Articles & Reviews

Six poetry books reviewed

Saffron, Rose & Flame—the joan of arc poems by Cathy Ford.
Charlotteton: Gynergy Books, 1989. $12.95.

Dostoyevsky and other Poems by R.A.D. Ford.
Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1988.

Rediscovered Sheep by John B. Lee.
Coldstream: Brick Books, 1989. Unpriced.

Upper Cape Poems by Douglas Lochhead.
Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1989. $12.95.

Range of Motion by Martin Singleton.
Toronto: Wolsak and Wynn, 1989. Unpriced.

In A Small House On The Outskirts Of Heaven by Tom Wayman.
Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour Publishing, 1989. $8.95.

Review by Stephen Morrissey
The Antigonish Review, no. 81-82
spring-summer 1990

There is no shortage in the number of Canadian poetry books published every year. While many of these books show a good level of writing proficiency, many of them also reveal that their authors lacked the creative courage to penetrate deeply into the unconscious psyche. They just aren't pushing the boundaries of their own writing; they're comfortable with the tried and known, and the subsequent narrowing of the imagination and vision is readily apparent.

If the source of poetry is the human psyche, as I believe, then it is essential that our poets explore and understand this aspect of consciousness. We need poets who will reveal what we have collectively censored. Often, specific poems reveal something important about our spiritual and psychological condition, but rarely does an entire book of poetry sustain the intensity necessary to explore the complexity of the human psyche.

Just about all of Tom Wayman's poems in In A Small House On the Outskirts of Heaven are narrative and anecdotal; they show Wayman's concern with the importance of work in our everyday life. Wayman writes, "At the center of our lives, and so of my aesthetic, I see the overwhelming majority of us going to work each day, and I see how the work we do profoundly influences every aspect of our time alive." Wayman's "work poems" are compassionate and sympathetic expressions of his solidarity with the working class. Unfortunately, too many of these poems border on being prose and not poetry. Here is a randomly picked example of Wayman's poetry:

Even the dullest among us can understand
no amount of money the company pays
really compensates for the time and effort
the job takes out of our lives.
As the slogan says: the things we give up
to go to work
are never returned.
It's pleasant to imagine
some person someplace turning the tables.

I understand and sympathize with Wayman's preoccupation with work. A neighbour and friend works as a janitor in a factory and hates, not only his job, but the people with whom he works. However, my neighbour was negative and bitter even when he had a job he liked; my neighbour's anger regarding his work is only an expression of much deeper anxiety.

There is a victim's mentality in Wayman's attitude to work; the enemy is the boss who is always trying to cheat his workers. Wayman's concept of morality is also simplistic; the good guys are the workers while the politicians and bosses are the exploiters. Wayman writes:

Before I die, I want to see
those women and men
who were elected to help us and who
wounded us
be brought to trial.

Wayman's poetry offers a perceptive insight into the effect work has on people's inner being; unfortunately, he ignores the many other more important influences on a person's existence. It's a reductionist approach to poetry and existence that cannot satisfy the serious reader for very long.

There is a book of poetry hiding in R.A.D. Ford's Dostoyevsky and other poems; regrettably, the book Ford published still needs to be edited. Ford achieves real poetry when he meditates on his life and everyday existence. In "My Inheritance" he writes:

Struggling most of my life it seems
Through the drifts of documents,
Notes and codicils, all now
Carefully fed into impossible
Computers that cannot lie but are
Invariably wrong, the real papers
Shredded in some
Obscene backroom,

I suddenly
Realize they are all in error.
All I need to survive is love,
And a vast indifference
To coded telegrams announcing
Death and promising nothing.

This poem is not only a personal revelation of Ford's feelings, but it also opens the reader's heart to human empathy and compassion. There is some wonderful poetry in this volume; Ford writes:

I am growing blind or old or both.
I can no longer distinguish between
Birch, beech or even hickory.

There is also some terrible stuff in this volume. Ford writes of "a task force of love", "the back-alleys of the mind", and "life's bureaucracy". This is not language charged with meaning or emotional depth; it is weak and communicates very little.

The rules for publishing poetry in Canada demand that a book have at least fifty pages to qualify for Canada Council grants or money from the Canadian Lending Rights Commission. It is regrettable that Ford didn't publish only his best work; in fifteen pages he would have had an excellent book of poetry. As it is now, the reader must do the work of the publisher and poet; that is, the reader must edit Ford's book, and few readers have that kind of patience.

Just about every poem in John B. Lee's Rediscovered Sheep "rediscovers sheep" in an original way. This is a humourous book of poems. Lee's use of language is always fun and quick-wilted. Here is the first stanza of "Hank the Sheep Man From the States":

He was more than stout.
He could not cross a room
without stopping to soothe his terrified heart.
Yes, his heart struggled like a cat
that's seen a man strangled
with piano wire
and his lungs were stuffed and wheezing
against his ribs and gut
cramped in that cubby-hole
like two blow-fish in a shot glass.

But don't think that Rediscovered Sheep is superficial. There is depth in some of these poems. In "Jobs", Lee juxtaposes the banal and everyday with the ritualized killing of a sheep. While Lee and his uncle kill a sheep his mother and sister "cut a dress pattern on the dining room carpet." Death is not commonplace or trivial; there is a ritual involved with the killing of the sheep that is not lost on either Lee or his uncle. Lee's book is basically an extended metaphor that would wear thin if it weren't for Lee's well-developed sense of humour.

At one point in Cathy Ford's Saffron, Rose and Flame—the joan of arc poems, she has Joan say, "Though a woman i will not be defined by it." Joan of Arc is attractive to feminists in that she did not accept her society's narrow concept of womanhood; instead, she dressed as a man and participated in a male-dominated society.

Ford's approach to Joan is conservative. Her Joan of Arc poems are basically a straight linear and narrative working through of Joan's life; Ford is not stylistically or thematically innovative. It is all written in the first person, as told by Joan, and tends to be overly descriptive in places. In these poems Joan meditates on her life, the people she meets, and the historical events in which she participates. Ford's writing is flawless, but the rhythm of her language tends to be monotonous and, subsequently, curiously unemotional. This is not an inspirational and dynamic version of Joan of Arc, but a contemplative one.

Considering the research (Ford includes a lengthy bibliography) and time (Ford mentions working on this book-length poem for ten years) Ford put into this book, the result is probably a fairly accurate record of what we know about Joan of Arc. But do we really understand or feel the passion with which religious beliefs were held during the middle ages? Ford's version of Joan is essentially secular; this Joan is an extension of Ford's own self, a product of Ford's imagination. Nevertheless, Ford's version of this material is convincing; she writes:

my excommunicator dissects
huge fat strawberries
holding them delicately by the stem

he has stubby fingers
flawless virginal moons
long fingernails

there's strength in those hands
whether idly rich or well cared for
an overfed intellect, forces down drowning men

held for their conscience

he stares back at me while he plucks another
taking from the presentation basket
each one, for its plump pale core

The excommunicator becomes the embodiment of evil, even the way he eats strawberries suggests violence about to be inflicted on Joan. We can understand this concept of evil&mdashit is the evil of those who separate a desired end from the means of achieving it. Unfortunately, not all of Saffron, Rose and Flame maintains this level of emotional and intellectual intensity.

Most readers will be deeply touched by Martin Singleton's Range of Motion; it is an exceptional collection of poems. In one poem, Singleton writes,

Since birth
I have been as we all are
&mdasheven you, gaunt reader &mdash
slowly dying.

Singleton's preoccupation with death forced him to penetrate the darker aspects of life. Some of Singleton's poems are an exploration of what Carl Jung called "the dark shadow," that part of the personality that we either reject or project onto someone else. It was Singleton's ability to explore and transform his "shadow" into poetry.

Death was obviously Singleton's obsession (Singleton died in 1988); many of his poems are expressions of an oppressive awareness of the inevitability of death. Thus, "Memorial Day: John Thompson's death and a woman in mind", "Limitations of late Autumn, for Robert Billings", "Milton Acorn: The last days", and "Sick of Toronto, hungry for myth" (about Gwen McEwen), all eulogize poets who have died over the last fifteen years. In "Notes toward definition", Singleton writes,

I've spent too long whoring false gods;
peace, praise, money.

Dark at the roots. Love rises, wings of wax.
I go back to myself like the scene of a crime.

Deep-split bedrock, beyond words. A fault. This month
we pay heavy taxes. I drink. You do good deeds.

Everything we say now rings dead. April moon
battered as tin stars dark blood of suicides

madness, love. Woman, learn to flow. I want
to bring wild flowers to the fountain of your name.

I remember reading some of the poems in this collection when they were originally published in "Arc"; most poetry is soon forgotten after being read, but Singleton's poems left a deep impression. They return the reader to the essentials of life. These are some of the most moving poems I have read in a long time.

While our society has become increasingly transient, some poets remind us of how important geography is to the individual's spiritual well-being. Douglas Lochhead's Upper Cape Poems celebrate the Tantramar marsh region between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; they show how familiarity with a geographical region need not lead to boredom with that area, but possibly to a greater awareness of life's diversity and the individual's inner life. Lochhead's poems are simple, direct, and extremely concise; his language has a definite rhythm that is never dull. There is no inflated ego in this work; indeed, there is an attractive understatement of both theme and emotion. In one poem he writes:

For months
leading to years
I counted you
my love
not saying much
because quite frankly
I am not much
good at it.

Once I did
say something
the white wine
was part of it,
you said it was mutual.

Now your silence
from this distance
deafens my days
I find the only way
to forget is to douse
myself in the shower
and curse.

Oh yes,
I blast myself
more often than you.

Unlike many poets, Lochhead is capable of changing the rhythm of his language. He is not a one-dimensional poet with only one song in her repertoire. "Tantramar, again, again" ends with these lines that give a feeling of actually being at the marsh:

gone great wind gone down
now to stillness and full July grasses
where they stood scything
stifling the wood never left them
gone though gone and great it was.

These poems bear repeated readings; this is only one indication that his work demands our attention. In "The woods" Lochhead writes:

I walked into the woods
all nearby to be seen
from the kitchen window
wild raspberry canes
brought blood to my arms
the brook was deceptive
leaving my feet mud brown

where there were birds
they vanished in alarm
the birds I had named
given my time

and the woods filled
with a new silence
the maples shading red
as the blood on my arm

it was the going in
to the woods
the neat place
I had thought tamed

but it brought blood
and a new kind of life

Lochhead's poems demand an aesthetic response, not only an intellectual analysis of his themes and ideas. A few of the poems in this book are transparent, their absence would not have detracted from the overall effectiveness of Upper Cape Poems. Lochhead's poems are a psychic map of one man's journey through life, always paying strict attention to the detail of his place and time. In Lochhead's faithfulness to detail we discover the human poet behind his words, but we also make a second, equally important discovery: it is our own self grown more human as we see life and experience compassionately revealed in these poems.

Copyright © 2007 The author