The Angel of Darkness and When She Was Bad

THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS
By Caleb Carr
WHEN SHE WAS BAD: VIOLENT WOMEN AND THE MYTH OF INNOCENCE
By Patricia Pearson

The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction has been demonstrated once again in two new books dealing with the evil that women do.

The Angel of Darkness, like its prequel bestseller The Alienist, is a detective story set in turn-of-the-century New York. The detective team from the earlier novel, headed by eminent “alienist” (psychologist) Dr. Kreizler, is here reassembled to investigate the abduction of a Spanish diplomat’s infant daughter.

The narrator is 13-year-old Stevie Taggart, a (somewhat) reformed street urchin who lives with the doctor. The crime-solving team also includes a pistol-packing proto-feminist, a pair of Jewish police detectives, a fallen aristocrat reporter, and a piano-playing, brass-knuckled manservant. It is a Dickensian oddball club, and their adventures take place in a recognizably Dickensian world of dirty urban streets filled with gangs of street children.

The detail is impressive, as one might expect from an author who is both a historian and a lifelong resident of the New York area. Much of the writing seems done with one eye fixed on selling the film rights, but this simply has to be expected in a bestseller today.

The villain of the piece, the titular Angel of Darkness, is a serial baby-killer (and no, I’m not giving anything away). The very novelty of her crime in a society that idolizes women as maternal and nurturing protects her from suspicion and places her virtually above the law. Frustrated, Dr. Kreizler is driven to exclaim: “The last time we worked together, we studied known laws of psychology. This time, the biases of our society will force us to write new ones.”

The real life Angel of Darkness, whose story Carr admits drawing on, was Marybeth Tinning, a psychopath from New York State who killed eight of her own children. Tinning’s story, along with many others, can be found in Patricia Pearson’s fascinating study of violent women: When She Was Bad.

Reading Pearson, one gets the sense that little has changed in either the laws of psychology or the biases of society since the days of Dr. Kreizler. Drawing on a wealth of research, Pearson shows how violent women today are still seen as special cases, whose brutal crimes are all too often excused by dubious psychology and social denial (the myth of innocence).

Since there is no single kind of violent woman, Pearson breaks the subject down by victim, including women who kill babies, women who abuse and/or kill their spouses, and predator women who kill strangers. It is disturbing reading, and even “true crime” veterans may be in for a shock.

On the dustjacket the books is described as “certain to be controversial, guaranteed to infuriate.” That may be an understatement. Pearson asks feminists to stop trying to incorporate female violence into a “victim-feminist heroic” and start talking about personal responsibility. She is not afraid to question such excuses for women’s violence as hormonal imbalance, postpartum depression, battered woman’s syndrome, and (that catch-all evil) the “patriarchal society.”

In addition, she is severely critical of a justice system that exonerates figures such as Karla Homolka, and a media that makes serial killers like Aileen Wuornos into heroes.

The point When She Was Bad ends up making is the same one made by most common-sense discussions of the subject. Despite social inequality and a culture that continues to exploit differences between the sexes (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, etc.), the fact is that men and women are in most important ways the same. Violence, like love or hate, ambition or greed, is “a human rather than gendered phenomenon.”

That is a conclusion that many of the characters in The Angel of Darkness are afraid to make. As Pearson demonstrates, it is one we have yet to fully deal with.

Notes:
Review first published October 25, 1997.

Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM
By Ian McEwan

I have always had reservations about the Booker Prize. Two years ago I had my doubts confirmed. In 1996 Graham Swift’s Last Orders (a very good novel) took the prize. Scandal followed when it was suggested that Swift had plagiarized William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

If that had been all there was to the charge, then it should have simply been ignored. Swift’s borrowing from Faulkner had, after all, been noticed by many contemporary reviewers, and to call it plagiarism was just absurd.

But then came the response. In a letter by A. N. Wilson, one of the five judges on the prize panel, it was suggested that the committee hadn’t even been aware of the connection between the two books – despite a relationship so patently obvious that any English Lit. undergrad would have recognized it after reading the dustjacket.

Even worse, Wilson confessed that the committee had actually wanted to give the award to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace – not because it was a better book (it wasn’t), but because she was “a more distinguished writer.”

So much for the Booker Prize. Now on to this year’s winner.

Amsterdam is a short novel that plays at the fringes of what most of us expect a novel to be. Like most of McEwan’s work, it is a moral fable, which means it has to be approached in a slightly different spirit than realistic fiction. Things like the symmetry and improbability of the plot are a function of different conventions than we usually see on the best-seller lists.

The story deals, in perfect balance, with events in the lives of two men: Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday. Clive is the romantic, inner-directed half of the standard McEwan dichotomy – a composer who writes books on esthetics and goes hiking in the Lake District for inspiration. Vernon is his practical, real-world complement – a newspaper editor with few scruples about using his position to promote a personal vision of the public good.

We first meet Clive and Vernon standing off by themselves at the funeral of an ex-lover. Things are going well for both. Clive has been commissioned to write a “millennium symphony” and Vernon’s newspaper is beginning to show signs of a turnaround.

Then, as always in McEwan, there is a moment of crisis (or two moments, one for each). Put to the test, both Clive and Vernon make poor moral judgments that come back to haunt them. As a result of a strange pact, each becomes the other’s keeper, and learns at some cost to judge not lest ye be judged.

While it is instantly recognizable, it is not easy to define the McEwanesque. Although the writing is incredibly economical – there is a lot of plot in Amsterdam for such a short book – it can’t really be called minimalist. The descriptive writing throughout Clive’s hiking trip, for example, is quite fully imagined and developed. Instead, the word “clinical” comes to mind, describing both the choice of subject matter and the sharp-edged quality of the prose. His last novel (Enduring Love) ended with the presentation of a scientific case-study, and I have a feeling that is an association he would not resist.

Amsterdam is not McEwan’s best work (Enduring Love was more substantial), but it is a welcome change of pace and thoroughly well-crafted entertainment. Readers coming to McEwan for the first time will find it an enjoyable introduction, while longtime fans are in for an elegant surprise.

Notes:
Review first published December 12, 1998.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES
By William Gibson

It’s not often that science-fiction novels get a major hardcover release. Like most other genre fiction, SF has paperback blood running in its veins. So even if you don’t follow SF all that closely, you might still suspect that this new book by Vancouver’s William Gibson is a big event.

Gibson, who first attracted a lot of notice with his 1984 novel Neuromancer, is already something of an SF legend. As the man who coined the phrase “cyberspace,” he is seen as the guru of a whole sub-genre of SF dealing with digital cowboys surfing visionary landscapes of data. And although cyberpunk itself may have run its course, Gibson’s fan base has remained secure.

While it can be read and enjoyed on its own, All Tomorrow’s Parties is meant to be the third part of a trilogy (or what Gibson has misleadingly called a “triptych”). Its cast will be familiar to those who have read the earlier novels Virtual Light and Idoru. The main characters are Colin Laney, the cyber-stalker living in a cardboard box in Tokyo; Rydell, the taciturn hero; and Chevette, Rydell’s feisty ex-girlfriend.

The time is the future, but one so close to our own as to be immediately recognizable. Most of the action takes place on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, which is now home to a Bohemian community of squatters. The bridge itself is a metaphor for the great shift in history that is about to take place and that only a select few are able to sense coming. Colin Laney and his nemesis Cody Harwood, a super-media magnate, are two such readers of the radiant gist. The stakes they are playing for are more than a little vague, but whatever is going on is big.

Overlaying all of this is a kind of techno-New Age spiritualism, the main ideas of which are common to a lot of contemporary SF. There is, for example, the notion that we are evolving into a potentially immortal human-technology hybrid form, and the presentation of cyberspace as a code for the mystical order behind the chaos of modern reality.

That may sound heavy, but it’s really just a backdrop for Gibson’s uncanny knack for projecting trends in consumer culture. It is in his preoccupation with the strange domestic details of the wired global mall that we find what is essentially Gibson. Rydell’s “absolutely authentic fake” jeans read like a signature: “the denim woven in Japan on ancient, lovingly maintained American looms and then finished in Tunisia to the specifications of a team of Dutch designers and garment historians.”

It’s clever stuff, but All Tomorrow’s Parties doesn’t measure up to Gibson’s earlier work. What made Neuromancer a great book was its adaptation of popular story-telling forms, especially classic American detective fiction, into an exciting, freshly imagined context. Unfortunately, this work has a far less compelling story to tell. The great node of history, which has something to do with a courier service between 7-11s, is anticlimactic to say the least. In addition there are a number of missteps in tone, including an unfortunate scene near the end that plays the villain for comic relief.

There are a lot of great SF novels that deserve the prestige that comes with a hardcover release and some of them have been written by William Gibson. But in the case of All Tomorrow’s Parties you might want to wait for the paperback.

Notes:
Review first published December 4, 1999.

Ahmed’s Revenge

AHMED’S REVENGE
By Richard Wiley

This past June saw the death of the prolific British adventure writer Hammond Innes. Innes was best known for his thrilling action novels set in ruggedly exotic locations. When I was a kid I thought they were the best thing going. They were pulp, but they were good pulp. I remember one of them, The Big Footprints, was about elephant poachers in Kenya.

Which brings us to Ahmed’s Revenge, a novel about a colonial Kenyan named Nora Grant and her attempt to uncover the mystery behind her husband’s involvement in an ivory smuggling scam, and his not-quite accidental death. I couldn’t help thinking that it was just the kind of story Hammond Innes might have come up with. And how he would have done a better job.

In the first place, Ahmed’s Revenge has what is known in film as an “idiot plot,” defined as any plot containing problems which would be solved instantly if all the characters were not idiots. Which is not to say they aren’t helped along by the improbabilities in the plot itself. There is, for example, a letter written by Nora’s husband before his death that explains pretty much everything that is going on. Unfortunately, when Nora’s father gives her the letter it blows away in a sudden gust of wind! And then the one page she can’t retrieve is the most important page! I just hate it when that happens!

Despite all this silliness, things do get interesting. For some odd reason, however, none of the characters are very involved. Time and again Nora appears on the verge of clearing everything up, only to decide that she has better things to do.

I can’t remember the last time I read a book with such a disengaged protagonist. Has her father just been kidnapped? Maybe so, but it’s late, so she has to go to bed. Should she dig up the mystery treasure buried in her yard? No, she might as well wait till morning. Will she stay at a bar where she has arranged to meet with the detective investigating her husband’s case? Not our Nora! She gets tired of waiting, so she goes for a walk instead. (Indeed, when the detective does show up Nora can no longer remember why she wanted to talk to him, and wishes he would go away!)

It gets worse. When the villain’s father offers to explain to Nora why his son is doing so many bad things to her, she tells him that she is no longer interested! (This despite the fact that she was the one who brought the subject up in the first place.) It then takes Nora most of the rest of the book to find out what it was she wasn’t interested in knowing.

Best of all is Nora’s response to the confessional letter from her husband explaining what is happening and what she needs to be doing about it. She sits down to read it, tormented by unanswered questions.

The torment is too much for her. She falls asleep, the letter unread.

All of this would be funny if it didn’t take itself so seriously. Unfortunately, Richard Wiley is a “real” writer, a past winner of the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award and a professor of “fiction writing.” He proves he is of the quality by dividing his drama into “Acts,” and indulging in literary stunts like beginning and ending the book with the same three sentences.

There are, in addition, the throwaway bits that let you know this is high-brow stuff. The first chapter is titled Jules et Jim (ah, yes) and the finale takes place at a performance of Madama Butterfly. None of this has any connection to what is going on, but that doesn’t really matter since it’s only there to remind you that you’re not reading a hack like Hammond Innes.

You only wish you were.

Notes:
Review first published July 25, 1998.

In the Lights of a Midnight Plow

IN THE LIGHTS OF A MIDNIGHT PLOW
By David Hickey

In years gone by there used to be a lot of debate over what properly constituted poetic language. This could play out on the most basic level of the use of vocabulary or “poetic diction” – certain words, and even the spelling of certain words, being deemed either more or less poetic at various times – though it was also a matter of fitting style to form (both terms involving rules of technique). In his famous and highly influential “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth might have thought he was officially closing the debate, warning readers that they would find “little of what is usually called poetic diction” in the present volume, and trying to collapse any distinction between poetic and non-poetic language (or the language of poetry and the language of prose) by making poetry out of “a selection of language really used by men.”

But what men were these? Not professional or scientific men – since their language was apt to be as specialized and obscure as that found in the most decorous volume of verse – but primarily rural folk. “Low and rustic life was generally chosen” for his subject, and

[t]he language, too, of these men is adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation.

But that was 200 years ago. Is any reminder of Wordsworth’s rural universal – its natural imagery, folk rhythms, and colloquial expressiveness – still with us?

There are certainly moments in this strong new collection from David Hickey that suggest the spirit of those “simple and unelaborated expressions” has found fresh woods and pastures new.

     Not that it would
happen now, a tractor would scare us off a dozen acres before

 

it reached us, but a horse drawn blade has a way with
a pasture, and it came like a breeze to her ankle.

Or:

     It’s a hard cut,
he says, going from days to nights,

 

the body stretches out like a field losing
its sun, a landscape tired of its own, sad twilight.

Or even just:

     seasonal as the boys
who appear on the step, covered in field . . .

These are all great rural images, but the essence of it is the language. The images are not abstract but terse and evocative, with a verbal polish like that of wooden farm implements long used by hand (Wordsworth’s words of “repeated experience and regular feelings”). The blade that “has a way with a pasture,” the “field losing its sun,” the boys “covered in field.” This is what first catches your eye and ear, before you even get to the operation of the similes, the blade coming “like a breeze” and the body stretching out “like a field.” And it’s what makes me think that some part of Wordsworth’s natural language of men still remains, even in something akin to its original context.

Not that rural poetry is what Hickey is all about. This is a book that also has poems about phoning the Weather Hotline, the cloned children of Ted Williams, and the glass desert of Los Alamos. That voice of “simple and unelaborated expressions” is only part of it. The passages quoted show off certain elements of Hickey’s style, but his voice as a poet is something different. “It’s a hard cut,” is what “he says,” but the rest of the lines quoted are interpretation, evocation. The language is the same, but it’s not the direct speech of “It’s a hard cut.” The poetry here isn’t a poetry of speech, but measured observation. The relation of sounds becomes something almost tactile, like the changing of gears in a passing bicycle race:

     the bicycles
wag through the street, when a chain
slips into the last gear and the sound repeats
like a dozen mouth guards clicking,

 

then dances down the line: the pitch
almost as if a boy held a stick
on the side of the road, and for the first
time, the fence went travelling by.

Or take the short gem of an ode to silence, “Conception.” Here the poet’s parents are imagined as enjoying an utterly serendipitous moment of passion between the periods of a televised hockey game. The sense of quiet is wonderfully evoked, becoming something you can almost feel. Everything is so layered: from the sweatered hockey players almost lost in static, to the snow “porcelain thick” drifting outdoors, to the very ambiguity of what “maybe” happened, the vague annunciation of the poet coming “like the onset of thirst.” There’s no talking in this poem, simply a warm drawing together followed by a silent drifting apart. But if the rural language of pasture and field has an equivalent in household items and domestic gestures surely it is something like this:

     my father looking for a glass

 

and finding one in my mother’s hand,
the warmth from a lifted plate
spreading across their faces, the reflection

 

above the sink reminding them they’re alone

This is Hickey playing to his strength. Note how many active verbs are in the passage just quoted (looking, finding, spreading, reminding), and yet the dramatic action is something inexpressible, the recognition of a submerged shared awareness, a soundless kitchen-sink epiphany. In the real world there is a poetry of silence too.

The only thing I missed here was the rhythm (as opposed to what I’ve already noted as the units) of conversational speech, a stronger sense of the flow and forward energy of the line that comes with direct address. I’ve found the artificial strictures of free verse can restrain, and sometimes even pervert, this energy. But there is definitely an interest in more continuous forms – and a corresponding relaxation, I think, in the line – evident in some of the poems here, and especially throughout the accomplished and provocative sonnet sequence “River Liberties.” In fact the formal constraints in “River Liberties” are magnified as it nearly follows the strictures of the corona or “crown of sonnets” (a seven-poem sequence where the last line of each poem becomes the first of the next). The tone, however, is so placid and unassuming that these constraints are hardly noticed, and the repetition of language and image gives the series a quietly cumulative rhetorical surge.

For a first collection, In the Lights of a Midnight Plow makes for a very impressive calling card. As with any young poet, we can expect a rush of invention and exploration to follow. I’m confident the results will be worth attending.

Notes:
Review first published online December 22, 2006. David Hickey’s next book, Open Air Bindery, was indeed worth attending.

The Jill Kelly Poems

THE JILL KELLY POEMS
By Alessandro Porco

The thing about pop culture is that there’s so much of it. One of the effects this has is to make you feel like its message is inescapable, that there’s no way to shut it out. Another is the way its volume (that is, the sheer amount of it) turns everything it says into instant cliché. It becomes a kind of subliminal conditioning.

Alessandro Porco’s The Jill Kelly Poems seems at times to be built entirely out of such media clichés. There’s a rapper’s elegy (no “gettin’ jiggy”, but rather addressing Death with an authentic “What up, Dawg?”), an “Ode to Christina Aguilera” featuring some familiar words and music (“You complete me, Christina, like a genie in a bottle”), a sonnet on “Rudy”, Hollywood’s wannabe Notre Dame football star (“I’m Ready, Coach . . . Put Me In”) . . . and those are just the first three poems. What we have here is a sampling of sound bites, dealing with the likes of Rambo, King Kong, and the Bush Twins (the latter poem being a proud pastiche of cliché: “a cento composed of ESPN Sportscenter anchor catchphrases”).

Shoring fragments against ruin has been a valid poetic method for a while now, and it’s really only the nature of the material that is changing. Somewhat like a modern artist building statues or installations out of junk, Porco is trying to make something out of nothing (or material that is as close to nothing as you can imagine). One assumes from the weighty epigraphs and winking self deprecation (we are given a heads-up on one “imminent rhyme”) that he is aware of the poverty of his material. But at the same time, and this is the important point, he really likes this stuff. As Andy Warhol once said, “liking things” is what pop art is all about. And so Porco grooves to rap music, Christina Aguilera, ESPN, crappy movies, and, especially, porn.

Not sex. Sex is what the poets Porco quotes in his various epigraphs (Virgil, Herrick, Campion, Yeats) are talking about. Porn is not sex. Porn is mediated/media sex. This isn’t to pass any kind of moral value judgment on porn. It essentially built the Internet, so I’m not complaining. The thing is that when Porco writes about porn he isn’t really saying anything about love or sex or men and women. He’s still dredging pop culture for media bits (and “xxx lingo”).

Jill Kelly is a well-known porn star and porn producer. (Porco even has a poetic tribute to the contract girls of Jill Kelly Productions, describing them as a “League of Extraordinary Women”. The borrowing never stops.) As a Muse a porn star makes perfect sense: they are unreal and untouchable objects of desire, and of course totally inexpressive. And as a Muse of pop culture an “anal queen” is even more perfect, since the only thing she produces is shit.

But why write porn poems at all?

The question is worth asking because Porco isn’t saying anything about porn (or love, or sex, or women). Since porn, as we all know, is just something to get off to, he’s simply enjoying it. He rejects – what he feels “some critic might claim” (got me!) – that his pen is “unable to sustain / A poetic argument of ‘real’ value”. He revels in sheer boyish spunkiness, a “love of bib-bubs” expressed in what can be pretty juvenile verse:

We gulp, we plug, we jack & strap
Yo ho! A gang-bang on the seas

 

I’ll drinkum your jizzum like milkum

 

Scuttle me buttle
Piddle me paddle
Tickle my piggle
Twattle my twiddle

It’s hard not to like this, at least on one level. The baby-talk rhythms are strong, there is a liberating sense of playfulness in the language, and Porco’s sheer enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. It’s dirty and explicit without being smutty or dangerous. But that’s also the problem. It’s that same generic quality to his material – is any media form more clichéd than porn? – that effectively neuters these poems. It’s hard to make something out of nothing, especially the nothing that is pop culture. One wishes for more authentic, unmediated stuff, like the terrific poem “My Sweetest Bi-curious,” than all of the versified television and singing the body digital.

Art can, and should, respond to pop culture. And The Jill Kelly Poems is a response. But poets have to make the culture too. That’s the next step.

Notes:
Review first published online May 23, 2005.

The New Canon

THE NEW CANON: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CANADIAN POETRY
Ed. by Carmine Starnino

Anthologies of contemporary poetry are essential. This is not just for the obvious reason that good poetry needs every platform and venue it can get these days, but because with so much poetry being published a critical selection is of real assistance in providing an introduction to the best of what’s out there.

And it’s not just a question of sorting the good books from the bad. The threshing continues even within the slenderest of volumes. Books of poetry are a bit like CDs – a few hits, some B-sides, and then a bunch of studio filler. Now I should say right away that there isn’t anything new about this. Shakespeare had some good sonnets, some bad sonnets, and a lot that were pretty mediocre. Go through the Collected Poems of the greatest poets who have ever lived and you’ll find plenty of junk to skim over. But in our time, with the almost complete extinction of the long (that is, book length) poem, the fallout from Poe’s Poetic Principle (“I hold that a long poem does not exist”) is perhaps more obvious. As Scott Thompson recently put it while discussing the inclusion of a book of poetry on the Canada Reads shortlist, “a poem doesn’t have any business being longer than a page.” He would not object to reading a poem (at least one no more than a page in length), but “would never read a book of poems.” And this, I might add, was in reference to a book – Al Purdy’s Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets: Selected Poems 1962-1996 – that was already a sampler. Thompson confessed himself a vulgarian and Philistine, but I’ve found myself making the same sort of point the last couple of years during the Runaway Jury deliberations, an automatic acknowledgment that each book under consideration did, indeed, “have its moments.” Even in books that I didn’t like very much I could usually find one or two poems that might have been considered among the year’s best. If only we had them all together in an anthology . . .

I’m happy to say that with The New Canon, edited by Carmine Starnino, we have such a collection, featuring the work of fifty Canadian poets born between 1955 and 1975. Yes, the poems are short, typically only a page in length. Even the excerpts from longer works are of individual parts of poetic sequences, which is something other than a long poem. But more on that later. This is still one of the best anthologies I’ve read in a long time, a refreshing and inspiring mix of energetic, optimistic, and finely crafted poetry that should inspire even the Scott Thompsons of this country (which is to say, all of us) to read the whole book.

Starnino is an able editor, poet, and critic who has made a name for himself in recent years by being a bit of a poetry polemicist. He begins his Introduction in this mode, claiming that The New Canon will not be just another “pluralistic, broadly-based, non-partisan anthology” but rather a “justification of prejudice.” It is part of an ongoing debate over Canadian poetry, arguing with earlier anthologies such as (most notably) Dennis Lee’s The New Canadian Poets.

As he proceeds there is some attempt to soft-shoe the rhetorical edge. Nevertheless, he does lay down certain positions. The main problem with anthologies like Lee’s is that they are without a guiding principle – “anything goes.” A stark contrast to this approach is announced with Starnino’s title, which, in addition to assuming the existence of the canonical, brings in the adjective to further “activate the meaning of canon as ‘tenet’ or ‘rule’.” These tenets and rules are gathered from the poems, not forced upon them. And the spirit of the age is clearly drawing strength from traditional forms. It moves ahead by looking back: “I regard this book as the most concrete evidence yet of a new principle at work in our poetry – or better yet, an old principle now resurfacing.” Consider that “better yet” well.

The sort of language that we find in this debate between tradition and “the new” is full of such political overtones. You can hear it in words like “radical,” “conservative,” “reactionary,” and “avant-garde.” I myself have had occasion (justified, I think, given the context) to refer to Starnino as a neo-con (in a review of A Lover’s Quarrel). The usual way the debate runs is to oppose the avant-garde, the “freakish postmodern” experimentalist “speaking-in-tongues” poetry typically (but not exclusively) associated with the LANGUAGE movement, with a more traditionalist aesthetic of craftsmanship. As Starnino points out, correctly, this is a misleading characterization, as the “new principle” that is at work in his poets is progressive and experimental, adapting a poetic past – that is inescapable anyway – in bold new ways. However, knowing something about the landscape of the divide does prepare you a bit for who’s going to be in and who’s going to be out of this anthology. Yes, Christian Bök is included, but nothing from Eunoia. And are you surprised? The poets here, Starnino tells us, regard poetry “as a major form for the examination of ideas, but consider it first and foremost a form (emphasis in the original).” Elsewhere he writes that with this group of poets “formal poetry has returned to the fore.”

To attempt to avoid the label of formalism then, and say that Formalist poetry (with a capital-F) does not exist, strikes at least one reader as trying to have one’s cake and eat it too.

Now personally I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this game of ins and outs. Unlike some commentators, I tend to feel that a confrontational mindset can be healthy for poetry. It’s good to write against something, if only as a means of clarifying one’s own ambition and aesthetic. We need the Other. If Starnino, following in the footsteps here of figures like David Solway, places a paranoid conspiracy-theory gloss on the Canadian scene, imagining “cabals” and “clans” of insurgents at the University of Calgary and the Kootenay School of Writing, then so be it. Everybody wants to be an outsider railing against an entrenched elite, especially in the arts. And it’s natural for a poet to feel marginalized since poetry itself only exists on the margins. I’m just not sure it bears much looking into. The roll call of New Canon poets includes numerous creative writing teachers, journal editors and prize winners. And while the Jubilate Circle may have been one of Solway’s inventions, might we not, after looking at the Index of Authors here, posit a Montreal Mafia?

All in good fun, of course. Starnino is a good example of the kind of critic he says that poetry requires, one capable of both recognizing and commenting on formal innovation: “critics who not only write with wooing detail of such minute structural irregularities, but recognize those irregularities as a platform for radical achievement.” As I’ve said before, great poetry needs great critics. Or, as Philip Marchand put it in a recent column: “Mainstream poets need rigorous, intelligible, smart commentators and critics and literary journalists. The actual poems need to be reviewed, explained, elucidated, argued over and occasionally dismissed by people who know good verse when they see it, in newspapers and periodicals that are actually read.”

My only quibble with Starnino’s writing is its wordiness. One appreciates the energy (oh how it is appreciated!), but one has the sense of someone who talks very quickly. I don’t, for example, see the distinction he makes between craft and style, or between poetry that develops vs. poetry that evolves. In the latter case he defines development as a breaking of bonds and a striving for the untested. Evolution is identified as “grow[ing] by mechanisms of mass extinction and replacement.” This is a weird way of characterizing both of these concepts. I would argue that poetry does in fact evolve, defining evolution as the dominance of more-or-less randomly generated mutations better adapted for survival, with the occasional eruption of long-recessive genes. The narrative epic in verse is thus a species of dinosaur; anecdotal free verse lyric the ubiquitous urban cockroach.

But I haven’t even talked about the poetry yet!

Reviewing any kind of anthology is difficult because there’s no way you can make generalizations that will apply to the entire selection. This is especially so with an anthology such as this. As noted, however, radical or experimental poetry is clearly out. What’s in is form. What this means is that qualities like rhythm and rhyme are, indeed, “in saddle.” Take the following stanza from David O’Meara’s “Letter to Auden” (which, at seven pages, is the longest poem in the book):

Attending, at last, to what is most commonplace:
Unbounced cheques, our neighbours’
Warm affection, the friendship of rooms
With sun and hardwood floors,
(If only life could arrange itself neatly as a rhyme,
Or the balanced way we climb
And relax inside a hammock)
But nothing we’ll ever know is that
Patly epigrammatic –

What a magnificent merging of form and content! The poet questions life’s ability to arrange itself neatly as a rhyme, and our inability to reduce our knowledge to pat epigrams, in as neatly rhymed and patly epigrammatic a stanza as you’ll find anywhere. Now: Ask yourself where that image of the hammock came from. The poet’s imagination yes, but wasn’t it found by the poem’s form? It occurs in parenthesis, so we have the idea of getting “inside” something already. Then we have the rhyme scheme, which forces O’Meara to find something to work (neatly) with “epigrammatic.” And finally there is the rhythm, which swings freely – in balance – without being disjunctive. The regular accents in the lines containing the image highlight internal repetitions in sound, the echoing of long “i”s and flat attacking “a”s:

Or the balanced way we climb
And relax inside a hammock

It’s not a particularly striking image or metaphysical conceit, but it’s the right image. And it’s the right image because it grew, consciously or not, out of the poem’s form.

This isn’t to say that all of the poems here are so driven. Nor that the most formally interesting or exact ones are always the best. Michael Crummey’s talent, for example, is better represented in his blank verse than in a banal formal exercise like “Artifacts.” For the most part these are poets at play even in their most serious moments, not just in their obvious exercise of verbal wit but in their handling of the line and sound effects. The New Canon is a book infused with the spirit of recreational invention. Nearly identical lines are repeated with words added or taken out. Alien voices are adopted in various dramatic monologues. A whole poem becomes an exercise in simile (“What the Magdalen Islands Are Like”). And then, if the stars are aligned, an image falls into place. Like the hammock, or in Karen Solie’s “Java Shop, Fort MacLeod”, something even more elegant:

Nostalgia is a prettier season. Leaves
fall on the river and a few are the colour of wine.

Beautiful stuff. But who’s reading it?

About five years ago I posted an essay online titled “The Morning After.” It was about how little poetry is appreciated these days, and gave some reasons for why this was so. I remember one of Canada’s best poets e-mailed me saying that the situation wasn’t really so bad. Poetry was in better shape than fiction, he said.

The thing is, he might have been right. We complain a lot about the state of poetry, but I’m not sure literary fiction is doing any better. In fact, I’m not even sure if it’s selling any better (which truly is remarkable given its increased visibility). But still you have to ask the question of why poetry, like oil painting or carving lifelike figures out of marble, has fallen into such obscurity and general disrepute. In my essay I blamed its dullness. This was a response to what Starnino criticizes as the “ruling aesthetic” in poetry since the 1970s – “the plain, the soft-spoken, the flatly prosy, the paraphrasingly simple, the accessibly Canadian.” The poets in The New Canon aren’t like that. And yet I suspect they will continue to struggle to find an audience. Why?

Here is one critique.

I think that perhaps we have set the bar too low. In the column by Philip Marchand already quoted he writes “that poetry is the means we have to renew language. Since language is vital to human survival, this task is important enough. We need constantly to fight against imprecision of language, language used to mystify rather than clarify, language that dulls rather than rouses the imagination. Poets are our first line of attack.” This is, of course, a riff on Eliot’s call for poetry to “purify the dialect of the tribe.” The same idea is expressed at the end of Starnino’s Introduction, where he tells us that “these poems matter not because I believe them appropriate at the present moment. They matter because, each in their own way, they keep the English language alive. We read good poems to read good poems.”

I disagree. This may be one reason why poets write poetry, but is that enough? Starnino emphasizes at one point that this anthology is “about what happens the next time we, as poets, sit down to write a poem.” Who is this “we” being addressed? I agree with Marchand and Starnino that poetry helps keep language alive. But this seems more a justification for writing poetry than reading it, and not an entirely persuasive one at that. Poetry shouldn’t be a civic duty.

But what does today’s poetry offer aside from its specialized use of language? Not enough. I’ve already quoted Starnino’s line about how these writers see poetry “as a major form for the examination of ideas, but consider it first and foremost a form.” My own sense is that form is indeed “first and foremost”, and that “the examination of ideas” has really fallen off the radar. Critics like Starnino tend to disparage “thematic criticism”, but this is because a lot of thematic criticism, at least in the last fifty years, has found itself with less and less to write about. Poetry had become all about effect, and themes (or ideas, or thought) were incidental. We didn’t read poets for what they had to tell us about the way we live now, but for the quality and expression of their observations. Which brings us back to the divine Edgar. The “Poetic Principle” is the manifesto of form for form’s sake, a marginal aestheticism, a poetry of effect championed by a connoisseur of moods and impressions. And, for god’s sake, no long poems!

But it has always been the long poem, the epic, that most directly addressed, allegorically or otherwise, our deepest political, religious, intellectual, cultural, and social concerns. And I see no reason why we shouldn’t have our own Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, Prelude, In Memoriam, or even Waste Land, today. The non-narrative, non-thematic, non-intellectual (indeed anti-intellectual) poetry of epiphany and observation, no matter how exquisitely crafted and brilliantly realized, is no replacement. Our horror of the didactic has led to an anodyne product that oftentimes isn’t about anything at all. As for a common mythology, embodied in a structure of belief and symbol with any popular resonance . . . well, there’s always what’s on TV.

I’ve often heard it remarked how few people are able to recite contemporary poetry. I can always find people who can quote reams of Tennyson or Shakespeare, but the same people can’t remember a single line of today’s verse (I mean, of course, among those who have read it). I don’t think this has as much to do with the quality of the writing as the fact that people no longer find in poetry the sort of thought or meaning that helps them understand their world or their lives. I can appreciate the kind of critic Marchand and Starnino both want to see, someone with the ability to explain how poem’s work. But that’s only going to take us so far. After you’ve explained how a poem works – or, perhaps even better, before – it might be worth explaining what it’s trying to say.

No doubt all of this sounds a bit old-fashioned. But it is one attempt to understand why poetry is widely perceived to be in such a rut. If nothing else, The New Canon provides ample evidence that it’s not due to any lack of talent. If you’re looking for poets who are making it new we might take another cue from Pound, point to this book, and say “Dig here.” And if it’s the health of the language you’re worried about, rest assured it’s in good hands. These poets have the tools to build Jerusalem.

And, should they get ambitious, we still have all the forms.

Notes:
Review first published online April 25, 2006.

Night Street Repairs

NIGHT STREET REPAIRS
By A. F. Moritz

“Wandering between two worlds, – one dead,
The other powerless to be born.” – Matthew Arnold

There’s nothing particularly Arnoldian about A. F. Moritz’s latest collection, Night Street Repairs, but that sense of being caught between two worlds is front and center. So much is over. “The infinite erotic civilization we created/ is declining now” (so much for being infinite). “An age of anxiety was ending.” The revolution has come and gone, but what is this space between? The Wall has fallen, but that “waiting/ for something else, waiting so long/ it seemed no change could ever come” has only been replaced with an emptiness. This is an in-between, twilight realm Moritz likes to identify with shadows. Here, for example, is an “Architect Examining an Old House”:

Not yet torn down, forgotten somehow, its grey
façade of the last century

 

stands, a shadow, between clear glass and chrome
developments, beside the doming and arching
of reminiscent designs, unprecedented,
that suddenly came to us

 

as we trailed after the modern, wanting to be
more modern.

Not yet torn down, but just give it time.

And then there is a very Arnoldian first cricket of the season, “lost as you are for this moment in this silence/ of your dead of a season ago, and your yet unborn.” The artist (here a singer of cricket “cantos”) is obviously feeling very un-attached to the zeitgeist. He is dissatisfied. He is a “thing unjoined”.

He is in the mood for a good argument with the universe.

Some would say it’s the role of a poet to have a bone to pick with the dominant culture. And in Night Street Repairs A. F. Moritz, who has long been one of Canada’s most rewarding poets, is at his most questioning, hectoring, and intellectually aggressive. In an “Ode to Don DeLillo” it even seems at first blush as though the poet is trying to pick a fight with the novelist. Just what is the relation between writing and our experience of life’s misery? Moritz wants to know. And his Ode is an interrogation.

Being argumentative isn’t just about tone. It means you have a point to make. This makes some of the poetry here difficult, because Moritz is an abstract poet (or, perhaps more accurately, a poet in an abstract mood). Abstract in that his images seem to work backward, going from universal to particulars. The landscape is inscape – there is little difference between what he sees and what he imagines. The world is “only a voice” (take away the poet’s universe and he still has his gorge). The material world, in turn, seems generic and prop-like. There are bridges, doors, sidewalks, and dumpsters (Moritz, like most good poets, walks), but these have the feel of symbols without symbolic weight.

And not all arguments convince. The poem “On a Sentence About the Ancient Maya” is an example. The sentence referred to in the title tells us that the art of the Maya created their reality in a way more powerful than we moderns can imagine. Moritz rejects this with a flat “No” (told you he was feeling chippy). No, it is the reality of the present that is the product of an art so powerful the imagination can’t get out. From the plastic spoon you eat your yogurt with to the grooves on a steering wheel, ours is a universe of inescapable design. And design is art.

Or is it? I have my doubts. I’m not so sure that “we have imagined an art so powerful.” We have mass-produced our designs to the point where “art” is all-pervasive, but this strikes me as something different than creating a new reality through art. And the imagination involved seems minimal indeed. The Mayans had creation myths . . . and we have yogurt spoons? It seems to me that this is the real Ode to Don DeLillo. We live in a world we made, culture is our nature, but is our inner life – our imagination – trapped by these mundane aspects of product design? Or does it live elsewhere?

It is this sense of fullness and cultural exhaustion that is the old world dead. The classical gods – Mayan or erotic – have passed away. We exist now in a limbo, like flies stuck in a mass media amber, “almost insensible, almost impotent, yet alive/ by the sufferance of our young.” The next age will turn us all into shadows. But then, the next age will have no imagination.

Night Street Repairs is a thoughtful, thought-provoking collection that only rarely captures the ease and beauty of Rest on the Flight Into Egypt. Moritz’s dissatisfied questioning trickles down (or up) to the writing itself. There are a number of passages where the expression seems overly worried and qualified. Too many commas suggest overwritten or misdirected composition, an absence of grace. Lines like

Now, after years, one wall falls, in Berlin,
and they wake there, childhood gone, . . .

 

So my first, simplest
songs, a child’s shouts, nothing but life, soaked,
buried and smothered in life, lost in life’s thorax,
were wrong.

There is something anti-poetic about this, though perhaps it is intentional. Still, one misses the visionary images (as opposed to arguments made of metaphors), the playfulness, the sound of words,

the flap-snap-flop of the laundry of the future

 

strung out the windows of tropical highrise slums.

Notes:
Review first published online May 19, 2004.

Poetry After 9/11

POETRY AFTER 9/11: AN ANTHOLOGY OF NEW YORK POETS
Ed. by Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians

“O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometimes sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.” – Hart Crane

Despite its distinguished pedigree – commemorating the achievements of athletes, the deaths of schoolmates, the triumphs of heads of state – occasional verse doesn’t enjoy much of a reputation today. We tend to roll our eyes at the odes composed by poets laureate to celebrate inaugurations and royal birthdays. For writers fighting to distinguish their trade from the black arts of advertising and propaganda, sincerity has become the chief virtue of what it means to be literary. And sincerity is divorced from public speech.

At first glance, Poetry After 9/11 may seem similarly tainted. But this would be a mistake. The events of September 11, 2001, and in particular the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City, only provide a context for the poetry. The poems show the influence of 9/11, but often indirectly. Though similar in form to most contemporary poetry – the short, free verse lyric is still the dominant form – it is their occasional quality and their relationship to public events that open them from the inside.

There are two reasons, aside from the quality of the writing itself, why such an anthology works. In the first place there is the very public nature of the events the poetry responds to. Much of today’s poetry is characterized either by the banality of its anecdotal thought and observations or the obscurity of its personal references. That self-oriented, confessional impulse is still going strong here (Alicia Ostriker is moved to ask “do they hate me”?), but the events of 9/11 also give these poems a public, tangible frame of reference. That these events were experienced, in large part, through the lens of television is the second reason they are so effective. Poetry is made out of images, and it has often seemed to me that poetry is better suited to the modern mind because of this. Exploding planes and falling towers, all to the fragmented rhythms of MTV, are more a part of the vernacular than prose narrative.

Of course the reason they are more a part of the vernacular is because of the dominance of the image in our culture. That a number of these poems make references to CNN or Hollywood only confirms this. In David Trinidad’s “Adam and Eve on the Hollywood Treadmill” the images are drawn directly from film culture: “Think Faye Dunaway . . . Think Kate Winslet . . . Think inexplicable pop phenomenon Celine Dion” (some idea of just how free the verse is can be measured by reading that last line aloud). Another poem, “Mortal Remains” by Kimiko Hahn, begins with the connection between one of the victims and John Travolta “hustling his ass off” in Saturday Night Fever. “Freedom is the capacity to remember that it’s a movie,” Geoffrey O’Brien writes in his sonnet “Techniques of Mass Persuasion.” But this kind of freedom is a drug, Eliot’s world of might-have-beens. We can always change the channel.

While broadly similar in form, the poems vary quite a bit in rhythm and tone, from breathless rattling pieces by Eliot Katz and Norman Stock, to playful chains by Anna Rabinowitz and Paul Violi, to broken elegies by Jean Valentine and Rachel Hadas. What they share is a need for something, in Kimiko Hahn’s phrase, “More immortal than the movies.” Hart Crane found in the Brooklyn Bridge a form of architecture that stood for what he labeled a “Myth of America.” For these New York poets the great architectural symbol of the World Trade Center is another postmodern present absence. Instead of a bridge or a tower there’s a hole in the sky. Instead of religion (those “bygones of bearded beliefs”) there is a skepticism called freedom. As Katz’s movers put it, “The world has changed, bro.”

Notes:
Review first published online September 11, 2002.

Black River

BLACK RIVER
By Kenneth Sherman

A river is perhaps the most conventional of all poetic symbols, and almost certainly the longest lived. “riverrun” past Eve and Adam’s and irrigated all human literature. By the banks of Ontario’s Black River Kenneth Sherman hears the “high hollow whistling” through the branches of the massive willows and is transported in imagination to another Old Testament landscape:

Is that what the psalmist meant
by his ‘harps upon the willow’?

 

Those captives
weeping by the rivers of Babylon . . .

This music by and of the waters is a living tradition, one that Sherman fills with references to Jordan and Lethe and severed heads singing down the river to the sea (prefiguring modern types like Celan and Woolf – “Any river becomes black / when it drowns a poet”). The water sound is of continuity, not changelessness. What is eternal is the flow. As the familiar epigraph from Herakleitos has it, “Everything flow; nothing remains.” This river is not the Jordan and the water-strider is “not the Angel of Redemption” because the only redemption possible is “perhaps” in the very rush. Otherwise: Only water under the bridge: “no river flows backwards. / No river resuscitates its dead.” There is only the continuity of loss.

All around you, the discontinuous.
But you continue, dark river, while the gods
and goddesses
fall from the void like shredded texts –

Neither the gods nor their texts remain. Mere allusive “notes persist.” Everything flows.

A modern interpretation, then: The river as cable, the stream of data on (what used to be called) the information superhighway. Culture as stream, electronic current, flow. Can we be good poets without God? Can we have art without eternity? Is art even possible on the Internet, that “Dark Net” that parodies the Black River with its “vast, anarchic, pornography / of Gallup”:

But how to be God-centered
with Google, as if deadpan glass and hard-drive hum
could be any long-term consolation?
Lovely the way it flows onto the screen
though you are unlikely to download
Eden or Zion from this Net so easily accessed
and deluged with everyday demons.

Hypnotized by the lovely flow we hardly realize we are drowning. But we are. There are no gods but the gods of the Net. There is no form. No content. Only traffic. Only flow.

And dissolution of identity in the ocean of democracy. Which is where William Carlos Williams’s filthy Passaic emptied out too. Williams, however, saw that loss of identity as part of a cycle. His river is redeemed. Sherman’s final image of the “wake” is less hopeful. The river as a human life – the poet’s “inner river,” whose “bloody rivulets” mosquitoes drink – only runs down. As “wetware” the river fails to make the usual connections between the past (upriver) and the present (down), the subconscious (deep water) and consciousness (our perception of the surface). The past – “(ties, vests, bustles, corsets)” – is another river. Natives and nature have been displaced. History is just another shredded text:

Here memory is short-lived.
Shallow land, rock too close to surface.
And our river – an amnesiac:
her biography, mere movement.

Only flow. A flow of surfaces, because that is all we have time to notice. And it isn’t pretty.

The brackish surface
a deep bottle green breeding algae on the bleached banks,
cotton-like strands melting to slime
between trembling fingers.
Our horror ditch.

It’s not often in this book’s pared down verse that you get a line as rich in echoing sound as “a deep bottle green breeding algae on the bleached banks,” so when it arrives it forces you to note how the language mirrors the rotten fecundity of the polluted river. And then to follow it with such an exact and magically tactile image of the weird melting beauty of that pollution as it passes through a hand dipped in the water shows a rare touch indeed.

Black River is a masterful example of what can still be achieved in a long, meditative poem. Sherman takes the conventional image, and form, of the river and re-imagines it in language and thought that are thoroughly contemporary. Of course the cultural river will keep on flowing, sweeping all before it along with “Award-winning poets who can’t rhyme a line of verse. / And worse.” But one hopes that at least this text, these notes, will last.

Notes:
Review first published online June 6, 2007.