Canadian poetry has often been criticized for being complacent, and the damning image is that of poets sitting around and writing poetry for other poets. Aside from the fact that this worked quite nicely for the coterie of metaphysical poets, it is yet another quick judgement that fails to recognize poets' significant attempts to communicate.
This month's books, four out of five of which are first books, have that much in common: they all wish to "speak." And when they do speak it is often in anger or sadness. The voices are from everywhere, and each speaks its wistfulness, anger, or sadness in its own unique way, recalling Tolstoy's line about every unhappy family being unhappy "in its own way." Some of these books are complicated, blurring yet further the distinction between prose and poetry; some should have sat a little longer in their authors' bottorn drawers. All of them address the idea of feeling at home in one's world.
The most traditional is Poemes d'un coeur en exil / Poems for a Heart in Exile (TSAR, 75 pages, $10.95 paper), by Lam Ho Hiep. The author is from Saigon, and these poems are a cry for what she has lost. She was educated in French, and both French and English versions of the poems appear here. The English poems are, at times, heartbreaking in their straightforward expressions of pain: "But my heart aches seeing your empty clothes on the hangers / The dust accumulating on your solitary books" ("I Remember").
Many, however, are not successful. The French versions (which one assumes are the original versions) are generally superior to the English. For example, a few lines from "La Terre Promise / The Promised Land" are flat-footed in English, whereas in French they resonate:
You must be disinfected
To be accepted
In the Promised Land.
Il faut vous disinfecter
Pour etre tout &fait de mise
Pour la Terre Promise.
While the collection is certainly uneven, there are fine moments, such as the poem "The Happiness Allowed to Me" with its "little square of table" and its "comer of sleepy sky sometimes silver, sometimes grey."
Another first collection is Roberta Rees's Eyes Like Pigeons (Brick, 120 pages, $10.95 paper). This is an ambitious book. Dubbed "an autobiographical, matriarchal poem," Eyes Like Pigeons is part prose/part poetry, containing the intertwined stories of four women and, one could argue, women in general. The book makes demands on the reader. At times it is difficult to tell whose story we are hearing, and who is being referred to, and the significance of this depends upon whether one is seeing these women in any way as "characters" or merely as embodiments of female cultural experience. The feeling is that Rees wants us to care about these specific women, and that doesn't always happen. This is one of the complications that arises when elements of story-writing are used in poetry. It takes a very deft hand to blend them. One of the people Rees writes about is Thi, a Vietnamese woman. (Interesting, given the previous book.) As the reader is often reminded, "Thi" means poetry in Vietnamese, "but what means beginning?" The beginning, of course, is one's mother's life. There are many lovely images of "mother," often tinged with loss, as in "Where the Blue Is":
... brittle ankles
black around the eyes
in the in the photos
hair eyes face lips chest hands hips
skin mom. oh mom
The poet portrays the struggle these women endure to find their place in an oppressive society. In returning again and again to "our mothers' lives," Rees is able to link experience and bridge culture. Yet another debut is Connie Fife's Beneath the Naked Sun (Sister Vision, 89 pages, $11.95 paper). Fife is a lesbian Cree poet who writes "from my perspective as well as from the place most people would like me to stay." From her vantage point on the margin of mainstream society, Fife shoots barbs at her oppressors. This is no complacent poet. She sometimes reacts with dismay to the plight of the people she loves, but more often she responds with anger. Concerned with what "white" language has done to her, she sees her purpose as:
creating from distorted language
clarity originating from that
most secret place where what is
spoken will leave behind
a trail of lightning
There are flashes of light when the poems connect; how, ever, not all of the poems work. Many are uneven; some are baldly polemic. But what is interesting is how Fife can take this same spare style and, when she wants to, create a poem of strength and beauty, as in this quote from "i have not gone":
her palm roamed
through my hair
planted story on the
insides of my eyes
of my beginnings
spoke of how joy
and i were one
While some of the "songs" need fine-tuning, Fife's voice is her own. It will be interesting to see where she takes it from here.
The last of the debut books is Denise Bukowski's Road Works (Beach Holme, 77 pages, $11.95 paper). Despite a front (and back!) cover blurb by Al Purdy, the collection is not as strong as this might lead one to expect, given that it represents "some of the best verse" the author has written over a 25-year period. Many of the poems are about travel, and often these seem naive at best and patronizing at worst, as in "Sexual Politics in Istanbul" and "The Baths, Ankara." As well, poems such as "Do You Remember" are flatly prosaic. Still, Bukowski has her moments. Poems like "The Pilgrimage" (to Dylan Thomas and Malcolm Lowry) are haunting. And she can side-swipe the reader with wonderful skewed observations such as this one, about snorkelling:
where schools of fluorescent tropical sea creatures
sidle up, surround and shepherd me
like a posse of gentle wall-eyed cowboys
("The Garden of Eden: Yucatan, Mexico")
One wishes there were more writing like this in the book. The title that remains is anything but complacent in its exploration of form. Carol Malyon's Emma's Dead (Wolsak and Wynn, 89 pages, $ 10 paper) reverses chronological order and gives us a series of poems that begins with the death of Emma and takes us back through her Alzheimer's disease to Emma as a functioning individual, and then right back to her childhood. One wants to like this book. There is a lot that is striking here, and Malyon is to be commended for having written a work that invites, and demands, rereading. However, if a writer chooses the devices of fiction, a narrative "story" and "characters," she must also take the responsibility of making those characters believable. This seems to be lacking here. The "distanced" point of view of Emma at the beginning of the book (read: end of Emma's story) never really alters to reflect the internal changes Emma is going through. The language doesn't change, and language is all one is given to work with. The distanced perspective works well at the outset because of Emma's condition, but it fails to engage as the reader is led along. Somehow, it seems completely wrong to have this kind of distance in one of the poems about Emma as a child:
emma has a teddy bear
a mother in order of importance
anyway emma's teddy bear is softer
than her bony mother
Who is this narrator? (And, yes, you have to talk about narrator when you are using all the trappings of fiction.) The reference to "bony" suggests youth; the "anyway" summation does not. Without an active engagement in the plight of Emma, our sympathies shift to Karen, Emma's daughter. In general, the Karen persona is more successful, and she is given some deli. cate observations regarding her mother:
my momma's slim & stemmy
as a cattail down by the pond
she wears brown & willow-green
& soft shady colours
o look at this old woman
This book is also, to a great extent, about mothers, daughters, and grandmothers. There is almost too much going on here with all of the characters vying for centre stage. Perhaps some aspects of prose fiction don't cross over so cleanly into poetry.
Malyon has written an interesting book. It could have been a better one, but it goes a long way toward convincing this reader that some poets are willing to take chances. Come to think of it, so did a few of that coterie of metaphysical poets.