Articles & Reviews

Review of four poetry books

Reviewed in this article:

Steve Venright, Visitations.
Toronto: Underwhich Editions, 1986.
64 pp., $6.95.

Steve Noyes, Backing into Heaven.
Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1986.
60 pp., $7.95.

Mohamud S. Togane, The Bottle and the Bushman: Poems of the Prodigal Son.
Ste. Anne de Bellevue (Quebec): The Muses' Company, 1986.
52 pp., unpriced.

By Stephen Morrissey
Poetry Canada Review
spring 1987

Steve Venright's Visitations presents a strange and threatening vision that is not defined by our ideas of reality. His work, wholly imaginative and creative, takes us into a literary world akin to that of Kafka or Borges; it is, however, a world that is not distant from our own. Indeed, we come closer to understanding our own society from Venright's sometimes nightmarish universe.

Visitations reads as a long poem. Beginning with a short piece, "Nocturn 1", he moves into a series of short prose-poems. Then follows "Psalm" and a series of short poems, perhaps randomly arranged, and ends with "Nocturne 2" that rewrites or completes "Nocturne 1". The book is full of symbolism, but it isn't obscure; it unobtrusively gives the work depth. A Glossary at the end of the book helps to elaborate the work that precedes it; the Glossary gives us, prism-like, a different perspective on the entire book.

I think this is one of the most interesting and imaginative first books of Canadian poetry that I've read in a long time. We need more writers who, like Venright, are willing to be wholly imaginative in their writing. Venright has somehow managed to reach adulthood and not lose contact with his creativity and imagination.

In Backing into Heaven Steve Noyes ends up not in heaven, but in the purgatory or hell of middle class Canada. Noyes is a good poet, but he's not pushing hard enough in his work; it's nice middle class poetry that doesn't seem to be committed to much. He writes:

The writing of this poem sucks through connections
artificial between what's to be said
and what must follow
it makes me feel a little better to know I've
done my best have got it all together
come to some conclusions

That's fine in itself but it's not good enough if you're going to be a poet whose primary materials are emotions, images, and the need to communicate this with a sense of urgency to the reader. Each poem must be a risk, a place where the poet confronts something essential in himself and stands ready to face instant oblivion; to leap into the unknown and create something new. We must judge everything we write not only by the standards of our contemporaries but also beside the work of the greatest poets of the past.

Noyes seems most relaxed when writing nostalgic poems that catch the reader off guard, with a sudden awareness that all was not as it seemed to be. In "Nostalgia" he writes of visiting a movie theatre in Winnipeg as a child and feeling terrified when a strange man placed his hand on the child's "thin thigh". When Noyes is committed to his subject the reader is rewarded with good poetry, but some of his narrative poems are cut with a hokey humourous awareness of Canadian life; it's an effort to reduce life to a preconceived boundary of awareness. "Picadilly Hotel" is such a poem with its description of a seamy working class hotel and Noyes' refrain of "What a disgusting place". Of course it's disgusting to all of us raised with clean sheets on our beds and meals consisting of meat and potatoes. But it is the aim of poetry to go beyond our preconceptions, to realize that our values are conditioned responses and not universally accepted.

Poetry, and most of an, was not long ago the reserve of the white middle class male poet, but this is no longer so. The competition to get published-and read is keen; women are finally being published more and we also have the contribution of black poets. Mohamud S. Togane's The Bottle and the Bushman: Poems of a Prodigal Son is one such contribution. I suppose the poet closest to Togane is the black South African poet Arthur Nortje (Dead Roots, posthumously published by Heinemann, London, England in 1971). Like Togane, Nortje lived for a while in Canada after leaving his native Africa.

While Nortje's poetry is sophisticated and shows his years of education at Oxford University and wide reading, Togane's work is simple and deals most solely with his interpersonal experiences. This is an interesting volume of poetry if only as a study of the alienation blacks experience in North American society. Togane's own culture is destroyed by the colonizer and then by the civil terrorism of the totalitarian government in his homeland. He leaves Somalia encouraged, apparently, by a white missionary. Here in Canada he has no identity, and he is intelligent enough not to accept the white stereotype of blacks:

the only instrument
I know how to play
is the jukebox.
I guess
there is no sense
telling white folks
I am neither a pusher
nor a pimp
nor another Louis Armstrong.

His response to white society is to drink alcohol, and this is one of the major preoccupations of the book. "The bottle is the gateway to white civilization:/I emptied it and became civilized". He rewrites The Lord's Prayer: "The bottle is my shepherd;/I shall not want." It is not only alcohol by which society seduces him, it is also with the madness of acquiring material wealth.

Togane becomes a poet alienated in a number of ways: from white society where he is a member of a small but visible minority; from his own society that he rejects for it would stifle his creativity; and from himself. He has defined himself with the images provided by others but who, in fact, is he? We know Togane only through negatives: Togane is observing what he sees but he has still not fashioned a new identity for himself; this process has begun in the elimination of what he doesn't want to be. If Togane is nothing else, he is a poet.

Copyright © 2007 The author