Wind and Root|
by Brent MacLaine
Mining For Sun
by John Reibetanz
Instruments of Surrender
by Christine Wiesenthal
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|Landscape and Loss
by Geoffrey Cook
Wind and Root is Brent MacLaine's first collection of poetry, and at 59 poems¨including a 16-poem sequence, "Timothy Harbour" ¨it's large. Free verse of medium length lines dominates, though many poems employ regular stanzaic divisions (quatrains and tercets, mostly). MacLaine's title alludes to a basic and conventional tension motivating poetry: the flight and transcendence of the imagination ("wind") versus the commitment to the "local habitation and name" ("root"). Such a tension is existentially and mythically familiar to Easterners: for generations they have had to make the fateful decision of whether to stay "Down East" and tough out economic hardships and cultural indifference or go "Out West" for money and careers. MacLaine's collection is generally elegiac: not just for personal reasons (poems about his parents' deaths), but cultural ones as well. Like David Adams Richards's novels, MacLaine's poetry in part testifies to the passing of an economy and culture based on natural resources (farming, fishing) and the intimate and symbolic connection between land and people:
So this is the end of the handing on
and the passing down? We will all just let
our imaginations go their separate
ways without a thought to legacies?
This stanza is from "The Chestnut Tree", which memorializes the dying tradition of planting a tree to mark the birth of a child. Many poems deal with the effects of technology and consumerism on a society steered by traditional rural values: "I should not have taken offense /when that tourist called my father's farm/ a nice piece of real estate...", MacLaine says in "A Wind Not a Root". And in "Cruise Ship" he squints at cruise ships replacing lobster boats in port. In "Finely Fashioned Things", "The world's bazaar is everywhere, and yet / the moment that the pretty things come through / my door, they all go silent...", an ironic comment on cosmopolitanism, and global culture.
In exploring this tension between "wind" and "root", MacLaine sometimes employs exaggerated metaphors. The results can be comic, as in the experimental "Hyper Poem", a playful, ironic record of the results of a Web search for that conventionally poetic nature image, "rose". The similes can also be awkward. In "Something Greater than the Temple" the poet recalls walking through a field with his father, the two idly weeding mustard: "Like bushman in a pastoral savannah we hunted / silently under the gleaming August sun." The comparison here seems strained, inappropriately blurring significant distinctions. In "Tending the Stone", on the other hand, Mother and son carry plants to the patriarch's grave: "Like a landscape crew with bags and garden tools /we move among the stones." The image here is effective¨we've all seen such crews¨yet equally suggestive of ritual, myth and connection to the land (the Hamlet / 'grave-digger' image is exploited in the poem; and one can glimpse Death in these tool-carrying figures in a graveyard). Another fine and telling allusion is the last line of "The Reprieve or Driving My Uncle to Nova Scotia for Heart Treatment"; immediately after the treatment the uncle seems alright: "On the road / though, his eyes grow big and blank as lenses¨like those field glasses in Colville's painting." Internationally recognized, Colville's intriguing images are particularly significant cultural reference points for Atlantic Canadians.
MacLaine's work is self-consciously local, unpretentious, and accessible¨by turns solemn and witty. Nonetheless, the poetry is not particularly exceptional in its use of language, form, dramatic conception or sensibility. Despite the mock-heroic voice of "A Lecture to Time", MacLaine's is a modest muse: "poems are little more than bits of grain / we throw into the air to test the wind's velocity" ("To the Poet Seeking Posterity"). MacLaine can be a bit trapped by that common poetic device¨the first person narrative of daily life. Perhaps that is why "Timothy Harbour", a sequence of other people's stories, stands out from the rest of the material.
Somewhat surprisingly for a poet who has spent much of his life in major cities (New York, Toronto), John Reibetanz's subjects in Mining for Sun are often drawn from rural settings: a handmade cutting board, a tree-swing, a tarpapered country house, quilts, a barn, a hummingbird, totem poles, cedar wood, a canoe. Even Reibetanz' poems about art are about paintings of landscapes, seascapes or dairy maids. I suspect this choice of subject has much to do with the poet's love and knowledge of Romantic poetry and the long tradition of pastoral verse. Mining for Sun is John Reibetanz's fifth book of poetry and further evidence of his careful, confident, tradition-laden craft. The book contains haiku, sonnets, quatrains (of various rhyme schemes), terza rime, glosa, as well as variations or adaptations of classical forms. Reibetanz's work is full of allusions to canonical English poetry (besides the Romantics, one can hear Shakespeare, Yeats, Auden, Larkin, and the Metaphysical poets) as well as echoes of Dante and the classics.
The collection is elegiac but hopeful, prefering transcendence over tragedy. There are poems about the death of the poet's mother and the devastating decline¨due to dementia¨of his father; about the horrors of World War II, child labour and genocidal colonialism. Yet as a poem comparing his father's fatal state to the Titanic's explains: "My need / for wholeness, largeness, harmony, propels / the heavenly body onward, freed / from mean necessity."
As is common with elegiac work, art is a major theme in Mining for Sun, according to which art is a means of both recognizing and ű more importantly for Reibetanz ű transcending grief. Similar to MacLaine's duality of wind and root, the dialectical basis of much of Reibetanz' art is the tension between the tragic facts of life and the possibility and legitimacy of imaginative transcendence. Again and again, Reibetanz emphasizes the latter, art's transformative power. An Inuit sculptor, revealing "that dark / inside ourselves crying out for the light / of song," carves throat holes for a pair of throat singers he is sculpting, "an absence that recalls the most/ sublime presence." It's not that Reibetanz is unaware of the moral dubiousness of art's apparent ability to transform consciousness. In a poem about the Spaniards' conquest of the Inca, for example, he recognizes the record of human experience and achievement is often written by the powerful at the cost of the powerless or overpowered: "history [is] no solid ground ...completely reshaped / by the human mouth / in the loom of telling." But it almost seems that whatever the horror, Reibetanz is most anxious to transcend it. The strain shows up in his metaphors. In a poem about art's power to "animate/ the senseless walls," the central symbol is a white horse in a painting by Constable. Reibetanz makes a connection between the horse and a one-way road sign:
a simple, horizontal sign,
an arrow pointing at a one-way street ű
anonymous and unrefined
as horses painted on the endless night
of prehistoric cave wall; yet it called
beyond the limits of its fixed
I felt it drive me on, image
of something deep inside: the same white heat
that fired the first artists....
A one-way sign can serve as a powerful symbol, but in a poem without a trace of irony or humour, is it not a little ridiculous to find a one-way sign representing the profundity of imaginative vision?
"Daily Bread", the final poem in the book, is partly about the hardships endured by the poor (particularly children, with images from the 17th, 19th and 20th centuries). For example, it examines how an artist like Vermeer¨who used a dairy maid as a model¨while "helpless to save them ... can cry for them." The painting is of a maid pouring milk from a pitcher, "which pours out what cannot shelter us, but feeds / a hunger no daily bread can fill: for light ű / light that, like coal, comes from our earth; hunger / that, unlike grief, is inexhaustible." But the Vermeer model in the painting looks neither starved nor suffering nor sad; it could be argued that the painting is placating the rich who employ such maids and buy paintings that pay tribute to their natural beauty. Reibetanz's poem seems to want to justify hunger, poverty, and suffering as proper subjects for an art that functions to 'transcend' these tragic conditions. I doubt this was Reibetanz's intention, but rather the result of his getting carried away by metaphors too easily available. The ideas underlying some of the poet's images often seem weightier than their actual effect. Add the lush syntactic structures, and a reader sometimes feels a straining after "Poetry".
Christine Wiesenthal's first book, Instruments of Surrender, consists of forty poems, including five sequences, and is divided into three parts: "A Stone is a Stone", "Picture Windows", and "Vaterland". Free verse and the short to medium-length line dominate, though there are a few sonnets and sonnet-based poems. Capitalization and punctuation are largely eschewed. Wiesenthal also writes about art, in her second section, "Picture Windows", but while Reibetanz is preoccupied with transcendence, Wiesenthal is more ironic, less obsessive, focusing more on transformations and contrasting views. "The Verdict of Birds", for example, reflects on art as mimesis, referring to Pliny's description of a contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius to determine who was the most realistic painter. The second part of the poem describes a bird that died dashing into Wiesenthal's window. A poem on Marilyn Levine, who creates art from discarded leather, describes the ironic reactions of various spectators, as well as the erotic effect of Levine's work. Wiesenthal developes her theme of art's ambivalence by including in "Picture Windows" the witty sequence of experimental prose poems involving a polyphony of voices, "The Laundry Cycle". The work livens the otherwise static vocabulary of laundering ("blues", "delicates"); the poet also mocks the gender-driven assumptions about housework, sexual roles, menstruation, and, ironically, the idea of "laundry [as] an art".
Wiesenthal's first section, "A Stone is a Stone"¨despite its ironically literal-minded title¨is a richly metaphoric and lyrical archeology of the western Canadian landscape¨full of badlands, Calla, caragana, dolomite, hoodoos, ptarmigan, rills, salal, scarabs, screes, shelter belts, and trilobites. "[S]ome careless god with a greased hand/ and a dry sense of humour" seems to have created this land, though Wiesenthal finds brutal as well as delightful beauty there. For all its evocation of death, the poetry clearly celebrates life and language. The imagery of the first section identifies poetry, on the one hand, with archeology (both the digging and what is dug up), and, on the other, with bird flight and song (a traditional trope). A house sparrow in winter, in the poem "Mid-Winter Migration 1" holds
the quarter note of her silhouette ...
the whole night through by the stem of a single foot.
Because all blooded things that wake,
month after month to winter's frugal light
must take leave of their senses, dream
Yet despite the reasonable longing to migrate from a wintry landscape of lifelessness, Wiesenthal knows, "Again it is winter and there is little room for denial"¨ a refrain from the moving elegy for her mother, "Botanical". For the buried and the past are "not the harmless/ dead they pretend to be." They aren't as easily overcome as Reibetanz's work suggests, but haunt the poet's imagination. "Vaterland" is the largest section¨almost half the book¨containing two sequences and other thematically related poems. As the metaphors in the first half of the book imply, the richest imaginative material is buried in the poet's past: Nazi Germany: "precious & inconvenient, the ragged dead / reappear out of the blue":
when the ragged reappear
really, there is nothing you can do
hail them with as many
flustered greetings as you will
mine never answer me & mine,
they never come clean
The gravity of the subject of the sequence¨nazism as paternal heritage¨is certainly daunting, but Wiesenthal has found a means of communicating such emotional and cultural horror not only without being ponderous or embarrassingly solipsistic, but with irony and even humour (if dark). Holding ground with Plath's "Daddy" is Weisenthal's "ii. hitler baby": accompanied by a photo of der Fnhrer with a cute child, the poem ends, "nazi nazi nazi / there are pictures / & you are there at three / on adolph's bony knee / dad ¨". The language and subject of "Vaterland" is well represented by the following selection from the sequence "from the journals of ruth andreas-friedrich, 1938-45", which describes scavenging "hausfrauen" after the fall of the Third Reich:
and when i found the ox, they
surrounded me like hounds, sniffing blood
tore into the carcass, one woman
yelling for the tongue ¨ "die znnge
is mine! mine!"
slap slap slapped at the hands that grabbed
and gave the tongue a mighty rip ¨ a sound
like a woman cracking open
then she bolted, the slippery blue
sponge of sweet meat clenched in her fist
my tongue, all thumbs ¨
when she dashed, i shrieked ¨
that was mine ¨ that tongue!
for me and for andrik!
The scene is wonderfully grotesque and realistic and symbolic. Leo ("Andrik") Borchard was "appointed conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic shortly after the Russians captured the city on May 2, 1945. [He] was shot to death when a car in which he was traveling with British Allied officers inadvertently crossed an American checkpoint." The poem describes war refuges in their own defeated land fighting over a rotten ox tongue; that "tongue"¨cut out then stolen for food¨can represent the persecution and silencing of the Jews, of art, of German citizens, and/or of the poet Wiesenthal herself, once reluctant to speak of her experience as a second generation German. How to speak of World War II, as well as who should speak for whom, are questions that have troubled literary artists since Adorno's claim that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. Enabled by her modernist techniques (quotes, pastiche, polyphony, irony, original rhythm, etc.), and her ironic, suspicious intelligence and courage in the face of horror, grief and the inexplicable, Wiesenthal has some answers to those questions. ˛
Geoffrey Cook is one of the poetry editors at The Danforth Review. Most recently, his poems have been published in the anthology, Coastlines.