H in the Heart|
by B. P. Nichol,
Some Impossible Heaven of the Senses:
Last Poems of Tom Marshall
by Tom Marshall,
The Colours of Heroines
by Lydia Kwa,
The Words I Know
by Cathy Stonehouse,
James I Wanted to Ask You
by Michael Holmes,
Two Women in a Birth
by Daphne Marlatt, Betsy Warland,
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|Brief Reviews - Poetry
by Colin Morton
TOM MARSHALL'S SOME IMPOSSIBLE Heaven of the Senses (Oberon, 104 pages, $11.95 paper) gathers all the unpublished poetry left by him when he died at 55 in 1993. While some of these poems were written since his last book, Ghost Safari, others, Marshall's editor David Helwig remarks, must have seemed too slight or unfinished to the poet during his life. Marshall often worked by the slow accumulation of fragments. "All poems," he once wrote, "are part of some mysterious larger poem that one spends one's life groping after, catching it only in glimpses." Many of the short poems in this book represent such glimpses.
The exception is the fine series that ends the book, "Fugue for Lonnie." In these lyrics of longing for a younger man, Marshall writes with unadorned grace:
I've been "in love. " Most painfully.
This is different.
Tom Marshall is most himself in "Fugue for Lonnie" -- the bemused lover, unable to assert himself too forcefully, constrained by a natural reticence, speaking quietly yet with deep conviction. It is a fitting coda to Marshall's diverse literary output.
When bpNichol died at the age of 44 in 1988, he had already published more books than most writers do in a lifetime. Recently, Coach House Press brought back into print the whole of The Martyrology, that personal epic that could never be finished as long as Nichol lived. The Martyrology was, however, only a part of bpNichol's prodigious output, which included concrete poetry in the 1960s, sound poetry in the '70s, myriad ingenious approaches to narrative from novels to music theatre to comic strips, even a video staging his own murder by his fellow narrative-researcher and pataphysical pal Steve McCaffery.
An H in the Heart
236 pages, $19.99 paper), superbly edited by George Bowering and Michael Ondaatje, takes readers on a museum tour of bpNichol artefacts and creations. For anyone who missed bp the first time around, this book is an indispensable record of what the excitement was all about.
The only brief excerpt from The Martyrology, "You too, Nicky," opens the collection, invoking one of the earliest and strongest influences on bp, the travel narrative The Narrow Road to the Deep North by the haiku master Basho. Part travel diary, part poetry notebook, this fragment leads the reader in a gentle, personal way into a land of prodigies and wonders:
the language comes alive as you come alive and the
real mysteries remain
. . . . . .
the world enters
Nichol's enormous talent was all-embracing. The snippets and samplings included in An H in the Heart give glimpses into his restlessly inventive imagination. What puts this volume onto the all-time best list, though, is that it reprints in its entirety my own favourite Nichol book, Selected Organs, first published by Black Moss. This suite of prose poems, memoirs, and meditations on various parts of the body -- the mouth, the lungs, the hips, the anus ("It's an us") -- is funny and profound, an intimate postmodern portrait of the artist. Canadian literature suffered a huge loss with Nichol's early death. Fortunately, we now have An H in the Heart to remind us of what he accomplished in life.
Nichol had a special relationship with the letters of the alphabet. His favourite, H, delighted him for its shape, which forms a bridge between two I's. But H also had purely personal associations from Nichol's childhood in Winnipeg, where he grew up in the H section of the Wildwood Park suburb. Michael Holmes, we learn in his second book, james i wanted to ask you (ECW, I 10 pages $12 paper), grew up in the E section of Bramalea, Ontario, that city born on a developer's drafting board in the 1960s. In his suburb, Holmes learned early that "there are two kinds of people in the world // ... you either choose to be an ernie, or you're gonna be a bert."
A 1990s update of Milton's "Lycidas," james i wanted to ask you dispenses with the l7th-century poet's elaborate rhyme schemes and metaphors, and in place of classical allusions evokes images of a childhood spent among the desert landscapes of Roadrunner cartoons.
Holmes, a literature student in the age of theory, carries just as much intellectual baggage as Milton did, though of a different kind. Self-conscious about his self-consciousness, the poet feels like Frankenstein:
reading these words my monster
will think i'm crazy
it won't like the messianic
lack of artifice critical
acumen & rigour.
Composing, like his acknowledged influence bpNichol, in the unit of the book, Holmes has written an elegy in the form of a travel diary, chronicling his year-long flight from mortality after learning about the accidental death of a former classmate in 1993. Although he sometimes gives in, as Nichol did, to self-indulgence, Holmes risks the charge of naivete, and the risk pays off. This book tells better than any other I have read how it feels to be young and afraid in the 1990s. The diary form allows Holmes's considerable lyric gifts to shine through.
Two Women in a Birth
(Guernica, 170 pages, $15 paper) collects in one compact volume three books and two articles by Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland, documenting their collaborations in the 1980s and early '90s.
In 1984, Longspoon Press published individual books of poems by Marlatt and Warland, written to and for each other. Marlatt's Touch to My Tongue, in a language totally eroticized by her caress, celebrates physical love. "Eating," for example, begins:
a kiwi at four a.m. among the sheets green slice of cool
going down easy on the tongue extended with desire for
you and you in me it isn't us we suck those other lips
tongue flesh wet wall that gives and gives whole
fountains inner mountains moving out ...
Warland's poems for Marlatt in Open is Broken, though more self-conscious and less assured, remain compelling after a decade despite the distractingly frequent quotations from dictionaries.
The other three works collected in Two Women in a Birth are collaborations. Double Negative was originally published in 1988 by Gynergy. It combines each poet's meditations while sharing a berth on a train journey across Australia with their conversation on the process of collaboration. Sharing almost equal space with poetry in this volume are the poets' statements of artistic intent, which actually do help in reading the poems. These are also valuable glosses on "language poetry" in general, which doubles this volume's value to students. Marlatt's "Musing with mothertongue," for instance, explains the way meaning is led by sound, both in her own work and in the collaborations: "sound will initiate thought by a process of association, words call each other up, evoke each other, provoke each other, nudge each other into utterance."
In the final sequence, "Subject to Change," the two poets attempt literally to write together, passing the page back and forth across the table, or incorporating marginal comments into the printed version. The inevitable collision of artistic visions leads to fascinating reflections on the limits of identity and of the fusion of personalities Marlatt and Warland have attempted.
Having tasted "the relief, delight of i being only part of (i)t all," the poets withdraw slightly, preserving each poet's authorship of individual passages, by use of italics, while affirming their commitment to each other and to their mutual exploration of the multiple possibilities lying half-hidden in the language. This book is a small treasure.
Among posthumous books and collected works demanding attention, young poets' tirst books stand little chance this month. But since any mention is better than none, I will recommend two, whose authors both acknowledge Daphne Marlatt among their mentors. Cathy Stonehouse (The Words I Know, Press Gang, 118 pages, $12.95 paper) and Lydia Kwa (The Colours of Heroines, Women's Press, 116 pages, $11.95 paper) both collect frank and passionate early poems into an autobiographical structure, their books moving from girlhood in North England (Stonehouse) or Singapore (Kwa) to womanhood in Canada. Both poets write of experiencing harassment because of their sex and both respond with a quest for heroines, strong role models to help them overcome victimhood.
In her series "The Enormous Exit," Cathy Stonehouse draws on the power of art to help us subdue our demons, confronting her childhood sexual abuse in the process of writing to/for/about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. For Lydia Kwa, the culture clash of race and language proves both a barrier and a creative stimulus. Hearing two different Chinese languages at home, she was educated in a third. "Mother's is not father's is not English is not mine." But in the section called "Translations," she pulls English, the colonial language, part way toward Asia.
These books make up part of what Tom Marshall called that "mysterious larger poem" that all poets are working on together. A glance back over this review will show what a big part the small I presses play in making that poetry available. With public funds drying up, those presses will depend more and more on their readers to survive. To become part of this great mystery, all you have to do is open a book and start turning pages.