by Mark Callanan
ISBN: 1894294688

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A Review of: Scarecrow
by Zach Wells

I know, I know: Keats died at 26 and Rimbaud composed "Le bateau ivre" at 16. Still, it bears mentioning: Mark Callanan's Scarecrow is a remarkable achievement for a 24-year-old poet.
One of the book's chief virtues is its combination of range and focus. Callanan covers a broad spectrum of subjects in these poems, employing techniques ranging from spare, Asian-inspired imagistic meditation to stentorian, long-lined bardic declamation. A fine example of the former is in the title poem, brief enough to quote in full:

A gull crucified
in a field.

The flies
circling his body

like the birds he wards off,

their wings buzzing
in the air.

And all that
bone, all that rot.

In his prophetic mode, Callanan writes:

Like Cuvier reading the entire bird from the feather,
I'm learning to predict disaster in a drop of rain.
The entire predatory body of the storm will come later,
lightning inscribed on the parchment-ragged clouds.

The dark vision of these samples prevails in much of Callanan's work. Scarecrow is steeped in blood, permeated by a violence both animal and human. (It is a mark of the poet's sophistication that he draws no neat line between the two spheres: humankind is just another animal in these poems, both threatening and threatened in its relations to other beasts.) There is an affinity between Callanan and such poets of violence as Ted Hughes, Patrick Lane and Irving Layton. His obsessions with death and destruction manifest themselves through certain unifying leitmotifs-images of blades and dead animals, especially birds, recur throughout the collection. Hands, one of Callanan's chief preoccupations, are, to pinch from "Straight Razor", beautiful and dangerous instruments: implements of destruction, but also of poiesis and love. Again, Callanan draws no clean delineations: a butcher with bloody hands is a surrogate poet; a sparrow "crushed in a bare fist" gives flight to inspiration; a barber's nimble hand, "fearless with the knife," flirts with disaster, and love is likened to "a razor/as it ducks and nips/its way around the flesh." The violence of Callanan's poetic world is offset by tenderness and humour. Joy and despair are often flatmates in these pages; tropes of flight evoke both abnegation of, and engagement in, mundane life. These touches provide balance to a collection that might otherwise teeter into dystopian hysteria.
For all its manifest felicities, Scarecrow is not without failings. Callanan has a tendency in some poems to indulge in poeticisms, such as the anthropomorphisation of inanimate objects (the "fingers" of birch "ache towards the sky//or cling desperately/to the wind") and animals (a brood of magpies joke about the theft of a necklace, observed by a scrap-yard dog with a Protestant ethic "resenting/the talk of their trade"). The poet makes this work when he is either subtle about it or takes it over the top, as in "One-Trick Pony", in which the speaker dances with a horse who knows only the tango. But in most cases it is when Callanan writes of animals as animals that he is most convincing; when he tries to convert them into people, the effect is almost always cutesy, and he sounds like Ted Hughes on a bad day. "Lions and Lyres and Bears", a sixteen-poem suite about constellations, is the weakest section of the book for the above-stated reasons. A few of these poems are strong enough to merit inclusion, but the section has the overall feel of lacklustre finger-stretching. We should be thankful that Callanan did not decide (as some Canadian poets seem fond of doing with subjects like stars and meteorology) to attempt a whole book of these celestial musings.
Mark Callanan's voice is distinctive and confident, funny, grave, occasionally visionary, and his technical gifts are multifold. He is able to give old tropes a new currency and delivers his subjects with convincing urgency. If he can maintain this level of intensity and prune the odd clich from future work, he will be very impressive indeed.

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