Reviews

George Elliot Clarke

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Poetry, Art and Essay Reviews

The Catch
by Fiona Sampson
London, UK: Random House, 2016
80pp, $10.15

Fiona Sampson’s reputation is sunlight preceding her. The British poet has twice been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes. Her poetry has been translated into more than 30 languages. She has been awarded the Cholmoneley Award, the Newdigate Prize, and the Zlaten Prsten prize of Macedonia, among others.

A professor of Poetry at the University of Roehampton, Sampson edits the prestigious British answer to America’s Poetry magazine, namely Poem. She is among the most blessed of poets in that, as a practitioner and as an editor, she is likely conversant with all the potential glories of contemporary verse in English—and in translation. Given her Ivory Tower location and her salon commitments as a journal editor, it is very surprising that Sampson’s latest book, The Catch, is characterized by lyrics that seldom range beyond a page and whose diction is children’s storybook elementary. In this book, Sampson gives us existentialism as pseudo-nursery rhyme. If comparison is germane here, the poets that Sampson seems to be taking up as backing vocals to her songs are British plainsong types—Philip Larkin, John Betjeman, but with a bit of the edge that one associates with William Blake, Ted Hughes, and Basil Bunting.

One key to reading this work, Sampson’s eighth, is to note the double meaning of her title. There’s “catch”—as in harvest, gleaning, snatching, find; but there’s “catch”—as in snag, trap, or a troublesome detail. Frequently, in these poems, then, Sampson presents a superficially “normal” and/or comfy, everyday scene, and then reveals a subtle ‘catch’ or complication. The first poem accomplishes this pictorial destabilization nicely. “Wake” celebrates the arrival of our daily light. Even so, “stems stay half hidden / in a dark / that won’t give up the night / where roots go down….”

The poems contrast light and dark consistently, unendingly: Revelation arrives, but shadows continue: “and you too inside the car / your hands dark / on the wheel your dark / eyes wide // haven’t you arrived / once again at / astonishment / at the brink of dream?” “Late” reminds us that we are belated in our failure to live our lives for ourselves: “[you’re] / useless afterwards // when you find / it was your life / you murdered / your own life….”

What Sampson names, consistently, is the subtle theology, the private theology, that unfolds when lovers lie together, unawares yet of what their love could entail: “See how they sleep first he turns / away and then she turns / after him or now she turns / her back and he follows // rolled by an imperative / deeper than sleep / he rolls over like a wave / that turns itself over / sleepily with the sea’s deep / breathing with its rhythm….”

What Sampson knows? That you are fragile and that all we love is contingent. See “Syringe”: “Such sweetness. And such loneliness.” But: “Pain comes singing / down the vein // its high erratic song / pealing in the darkness of my room.” The problem, for us mortal creatures, as Sampson sees, is that we cannot make the leap from worldly suffering to divine obliviousness. What we have is our animal fact of being: “She smells of salt. As if / the smell of her conception / were still on her….” Recognize: “The human body is a heavy machine. / Such stillness / when the motor shudders and stops.” Nor do animals cease to be enlisted as symbols of our undeniable carnality: “she remembers and we forget / the smell of blood / always in her muzzle.”

As splendid—as fine—as is The Catch—throughout, the closing sequence of a dozen poems is superlative. “Cob” confesses the interconnectedness of what is beautiful and what is useful: “a loaf made from corn / because the crust of things / rises and fall like breath / in the flanks of beasts.” “Field” maintains a promise of transcendence: “ the creatures / track their errands // dark as the veins that track my calves / the hayfield sighs and stirs / and closes over itself / taking its miraculous light / into itself.”

The meditations are self-interrogations. In “Here,” “you will go on here / even after / you have left although / you just arrived.” That sums up the lifespan: Three score and ten, and you’re done.

Fiona Sampson is a wise, witty, erudite, and earth/world-infatuated poet. She can do anything—and does everything. The Catch is yours. No “catch.”

Teeth: Poems 2006-2011
by George Bowering
Toronto, ON: Mansfield, 2013
115 pp, $17

driftword
by Croc E. Moses
Pretoria, SA: Unisa Press, 2015
64 pp, $20, with CD

B.C. poet, George Bowering, is Institutionalized Revolutionary Poetry; his work is both perfectly canonical and perpetually new. See for yourself by checking out his umpteenth collection, Teeth: Poems 2006-2011. Bowering’s 80 now. In his Yeatsian years, he muses inescapably—but not morbidly—on death and decline. Also Teeth is an impressive array of forms, from haiku to blues to free verse. Also enjoyable are Bowering’s patented, startling juxtapositions of the classical and the casual, the everyday and the weird, pop cult and high-brow literature. The poet jump-cuts, jazz-improvises with, college allusion and comic incident: “I fell on my face / where Dante trod. Florence / gave me nothing / to grasp. Old stones / are not poetry then.” Remembering a chum’s nickname, “Zonko,” Bowering imagines him authoring “a smudgy, crooked print job, poetry / Dalhousie University will never read.” One refrain-driven lyric eavesdrops on a black-comic moment: “The anaesthetic wore off. I heard two doctors arguing. / ‘You’re his family doctor. YOU pull the plug!’ ‘No, YOU were the surgeon. You pull it!”

Another refrain-based poem offers this memento-mori image: “I opened the Venetian blind. My entire Grade 12 class was out / there, some in wheelchairs, several dead, all singing inaudibly.”

A senior practitioner of the looser, slangy poetry that flowed into English Canada via the Black Mountain and Beat Movement experiments of postwar U.S. verse, Bowering is an expert of the image-made-lyric. See this untitled poem: “The way a woman looks down / while she’s hooking her bra together / in front, / then turns it / around her body and / puts her nude elbows out / and then quietly lifts / a little black strap / over each shoulder.”

A long poem purports to eulogize a grandmother: “I was reading Olson / and drinking Molson…. // How would you like, / my granny said / to be Charles Olson’s typewriter?” Mimicking a (Wilfrid) Laurier (University Press) Poetry Series book, Teeth concludes with a Judith-Fitzgerald-conducted interview with Bowering. Answering her thoughtful questions, Bowering is always flowering, seldom glowering. Wanna be a poet? Have “a love for oneself as a stranger to oneself.”

Born Henrik Brand in “subarctic Canada,” croc E moses is the nom de plume of the now-Cape Town, South Africa-based musician, artist, and performance poet. His first commercially published book is driftword (UNISA, $20US), which includes a CD in the back flap. The grandson of one of English Canada’s greatest mid-20th-century literary scholars, namely George Whalley, croc E employs spoken poetry to critique and comment on contemporary South African politics, particularly how “the majority who are a minority / live under democratic apartheid / does inequality have to be the source of our diversity.”

croc E reverses the path of the fine South African poet Arthur Nortje, who immigrated to Canada, 1967-70, but died in London, UK, in 1970. (University of South Africa Press—UNISA—has also published Nortje.) But croc E follows Nortje who, himself, adopted a free-spirited, Spoken-Word vibe, in his last months of life, in Toronto here and in Oxford there.

Some may not like the plainness of croc E’s raps, but such is the empowering poetics of free-speech-put-to-a-rhythm-and/or-a-beat. How else can you “get bored with your subconscious, cheat on your blindness”? Too, “propaganda / = fear of poets.” The best counter-propaganda is Truth, which is what croc E aims to deliver, including some self-criticism: “the hardest thing to admit / is i have been complicit / in the cold war of freedom.” Indeed, “I’ve been eking out a private freedom / a freedom to fool myself….”

The style of these pieces owes much to Bob Marley, the Pop Poet of the Third World, whose verses have taught the oppressed everywhere that their scriptures and folk beliefs and plain-talk world-views are both poetry and a valid people’s political economy. Whenever elections unfurl, with its bold-face lies and histrionics, remember to stay tuned to Truth: “look after your poetry / and your poetry will look after you / look after your imagination / and your dreams will look after you.”

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