vision afforded by one who grieves the narrative forced on his countrymen by Bushís fundamentalist Christian warriors, and speculates on the demise of the Western empire, wondering where it is, and how it is a man in such an imperfect fragmented, post-Modern world is to make his stand; and how he can find solace in the family that carries such inestimable baggage.

Itís the subject of many post-modern long poem sequences, perhaps going as far back as David Jonesí Anathemťta and forward to the projectionists, Creeley, Olson et al. Strange bedfellows, to be sure, but Shlah draws on a lot of poetic traditions here, including the Arabic revelatory and amatory Ghazal tradition of Persia. Itís a delightful stew and I find myself nodding to the music frequently, smiling like I do when I hear a westerner like Ornette Coleman improvising off skeins of melody played by the master musicians of Jajouka. The scales arenít the same but the free jazz melody just keeps weaving in and around the beats.

Canada needs more poets like Zaid Shlah, but donít take my word for it; hereís a riff to get you humming:

hear this howl oud, the Taurus Mountains occupy
the northern landscape of my brain, and weightless
as a pod of Orcas at the bottom of the Arctic Sea
drowned out by Bachís 6 cello suites, and
Heidegger read Nietsche whom I ate, I take my
gin and whisky neat, to cool the storm, delineate ...

If you believe as I do that the best of poetry is word jazz, then this is the real McCoy, free jazz dancing light as a mosquito above the concentric circles of a pond the frog jumped in. Iím along for the entire ride.

Richard Stevenson lives and teaches in Lethbridge, Alberta. Works include Bye Bye Blackbird: An Elegiac Sequence for Miles Davis (Ekstasis Editions, 2007) and Parrot With Touretteís (Black Moss Press, Palm Poets Series, 2006).

 

 

 

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