Articles & Reviews

"Coils and recoils of interpretations":
The 1991 Nominations for the Governor General's Award for Poetry

Wolf Ladder
Don Domanski
Toronto, Coach House Press

Miner's Pond
Anne Michaels
Toronto, McClelland & Stewart

Rapturous Chronicles
Judith Fitzgerald
Stratford, Mercury Press

Night Field
Don McKay
Toronto, McClelland & Stewart

Mortal Remains
Patrick Lane
Toronto, Exile Editions

Review by Stephen Morrissey
Poetry Canada Review, vol. 12, nos. 3 & 4
summer 1992

Don Domanski writes poetry that has rhythm and beauty; he is a lyrical poet writing in the surrealist tradition. Wolf-Ladder continues the voice and style of his earlier books.

Domanski has a dark vision of the world; his is not poetry of the everyday, but poetry of nightmare and dream, in a recent interview in Poetry Canada, volume 12, number 2, Domanski says: "I'm trying to walk a line between conscious and unconscious. I think that's where we live." However. Domanski's work is primarily of the unconscious mind. Consider the following from his poem "The Hitch Hiker":

the moon rose like a dental chair
white and empty and smelling
of teeth torn from a liquid
from a mouth dressed in spills

In "Cloudburst" he writes:

I like standing here
beside her bed of unmade water
listening to the cat grind
his teeth in the cupboard
to the ant sing in the bread-box
the newt gallop across the wall

Wolf-Ladder is interesting at first; but at ninety-four pages this book is too repetitive. As I read Wolf-Ladder I found myself questioning whether or not it communicated anything substantial, and this is because surrealistic imagery tends to be cloying and doesn't always take the reader beyond the imagery. The failure of surrealism is that the use of dream imagery, or the radical juxtaposition of incongruous images, inevitably tends to exclude the reader; what is intriguing and original at first often ends up being exclusive. Domanski's vision is one situated in a timeless dream world that is static and seems unchanging; in his poetry, life also seems static and timeless: the reader enters Wolf-Ladder, reads it. and leaves, but the escape from life—which is, after all, constantly subject to change and to time—is only temporary. The significance of Domanski's work is that he takes the reader into the world of the unconscious mind, and back and forth between the irrational and rational, the primitive and the civilized; in this, he is essentially a religious poet who transforms what is mundane into the noumenal, and a poet, in his oeuvre to date, who is both fresh and original.

Anne Michaels' Miner's Pond is a peculiarly unemotional book of poems with the exception of the title poem. "Miner's Pond" is the most personal of the poems in this book; she writes:

It was the tambourine that pushed my father
over the edge in 1962. His patience
a unit of time we never learned co measure.
The threat to "drive into a post"
was a landmark we recognized and raced towards
with delirious intent,
challenging the sound barrier of the car roof.

The poem is impressionistic; memory is spliced with present perceptions and equal weight is given to both. It is one of the few poems in Miner's Pond that moves the reader.

The rest of Michaels' book borders on prose; her language is neither lyrical nor does it contain much emotional depth. Some ideas are interesting in poetry, but one of the main characteristics of poetry is emotional revelation. When Michaels writes the following I can only wonder at what she is trying to say: "Obsession is the sacrifice of light/ to the richness of submergence." This is followed by something so obvious one wonders why it needs to be said: "There's failure in every choice."

It is popular among Canadian poets to write fictional, first-person anecdotal "autobiographies" of famous writers (Atwood's Moodie, Scobie's McAlmon, and so on). Michaels' book is basically several longish poems all written in the voice of someone else. Notes are provided at the end of the book, to help identify in whose voice she is writing (e.g. Isak Dinesen, Marina Tsvetaeva, and others); however, it gets a bit tedious after a while and gives the reader little aesthetic satisfaction. These are intellectual poems with an apparent minimum of emotional involvement on the author's part; consequently there is limited involvement on the reader's part. They are poems that too often become prose; some, like "Pillar of Fire" are successful, and hold the reader's interest.

Judith Fitzgerald's Rapturous Chronicles is a work of prose poetry concerned with Fitzgerald's deceased friend, the writer Juan Butler. It is a book that expresses much grief and sorrow for the dead; it is a serious work that is very moving. She writes: "Juan, let us remain ancient and passionate, forgive impossible histories, forget the future monochromatic," "Juan, I want you in a way I want nothing else, other, double entendre," "You reach a certain age and adjectives begin to lose their effectiveness. Devastated, for example."

In Fitzgerald's introduction to this book she writes of her love of language: "Names and origins and etymology all add to the same thing for me. I can't see peeling a name from the thing named. I can't hear taking a place out of the placed place." Nevertheless, Fitzgerald's apparently radical approach to language doesn't always succeed. Some of the work in this book is wordy, vague, and abstruse; perhaps this is sometimes acceptable in prose, but I've always considered one of the basic maxims of writing poetry to be that one be concise and use only the exact word the poem requires.

Frank Davey, in his introduction to Fitzgerald's Given Names: New And Selected Poems 1973-1985, writes of Fitzgerald's use of "pun, wordplay, unorthodox syntax, Fitzgerald defamiliarizes words like 'conjunction,' 'person,' 'names,' " and so on. On the surface there is some intellectual basis for language-centered poetry, but essentially it's a betrayal of poetry and human emotions as it places language before communication, and political revision before emotional and spiritual insight.

Don McKay, whose Night Field won the 1991 Governor General's Award for Poetry, also has a passion for language, a passion for writing poetry; unfortunately, the passion is not present in the content of his poems. McKay, unlike Judith Fitzgerald, has no great emotion to work through; instead, we find poems about the mundane world: camping, the outdoors, a "Meditation on a Small Bird's Skull," and other poems with titles such as "Driftwood," "Bone Poems," "The Wolf," and so on. These are all well written poems, and McKay's ability to play with language, write poems that are rhythmical and dance on the page, is unique in Canadian poetry and to be envied. The title poem—actually half of it is prose—is the most satisfying piece in this volume. It deals with the different ways people see the same object, and perhaps it is the key to this book. McKay writes of an elderly woman who, on the eve of entering a hospital, stays at the narrator's house where she spends a restless night; the next morning she complains that an abstract painting has a monster in it and "It's like it's mocking us." McKay writes:

He took down the painting, and looked for the
monster. His father could see it, and so could
others, once it was pointed out to them, but
he never could ... Sometimes he does think "Rorschach
test." Sometimes he thinks "coils and recoils of
interpretation." And sometimes he feels like the
inadequate hero of a fairy tale whose shape he
can't make out: the old woman is an old monster,
the dog is a dog, the field is a field, and the
monster who will laugh and steal the silver thread
of meaning from a life is never there when he's

There is a dark side to the human psyche but it is not evident in Night Field; the monster that is hiding in the painting hides in the human psyche, a shadow figure representing darkness in our own unconsciousness. Shadow material is an important pan of the content of poetry; it is substantially missing from McKay's work.

The poems in Night Field are like middle of the road music, that genre of music that is accessible and avoids at all costs any possibility of disturbing the listener, or in this case the reader. There is no angst, no despair, no sorrow, not even any great love in this work. For instance, in "Canadian Tyre" (sic), he writes:

Among gaskets, couplings, fasteners, the
bricoleur is browsing in his favourite
store, wearing that smudged, obviously
elsewhere expression, pregnant. Once again
he is imagining his way home by an
unlikely set of islands.

There is a place for humor in poetry but as any real comic knows, humor is often the result of revealing the very things we are ashamed of, or the things we feel most deeply about. This gives humor a depth and darkness that is missing from Night Field.

Perhaps Patrick Lane's Mortal Remains is too dark, too bleak, too violent, and too politically incorrect, at least for this year's Governor General's award jurors. It is relentless in its autopsy of what is left of the human psyche after many years of intense living. In his Afterword Lane writes: "Mortal Remains is a dark title yet it is somehow appropriate. Poetry cannot save us but it can provide us with some small redemption." All of these poems are written on the edge of consciousness, all of them are expressions of raw emotion. They deal with death, love, sexual betrayal, anger, and forgiveness; the range of emotions is wide although much of it is negative. Finally, it offers some small mercy of redemption and self-forgiveness.

Nothing is easy in these poems. The child in "The Far Field" is beaten by his father:

I remember the limb of the tree falling
upon me, the sound of the white wood crying
as it hurt the air, and the flesh of my body
rising to him as I fell to the ground and rose
only to fall again. I don't remember pain,
remember only what a body feels
when it is beaten, the way it resists
and fails, and the sound of my flesh.

. . . .

It was as if to be broken was love, as if
the beating was a kind of holding, a man
lifting a child in his huge hands and throwing him
high in the air, the child's wild laughter
as he fell a question spoken into both their lives,
the blood they shared pounding in their chests.

In "The Killer" Lane writes of how he imagines the man who murdered his father, and how this killing changed Lane's life: "I have spent most of my life/ with you, you whose name I do not know." In "Father" he writes: "My father with his bright burst heart, the bullet/ exploding in him like some gift the wind had given him." And in "The Happy Little Towns" he writes:

That was the year my wife slept with my best friend.

. . . .

The wreckage of that world stayed wreckage, though
we tried to build it back. The steady years of trying,
her taking the flowers I picked in the fields
and placing them in a jar where we watched them die.

Lane's work is consistently well written. The poems in Mortal Remains form a theme of redemption, that for one who has been betrayed and has also betrayed others, who has experienced violence and death, there is still the possibility of self-transcendence. Lane's work does not exclude the reader with obscure imagery; it is not consumed with the diversion of intellectualizing existence, and therefore denying experience; it does not indulge in obscure language. Lane is first and foremost a poet of great depth and originality of vision and insight; and, finally, this is poetry of the soul, it is not superficial, it is poetry of vision. Lane is probably now at the mature height of his poetry, he is one of our five or six important contemporary poets; however, he is not a politically correct poet, as no true poet should be. Political correctness, or any fixed ideology, denies the freedom of thought necessary for creativity.

Some of his descriptions of women are descriptions of degradation; it is not Lane's purpose to degrade women but to describe what he has seen. Women are not solely sex objects in Lane's work, but their main role is defined through their sexuality. Women, in general, serve a one-dimensional sexual role in this poetry; indeed, at times Lane seems to offer degrading experiences regarding women and men just to shock the reader. Poetry transforms experience but Lane's poetry lacks the necessary inner transformation and its effect on the reader is life denying, producing an existential exhaustion, not a spiritual and emotional replenishment of one's inner being.

Consequently, Lane's poetry is claustrophobic and narrows the perceptions of the reader, so that rather than expand the readers vision, he inhibits and destroys it. Louis Dudek, in a 1979 review of Lane's New and. Selected Poems, writes that "half of Lane's (poems) contain brutal images and references to violence." Lane's discussion of sexuality also shows how sex is a means to inflict emotional pain on someone with whom one is intimate; sexual betrayal is a painful weapon. Lane writes:

How they lay there in their limbs
laughing at the words they had begun
not knowing the words that later they would use
when the injuries began,
the betrayals,
the other bodies they would touch
imagining desire was to be cold
and perfectly alone. And then the confessions,
their hands finding each other awkwardly,
promising themselves it would never happen again
and almost believing it
as they say the word love over and over ...

Although there is strength of vision and conviction in the poetry of Patrick Lane, his poetry is invested with a limited concept of truth. He is not afraid to go deeply into the darkness that is so much a part of every human being; however, it is an obsessive and despairing poetry stuck in a routine of violence and personal degradation. Great poets acknowledge the evil in life, but they also resolve and transcend it. Nevertheless, Patrick Lane's Mortal Remains is still the most significant book among the five reviewed here; he has dared to enter darkness, now he needs to affirm and celebrate life despite the very dark that has so preoccupied his writing career.

Copyright © 2007 The author