by Barbara Carey
Ts THE SEASON of excess, both in making merry and in ostentatious gift-giving, at least if the lavishly decked halls of downtown department stores are any indication. Poetry is easily lost in the blur of all those alluring things. But think of it this way: books such as the poetry volumes under review here are relatively light on the parcel weigh scales (forget coffee-table tomes, their richer, more corpulent cousins) and simple to wrap. And batteries - the spark of each poet`s distinct sensibility - are always included.
Charlie Chaplin once commented that "There are more valid facts and details in works of art than there are in history books." Sightings (Cormorant, 95 pages, $12.95 paper), a collaboration between Walter Hildebrandt and William Lobchuk, is more work of art than historical text, but its aim is to reinterpret the past: specifically, the events of the 1885 North-West Rebellion. Reproductions of Lobchuk`s bold watercolours vividly punctuate Hildebrandt`s long poem, which combines his own poetry with quotes from original sources such as newspapers and court records. The opening passage asserts the Native determination to transform the "lines" that have been used to circumscribe them -lines that are not only the economic and geographic divisions of property, but also the prose lines of anthropology, history, and even poetry, which, by describing, seek to contain. "Words stole / everything;" Hildebrandt writes. This may be why he relies so heavily -and effectively - on citings, the given words of source material. Take this speech by the Cree chief Big Bear, who was unjustly tried and imprisoned for treason:
Many of my band are hiding in the woods paralyzed with terror. Cannot this court send them a pardon? My own children! Perhaps they are starving and outcast, too, afraid to appear in the big light of day. if the government does not come to them with help before the winter sets in my band will surely perish
There are some thin spots in this patchwork of documentary and poetic narrative, but the overall pattern of Sightings is rich and engaging.
A Salve for Every Sore (Cormorant, 84 pages, $10.95 paper), April Bulmer`s first book, isn`t as medicinal and good-for-whatails-you hearty as its title might suggest. A loosely linked series of poems about a rural community in the 1930s, it`s somewhat Gothic rather than goody-goody, and unsparing - though not despairing - in its portrayal of characters confronting poverty, hunger, and personal misfortune. In the opening poem, Marie, the daughter of the general-store proprietor, gives some oranges to a woman and in exchange receives a necklace that "breaks my surface like a handful of little stones:" In effect, Marie`s "surface" reflects the events and characters of the book; it is through her childish but unwaveringly observant eyes that we view people such as Eliza Jane Davidson, with her home remedies and fingernails "lined in black like a fancy lady`s / eyes ...mud on the face of her old wrist watch:` Bulmer displays an impressive gift for compelling images, as in the poem "Soup":
Mother boils bones till they`re smooth as knuckles. Tempts the pot`s dark mouth with vegetables.
She wipes the hot breath from her wrist like a dog`s wet kiss
She`s also sensitive to the cadence of speech, the music that can be found even in plain diction:
She snips a hank of my hair, tamps it inside the moist head of a sparrow. Scrapes the white dust from the dried belly of a frog; makes a sound like she`s buttering toast. She stuffs the head inside a small hide bag. I tuck it beneath the ribbon strap of my bandeau, close to my bust...
There`s a mild letdown to this volume, because Marie`s coming of age is part of its progression, and the final section, based on her courtship, becomes slightly predictable. The strength of A Salve for Every Sore is in its evocation of a community, with varied voices and narratives; when the community fades into the background, the book also loses a bit of its uncommon shine.
John B. Lee`s rural world in The Pig Dance Dreams (Black Moss, 95 pages, $10.95 paper) isn`t as neatly tucked into arresting metaphors, but given his topic, a little wilful untidiness may be appropriate. This book completes a trilogy: the first two volumes focused on sheep and cows, respectively; this collection`s subject is - you guessed it - porkers. There`s a chatting-over-the-backfence garrulousness to much of it that I found likeable. And an occasional tendency to pitch strained similes by the forkful ("the days were set out silver serviced / and the clock sun-dripped in the summer leaves / like buttered toast;` he writes in "Blind Pigs"), which I found less so. However, there are also some very fine, unsentimental poems that convey the arduousness of pig farming and, not incidentally, take the measure of the human race. Lee is most effective when he lets loose his irreverent sense of humour. There are several howlers - or should that be "squealers"? - here, including "Mending Fence;" a swinish takeoff on Robert Frost`s "Mending Wall":
Something there is that doesn`t love a fence. Pigs, for instance will root cement slabs from a mucky floor to get at the world. They`ll worry the found interstices the chinks no bigger than a curlicue will serve to prod their noses through "The heat in my throat / is the song slaughter sings." So begins "In Season;" a poem not likely to win fans among the Field & Stream set, but true to the tone of J. A. Hamilton`s Body Rain (Brick, 80 pages, $9.95 paper). This is an ugly book, on the whole: a barrage of macabre images, black humour, and blase cruelty. But how does a poet write about violence, about, say, the serial killer Ted Bundy, or incest, or, more generally, the sickness of a society? Writing reasoned, reproachful poems is one tactic; Hamilton has chosen instead to hit us at gut level, to be twisted and shocking. Mostly, her world is one of menace and vulnerability:
You will smell onions he said. Count backward from one hundred Ninety-nine, you said. Ninety-eight. Your ribs did not part on command. The skin was sliced and blood spurted, your breasts slid under your armpits, your nipples kissed the steel. Your ribs. The bones of a ridiculed ark were exposed.
It`s easy to be put off by Body Rain. But underlying its grotesqueries and often alienated sensibility - and surfacing only occasionally - is a sentiment expressed in "Bloodline;" a poem written for a murdered friend:
I heat you and melt you with the force of the living with the love of the living for living things. In one poem in Skating among the Graves (Killick/Creative Publishers, 86 pages, $11.95 paper), Geraldine Rubia laments the passing of certain customs in the Catholic church; poetically, too, she`s something of a traditionalist in her restrained lyricism and occasional use of rhyme, though she does experiment with the shape of poems on the page, as well as with a form she invented, which she baptizes the "sparable." Drop the s from that word and you get a good idea of much of this collection. Not that these "parables" are preachy or particularly religious. But whether quietly attentive to the natural landscape of her native Newfoundland or dwelling on the foibles of human interaction, Rubia draws a lesson, a moment of insight, from her contemplation of the world. These poems are not flashy and a number of them fade into a comfortable competence, like that of the skater in "Skating on Thick Ice;" who "moves inside his narrow arc / with calculated ease, achieves a sort of virtuosity, / but risks no scraped and bloody shins:" But don`t go away yet! Rubia is capable, in her careful, unaffected way, of memorable work:
Because I am maimed you look on me tenderly, in a sense seeing me as a child; especially when you`ve had something to drink sentiment undoes your face; onlookers could think there is something between us few would see it is an absence.
("Because I Am Maimed")
Judith Fitzgerald`s Rapturous Chronicles (Mercury, 67 pages, $9.95 paper) is a book length prose poem in memory of a fellow writer, and its organizing principle is not linear logic, but the roller coaster of emotion in coming to terms with loss: longing, grief, wrenching desire. There`s a bravado that peeks through the sorrow, though, and it`s intimately connected with being able to express: ...the language keeps me going, the world I create from words and wrap around me. Each new word tastes and smells and feels itself into my nervous system. Sounded over and over, each becomes exotic bird, flower, place. Each provides transport.
("Woman, Language Made Me")
Rapturous Chronicles is a dense interior monologue that offers, as Fitzgerald writes in "Absconding Gibbous Night;` "the minutiae of self- / meaning where alignments recur and recombine:" It`s also a virtuoso dance along the tightrope of language; and, like a highwire act, it`s both intensely personal (since it requires the artist`s private concentration) and, supremely, a performance. Often there`s a sense of the poet glancing at her audience, a "look-at-me! " gleam in her eye. And sometimes I do applaud, captivated by Fitzgerald`s nimbleness on the page. But at other times the obsessive spin of this "vortex of memory and discovery" (as she writes in "Crescent Nights") is simply dizzying and hermetic. Sometimes a hard book to hang in with, but worth it for the bursts of sparkle.