||Fancy Bling and Classic Togs
by David Hickey
In his third collection of poetry, Bizarre Winery Tragedy, Lyle Neff returns to the well-trod territories of city and self that preoccupied his earlier work. The best of these new poems, however, reveal the relaxed movements of an experienced traveler, one more willing to pause and contemplate the people and scenes that populate his East Vancouver streets. Less apparent is the jocular posing that undermines the quality of his earlier collections. The former angry-young-poet has now been replaced with a father figure calmly grappling with new concerns and growing responsibilities.
In "Antihistamine", for example, the speaker considers his own mortality as his child scrambles towards him on a beach, the infant "anxious about the belly-high sea." Neff balances the speaker's realization of death's inevitability with the awareness that his son will also one day be its victim-"It flies scythely/ widescreen at us," and gets wider "The harder his white arms clutch." An ephemeral moment, but Neff skillfully draws together the mix of tenderness and sorrow contained in it.
In many ways, this intermingling of exterior circumstance and internal response typifies Neff's work. More specifically, his poems are perhaps best categorised as male confessionals in the tradition of Al Purdy or Milton Acorn. Working within this tradition, Neff has managed to exploit much of what it has to offer, even as he buoys himself through most of its trappings. Most, alas, but not all. After reading all three of Neff's collections, in fact, one notices a slight imbalance in the writing, a swinging back and forth between moments of considerable poetic insight and uneven passages that would have been better cut from his work.
This pattern establishes itself in Neff's first collection, Ivanhoe Station, which opens with "Fable For Central America". This poem, although well-meaning in its desire to expose the social injustices in Central American countries, manages only to give its reader a superficial impression of the individuals caught in the violence and upheaval characteristic of such dictatorships. It opens with "700 times/their little guns/ burst", but from there Neff fails to relate in an authentic way the consequences of this event. The entire poem, in fact, strikes one as the sort of awkward political rhetoric a teenager might borrow in search of a cause. This proletarianism, however, does find a more convincing home in another poem from Ivanhoe Station called "Waiting for a Cheque". As with any poem about matters like welfare and poverty, the ways in which the poet could go wrong are plentiful. One risks falling into predictable diatribes about the oppression of ruling classes, or long rants about the injustices of economic systems that allow for such discrepancies between the rich and the poor. In this poem, however, Neff manages to circumvent such generalities with a brilliant opening metaphor:
Poverty's weight makes a sea creature of you;
Gilled, scaly and scant with the pressure
You drift along the bottom where the current is
Where Gastown curls into the Downtown
This is Neff at his best: carefully skirting the predictable to deliver a dead-on metaphor in the most lyrical yet accessible of ways. "Waiting for a Cheque" is, in fact, wonderfully reminiscent of Milton Acorn's "In Addition", another poem that deals with the subject of social assistance and inequality with the same persuasive, ironic tone.
Unfortunately, like Acorn, Neff's earlier work sports much masculine posturing that detracts from its finer moments. In "Luckless McKenzie Repudiates the Cosmos", also from Ivanhoe Station, we encounter the figure of McKenzie with his "dick out", pissing at the centre of the universe. What follows is a predictable poem that regales us with McKenzie's inability to "write [his] name in the snow", after which he pauses to pontificate on how "That fuckin' last drop always winds up in your pants." Anytime I encounter poems like this, in which profanity and spectacle outweigh traces of substance, I always feel as though I am back in Grade Nine and reading a note that has been passed around the class, one with "dirty" words and lewd suggestions carefully crafted to make the boys laugh and the girls think the author is brash and daring. Certainly, poets are welcome to use whatever terms they require to strengthen their work, but in this case the poet just seems to include expletives for their own sake, as if to say: look what I'm not afraid to write. In fact, the speaker in Neff's poem "Seeds" even suggests that, at one time, he was "Too weak to say fuck in my poems." Apparently, swearing marks some kind of coming-of-age ceremony, some badge of courage all young poets must earn if they are to write the truth about the universe and all the meaningful urination that takes place at its centre. Truly, Neff's logic here is baffling.
Even more baffling, however, is the way in which the very same poet, in the very same book, changes modes so quickly. In the span of a few pages, Neff propels his readers forward into the stunningly rich world of a poem like "Eidetic", where "In fluid and electrics, the alligator brain holds it all/rigid, refined and encyclopedic." The logical line of this poem, both rich in metaphysical diversions and resonate images, establishes Neff as a metaphorical acrobat, capable of balancing a great deal in a single syntactical line:
In fluid and electrics the alligator brain holds it all,
rigid, refined and encyclopedic; the chemical well
contains a green bathing suit, improbable sex acts,
inclusive results from the election of nineteen
a bowl of stinging Thai soup and the origin of scars;
all held static and wet in the ancient clock, the first
So particles mate with forces to render a past,
a coiled rope of ones and zeros renders a self;
are these the details in which God resides?
The newer mind rejects the truth, intolerable and
that the cries of burned heretics lie encoded
in ashes, that physically is zero and one, all and
This is a wonderful poem, conversational yet far-reaching, suggestive yet not at all cryptic. Positioned near the end of his collection, one cannot help but wonder if his editor (or Neff himself) saw "Eidetic" as a dissimilar afterthought, a poem too unlike the rest to occupy anything other than the remaining pages. Either way, its lines become the sort of stuff one craves more of-from Neff or any poet, for that matter, with an equally nimble mind.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the strongest poems in Neff's second volume also appear after several pages of hard going. In keeping with the collection's title, Full Magpie Dodge is ripe with titles that may or may not have much to do with the poems themselves; many are adjective-ridden mouthfuls bent toward some form of abstraction. Take "Lazybones Weakankles", for example. This poem begins, "Broken gears heave slow over / the jagged wheel; she won't work / due to rashes. And he made numb cousins raise his own kids at cost." Interesting phrasing, for certain, but the reader never finds out who "he" is, or who the "numb cousins" are, or how any of these characters figure in the poem as whole. In fact, this poem goes from the subject of rough upbringings to cereal found on an apartment floor, to trying "just once the drug / unaffordable; the wines of the rich" without ever establishing a common, meaningful thread. Still, however fruitless it may prove here, this kind of wandering, intoxicated logic does work extremely well later on in Full Magpie Dodge.
In the poem "Skin", Neff reveals a self-deprecating sense of humour, a quality which surfaces too infrequently in the seriousness of so much Canadian poetry. Neff writes: "I have a lot of skin, it has character. // I grew it myself." In pointing out the obvious, the speaker sports a kind of tongue-in-cheek pride, a charm that prevents this self-fascination from becoming predictable navel-gazing that typifies much confessional writing. Rather, the poem proceeds with "its tufts of fur, strategic pimples, moles" and "ghosts of childhood warts" that establish an imperfect body, but one worthy of exploration all the same. The real strength of the piece, however, comes near its end, where the speaker shifts from thoughts of his own body to a familiar line by Whitman: "When poets talk about containing multitudes, / they mean the civilizations of the skin." Neff juxtaposes the broadest of human arrangements with those most local to us, as if to suggest the latter contains the former, or at the very least shares a common boundary. This notion of a divided space is a variation on the ongoing theme of containment which appears throughout Neff's work.
Bizarre Winery Tragedy, in fact, opens with one of these contained spaces, a scene in which the speaker acts as a third-person narrator who recalls a fleeting romantic encounter between two elevator riders. Neff has used the motif of the elevator before. In Full Magpie Dodge, he writes, "So much of our short time is spent in elevators, up and down." Perhaps this fascination with elevators is emblematic of city life, where inhabitants are often no more than an arm's length from each other. Either way, one cannot help but sense how this proximity influences Neff's work. In "Crazy Sick Spare Change", for example, readers encounter the bottle collectors with whom the poet shares his city, "the East end moonlight carefully painted / on all the miners", these "aluminum-siding psychics". Despite the poem's distracting title, we again see the emergence of Neff's social conscience, this time deftly capturing a street side scene. Unique to this portrait, however, is the casual lyrical beauty of the phrasing, especially present in those lines that close the poem. The speaker asks, "Does the moonlight get awfully wounded / in the jacket of the Lower Mainland night[?]" Certainly, Neff's Byronic Romanticism is on full display here. Yet, unlike some of the portraits of street people that appear in his earlier collections, which seem more like caricatures than depictions of actual people, this effort is focused, and resolves the scene without dampening its complexity. One senses that Neff has known this territory all along, but only now does he find a way to articulate his vision of the neglected.
The same compassion and lyricism finds a voice in "Change Table Dream", in which the speaker turns his attention to his son, their play date interrupted by a sudden burst of tears: "I hold the tiny man up like a megaphone/ his batteries short-popped and circuiting." The speaker's partner enters the scene to execute a rescue via her "propellorboat", as the father figure looks on gratefully, a radio in the background crackling out the muted lyrics "the world is a vampire". What I like most about this scene is the way in which the speaker acknowledges his own helplessness, his reliance on his partner, and perhaps his own sense of personal bafflement at how such a perfect father/son scene is so easily interrupted by mysterious emotional sways of infanthood. Neff does well here to allow his speakers a vulnerability that is absent from his previous work, one that rounds out his characters, and allows us to sympathize with them more readily.
Of course, considering Neff's work as a whole, the opposite could be just as true: should readers find themselves failing to connect with these poems, it is perhaps because Neff has yet to provide this fullness of character in each piece he writes. Also, some of the vagaries and abstractions that haunt Neff's earlier work persist in Bizarre Winery Tragedy, this time taking the shape of unusual titles like "Halloweenthink", many of which readers will struggle to make sense of. Still, there's no denying that Neff brings his fair share to the table. This is a poet who, despite his inconsistency, maintains a sense of wit and skill as he pursues his native landscape. Whether waiting for the warmth of the no. 14 bus, or wandering half-cut down East Hastings, Neff never shies away from the roughest his city has to offer. Here is a poet who knows Vancouver from the sidewalk up, the pull of its streets through the dark.