WITH THE ENORMOUS amount of poetry published in this country one might think -- wrongly -- that there would be a Rabelaisian profusion of voices, styles, and subject matter. Crad Kilodney continues to show up mainstream Canadian poetry for the unadventurous, unRabelaisian thing it is in his new collection, The Second Charnel House Anthology of Bad Poetry (Charnel House, 93 pages, $7 paper).
Kilodney delights in juxtaposing "legitimate" poets with the dazzlingly illiterate. The collection moves from the truly offensive -a simple-minded, viciously anti-Semitic poem on the occasion of the Gulf War, and a piece on puppy vivisection -- to the drivelish (Leonard Nimoy's "Computers are exciting / But so is a sunset") and the truly awful ("Child Model"). There are also outstandingly bad poems by Ann Waldman, Lilian Necakov, and Ray Di Palma (all "serious" poets). None of this would be more than mildly amusing if it weren't for Kilodney's talent for finding vital poetic language in the most unlikely places. I realize I'm taking this more seriously than he does, but pomposity is the critic's special territory. What can you say about an editor who claims that "without equivocation ... a new nadir of rottenness has been reached" in his work?
Part of what makes the collection vital is its unschooled writers' complete lack of inhibition; where the average Canadian poet seems to deliberately censor politically impure thought and the musical effects of poetry, Kilodney's writers never shy away from a thumping, unsubtle rhythm or a howling, broadly stated prejudice. Witness Brian Osborne: "Picasso was a sleazy runt ... Monet stood proud / Degas sold out." There is something not only awful but exuberantly and joyously bad about John Stidham, who reworks famous poems into real stinkers with a thesaurus, the last refuge of every bad writer -- for example, from "Hyla Creek": "This as it will be viewed is at variance considerably / Than with creeks appropriated somewhere else in ditty." Appropriated indeed.
Obviously Kilodney has a political axe to grind, reminding his customers that Charnel House is "a private imprint dedicated to artistic freedom and free enterprise" and "receives no government support." In his unabashed enthusiasm for the vanity press, though, Kilodney demonstrates an honesty often lacking in the high-principled but very self-interested arguments of writers in favour of funding for books -- especially "serious" poetry -- that almost no one reads. His naive and sometimes offensive writers (many of them published here without their knowledge or consent) have that vital component of both rock and poetry: energy.
Fred Candelaria's Preludes & Fugues (Cacanadadada, 78 pages, $10.95 paper) almost seems to occupy a different universe from that of Kilodney's frantic scribblers. For all the elegance and minimalism, though, Candelaria is in the same universe, but looking at it from a distance:
what do you bid
for forbidden pleasures
hidden & treasured
deep in your id
The simple rhymes at the end of "the market" match the coarseness of the irony, which is witty, but this has a marked distancing effect from the subject matter. Candelaria comes across as more interested in linguistic paradox than anything else, as for example in "sea sketches":
deep dives are
always into the inner sea
where the mind's eye
is worthlessly blind
by the heart's compass
The supple pun at the end again serves to distance the reader and engage only the surface. Perhaps this is all Candelaria intends. I'm also put off by all the postmodernist stylistic puritanism -- ampersands to remind you that poetry can only be disembodied text, never sound, and the use of commas instead of spaces, presumably for the same reasons. The attempted haiku-delicacy of poems such as "sunday" suffers, I think, from the peculiar delusion, transparent to anyone who has driven both Japanese and American cars, that the English language somehow resembles Japanese.
The third section of the book, which begins with "william carlos williams," appears to be about how much Candelaria likes poetry -- the obsession that any serious poet has comes across here as almost a hobby, like model railroading. What vital connection with anything does this have? In spite of the invocation of Williams and his work "for ordinary people," this is just not convincing. Perhaps the approach is too direct; poetry is perhaps better discussed by poets with some kind of metaphor -- in the way that Williams did it, for example.
Candelaria is quite self-conscious and drily witty about the whole problem of distance in his work, something that's especially notable in "on aesthetic distance":
... Beholding beauty bare,
he exclaimed, "Masterpiece!"
saying much about himself,
but little about her.
Robert Priest's Scream Blue Living: New and Selected Poems (Mercury, 208 pages, $14.95 paper) has a much wider tonal variety than Candelaria's book, no doubt partly because it is a selection from a number of earlier volumes. Priest is even capable of being funny without being dry or apologetic, not a common trait in this country. His work is frequently elegant when he doesn't strain too hard for erotic effects: "Meditation on a Ruler," for example, is amusing and impressively controlled. Some of the erotic poems also work well, particularly "What Dew Is" and "You Want Her." On the other hand, the Whitmanesque "Ode to the Penis," in which the poet salutes "you god-thing! / body-maker!" seems unintentionally silly, almost as though it could have come from Kilodney's anthology.
Priest is one of those rare poets who is engaged with the world around him in a way that's reflected in his work. There is a fine poem on the Kennedy assassination, "Lesser Shadows," a kind of poetic version of Oliver Stone: "America absorbs her murderers completely." This engagement with the world is one of the reasons his work is often genuinely funny: in "The Television," the speaker describes his TV as "the only thing I've got that doesn't turn off automatically when I say I love you." And in "My Problem with the Canadian National Anthem," Priest complains that "All the notes are used over and over in varying fashions and arrangements but insistently with a 4/4 beat that is monotonous and military in the worst possible way."
Priest's romanticism does, however, trip him up when he tries to write about writing: "Poetry Is" asserts that "there are those who make poems," just as there are "sex workers" and "those who care for children." This is no more convincing than Candelaria's aestheticism. But there is urgency, variety, and energy in Priest's work, and it certainly deserves to be collected.
Kenneth Sherman is also engaged by both the outer and inner worlds in Open to Currents (Wolsak and Wynn, 86 pages, $10 paper), but he's drawn to poetic cliches; "Eternal Return," for example, may get Kilodney's attention for a future anthology:
as I walked from Lecture Hall A
and saw another moving dreamily
across the green campus sea --
a girl so beautiful and half my age.
Immediately after this Sherman claims that "I am not a sentimentalist," but he can't bounce back into plausibility. "Visiting Eli Mandel" doesn't work much better; when Sherman wonders to himself "and ought I be embarrassed to write this?" my silent response was yes, you ought to be. This is delicate subject matter, and the direct approach fails here.
Sherman is a talented writer, in spite of the lapses. "The Water-Skier" is tightly controlled and physically evocative:
biceps flexed, calves prominent,
circling the circuit's buoys
with the fluidity of a motion
that weaves back against itself....
Lynn Crosbie's Miss Pamela's Mercy (Coach House, 127 page, $11.95 paper) is much more densely poetic than Sherman's book. Her poetic landscape, like the cover collage with Marilyn Monroe, is festooned with female pop-culture icons Such as Farrah Fawcett ("Look Homeward Angel"), Elizabeth Taylor, Playboy bunnies, and Jayne Mansfield. Crosbie also writes about writing better than any of the men in this review, as in the title poem:
he tells me. this is what
a caesura is. it is something
between us. I put some space
In "For Jayne Mansfield" Crosbie does a gross-out number that succeeds poetically where Kilodney's writers would just be gross:
she carries her head in her hands,
its jagged edges tucked awkwardly
under. her gown spreads like a puddle
molded red on her cadaverous rounds.
Much of Crosbie's book is about the woundedness of women in our culture. Her poems are powerful and effective metaphorical ways of talking about that wounded and often angry condition. "Colour Me Blood Red for the Marchesa Casati" simmers with a violent energy that eventually climaxes: "...I would have just wrenched away / from the podium and plunged that horse / haired stake into your sagging loins." Crosbie's work slips, however, in passages where her limited diction and dense metaphorical structures overwhelm, and the emotional effect is therefore diffused.
Evelyn Lau's Oedipal Dreams (Porcepic, 95 pages, $11.95 paper) is a lyrical and accomplished book of poetry, emotionally gripping and also quite subtle technically. It contains a lot of groping with psychologists and psychology (I mean that literally), and Freud sometimes becomes a rather empty symbol for something the writer hasn't quite figured out yet. Nonetheless, this is good stuff:
you are like one of Freud's unscrupulous nurses who calm crying
children to sleep
by stroking their genitals...
still I fantasize penetrating the sunken echelons of your profession
still I imagine walking beside you through filters of air
into medical conventions where your aged heroes lecture
Given that Lau is only 21, Oedipal Dreams is a book with a remarkable number of things to tell us.