There is a joke about the laziest poet alive. He publishes his first volume of poetry at the age of 35. When asked what he plans to do next, he replies: "I'm going to re-publish this exact volume again as my Selected Poems at the age of 45, then again as my Collected Poems at 55 and, finally, as my Complete Poems at 65."
I reflected on this joke repeatedly as I read through the three books under consideration in this review: Jan Conn's Beauties on Mad River: New and Selected Poems; Diane Keating's The Year One: New and Selected Poems; and John B. Lee's The Half-Way Tree: Selected Poems. These volumes have a great deal in common: Each represents the accomplishments of a Canadian poet at "mid-career," a term that today seems to refer to someone hovering around 50 who has published a minimum of three volumes over the past few decades. While each of these poets has been published by respectable Canadian presses and journals, none is particularly well known, widely anthologized, or the subject of extensive critical examination.
Which begs the question: What are the conditions that warrant the publication of a volume of selected poems? In a country like Canada, where there are limited resources available for the publication of any volume of poetry, and where there is a long line of talented young poets waiting for an opportunity to publish a first volume, logic dictates that to use our resources for the publication of a volume of selected poems, the volume should be¨indeed must be¨an event. There must be a need for that volume (for instance, previous, well-received volumes may be out of print and otherwise unavailable). There must be an audience, somewhere, clamoring for this material, waiting anxiously to see how this poet (or his/her editors) has chosen to re-construct her/his poetic accomplishments, identity and career through this volume.
To illustrate this point, I will use the 1997 publication of A.M. Klein's Selected Poems. At the height of his career, Klein was Canada's most eminent and innovative poet. His reputation only grew after he fell silent in the mid-1950s. His death in 1972 inspired a minor industry in Klein studies. Finally, a quarter-century after his death, and following the publication of numerous critical tomes dedicated to his work, Klein's Selected finally appeared, representing what a committee of experts agreed were his most important poems.
Klein himself, who was still gaining artistic momentum when he stopped writing, probably never entertained the possibility that he would some day publish his Selected.
Times change. And although none of the books under consideration in this review are as necessary as Klein's Selected Poems, ultimately each must be considered for its own merits.
Jan Conn's poem "The Woman's Face Always Pressed Against the Window", one of the first few poems in Beauties on Mad River, begins with two lines that could be interpreted as her artistic manifesto: "This is how I live now. / Looking in on my life like a guest at a party." Conn, an insect biologist by profession, turns the microscope relentlessly on the minute details of her own personal history in her poetry as she presents herself as intrepid traveler carrying her baggage (Samsonite and psychiatric) through myriad exotic locales.
Conn writes with an engaging lyrical style and an uncanny talent for capturing the finest details of different settings: "In the rain in Guatemala /white lilies droop/and I inhale the cacophony/of a thousand roses,/their conflicting scents overwhelming/in tangerine, ivory, amarilla." But she is not, properly speaking, a travel poet; she is a confessional poet, and at the heart of most of her poems are the intimate details of her own life.
Among the recurring issues in Conn's poems are the death of her mother and complex feelings toward her father, all of which are rendered with an almost journalistic immediacy:
When my mother was airlifted
from the garage filled with carbon monoxide,
registered at the hospital DOA,
and my father had her cremated
before her children could arrive, refusing
a funeral, I didn't even whimper,
I took that pain and pushed it as far outside my body as I could . . .
When Conn brings her reader this close to tragedy, there is (as with any accident scene) the dueling impulse to watch closely (admiring her honesty) and to look away, leaving her alone with so personal and painful an experience. Given the intensely personal nature of this writing, it is unclear for whom she is writing and publishing (and republishing). As with all confessional poetry, the work is only as meaningful and resonant as it is to the individual reader.
There is in Canadian poetry a distinct strain of writing in which physical passion and spirituality are entwined to the point where they are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Originating in the works of Leonard Cohen, this strain undergoes a feminist inversion in Margaret Atwood's poetry and is flavoured by Eastern spices in Michael Ondaatje's verse. Finally, it arrives in the work of Diane Keating's The Year One as a neo-pantheistic, quasi-brutish eroticism that, in her best work, is handled with astonishing deftness.
In one of her boldest poems, "Leda Forgets the Wings of the Swan", Keating responds to W.B. Yeats' famed "Leda and the Swan" by re-examining the mythic encounter from the woman's point of view. The poem is divided into two parts, statement and introspection. Addressing the visiting Zeus, Leda undergoes a process of self-discovery in the violence of the moment: "Dream Master, that I may find /who I am, let your flushed beak/ tear at my heart and mind." In the second section she acknowledges that the experience allows her to "body out into wholeness, /reaching into the blue oracular air," but despite the achievement of a heightened awareness, the experience concludes in enduring pain: "Oh halfmoon man, my scars ache."
The volume concludes with two extended prose poems set in Puritan-era Salem, which Keating effectively presents as the logical place to set a poetic vision confusing human passions and formalized religion. In each of these poems, what is interpreted as witchcraft is actually a manifestation of repressed sexuality attempting to surface through the confines of a notoriously patriarchal culture.
In the first of these works, "The Salem Diary", a young girl relates in her diary her sexual development, which she can only understand in terms of a Satanic visitation: "Blood begins to drip from the loaf of bread. Slowlie it trickels between the bowle and trencher, under the handel of the spoon & downe into my lapp. Oh Dearest Dread, let this not be happening. I begg You to burnn awaie my sinnes like flesh from bone."
Keatings poems simmer slowly, and the speakers she creates are often unaware when their thoughts have come to a boil. The Year One provides the reader with an impressive range of such speakers, and where lesser poets may rush to conclusion, Keating's control is always impressive.
If Diane Keating is Cohen's poetic offspring, then John B. Lee is certainly of Al Purdy's lineage. Compare the following lines from Lee's poem "The Irish Famine": "Ó so that a man might push his thumb /through the punk/and watch the wound weep/like warm tar," to these lines from Purdy's "The Country North of Belleville": "And where the farms are/it's as if a man stuck/both thumbs in the stony earth and pulled/it apartÓ"
The comparison is not gratuitous. Lee is not the progeny of Purdy's work merely because he alludes to him; in the best poems of The Half-Way Tree, Lee is self-consciously following in Purdy's "real Canadian man" footsteps (which no doubt lead through a pile of cow shit, rocky and unforgiving soil, and a thawing backyard hockey rink). The poems that will no doubt define his poetic career, "The Hockey Player Sonnets", are dedicated to Purdy and peppered with "e.d.s" (expletive deleted): "Ó and the (e.d.) goalie fell asleep / and somebody (e.d.) yelled "SHOOT THE (e.d.) thing / (E-E-E-E-E.D-eeeeeeee!!!!!!!)"
Swimming somewhere in a pool of Labatt Blue and the glare of Hockey Night in Canada is a mind capable of real insight into Canadian culture, as revealed in "The Trade that Shook the Hockey World", a poem on the unlikely subject of Wayne Gretzky's departure from Edmonton to Los Angeles: "Something about kings in the great republic. /Something about titans and the golden gods. /Something about the myth of boys and the truths of men. / Something about beer in the holy grail." In the tenderness of the poem, Lee establishes that good poetry is a marriage between subject and rendering. Lee knows, as Purdy knew before him, that like grapes, the richest poetry grows out of the roughest soil.
This review began with some musings on the necessity of volumes of Selected Poems from a group of mid-level, mid-career poets who, in their selections, may not have been selective enough. The reader may answer this question him- or herself. If nothing else, these volumes afford us a second look at the accomplishment and occasional brilliance of three poets who may previously have been too quickly overlooked. ˛
Harold Heft was born and raised in Montreal. He has taught Canadian writing at the University of Western Ontario and Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He currently lives in Toronto. The Shape of This Dying, his first book of poems, was published by Mosaic Press in 2001.