by Derek Walcott
New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010
96 pp. $28
Also not counted in that number of works above is Walcott’s first book, published when he was 18, in 1948, and already serving notice that he would be a bard to be reckoned with. It’s unlikely that any of the then-reigning monarchs of English poetry—T.S. Eliot in London or Ezra Pound in Washington, D.C. (in an insane asylum)—took much notice of a slim volume of poems published in out-of-the-way St. Lucia by a black kid. Yet, that kid, born in 1930, arguably rose to become the finest poet in English in the 20th century, the author of the only successful epic, and if he has a rival it is only that of another uncontested, indisputably fine poet, W.B. Yeats. But now Walcott’s 80, and if his persona in these newest latest poems is anything like the man himself, he is suffering from diabetes, watching his weight, and recalling those he liked and loved—family, lovers, friends, other writers and painters—those who have now gone on, passed away.
We are here in the twilight realm of elegy, the mix of nostalgia and sorrow that renders the regular world of argument and strife less sharp so that those who matter most to the poet appear vividly—larger than life. The very appearance of White Egrets is grey: the dust-jacket, the grey-washed photo of the poet, the print upon the page. Clearly, Walcott now views the world in the light of his own autumn, his own dusk, while remaining, as Poet—as deathless as the language.
The substance of the book is the something-nothing of a shadow—the living spectre of ourselves that will die when we do. Walcott’s persona declares he’s an “old man in the dimming world,” but still shaken by adoration for “An average beauty, magnified to deific, demonic / stature by the fury of intellect, / a flat-faced girl with slanted eyes and a narrow / waist, and a country lilt to her voice.” His position here—the old man desiring, the old man lusting—is Yeats’s too, and Walcott knows it. Throughout these elegiac sonnets, he plays the role of a Poet of the Poets and of Poetry. There are echoes everywhere of other voices, and even, direct invocations of Shakespeare, Conrad, and an overall British Canon.
These lyrics remind us that Walcott has always been a poet of travel: Maybe it comes from his being raised in the shadow of an empire that named England as the Mother Country that all colonials should want to see; or maybe it comes from growing up on an island: from there, wherever you look, there’s an exotic somewhere elsewhere.
So we see this traveller with an eye for landscapes, letters, and ladies—examine them and memories (the scripture that defines us), both amusing and haunting. That study is excellent, but so is the imagery (as usual): “Watch how spray will burst / like a cat scrambling up the side of wall, / gripping, sliding, surrendering; how, at first, / its claws hook then slip with a quickening fall / to the lace-rocked foam.” The sustained achievement of that metaphor is astonishing, as is this reflection: “That is the heart, coming home, / trying to fasten on everything it moved from / how salted things only increase its thirst.”
Walcott has always penned lines that seem silkily, shimmeringly classic, as in this elegy for a friend: “the full grief will hit me and my heart will toss / like a horse’s head…. / Love lies underneath it all though, the more surprising the death, the deeper the love, the tougher the life…. / Your death is like our friendship beginning over.”
Once a professor in the U.S., Walcott exhibits an American ease—the striking facility of, say, Wallace Stevens. His lines seem as plain as water, then as romantic as wine, and, next, as sassy as acid. Also rewarding are Walcott’s elegies for the black writers and painters he has adored all these decades. But he also knows he must speak to our time, and so there is a poem for Barack Obama: “Forty Acres” should have been Obama’s Inauguration Day poem….
Red & Greene
Red: Contemporary Black British Poetry
by Kwame Dawes ed.
UK: Peepal Tree Press, 2010
220 pp. £10
Red: Contemporary Black British Poetry anthologizes 81 poets related by their British citizenship; “blackness” that covers South Asian, West Asian, African, and West Indian; and the varied use of red as word, idea, and colour. Dawes says the title and theme of the collection emerged from the ether. He rejected “blue” because everyone might write blues; he cut “black” because it could inspire “too many poems about blackness.”
It’s debatable logic: As an author of poetry books titled Blue (2001) and Black (2006), I can attest that neither work is replete with jays or coal. Indeed, when colour is a theme, the entire rainbow enters into consciousness, for every tint exists in a spectrum of shadings and contrasts. Red is, thus, colourful. Abdullahi Botan Hassan “Kurweyne” finds it “reaches in different directions.” Yes: “whenever red dries up / it becomes black!” Shanta Acharya’s poem, “Infinity of Red,” catalogues all from “anaemic woman”—pallid—to “Mary in maroon-red and blue: The Annunciation.” For John Agard, blood “leaves its print on history’s purest page”: Red on white is a William Carlos Williams image. Maroula Blades’ “Blood Orange” has room for “an orange bandit,” the “sapphire Indian Ocean,” and the “belly button’s black.”
A feisty lyric, “The Red Robber,” by Faustin Charles, is one of the few truly fiery poems here: “From the depths of burning Hell / I came/ Cast out because I rape Satan’s daughter…. / Watch me / Reshaping islands from sea-spray / Sweat and grass.” It’s the tough talk of a smart, bad-ass Caliban. Also strong is Fred D’Aguiar’s entry, which conjures a tropical, likely poor love-nest: “Never our bodies lit by a lamp whose wick / Shoulders an oil snake for a flame / Licking soot onto the glass lamp / Casting a shadow diluted orange…. / As my memory insists upon pitching it.” “Pitching” has a dual, dark sense. Deeply moving is Khadijah Ibrahim’s dramatic monologue, featuring an elderly woman asking to be buried in her red dress, “just like royalty…. / I see de queen wearing one just like it pon TV.”
Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub poem, “Five Nights of Bleeding,” captures well the violence, suicidal and homicidal, that results from racial alienation: Blades, blasts, blows, busted bodies… Jackie Kay’s “The Red Graveyard,” strikes a bluesy note, nostalgic: A memory of her father’s “magnificent black face” and his love of Bessie Smith’s naughty songs of “Jelly roll. Kitchen man. Sausage roll. Frying pan.” “Sure, Reds,” by Roi Kwabena, is a rich, demotic, and political pic of Trinidad and its religious and racial divisions. The poem pulses with energy, from noting “black power red” to how a “badd” (sic) woman only “eat Julie mango if it red.” Red’s other highlights are satire by Simon M. Murray; anti-Mugabe polemic by Mafu Nqobile; a yam salute by Nii Ayikwei Parkes; red definitions by Roger Robinson; prose poems by Sudeep Sen; possible autobiography from Kimberly Trusty.
There is also Saradha Soobrayen’s sharp epigram, “With Love from Russia”: “In an exchange of letters / the word for Red: Krassny, / became very close to Krassivy, / the word for beautiful.” In the end, Dawes’ Black Briton bards prove that Red can be as dark as Cecil Rhodes’ Cairo-to-Cape Africa and as dazzling as ‘blood’ diamonds. But it is also black-and-blue, purple with rage, green with jealousy, and grey with wisdom. Too bad no one remembered Detroit Red (Malcolm X): I’ll do so in my next book, titled—yes, for some years now—“Red”!
Boxing the Compass
by Richard Green
Montreal: Vehicule press
99 pp. $16
Richard Greene’s third book of poetry is Boxing the Compass. He’s also edited a book on Graham Greene. The G. Greene connection makes sense, for the poet’s voice is just as catholic, just as humane, and just as compassionate, as is that of the late, great novelist.
A Newfoundland native, now living in Toronto, Greene’s lyrics, reminiscent of blank verse, are generically—even generously—clear. To read him is to hear news, sung: “A window gathered light from the sky / and argued for life in a bad time, / as amid gesticulating boughs / of a stripped maple, its crooked fingers / raised in bitter emphasis, / an unseen orator spoke in mime.”
Comix and Graphics
Newave!: The Underground Mini Comix of the 1980s
by Michael Dowers ed.
Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2010
Newave!: The Underground Mini Comix of the 1980s is a book 10% larger in area than a hotel notepad. Depth-wise, though, it’s nearly as thick as The Arabian Nights. Introduced and quietly edited (i.e. collected and compiled) by Michael Dowers, this anthology of miniature, illustrated stories (comic scenes or comix, often hand-made) is a fascinating reminder of how 1960s progress ground to a halt in the 1980s. The mini comix owe their origins to the radical, underground texts of the 60s/70s, that were fiercely libertarian, treating politicians and preachers as obscenities and celebrating sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. They were angry, obnoxious, and unforgettable.
By the 1980s, however, the original, anti-establishment sensibility of the underground comix had been replaced by a faith in just ‘do-it-yourself’—making your own ‘zines,’ and that “sense of independence” is what Dowers praises. But the power of their art is lessened by the creators’ retreat from the world—our world—of struggles. When, in 1985, Hilary Barta’s Incredible-Hulk-like dude says, “Go ahead…, start somethin’!: Publish your own [comix]!” Only the individual is ‘freed.’ Gone are the appeals for social liberation. So the art stresses “independence of thought,” which, in turn, excuses lame satire, surreal doodles, staid sexism, and politics that hugs the suburbs and snubs the slums.
That said, there are some provocative pieces. J.R. Williams’s nazified Daffy Duck, here called “Deadly Duck,” is as profane and violent as the original perhaps secretly is. Williams’s “Old Girlfriends: Vivian, a Romance,” is wistful, personal, and beautifully drawn. Harry Lyrico’s “White Boy Goes to Hell” updates Dante. Dowers’s own “Steel Guitar Babies” adds dirty doings and dialogue to 1950s-Father-Knows-Best backdrops. Crazy! Even so, the basic failure of the 1980s mini comix is that they weren’t really “Underground,” as in subversive: they were only “Underground” as in being fashioned in rec rooms.
Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery
by Matt Johnson and Warren Fleece
USA: Vertigo, 2010
Written by Mat Johnson and drawn by Warren Pleece, Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery, is a graphic text whose hero is a white-looking, black reporter, who employs his Caucasian appearance to report on lynchings—in the 1920s—and escape with his hide. Scenes shuttle between Harlem and the segregated, vicious South, with white-like-me blacks and a woman-transvestite, the Ku Klux Klan and very potent moonshine, all putting in appearances. Johnson is African-American; Pleece is (white) British. Together, they accomplish drafting a graphic novel that is well written and well drawn, with a true mystery at its core and a nicely twisted ending. Yet, in typical U.S. pop culture style, the text goes heavy on the violence and prudish on the romance.
Robert Edison Sandiford and Geof Isherwood
USA: Amerotica, 2010
There’s no such reticence in Great Moves, Written by Robert Edison Sandiford and drawn by Geof Isherwood, this adults-only trio of tales furnishes a horror story, a seduction-of-the-innocent fiction, and a lyrical finale addressing the meaning of love. Born in Montreal and now settled in Barbados (where he has twice won that nation’s Governor-General’s Award for Literary Arts), Sandiford has texted two other adult comics: Attractive Forces and Stray Moonbeams. Yet, Great Moves is better, for its emphasis is on story and not so much anatomy (though that’s front-and-centre too).
The first tale deals with a white man who removes his wedding ring so he can pick up a nearly naked young black woman in a Montreal bar. As it turns out, she’s judgmental about his (or their) adultery, and possesses the magical powers to make her judgments stick. The hero has his fling. But he ends up thrown for a loop. Next up is a videographer, Jay, who’s invited to film a wedded couple at their conjugal bliss. Little does she know that the “job” is a scheme to get her just where the couple (her friends) has always wanted her to be—in their bed. Last up is an elderly woman reminiscing on a marital life that has been deeply satisfying. Her nostalgia concludes with her lying beside her dying husband in his hospital bed, listening to his “still beating heart.” This superb story should move some to tears.
Dames & Drugs
Between the 1940s and 1970s, mass-produced, paperback novels, printed on scrofulous paper, and sold in drugstores and newsstands (not in bookstores, not at first), were the YouTube ‘must-sees’ of their day. Their cover art was so lurid that they looked like candy boxes, but their content was as heady and as addictive as drugs: They were adult comic books; except that their vivid prose and hardboiled dialogue made pictures unnecessary. Plots were scrupulously unscrupulous.
Dames, Dolls & Delinquents: A Collector’s Guide to Sexy Pulp Fiction Paperbacks (Kraus Publications, $30), by Gary Lovisi, reprints hundreds of examples of classic dime-novel (or magazine) cover art, featuring U.S., British, Australian, and even Canadian publications. Dope Menace: The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks, 1900-1975 (Feral House, $26), by Stephen J. Gertz, canvasses the covers and history of cheapo books that cast a glazed eye on narcotic abuse. Lovisi’s text is aimed at bibliophiles who appreciate the smoky or cheesy or wispy look of the lethal—or imperilled—mysterious and alluring vamps and molls whose depictions were meant to prod males to purchase racy, pulp fantasies. So Lovisi’s cover reprints and descriptions include three sale prices, circa 2009, reflecting whether the paperback is in Good, Very Good, or Fine condition. A 30-year collector and seller of varied paperbacks, Lovisi celebrates here “sexy, semi-dressed pin-ups, dangerous bad girls and deadly femme fatales, fearful women in peril, … as well as honest to goodness romantic love.”
He knows that these images are “definitely not politically correct,” but the artwork is “magnificent and titillating” or “cute, … campy, fun….”
They are film-noir in Disney colours; the “gutter” (a popular title word) painted as brightly as if it were a nursery Lovisi divvies his covers into nine categories, including: “ “Sultry Streetwalkers,” “Bad Girl Delinquents,” and “Luscious Lesbians.” But as eye-catching as the pulp artwork is, the tags and titles are just as arresting.
One novel by “Griff”—Ernest L. McKeag—is titled, Some Rats Have Two Legs. This story’s “going to make your nerves shreak (sic) like rusty nails on glass.”
Another Griff title, I Spit On Your Grave, is likely not by him, but by French author Boris Vian. This “searing tale of a ‘White Negro’ and his appalling urge to degrade and slay white-skinned girls” seems, thus, an act of plagiarism. Canadian paperback publisher, Harlequin, is famed for its romance novels. But, 60 years ago, it published titles like the voodoo-tinted Drums of Dambala. Another Canuck title, Sugar-Puss, offers a risqué read about a Montreal harlot “with a heart of gold.”
Gertz’s take on the paperbacks that exploit illicit drug use as their theme proves him a better writer and abler scholar than Lovisi. Gertz’s introduction to his trove of colour reproductions of sassy, drug-intoxicated pulp fiction art seems fairly comprehensive and arrives with 92 notes.
Gertz argues that Yanks have been addicts since the 1850s, but proceeding in waves, from alcohol to opium to morphine to marijuana to heroin to LSD to cocaine. Too, they’ve loved to read about drug trips and escapades. Indeed, for much of the last century, popular schooling about “reefers” and “horse” and “white stuff” came from books bought for a dime, a quarter, or a buck. Gertz’s introduction is splendid; the examples of cover art are bewitching. As publishers bragged, “Our sexy covers are given a fine-arts treatment.”
Gertz confesses that he was won to these books when, at age seven, he saw the cover of Claude Farrere’s Black Opium: Against a black background, a nude blonde emerges amid wisps of white smoke from a smoked-gold opium pipe. Gertz’s book categorizes the covers according to these chapters: “Dope Noir,” “Juvenile Delinquents on Dope,” “Beatniks, Bebop, Boo ‘n Charge,” “Peace, Love, LSD, etc…,” “Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n Read,” and “The International Trade.” Book titles are, again, as lush as the book art: Musk, Hashish, and Blood; Rapture Alley; We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against; Epitaph for a Dead Beat…. There is at least one classic among these titles: Junkie by William Burroughs.
One deathless slogan of the abortive, French revolt of 1968 was “Make shame more shameful by making it public,” a rallying cry for muckraking and scandal-mongering in the public interest. In the 1950s, the lurid, yellow-and-crimson-cover, pulp-paper magazine that practiced such preaching was Confidential, a New York-based “tattler” whose concern was not so much dangerous autos or crooked politicos, but which Hollywood “who” was—or was not—with whom.
Its breathless stories proved movie-studio, cheesecake-and-apple-pie publicity to be bologna. It exposed the skirt-chasing, child-molesting, boozing, and narcotic-ingesting of every screen idol and hit singer that its well-paid, informant network could dish up true dirt about. Shocking True Story (Pantheon, $32), by Henry E. Scott, details the rise and fall of the bimonthly that, boasted founder and editor Robert Harrison, “Tells the Facts and Names the Names.” Confidential’s formula was basic and timeless: Tell the-story-behind-the-story.
An ex-journalist, Scott follows the same procedure. Each chapter opens with a reprint of an actual, juicy Confidential tidbit, then details the intrigues that Harrison and his writers and spies undertook to verify the report and ward off any potential libel suit.
Nigh 60 years past Confidential’s 1952-58 heyday, few today should care “Why Joe DiMaggio Is Striking Out with Marilyn Monroe!” (August 1953).
But this story about a baseball icon’s inability to woo a box-office and pin-up queen successfully (they did marry in 1954—though divorce came rapidly) implied that “sultry” Monroe was under the influence of a studio “daddy,” and insinuated that the same gent had played this role with other starlets and “secretaries,” and not in a strictly paternalistic sense. In 2010, after decades of ever more public scandals, including the salaciously detailed, 1995-97 affair of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, plus Prince Charles’s steamy chatter with the then-Camilla Parker-Bowles, the Confidential gossip of 1953 is old-hat.
But, as Scott points out, Confidential “spawned dozens of imitators” as well as “the National Enquirer, Star, E!, True Hollywood Story, Access Hollywood, TMZ.com, and, for that matter, today’s Vanity Fair.” The mag helped to erase stardom’s halo effect, so that one is less surprised to learn that a popular hunk is on heroin or that the girl-next-door is now so-and-so’s playmate, or even that a corporate honcho presides knowingly over the sale of shoddy or perilous goods.
Confidential became such a threat to Hollywood that it had to be stopped by a combo of libel suits and hypocritical obscenity charges. But the tell-all industry that it created seems eternal. Yet, not enough investigative reporting is done on subjects that matter. Yes, shame on Tiger Woods for his boffing transgressions. But what of R.C.M.P. interference in our 2006 Federal election that helped the Tories eke out a win? Where’s that expose?
Hollywood Babylon Strikes Again (Blood Moon Productions Ltd, $26), by Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince, takes up the mantle of the original Hollywood Babylon (1975), by Kenneth Anger. However, where Anger concentrates on peccadilloes, suspected crimes, and sins, of all sorts, Porter and—alter ego—Prince have a liberal aim: To out closeted celebrities, especially if they are dead, and to show the vast majority of stars to possess, in reality, few morals, if any.
The evidence assembled is, generally, gossip, replete with many four-letter words, from sources that are, themselves, impeachable. Should one believe 1950s burlesque-bondage icon Bettie Page, when she claims to have been kidnapped in Haiti and subjected to 18 days of assaults, or that Howard Hughes had her out to Hollywood for a date, or that Jack Kennedy (not yet Prez) enjoyed her in L.A.? Was Walt Disney gay? Did Adolf Hitler love Disney cartoons? The value of such scandal sheets and their rambunctious prose is that they remind us that there is skulduggery, evil, and tomfoolery in even the highest places. If the Press had done its job, the U.S. and its Coalition could not have invaded Iraq based on lies; and we Canucks would not now suffer a (George) Bush-league P.M.
Borden & Campbell
Retired Royal Canadian Air Force Captain George A. Borden has published several works of poetry, all exploring aspects of black identity and African-Nova Scotian—or Africadian—history. He has usually worked with rhyme, but his new book is closer to prose. Raymond’s Story: Challenges for a Black Youth, An Africadian Reflection ($5, G.A.B. Consulting) traces the maturation of the hero from his first self-consciousness (age 2) to high-school graduation (age 18). Borden sets this mini-epic in free-verse sometime between the 1930s-1960s, the time of his own growth from boy to man.
Borden means for this story to apply widely to Africadians (yes, he uses the word) of his generation, and so Raymond is given no surname. The author specifies that “Having grown up in semi-rural Nova Scotia during a time when young coloured boys enjoyed few privileges compared to their white counterparts, George Borden experienced first-hand the challenges of dark skin, constricted education, and the absence of positive role models.” Thus, Raymond suffers setbacks—in school—despite his athletic victories. In the end, however, love helps him to overcome the failures and to proceed to graduation.
The story would be conventional save for two facts: 1) It’s still relevant, sadly, today; 2) Borden tells it in “Africadian patois,” giving us the sound of the language: Not ‘broken’ English, but ‘blackened’ English. Borden even includes a pronunciation guide to what he also calls “personalized oral vocabulary.”
The story begins with toddler Raymond remarking, “Gittin’ bo’n … ain’t no big thang. / Matta-a-fack, jist ‘bout ev’rybuddy I knows / is done it.” Poignantly, he goes on to say, “Bein’ bo’n black sur ain’t mah first choice… / in a lotta ways.” Nearing age 3, Raymond is already “Real gud at dancin’,” but he “don’t like gittin’ mah hair com’ed, / Mama scratches and pulls real hard. / Mama tells me not ta cry an’ fuss so.” White kids call him names, “But Mama says ta jist ‘nore thum.”
Older kids try to tempt Raymond, now 11, to smoke. He refuses. He’s learned “How smoke go in ya body ev’rywheah. / How it gits ‘n ya lungs and gives ya cancer…. / Not me! / ‘Sides, um gonna be a (sports) Champeen sumday.” Age 12, our hero notices “cute chics” and thinks a “girlfren” would be “cool.” A gifted athlete, he “gut a re’lly big trophy c’lection now.”
By 15, Raymond starts feeling “like my body goin all crazy, an stuff. / Sumtimes I get so ‘cited an sweaty. / Otha times I get itchy an uncomforbole.” Luckily, a good friend, Susan—Susie—Jackson, becomes his girlfriend, but is virtuous as much as she is wise. All’s well that ends well. Indeed, Raymond overcomes bullies and temptations to smoke, drink, and ‘fool around’; triumphs in sports; and his teen sweetheart becomes his wife: It’s all a tad too easy. Even so, the monologue is compelling, and the style of speech is, well, ours—just right, just so, on paper—ready to be read aloud.
Universal Bride, a collection of poems by Toronto’s Elvis Campbell, bears a striking cover: the photo of a sculpture of two black nudes, male and female, situated in a reflecting pool, in, presumably, a Caribbean city. Campbell’s thought is Afrocentric and apparently Rastafarian; his form is mainly rhyme; the poems appear in the alphabetical order of their titles.
“Another Genocide” treats the horror of Darfur: “The Januweed militia killing out the Christian black / Januweed mean evil rides on horseback / This is going on in Sudan; the land of the black man / They are worse than the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan.”
If there’s a major influence for Campbell, it must be the late, great Jamaican reggae singer and composer Bob Marley. Like him, Campbell means to make us think: “I been in search for the black God / The blond head blue eye Jesus one is a fraud.”
For this “ghetto apostle,” who’d “rather worship a god who don’t eat meat but smoke weed,” he must avoid “Dark forces with simple faces trying to ambush me with my own words.” Campbell is like the English mystical poet William Blake, testifying to an alternative credo that just gets him into trouble. But reading him is instructive, and, possibly, potentially redemptive.
Holbrook & Zolf
Susan Holbrook teaches English and creative writing at the University of Windsor. Rachel Zolf is a poet and editor from Toronto who currently lives in New York. Both are poets interested in exploring what words seem to say when they are placed in an unusual context. So, both are L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets; both have books published by Coach House Press (priced at $17 each); both carry endorsements from US experimental poet Charles Bernstein.
Shortlisted for two awards for her first book, Holbrook has conjured her second book out of “a range of texts, from Pye Chavasse’s Advice to a Wife on the Management of Her Own Health to the insert from a Tampax box,” etc. Holbrook’s title, Joy Is So Exhausting, is indebted to a sentence in Marian Engel’s novel, Bear.
Holbrook’s book is, then, a romp and a rampage through English, an effort to find mesmerizing images and words among the avalanche of dulled language that assaults our ears and eyes constantly. In one poem, a line that first looks like, “Love to my Gody and quineff pumfally,” and then, “Love to anybody and yourself pumfally,” is finally understood to read, “Love to everybody and yourself principally.” Yet, all three sentences are legitimate poetry, so long as we do not demand immediate comprehension.
Another poem, likely inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s Elimination Dance, recalls the acts—or antics—of visiting writers: “The one who unscrewed the cap of the water bottle before (reciting) a poem, screwed it back on afterward, never drinking. It made us thirsty…. / The one who thought he should be paid twice because of all the double entendres in his work.” A news item about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s approach to a House of Commons vote on same-sex marriage becomes deliberate jabberwocky: “Harper proposes sex marriage issue vote free on same….” The absurd language underscores the absurdity of government legislating on a matter of simple human rights.
The long poem, “Good Egg Bad Seed,” checklists the good and the bad (but you decide which is which): “You know all the different kinds of lentils or you resent your vegetarian guests…. / You are torn between the Green Party and the NDP or you are torn between the Alliance and the Christian Heritage Party. Either way, you can say both are pretty good on the gay issue…. / You pay the toll lady or you play the lotto daily.”
Joy Is So Exhausting should prove inexhaustible pleasure for anyone who likes wordplay. After all, “All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.” Rachel Zolf won Ontario’s Trillium Award for poetry in 2008 for her collection, Human Resources. Her fourth book is Neighbour Procedure.
Like Holbrook, Zolf is interested in jigging poems and poetic phrases out of juggled and jumbled sources, from Mark Twain to “two women at the gym.” But her interest is to fabricate, ultimately, intrinsically “political poetry.” The elegiac poem, “Loss has made a tenuous we,” defines the War on Terror (in its Let’s-invade-Iraq phase) in a stunning line, “Violence a sudden address from oil.” The poem includes a ‘concrete’ poem: a block assembled from the repeated words “Waiting,” “Interrogation,” and “Rest”: The resultant image is the eternal round of suspicion, imprisonment, and Let’s-not-call-it-torture torture that detainees, of all (prison) stripes, experience.
“Grievable” simply catalogues a list of Arabic—Iraqi?—names, all presumably casualties of either ‘Coalition’ ordinance or the vicious civil war that it unleashed.
The influence of Ondaatje’s Elimination Dance also shows up in Zolf’s “Grounds for deletion”: “Use of the phrase, ‘There are no Palestinians’ or derivatives thereof. It is only when the cold season comes that we notice the pine and cypress to be ever green.”
“Day Four” refers wittily to “poster boys of Muhammad / and Ali,” prodding us to juxtapose suicide bombers with the icon of the great boxer, and then asks, “how many Arabs for each / Israeli.” The closing lines resonate painfully: “who needs peace when you have // America.” Politics and poetry are a volatile mix. Yes, except that the voices of war and terrorism are themselves defiantly both. Zolf shows us this truth, and so her lyrics s(t)ing, acidly.
MacFayden & McFadden
Laurie MacFayden’s debut poetry book is the result of her manuscript being selected, in a national, blind competition last year, by a three-person jury (of which I was one), for publication by Frontenac House of Calgary. White Shirt ($16) announces itself with stunning cover art by MacFayden herself. “Allegra,” its violent lashings and splatters of paint, testifies to MacFayden’s sensibility: Her work is ejaculations, vivid, colourful, clashing, all indelibly marking the white page.
Her first poem, “my date with jackson pollock,” is explicit about this aesthetic: “i want the spatter! But he’s / cleaned himself up / i want loose fields, / vigorous lines, angry smears!” (Come to think of it, MacFayden’s cover painting also recalls the black, yellow, red explosion that is the cover for Irving Layton’s poetry book Fornalutx . She also seems to share his admirable frankness.)
She goes on to write, “i need turpentine fumes / scars on the drop sheets / i need his foot heavy on the gas / hairpin turns in the road / and his brother / nervous with lighter fluid / in the backseat.” There’s mucho—even macho—passion here. There’s tenderness, too, as when the poet recalls an exhilarating day riding ten-speeds with a girlfriend, the twain, “just grinning like hell and knowing that, oh man, / we are best friends / we are invisible / we are invincible / we are fifteen.”
An Ontarian turned Edmontonian, MacFayden was 30 years a sports journalist, until quitting news media in 2007 to devote herself to writing, painting, photographing, and travelling. Early or late, she realized that she loved women, and so these poems sometimes resemble the lyrics of Sappho, but crossed with The Supremes. That combo shows up in “those of us,” a poem for tomboys, yes, but really for any girl or woman who doesn’t obey the dictates of gender. It has the Sapphic element, but also the structure of song: “those of us who chose bikes over barbie…. / those of us who felt strangled by lace…. / those of us who are bashed out of ‘decency’…. / those of us who make your husband nervous….”
MacFayden is, in fact, an unpretentious songwriter as much as she is a plain-spoken poet: “tonight i lie in sadness / tonight i lie alone / my original bed has grown smaller / and no longer warms / my original bones.”Her chief concern is most affecting and fetching: “is there such a thing as too much beauty?” White Shirt is a fine collection—especially recommended for readers who usually ignore poetry.
Edited by Stuart Ross, Why Are You So Long and Sweet?: Collected Long Poems of David W. McFadden (Insomniac, $20), is not, says its editor, titled correctly: These long poems are really a select choice. However, one should not quibble when there is much to appreciate. Now 70, McFadden is being shortlisted for the Griffin and the Governor-General, and it’s about time. Certainly, the new book shows us a poet who has a mastery of the extended lyric, treated in two ways: 1) as a grab bag into which whatever impulse or inspiration of the moment may be placed; 2) as a train with separate cars for shorter lyric movements within the longer work.
As one might expect, these poems have the inviting feel of US poet William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1946-58), but also the bobbing look of US poet Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1922-62). But the voice is homespun, whimsical, sounding a lot like the late Canadian poet Al Purdy, or perhaps more like his very cool compatriot George Bowering. But the result is the Zen spirit of the Beats: “I do love to watch’ / when something happens / in the blankness // something is born / of the sea // feel my nerve hairs / grow big as jugulars // feel the spirit’s mouth / yodeling out the universe // (all branches turned / towards the sun— / making syrups)….”
There’s also wit: “And he gave me chapter two of his / pornographic novel to read / so I read it and gave him my latest / purest poem to look at // and he read it out to his wife… / and he made / several humorous changes / as he went along // so I read his chapter aloud / inserting his wife’s name / for the name of his porno queen….” She did not take it well; nor did the poet enjoy hearing his work loused up. Read him long.
Michael Clarkson’s biography, The Secret Life of Glenn Gould: A Genius in Love (ECW Press, $29), reveals much about Gould, despite the author’s relative deafness to his own evidence.
Though Clarkson has writ five books on psychology, he struggles to understand Gould (1932-82), the great Canadian concert pianist, whose radical reinterpretations of classical music ‘hits’ made them freshly complex and ‘new.’
Clarkson has interviewed—or tried to interview—the women who were desired by Gould, and may have loved him, and may even have made love with him, that ingenious, eccentric, and reclusive musician. However, Clarkson’s witnesses are reticent, or coy, or incommunicado, and so all that he can do is guess and insinuate and theorize.
Not one woman who admits to ‘liking’ Gould will say that she saw him naked, or spent a conjugal night with him, or did more than kiss and snuggle. Yet, Gould was neither homosexual nor asexual, as some thought. Rather, his sexuality was unorthodox, but explicable, if we heed the clues that Clarkson misses.
Gould loved first his mother, then animals (he left half of his estate to a humane society), then his piano, then solitude (absence from the concert stage, solo travels, wearing heavy clothes that helped shield him from bodily contact), then radio documentaries, and then telephone calls. Clarkson dubs Gould “attractive in a cadaverous way.” Yet, Gould called himself “The Last Puritan” and developed phobias for everything from germs to heights: For such a man, coitus must have promised perils—or pleasures—fearsome to contemplate.
Violinist Morry Kernerman provides one key to Gould’s appetites. Apparently, twentyish Gould was shocked and “fascinated” to see blood on the back of his friend’s shirt, the result of “a very demonstrative woman” the eve before. Given that Gould liked animals—as pets, as docile creatures—and liked to award himself and close associates Disneyfied, critter names (“Faun,” “Mouse,” “Possum,” “Spaniel,” “Puss,” etc.), I think that Gould desired, but was also fearful of, the potential wildness in himself, in women, and in pianos, a fierceness that touch could trigger. Thus, pianos are eroticized: “It had extraordinary qualities—a tactile grab and immediacy…”; he preferred “a light, responsive keyboard action; … rough keys (as if he were stroking a dog); no after-touch, with the sound stopping the moment he lifted his finger off the key; … an importance in how the instrument felt under his hands rather than how it sounded.”
Most likely, Gould liked to pet and stroke—acts suiting domesticated animals as well as keyboards: “he sat sidesaddle at the piano in a trance, often crossing his legs to stop his feet from stamping, swooning and swaying his upper body, allowing each of his fingers to have a mind of its own and humming while conducting himself with his free hand….”
Gould’s notion of “contrapuntal radio,” that Clarkson says involved “a montage of voices, often speaking over one another,” exemplifies his penchant for, first, quiet or calm that is penetrated by rapacious sound, and, secondly, for discourse that is intercourse. This insight would also explain his penchant for late-night phone calls, often hours long, to women: He preferred them as long-distance Muses, who he could fondle or caress via his voice. (One psychiatrist says Gould had “a fetish for the female voice.”)
Though he is unconscious of the meaning of his own evidence, Clarkson reveals Gould to be a Hitchcock-like figure, a man favouring beautiful women whose ‘wild’ sexuality is muted, like a piano temporarily silent, or like wilderness that is ‘virginal.’ So Gould’s affair with Cornelia Foss “seemed heavily weighted toward domesticity”; he ate tranquillizers to reinforce solitude; he watched artsy, erotic films that stressed alienation. Later, he wanted women who were all voice and “No paws.” He dreamt of “starting a farm for old and stray animals”—notably, on an island. In the end, for Gould, oral-and-aural intercourse—that is, conversation—was ‘safe sex.’ For him, sound was penile; so when an alliance terminated, the rejected person suddenly found himself or herself excommunicated: No further conjunction allowed.
George Elliott Clarke is arguably one of Canada’s most accomplished poets. He has several groundbreaking verse and dramatic poetry collections. He was recently inducted into the Order of Canada.
Volunteers for Issue 8
For copy-editing this issue of MTLS thanks:
- Amanda Tripp
- Carmel Purkis
- Rosel Kim
- Julia Cooper
- Lequanne Collins-Bacchus
MTLS is grateful to Jean-Pierre Houde for his hard work on web management.