Author Tom Wayman has just released a new book of poems, titled Watching a Man Break a Dog’s Back: Poems for a Dark Time, from Harbour Publishing. Wayman is something of a literary icon in Canada, and was among the first to feature the working lives of Canadians in his early anthologies. He was a co-founder of two alternative post-secondary creative writing schools, the Vancouver Centre of the Kootenay School of Writing and the writing department of Nelson’s Kootenay School of the Arts. He holds Associate Professor Emeritus of English status from the University of Calgary, where he taught from 2002-2010. Wayman has published more than 20 collections of poetry, three books of short fiction and a novel, Woodstock Rising. He has been a Slocan Valley resident for about 30 years.
Unlike so many poets these days who conform to a trend that produces a cryptic, abstract and often meaningless form of poetry, Wayman writes poems that are both clear and fiercely relevant to the age we live in. With its emphasis on global geopolitics as it affects us at the local level, Wayman’s new collection hearkens back in theme to his 2012 collection Dirty Snow. In both collections he uses metaphor and analogy to show how even the most remote international events, such as the wars in the Middle East, affect us personally and as a global culture. A good example in his new collection is the poem “The Rural as Locus and Not a Margin,” where he uses recent scientific revelations about forests as a single, connected organism as a metaphor for human community. Not only are people “changed / by the war,” but also “the forest is changed / by the war.” War is one of the seldom-acknowledged drivers of climate change.
In the poem “Restoration of Order,” he sums up the slippery slope principle in the abuse of power: “Yet wherever restoration of order / is proclaimed / other words are audible,” just beneath the rhetoric of “democracy.” With many governments around the world taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to pass draconian legislation, it’s an apt moment for this poem to arrive. Even something we usually perceive as inanimate, a normal feature of winter living in the Kootenays – the snowplow – is an analog of potential state oppression. In “The Rage of the Snowplow,” Wayman personifies the snowplow as if it were a brother to the riot cop on the front cover swinging his truncheon: “I’m going to smash you aside / given the chance…”
Although happily ensconced in his Slocan Valley acreage for three decades now, Wayman cautions the reader against the complacency that our idyllic landscape can foster if we’re not vigilant, as in “Desolatia”: “…the dulled consistency / both of terrain and built environment / is a reassurance to the inhabitants… as though catastrophe could not happen here.” As we’ve seen with events like the RCMP shooting of Slocan resident Peter DeGroot, that’s a dangerous illusion. In “Fifty Years of Stacking Chairs,” the chore described in the title serves as symbol for a lifetime of activist meetings and writers’ events, leading the poet to wonder when it will be time for a younger person to take up the baton and say, “Here, let me. You’ve done enough.”
Wayman’s lifelong dedication to workers’ rights and social justice, as evident in his role in Convergence Writers’ Weekends, shows up again in “Rant: Lilacs,” in which a colleague challenges him to define social justice: “It’s a phrase… that can signify anything / or nothing, depending on who says it,” she warns. The poet’s attention at the end of the poem is suddenly distracted by the scent of fresh lilac blossoms, “sweetly redolent, driving the bees crazy,” reminding him that the root and ground of our being is in nature. It’s all too easy to get caught up in global affairs and forget this, but we do so at our own peril. We do well not to take the soil we walk upon for granted, the poet seems to be saying. In “The Interview,” Wayman personifies the Earth as Gaia, a kind of ageing celebrity more than a little the worse for wear, deeply weary and sardonically observing of humans: “You newcomers. What do you know?”
Margaret Atwood once said that almost all Canadian poetry is elegiac in nature, and Wayman includes a whole section of elegy poems in this collection. Of immediate interest to many will be “Carrying Patrick Lane,” which dishes the literary dirt on a revered icon of Canadian poetry. One of the longest poems in the book, it relates anecdotes of a friendship stretching over decades. As usual, his tribute is framed in the idyllic West Kootenay imagery Wayman is so adept at rendering, acknowledging Lane’s time teaching in Nelson. “I had the notion / carrying him back would complete a circle / for his words.” The subjects of the other elegies in this section are less famous but made no less vital by the sharpness of Wayman’s poetic eye. The final section, “A Door in a Wood,” returns to the meditative view seen from the poet’s Slocan Valley acreage, but never in a self-indulgent way. The global perspective is never far from Wayman’s viewpoint. For him, living in a rural setting isn’t so much about retreat from the world as renewal from its frequently caustic geopolitics.
Watching a Man Breaking a Dog’s Back is what poetry should be in a tumultuous era: something readers of any educational background can easily understand and relate to immediately, while still leaving plenty of room for nuance. As historian Howard Zinn once said: “We need the power of song, of poetry, to remind us of truths deeper than the political slogans of the day.”
The book is available from Harbour Publishing here: http://www.harbourpublishing.com/title/WatchingaManBreakaDogsBack
Read an interview with Wayman here: https://ormsbyreview.com/2020/04/03/789-nathaniel-moore-interviews-tom-wayman/