Review by Stephen Morrissey
CVII, February 1985, vol. 8, no. 4
Cathy Ford, By Violent Means, blewointmentpress, 1983 92 pp., $7.00
Carolyn Zonailo, A Portrait of Paradise, blewointmentpress, 1983 82 pp., $7.00
Phil Hall, A Minor Operation, blewointmentpress, 1983
Bruce Whiteman, Recesses in the Heart: The Thera Poems, blewointmentpress, 1984. 48 pp., $4.95
Eugene McNamara, Call it a Day, blewointmentpress, 1984 44 pp., $4.95
David West, Trenchmist, blewointmentpress, 1983 64 pp., $5.95
Poetry, like automobiles or furniture, reflects the fashion of our times, bill bissett's blewoinlmentpress published much that was experimental in the 1960s. Now the press has moved to Toronto and bissett has apparently given it up. The new blewointmentpress books mirror the 1980s. Art, according to McLuhan, is the Distant Early Warning line for society. What do these six writers have to tell us that we won't be reading in the newspaper?
Of the six books Cathy Ford's By Violent Means is, in many ways, the most interesting and the least satisfactory. Ford is a talented poet, but one senses that writing may come too easily for her. In "My body flew away from his" her feminist perspective becomes apparent:
No longer home birthed
the leading hospitals of america's intelligence
abort more female than male fetuses
three to one, trust me dear,
Deformities. Endangering women as species.
Ford is a poet who feels deeply about women and their struggle. This is, of course, an important subject; unfortunately, Ford isn't convincing in her treatment of it. Too often the reader isn't moved; she doesn't evoke the experience that might touch the reader emotionally. When we are touched it is with bitterness; she writes with the smugness of one who knows her audience, thereby cutting out the uninitiated reader.
Nevertheless, Ford's work is the most mature among these new blewointmentpress books. She writes in a number of styles and voices and experiments with form and content. Ford might benefit by editing her work more strenuously. A poem such as "Letterknife, As Scizzors, As Metaphor," is seemingly endless and doesn't say much. All of Ford's work is competently written but when a poem is too long the reader loses interest and the urgency of what the poet is saying becomes lost in the verbiage.
Carolyn Zonailo's A Portrait of Paradise is a very good, but uneven, collection of poems. The first poem, "Blue and Green," has obviously been worked on extensively, but it feels overworked. It lacks the freshness of many of her other poems. She is a very human poet, engaging and likeable. You can feel her presence in the work. She is a feminist who knows better than to flog her reader with her indignation at how women have been treated. There is a meditative calm, for example, in "A Portrait of Paradise":
Only this wasp zeroing into
the circle of lamplight
to disturb like a thought
my wish to leave nature
exactly as I find it.
For Zonailo, life is based on trust; she expects the universe to unfold in a certain way and she is not let down. In "Planting Tulip Bulbs" she writes:
Of necessity I believe
that next spring
the red flowers
will rise up and be visible
Her most feminist poems are a series of portraits of "female nudes." In these poems she works through a variety of roles that women play, from "earth goddess" to the "single mother" from the "sex symbol" to the "diplomatic wife." It is here that A Portrait of Paradise has something Ford's By Violent Means could use: humour. One laughs with Zonailo's poems but that laughter doesn't negate the force and message of her work.
A Portrait of Paradise is divided into four parts: Landscapes, Portraits, Songs and Mandalas. The Mandala section is a series of drawings and mandalas. Unfortunately, the reproduction is unsatisfactory and does not really work in what is otherwise a good book of poems.
If the women poets are being moved by feminist concerns, then what are the male poets moved by? Are they too moved by feminism, or is there a male consciousness of the world? We know what feminism is fighting, but what are the men working towards, if anything?
Phil Hall's Minor Operation is a good, serious book of poetry. It reflects the poet's feelings about his growing up and how those years still influence him today. The first half of the book, subtitled Disgust, records his early perceptions of the world. In "A Proposal" he writes:
wear the air on your finger
in memory of a little vicious death
I want to hold you a moment
a moment again and again
the way I hold my breath
And of his later youth he writes in "Javex":
I don't know why
the past was so tense
in their eyes
or why I drank it
Childish I guess
Then poems like "On the Eve of the El Salvador Elections" and "Old Studio Photos: Junk Shop" begin to move out into the world at large.
The second half of the book, "A Minor Operation" is a single long poem dealing on one level with the poet's vasectomy operation. But the vasectomy is an occasion for a longer meditation on existence and pain. It is an impressionistic poem giving the reader the feeling of moving in and out of consciousness while under an anesthetic. One thought moves him to memories, stray images of his past, that have significance in the cumulative result of the poem. Inevitably his task is to illuminate something about his existence and in this A Minor Operation is not minor at all but an important piece of writing.
Bruce Whileman's Recesses of the Heart: The Thera Poems is a result of an idyllic summer spent on a Greek island. They are lyrical poems, satisfied with life as it is. There is no great angst, no criticism of life that isn't quickly appeased with the memory of a sexual experience or the warmth of the Greek sun. These are good poems but they could be better edited: for instance, the poem beginning "the poem contains" doesn't really need the first eighteen lines. I found at least a dozen other lines I would edit out of the book and that's a lot considering the work has evidently already been edited.
Eugene McNamara's Call it a Day gives us insights into the working class; their struggle is to get enough to eat, to find a job, to survive. This is the tough world of manual labour and violent sex. It is a world dulled to the gentleness of life by the harsh reality of survival. McNamara's view of sex is an adversarial one:
shes made it through the shop
again without getting raped
her ass must hurt from all the
stares hitting it everyday
It may not be great poetry but it accurately represents something of the poet's society. (Perhaps in this lies Cathy Ford's bitterness.) But whether this is the stuff of poetry is also debatable. Are poets visionaries who change society or recorders without comment of what exists? Or is the act of recording comment enough? For McNamara's working class the separation of gender roles is as great as that in Islamic Iran: here, women are either prostitutes or mothers, not real people.
Of all the new blewointmentpress books McNamara has the most interesting and identifiable style. He omits apostrophes giving his words a frenetic energy. The poetry becomes speeded up with repressed futility, alienation and self-hatred. McNamara's poetry isn't personal like Hall's or Ford's. It borders on the impersonal, giving the reader a momentary feeling of what it's like to be in the working class. It isn't pretty
Finally we come to Trenchmist by David West. This "blend of poetry and history" has for its subject the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War One. Some of the shorter poems in Trenchmist are lyrical and evocative, but the longer ones border on prose. Take, for example, these lines from "Enlistments, Returns, Reflections":
And there were times, and all the stories
are true in varying degrees
to the memories they're sprung from,
when it all seemed
a little bit pointless, or at least absurd . . .
This is an anecdotal book and many of the anecdotes are put across very effectively. It is the kind of poetry read on CBC's literary program, "Anthology." (The CBC would add drum rolls, soldiers yelling in the background, marching feet, and groans as men fall dead in battle.) You feel proud to be a Canadian when reading this book.
Trends and fashions in society are mirrored in what our poets are writing. The new blewointmentpress books suggest that while the trend may be to a more conservative approach to poetry, one central theme is feminism and the relationship of the sexes. These are fair to good books, but none impresses with its use of language. That too is indicative of the 1980s; this decade may be a time of developing and repeating the artistic innovations of the past rather than a time of dynamic and visionary work.
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