- A Marriage of Form and Theme
Richard Harrison, On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood (Buckrider Books). I’ve been a fan of Harrison’s poetry since his 2005 collection Worthy of His Fall, an undeservedly overlooked gem. Unlike the taut lines and more formal metres of that book, the poems of On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood opt for a longer, more looping line somewhat reminiscent of the Beat poets. At first this threw me, because longer lines can be much more difficult to control, and in the hands of lesser poets merely descend into glorified prose. Poetry perhaps more than any other written art is about precision of language. In his essay ‘Modern Poetry is Prose’, Lawrence Ferlinghetti puts it this way: “It is often very well-written, lovely, lively prose… whose syntax is so clear it can be written all over the page, in open forms and open fields.” But to his mind it often falls short of his ideal of “aspiring to poetic highs somewhere between speech and song.” Yet nowhere do Harrison’s lines run out of control. Late in the reading of this book, it dawned on me: his choice of line length was deliberate, given the theme of water that permeates these pages. Water, with its tendency—especially in flood—to spread indiscriminately over everything:
…like the drafts of a poem,
sometimes deliberately torqueing towards the opposite of the desired end
because the poem is a way we give in to a logic that lives within us
but is not our own.
Although given Harrison’s consummate skill, he is being modest here: clearly his theme and method unite with a subtle harmony all too easy to miss at first reading. Another poem whose line structure took me a few reads to comprehend is A Home on Al-Mutanabbi Street, a response to the March 5th, 2007 car bomb attack on Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street—the historic center of the city’s booksellers—wounding more than 100 people and killing more than 30. The opening nine lines of the poem are set in paragraph like a prose poem:
I am a word. I am a word in Arabic, in English and in Farsi. I am a word in Kurdish and German and Hebrew and French. I am a word in the mouths of prophets and hawkers…
But then, “when the bombs go off,” the poem’s structure is exploded across the page just like the shredded pages that terrible day on Al-Mutanabbi Street:
I am scattered
from all that I have known,
and the wind and ashes take me.
It’s a poignant reminder of the pointless, indiscriminate carnage of terrorism. The poem is included in the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here anthology: https://www.amazon.ca/Al-Mutanabbi-Street-Starts-Here-Booksellers/dp/1604865903
A recurring touchstone in Harrison’s work has been his relationship with his father, a British World War II veteran. Given what we now know about epigenetics—in particular the capacity for past family trauma to influence subsequent generations—it’s not surprising that Harrison continues to grapple with the repercussions of this in his newest collection, the 2018 Governor-General’s Award winner for poetry. What our parents don’t finish is generally handed down to us. Avoidance may seem the easiest option but it’s a mirage. We either deal with it ourselves or our children will have to. As Harrison writes in Confessional Poem:
…the person I would have apologized to is dead now…
The poem was like having an argument with someone in a dream,
then going up to them in daylight wanting to make amends.
Given the wall of critical silence that seemed to greet Worthy of His Fall, with its pointed political poems, I was relieved to see that Harrison didn’t abandon the form in this collection. There are several fine examples: Propaganda, Just Who Do You Fuckers Think You Are?, and of course the superb A Home on Al-Mutanabbi Street. Although the political in poetry fell out of fashion during the long dominance of postmodernism, the pendulum seems to be swinging back to a more politically engaged poetry. As George Orwell said: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”
Often the great magic of poetry is that it articulates for us what we can’t for ourselves. Men don’t tend to want to talk about feelings, which makes Harrison’s explorations of the father-son dynamic so touching yet never sentimental. The bulk of the poems here deal with the eviscerating hell of watching a loved one slowly die. Fortunately for Harrison, he shared something of a literary relationship with his father, and the two exchanged verses during his father’s terminal decline. The two men shared a fondness for Dylan Thomas, one of my formative influences:
You haven’t heard
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea
until you’ve heard it from the wizened mouth
of a man in the not-knowing-when before his death.
In Superman, Harrison deftly chooses the miniscule details that make watching his father die so heartbreaking:
There came a time
when my father did not know
when his stomach was full,
and finishing a meal
was the same to his brain
as closing his eyes on the table.
It reminds me of Irving Layton’s great poem, Senile, My Sister Sings. When I saw him perform this poem in Edmonton in 1986, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Yet there isn’t an ounce of sentimentality in that poem. This is what finely honed poetic craft can accomplish.
Jordan Mounteer, Liminal (Sono Nis Press). Mounteer is one of those rare individuals who seems “sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus,” his poems as well-turned as someone who’s practiced the craft for decades. (Admirable, if a little infuriating to those of us who tend to be late bloomers.) Mounteer was raised in the Slocan Valley, a region known for its civil disobedience. So it’s not surprising there are political and ecological themes in Liminal. After all, while the ‘War in the Woods’ at Clayoquot Sound was over by 1993, it continued well into the late ’90s in the Slocan Valley. And in many ways, it’s a war without end. Valley residents live in a kind of subdued high alert, aware they may be called upon at any moment to protect their community watersheds from destructive logging practices.
In Fugitive Upbringing, Mounteer writes of his mother’s activism in the Slocan Valley, “comprehending protest, like the poems / I would write years later, as a basic form of courage.” Mounteer avoids the strident in favour of the subtle and pithy. Having worked as a treeplanter in BC forests, he’s seen environmental devastation firsthand: “We are agents of small-print conservation, / seeding life in the guts of life taken at softwood prices.” (Wilson Creek)
Like Kelly Shepherd and Ken Belford, Mounteer has a sense of the complexity of our flawed, often destructive relationship with nature. One could hardly grow up in the Slocan Valley without a deep sense of attachment to nature and the need to fight to protect it. “The idea of ‘ecology’ plays heavily into my work, whether we’re talking about dubious logging practices and the diminishing glaciers in the Valhallas or ‘going deep’ into that mental interface between ourselves and the environment, trying to find that ‘holographic puzzle piece’ of ourselves that fits into the rest of the world.” Activists here and everywhere are painfully aware of the inherent contradictions of both action and non-action. As Mounteer writes in Actaeon Sound:
How exposure to the ransack of timber,
ambushed citizenships of old growth,
rubs thin an ache. How a word
repeated often becomes a word only.
Many of Mounteer’s poems explore romantic attachment, but again, in a nuanced, surprisingly mature fashion. At least since Dante’s infatuation with Beatrice, poets have often found a muse in a lover or someone desired from afar, and many of the poems here are addressed to someone called Joslyn:
Joslyn, as if generated out of shadows,
leans in, clumsy, kisses my shoulder once
with wet lips that conceal the weight
of what it means to be a woman
behind them. The silence that follows
is like missing the last step
at the top of the stairs in the dark.
Love poems are among the most difficult to write, and many a poet has foundered on the rocks of that impulse. Emotion can too easily overcome craft, and the ardent poetry of young love too often merely becomes embarrassing later in life. But clearly, Mounteer has the eye for the telling detail that telegraphs the underlying feeling without descending into maudlin yearning. http://www.sononis.com/component/virtuemart/?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage.tpl&product_id=22&category_id=11
I’ve run out of space to discuss the many other fine collections of poetry I’ve encountered during the past few years, so I’m just going to list them in the hopes you’ll trust my judgment and go pick them up:
- Calvin Wharton, The Song Collides (Anvil Press, 2011)
- Tom Wayman, Winter’s Skin (Oolichan Books, 2013)
- Timothy Shay, The Dirty Knees of Prayer (Caitlin Press, 2016)
- Paul Wilson, The Invisible Library (Hagios Press, 2013)
- Joe Rosenblatt, The Bird in the Stillness (Porcupine’s Quill, 2016)
- Owain Nicholson, Digsite (Nightwood Editions, 2016)
- David Brydges, Vagabond Post Office (Brydge Builder Press, 2018)
- K. Linda Kivi, Unknown Hum (Maa Press, 2015)