A Poem in Hart House Review: “Counting Half The World”

After far too long writing PhD qualifying exams, paving my favourite neurons to put up a dissertating lot, I’m back to writing poetry. (But see how bad things have gotten?)

Perhaps I’ll begin a very delayed Shark Week Poemarathon 2014, though by my calculations I’ve already missed what would be the half-birthday/Xmas-in-July of Shark Week, January 11-17. I’ll just back-date the posts and no one will notice. You can keep our secret, can’t you, dear reader?

Speaking of reading, you should try it sometime. I have a very old poem newly published in the Hart House Review’s Winter Supplement 2015, “Counting Half The World.”

It has all the newsiest things: exotic locales! nipples! war tremors! (two kinds of) puddles! grandmother(‘)s! mules! (We all know how au courant mules are these days.)

“Mr Crow,” Jack Davis

I’ve come across a few poems in the last weeks that have both prompted me to reconsider academic curricula’s singular esteem for Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and left me wishing there were a global poetry anthology titled Inkbrains: several hundred years of being weirded by corvids. I post this poem because it appears unavailable elsewhere online. It appears availably in Jack Davis’s 1977 collection Jagardoo: Poems from Aboriginal Australia.

Mr Crow, I have been occupied with the thought,
As to how and what I ought
To write of you for some considerable time.
You are detestably difficult to place into rhyme.
There's no symmetrics in your feathers
Or your white-rimmed eye,
Your croaks are akin to leather,
You are cowardly mean and sly.

But when Nature manufactured creatures,
Wise she thought of all the features.
Now if her realm should all be beauty,
Who then would master meaner duty
So when you cawed far back in time,
First struggled out of primeval slime,
Mother Nature paused and said:
From this moment I declare
You will fly and haunt the air
And help me desiccate the dead.

It reads perhaps too simply. But there’s a sonnetic construction (two quatrains and a sestet, with the addition of a terminal quatrain; the turn at “But”) that intersects nicely with the two stanzas’ parallel movements in rhyme (both transition from rhyming couplets to rhyming quatrains). The result, if you’ll make this leap with me, is two partial sonnets assembled into something more than one sonnet. And these two sonnetic conclusions sit juxtaposed without entering synthesis: Mr Crow, you’re ugly, and I’m trying to write a pretty thing; Mr Crow, you do Nature’s work, in which ugliness is necessary.

And the point? Davis’s collection deals with the legacy of colonialism in Australia (notably the early nineteenth-century British declaration that Australian Aboriginal peoples were ‘wards’ of the colonial state), so putting the ugly into a pretty thing without taking the ugliness out of the ugly would be of key concern to him. The social politics of racial stereotyping aren’t hidden far beneath Davis’s unflattering, essentializing, and dismissive description of the ‘crow’ (a common settlement-era Australian slur against Aboriginals), which is underwritten by the dominantly British medium of poetry and its conventions of beauty.

“Mother Nature,” which for those of us inheriting the British tradition has long been poetic cliche, then recuperates Mr Crow not as beautiful but as necessary. This puts me in a strange position as a critical reader: if Mr Crow is being raced as black, using familiar imperial rhetoric about ‘those natives,’ how content can we be with his relegation to custodianship of “the dead”? Or with the paradox that his recuperation-relegation is achieved through the very poetic medium that the Davis of the first stanza denies (however ironically)?

‘The problem is not that poetry can’t handle ugly things, but that poetry, as a discourse, makes things ugly’? That doesn’t seem far off the mark.

A few thoughts on “Olbers’s Paradox”

Thank you to everyone who sent congratulations regarding my recent Descant prize win. A few of you generously mentioned that you ‘enjoyed’ my interview on the Descant blog. I’m convinced that (through no fault of the interviewer) I sound like an ingénue, so to compensate I’ve posted here a few thoughts on “Olbers’s Paradox,” my only other anything-winning poem. They were originally hosted on the Echolocation blog but didn’t survive a recent content cull. Evidently, I refuse to take that as a hint.

Page’s glosa “Inebriate” (which you can listen to her read here) pissed me off. From there, “Olbers’s Paradox” very quickly began to write itself. Many of its images respond directly to Page’s and are traceable through the rhyme scheme, which I annoyingly had to preserve in order to write a glosa from the same cabeza. And I wanted the same cabeza because I thought I could use the same source material to produce something more interesting. That admitted, I haven’t done much to advance the glosa form. Maybe I’ve brought in dramatic monologue, or dramatic lyric, but that’s a bit like adding whisky to bitters: what you get is still (an) old fashioned. Advancing the form wasn’t my interest. If I had to name one difference, it’s that Page wanted glosas to be celebratory and I want them to be quietly or loudly belligerent. Characters are pretty good at quiet belligerence; poets can be good at being loud.

With “Stars / beyond stars unfold for me and shine,” Page practically handed me the paradox that the historical Heinrich Olbers posed: the universe can’t be both infinite and eternal (eternally static, that is) because if it were the night sky would be completely chocked with starlight. Being high on Anxiety of Influence at the time of composition, I evidently connected the potential frying of the Earth’s surface by stellar radiation with the woe of the contemporary writer. But the Earth doesn’t fry, they say, because space is expanding and the stars are moving away from us. That’s a simplification. Here’s another: time expands outward, pushing the past and its precedents away from us. The gradual departure of their lights is what allows and requires that we keep writing.

I traced Page back to Cohen, both back to Keats, and he too back to Elgin, incidentally Olbers’s contemporary but more importantly the one who ‘rescued’ the Parthenon Marbles from those crazy, statue-burning Greeks. Each of the four handled influence in a different way—lauder, renouncer, neurotic, and thief—but I have more fondness for Olbers’s patient, the character whose voice cohered quite suddenly out of this mess. The patient is my antidote to Page’s transcendently happy, ironically healthy, spring water-swilling septuagenarian. There’s something admirable, I think, in a younger person terminally ill but thermodynamically happy. You heard me, Keats.

Winston Collins / Descant Prize

I got a perplexing call this morning from Vera DeWaard, Managing Editor of Descant. She wanted to let me know that the winner of the Winston Collins / Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem was soon being announced. Well, I thought, that’s awfully personal servic–uhhhh. Sorry, what?

Winston Collins, looking enviably fly.

Winston Collins, looking enviably fly.

A huge thank you to the judges, the ridiculously prolific Mark Kingwell and the sickeningly talented Leanne Shapton, who gave this unestablished poetling and his delinquent poem, “Rite,” a shot. (They call the poem “witchy”! Best feedback ever, I’m thinking.) I’m not within reach of the Canadian poetry scene’s pulse (it’s a very crowded bedside), but judging from the most recent winners–John B. Lee (2013 & 2007), Heidi Garnett (2012), and Barbara Schott (2011)–I’ve just entered into rather intimidating company.

I’ve been invited to read “Rite” at the next Descant launch in Toronto this spring, so pack your bags, folks (eventually, I mean): drinks on me (but not really).

Edit: Visit the Descant blog to read Co-Editor Lesley Kenny’s phone interview with me, in which I call Seamus Heaney boring, Derek Walcott mean, and Joseph Brodsky dreamy.

Sonneteering: Billy Collins’s “Sonnet”

Billy Collins

Billy Collins. How you gonna say ‘no’ to that face?

“I’m going to post about Billy Collins today. And I had written out a post, and that took some time, and so I hope you’re going to read it. But I’m going to interrupt your reading to talk about Collins a little bit. And before you actually read the post, I wanted to say a couple of less premeditated things about Collins.”

That’s how Billy Collins might write a post about Billy Collins. But you can be damn sure if he did people would laugh uproariously. Apparently, I don’t particularly care for him or his sonnet “Sonnet.” It’s probably jealousy.

Read the poem below and my grouching on The Town Crier.

Sonnet
All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

Sonneteering: Mark Haddon’s “A Rough Guide”

Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon

The Town Crier has officially relaunched with a renewed focus on regular content, and I’ve sneaked in the door with a biweekly (or thereabouts) series on sonnets. I may never amble around to writing on why Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” is the best sonnet in English, but I’ve started with sweeping claims anyway: popular criticism on poetry, especially in Canada, has an acute case of ‘kitchensinkism.’

Read my slightly more specific thoughts on Mark Haddon’s “A Rough Guide” (from his exceptional collection The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea) over at The Town Crier. But first, catch up on the plot:

A Rough Guide
Be polite at the reception desk.
Not all the knives are in the museum.
The waitresses know that a nice boy
is formed in the same way as a deckchair.
Pay for the beer and send flowers.
Introduce yourself as Richard.
Do not refer to what somebody did
at a particular time in the past.
Remember, every Friday we used to go
for a walk. I walked. You walked.
Everything in the past is irregular.
This steak is very good. Sit down.
There is no wine, but there is ice-cream.
Eat slowly. I have many matches.

Meatfruit: all the other combinations of food

MeatfruitI’m so very fond of starting projects because new projects give me the opportunity not to follow through on them.

So I’ve started a recipe-and-review blog lovingly dedicated to the supposedly weird (though in fact hyperdelicious) combinations in which I ingest food. It is ominously entitled Meatfruit. Today’s special (invented on-the-spot as I stood in my kitchen with begrowled belly) is Haferflocken kitschig. I think the German name sets the right tone for the dish, something “cheesy oatmeal with walnuts and mixed berries” just can’t pull off.

If you have your own disgusting dish that no one else in your life believes is actually tasty, send me a vague recipe I can ignore and I’ll happily feature said dish on the site.

Bone appetite.