Echo has no compass: Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah

Echo has no compass: we trace each other’s dermatomes

No ecstasy without betrayal: not all who live in flames are saints

Great art needs no nation: in memory country size is one

Great nations need great art: soliloquy a mother tongue

— from “Footnotes to a Song”

It was not until I sat down to write this review—in so much as I yet feel myself capable of calling my scribbled thoughts about poetry a review—that I realized I’m following a piece about Ghassan Zaqtan’s latest novella, Where the Bird Disappeared, with a look at the latest collection of poetry by Fady Joudah, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance. I came to Joudah first as a translator of Zaqtan’s poetry so I was not unaware of the concurrence. But I am typically reading at least two books of poetry and two books of prose at any given time, so the crossover is never so obviously bound, thus it is only now that I’ve become aware that the titles of both books include a form of the verb to disappear. A timely happenstance. However, although it is impossible to underestimate the importance Ghassan Zaqtan’s influence on an entire generation of Arab poets, Joudah included, the experience offered by the latter’s work is distinctly his own.

Fady Joudah is a Palestinian-American poet, translator and physician living in Houston, Texas. If I was conscious of the fact that he is a doctor, I don’t think it really registered or made its presence known in scattered poems I’ve encountered in the past. But his medical profession and scientific curiosity comes through in his work, along with a love of art, literature and nature. So does the legacy of war, destruction and conflict in the Middle East, and the varieties of experience of exile. His poetic territory is wide; his passage through it is intimate and acutely observed. As poet Mary Szybist contends in her praise for this “intensely vulnerable book,” Joudah is:

forging a lyric that works at the crosscurrents of reportage, myth, and dream where false imagined boundaries—of gender, nation, family—fray and unfold, and there are possibilities other than ‘to go mad among the mad / or go it alone’. . . (his) gifts for articulating the intersections of bewilderment, tenderness, rage, and grief are fully alive here.

The physician’s attention is very much evident in the early poems in Footnotes. “Progress Notes,” for instance, opens with the poet’s assessment of his own asymmetrical visage:

My left eye is smaller than my right,
my big mouth shows my nice teeth perfectly
aligned like Muslims in prayer.
My lips an accordion. Each sneeze
a facial thumbprint. One corner
of my mouth hangs downward when I want
to hold a guffaw hostage. Bell’s palsy perhaps
or what Mark Twain said about steamboat piloting
that a doctor’s unable to look upon the blush
in a young beauty’s face without thinking
it could be a fever, a malar rash,
a butterfly announcing a wolf.

before moving on to find a future echo in noted in one of the cadavers in his anatomy classroom:

But the colonel on table nineteen
with an accessory spleen had put a bullet through
his temple, a final prayer. Not in entry or exit
were there skull cracks to condemn the house
of death, no shattered glass in the brain,
only a smooth tunnel of deep violet that bloomed
in concentric circles. The weekends were lonely.
He had the most beautiful muscles
of all 32 bodies that were neatly arranged,
zipped up as if a mass grave had been disinterred.
Or when unzipped and facing the ceiling
had cloth over their eyes as if they’d just been executed.
Gray silver hair, chiseled countenance,
he was sixty-seven, a veteran of more than one war.
I had come across that which will end me, ex-
tend me, at least once, without knowing it.

Medical and medicinal imagery continues to resurface routinely throughout the collection, woven into both the political and the personal (which are never mutually exclusive here) infusing both with an intimate humanity:

The hour of the grackle, and a mother
not menopausal, solitary with endgame lung

tumor in a foreign country
and what makes one foreign:

she hasn’t seen her son for three or five
exilic or immigrant years,

citizen or national stints, a keyword
a thrombus dislodges

in heart or head
for infarction’s infraction

—from “The Hour of the Grackle”

Although much of Footnotes reflects the poet’s specific experience in America (“Palestine, Texas” is a telling, gently ironic send-up of the tendency of the same place names to occur so ubiquitously across the American landscape that they lose resonance with any original roots), his concerns reach far beyond national boundaries. This is rendered most explicitly in the central section of Footnotes, “Sagittal Views” which is the result of a collaboration between Joudah and his friend, Syrian Kurdish poet and translator, Golan Haji, who now lives in Paris. Drawing on their meetings, phone and email communications, all conducted in Arabic, Joudah translated and formed their words into chilling evocations of loss, sorrow, and resignation:

Over dinner we spoke of the game of recurrence dissolving into an old dog’s tail, loquacious desire far from the borders of the body, yet is the body’s. What’s inside and doesn’t come out to skin or what’s outside and doesn’t touch us. Victims, we told ourselves, will inherit the future one day, but souls will linger distant from redemption. Don’t follow the signage and keep your eyes on the phrase. News of the explosion will hang around. The hell of pictures on the web. Faces of the dead on Facebook will wait for your walk home. A woman who awakened your first lust when you were a kid was killed in the morning while talking to her sister on the phone. First a blast then stillness. You were late to dinner. You had lost your way to the restaurant. You couldn’t have known she had just died, and what you thought were Klee’s paintings in the gallery clawing your afternoon nerves was her calling your name one last time.

—from “After Wine”

Poetry, at its best, invites re-engagement. Demands it, even. I was so enamoured with the anatomy of Joudah’s wordplay that, on my first passage through Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, I was so intrigued to see where his wonderings would lead that I did not linger as I might have on another initial journey. I read this book with an unexpected urgency. But as I returned to it with an eye to sorting out my responses, I encountered new depths, new heights of emotion. And at times in the seemingly simplest passages. For me, the prose poems—“Horses,” “An Algebra Come Home,” and “Alignment” to name a few—hold a particular power, but the entire collection is so strong, so varied, that there are boundless rewards to be found in the generosity of Fady Joudah’s pained and passionate poetics.

Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance is published by Milkweed Editions.

Being sneaky and queer within: Brink by Jill Jones

This past fall I had several precious opportunities to speak with the exceptional Caribbean-Canadian poet, NourbeSe Philip. On the first occasion, we were riding in the rear seat of a vehicle en route to the venue where she would be performing from her innovative masterwork Zong! I told her that I was taking some time to focus on writing, admitting that I was troubled that, at fifty-seven, I only just beginning to try to find self-expression and was having trouble sifting through a mess of accumulated personal experience. She smiled and said, “Oh you’re still young.” She went on to say that, as far as she was concerned, novels might be the sort of heavy-lifting suited to younger writers, but that poetry required a significant measure of life-lived perspective, adding that Thomas Hardy, after whom she named her son, didn’t write any poetry until he was finished with fiction.

I don’t write poetry, but I think that, at best, I aim to write somewhere in the intersection between poetry and prose. The more I focus on writing, and the older I get, the more I find myself turning to poetry with a new hunger and intention. I am drawn to both the experimental and the expressive elements afforded by the form. And although I’ve enjoyed and deeply admired so many of the works—primarily shorter contained collections— that I have encountered over the past year or so, something different happened with Brink, by Adelaide-based poet, Jill Jones.

Now I don’t want to speculate on age, with only an author’s photo to go by, but I did sense a degree of generational comfort in my engagement with her poetry. And by that I simply mean that I sensed I was in the presence of a poet who has come to understand, as I have, that questions are easier asked than answered, and that observations are often best left open-ended. This is where the ability to continue to marvel at life’s small wonders crosses weary wisdom and the understanding that words are at once necessary and inadequate. The poems in this collection, which range from the lyrical to the linguistic and experimentally playful, examine the emotions, images, and concerns that reflect an awareness of place and of the passage of time on an increasingly small planet.

In an interview with Tony Messenger, Jones admits that this book which had, at the time of their conversation, just been released, “covers a lot of ecopoetic territory, as the title Brink would suggest.” Natural elements—earthy textures, weeds, leaves, sky, clouds, birds, waters—are all recurring images. The fragile state of the world’s climate is a longstanding concern for her. But this collection is varied in practice and purport, “a big mix of detail and dislocation, images and word play, a lot of play, actually.” Indeed, these are poems that demand to be read, not just for the alliteration, and the slippery shifting of vowels, but for crunchy crispness of the language and the unlikely juxtapositions.

Shape-not-shape and
other shape
move with

wind, mind
argument between
ground, grass, leaf, cloud

barely words
for ephemeral world
beneath breath bones

                   — from “Arkaroola”

What a poet imagines into her own poetic explorations and what a reader meets there is complex and dynamic. In my personal encounter with this collection, I was drawn into the poems that spoke to me of the weight (or weightlessness) of words, and the longing for a language to express or make sense of, a pervasive restless disconnect. This is a sensation that is fundamental and primal, but coloured with the mixed blessings and illusions of modern interconnectedness:

I’m helpless against sky, shadow, gutter
clouds without formality, empty grey branches.
How to explain light on glass
and how not to do that
in this return after work’s decorum
another animal listening into the air.

Each evening practices its street repertoire.
Night blurs lines against my gate.
Tonight the moon is nearly naked.
Forgive me if I seem scrawled
with prefab thought rather than thinking.
I’ve brought no conclusions with me.

                            —from “Scrawl”

Sometimes writing is as much about being unable to write than it is about being able to tell stories, articulate experience or find self-expression. As words try to reach closer to the self, the more contrived or meaningless they tend to become. In my efforts, as an essay/memoirist (a preferred construct) I am fascinated and frustrated by the difficulty of finding a way to talk about a real and persistent experience for which I had no vocabulary until I was in my late thirties. In the meantime, an entire queer discourse has arisen over the past twenty years to parse the intricacies of gender non-conformity, to simultaneously celebrate and police self-definition, and yet it says little about my own queered experience. The words I am searching for remain elusive. My favourite piece in this entire collection, the one that I keep returning to repeatedly and that has earned this book a spot on the shelf inside my bedside table, speaks so clearly to my existential voicelessness. It is called, most fittingly, “Self and Nothingness” and I’m reproducing it here in full:

I’m running all over the world. I’m running
within sight of what might happen.
I’m running with a crazy kind of make-do.

The new plants waver in the cold evening.
It’s cooler than when I left these things, these ideas
in rooms. Is there a knack to it?

If I could shift my head without the world
shifting: It can’t be that hard to look up
into the trees. I know they’re there.

I’ve argued over silence.
I’ve collected nonsense.
I crave nothingness.
I know it doesn’t exist.
That it does.
I am a source of virtual violence.

What senses are, I’m not sure, or how many.
I smell strange but that could be
the way the air is.

The craft is the devil, disquiet a relief
jokes become bullet points, and my life
an account explained in columns.

Perhaps the essence has dissolved, become paler.
Whether to drink it, whether to pour it
whether to watch something else drink it.

Perhaps it’s all a set-up. It doesn’t matter
what it is. Everything in my mouth
cracks like a sweet.

I am a project as I scour the streets, for
what it’s worth, and I’m looking for ways
to write back the damage.

                    — Jill Jones, “Self and Nothingness”, from Brink

Looking for ways to write back the damage. Looking for ways to be. Mid-way through this collection I encountered a poem that, in the moment, spoke to me of conversation about a mutual sense of groundlessness that a faraway friend and I had shared.  I immediately had to photograph the page and send it to him. That is poetry that speaks.

In the end, Brink is, for me, a strange brew. It is blend of perceptive, sensual imagery; a confident exercise in word-crafting; an ode to a stressed climate; and, above all, wise counsel to: “Take better joy.”

Brink by Jill Jones is published by Five Islands Press.

The beauty of bloody fists and broken bones: The Agonist by Shastra Deo

Once again, my attention turns to a work of contemporary Australian poetry, and this time it’s a remarkably gritty, often grisly, exploration beyond the raw edges of physical and emotional endurance. Embodiment. Disembodiment. Lyrical evisceration.

Evoking characters and imagery drawn from diverse, seemingly unlikely sources—anatomy textbooks, World War I poetry, a scout manual, boxing, entomology, ichthyology, divination, tarot cards—Shastra Deo’s debut collection, The Agonist, is an impressive, unforgettable experience. Like a sucker punch to the gut.

But in the best way possible.

Agonist: (n) one that is engaged in a struggle

The narrators that move through these poems—the voices Deo borrows or inhabits—cover terrain familiar to poetry. They speak to pain, love, loss, damage, healing. But they engage with the world at a visceral, cellular level. Their words work their way into and through the hollows of memory, exploring what slips though the passages of the brain, examining what the muscles retain and imagining the intersection between reading the past and foretelling the future.

So what does that entail? The Agonist is divided into three sections, each of which opens with an illustration from Gray’s Anatomy. Many of the poems in the first section deal with relationships, familial or romantic, employing surreal thaumaturgic, and anatomical imagery.

“Arrhythmia,” for example, details the painful, desperate emotions of the partner not ready to accept that a love affair is coming to an end:

             You count the notches of his spine.
His eyelashes flutter and he sighs, his breath
so warm that for a moment you can
pretend you aren’t cold. You want
to crack him open and hold
his heart in your hands, sink your fingers
into the thin membrane of his lungs.
You want to pull back his skin
and curl up inside his ribcage.
You want to know what he is inside.
Find the symptom, the sickness,
the anomaly that let him love you.
You want to be warm again.

Deo is adept at creating a surprising, brutal beauty in her romantic imagery. We see it again with “Cutman,” a graphic, meaty piece that opens the second section of the collection. Here the connection between a boxer and the attendant who cleans and cares for his wounds between rounds is reimagined in intensely intimate context:

He comes home each night with his hands soaked red,
and when he smiles it’s sharp and jagged and his teeth
quake in his wet mouth. You card your cold fingers
through his hair and lead him to bed, wait
for the weight of his arms around your neck, warm
and drowsy, the familiar shape of his bones and tendons
cradling the base of your skull…

In this part, Deo calls on themes drawn from war and boxing to engage in dialogue with other poets and experiment with poetic form. Included are three centos formed from the Index of Titles and First Lines in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Moving into the final section, inspiration is found in, among other things, a Boy Scout manual from 1914 and a deck of Tarot cards. Consider “XIII—Death”:

. . . I live in the present tense,
tensed and present at the wheel
of a car wreck. My name is re-
membered. I apologise too often
for my lack of biography. He
does not yet know what divinity
he belongs to, but he knows I was
not born for this. He takes the
sheets off the mirrors. He escapes
our mythology.

In my experience of this work, which is of course, all I can honestly speak to, The Agonist is a collection in which the sound of the words and the impact of images are central, the point from which a narrative emerges and takes form. These are not autobiographical poems, for the most part. Nor do they read like “stories” so much as they remind me of paintings or photographs out of which vignettes have been abstracted with vivid, scalpel-sculpted, incantatory language.

Reading this book has left me with the sense of having spent time in a gallery. Attending a deliriously disturbing exhibit.

Shastra Deo was born in Fiji and raised in Melbourne. She presently lives in Brisbane where she is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing. The Agonist is published by University of Queensland Press and, as ever, the indefatigable Tony Messenger has a review and interview with Shastra on his website.

A poetic Pentecost: At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann

I am not certain what has become of the person who first alerted me to the poetry of Georg Trakl, but it wasn’t very long ago and came backward through an interest in Celan. Then, over the last few years, Seagull Books released three volumes containing all of Trakl’s poems including significant variants and early versions, in new translations by James Reidel. I read and wrote about them all even though I had no particular confidence in myself as a reviewer of poetry. I’ve also explored other translations and biographical accounts of the troubled Austrian poet’s short life. So when I became aware of At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem by Franz Fühmann, my interest was piqued. Finally, to be fully prepared, I recently read Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, The Jew Car.

I thought I was ready.

But no, nothing could have fully prepared me for the experience of experiencing At the Burning Abyss.

Fühmann was an important literary figure in postwar East Germany; a gifted, versatile writer who was no stranger to either reading poetry or fledgling efforts to write it when he first encountered Trakl. It was early May, 1945, just prior to the surrender of the Wehrmacht. As a young soldier in the German army, Fühmann had been granted a few days sick-leave following a stay in the hospital, and was taking advantage of the opportunity to visit his family. As bleak as things looked for Germany at the time, a reckless hope was still smoldering. Sitting with his father after dinner on the evening before he was due to leave for Dresden, he opened the volume he’d chanced to pick up in a used bookstore on his way home. One poem in particular, ominously titled “Downfall,” resonated:

Over the white pond
The wild birds have taken flight.
In the evening an icy wind blows from our stars.

Over our graves
The night bends its broken brow.
Under oak trees we sway on a silver barge.

The city’s white walls ring for ever.
Under vaults of thorns
O my brother we blind clock-hands climb towards midnight.

He knew nothing of Trakl but a conversation with his father that night revealed that the latter had served alongside “daft old Georgie” in the early days of the First World War. But beyond recollections of an eccentric character, Fühmann learned no more about the poet for many years. He would never see his father again, and his poetry book would soon be abandoned along with his coat and backpack a few days later. But the verse had worked its way into his consciousness and would keep him company and inspire his own desperate scribblings during his years in a Soviet POW camp in the Caucasus.

The Franz Fühmann who emerged from captivity in 1949 was a born again Socialist. He had seen the error of his ways, faced the reality of the horrors of Aushwitz, and rejected the false tenants of Nazi ideology on which he had been raised and indoctrinated. The final story in The Jew Car depicts the arrival of his fictional alter-ego in East Germany, his train journey into a new homeland marked with the composition of a suitably ambitious piece of Socialist-inspired realist poetry. However, his reunion with the decidedly anti-realist imagery of Trakl would occur before long.

Slowly, and steadily, the poems will challenge everything that he thinks he knows about reading and writing poetry, ultimately challenging his Socialist idealism and his own self-awareness.

At several points in At the Burning Abyss, Fühmann reminds his reader that the he is not writing an autobiography, insisting that he is engaged in a meditation on the experience of reading Trakl. However, this experience acts as a fundamental force within his own biography and cannot be read apart from it. His account of his personal response to Trakl is presented in first person singular against a broader examination of how a poem, and a couple of select pieces in particular, can and should be understood. This second thread is conducted as an extended first person plural conversation with the reader. His questions and concerns become our questions and concerns, we are invited to seek answers together.

He wants to know how the poem works on the unconscious, what gives it meaning, and what allows it to work across time and place. At the core of his examination is a conviction that the experience of a poem is necessarily subjective; that:

… a poem does not become a poem because it fulfils certain formal rules, but because a reader constitutes it. Until then it merely appears to belong to the genre of poetry, a dead form, interesting only once the interest in the poem as an artwork awakens.

The reader may take decades or even a century to appear, but if he does not, the poem does not come into being as poetry: there is no objective poetic form that legitimizes something a priori as a poem in the sense of an artwork.

This is then, a highly idiosyncratic engagement with the Trakl poem, but one that assures the reader that his own personal engagement with a poem, any poem, has its own validity. One should not be afraid of understanding wrong, or relating to something others eschew as unworthy. For, as he quotes Rilke in the opening sentence of the book: “poems are not feelings…they are experiences.”

For Fühmann, “Downfall” is the first Trakl poem that strikes him, across two decades from the time of composition, to capture the very moment in which he came to it. The blind clock-hands toward midnight climbing recur and echo throughout the text, joined in time, by other lines from other poems that become refrains, driving and troubling the attempt to resolve the dissonance that grows the further he explores Trakl’s poetry and life.

In his reading, an indication that the Trakl poem might reflect Decadence triggers his initial crisis of faith, if you will. Anxiously, Fühmann opens his text and lands, randomly on a poem filled with shocking imagery—“Night Romance.” He finds a “dreaming boy” with a “face decaying in the moon,” a murderer, a dead man, and a “nun with lacerated flesh” praying “naked before Christ’s travails.” All the features of decadence assembled and yet, somehow, the verses hold an undeniable appeal. Thinking of other poems, Fühmann’s anxiety increases:

What was this morass on which I’d lost my way?

And so it goes. The discussion turns to meaning. How literally can images be understood? Much of the focus turns on the poem “Decay,” but Fühmann insists that Trakl’s entire oeuvre can be seen as one great poem, so the discussion has broad application. Images of decay in all its aspects frequent his poetry, as do “autumn, “evening,” and “garden.” What weight can be applied to the startling images that appear, and to what extent is an exact explanation—a resolution of poetic riddles—possible or even desirable? If a mystery can be answered, is it answerable universally or for the reader alone? And, what role does the poet have in relation to the misery he or she records?

Of course, the questions, Fühmann raises are directly related to the threat Trakl poses to his schooling in the Socialist poetic form encouraged within the GDR. There is no place for mystery—a poem should be understood “at first go.” To rid himself of this contrary influence, Fühmann tries to destroy his Trakl books, but find himself unable to do so. He looks for comfort elsewhere, translating Vitězslav Nezval into German, for example, and finds himself sliding headlong in Surrealism! He seeks refuge in alcohol. For a long while, he struggles to mediate the conflict between the literature (and the grounding ideology) to which he is committed and this Austrian poet about whom, apart from his father’s cryptic recollections, he knows little. Having long professed to having little interest in the writer’s life, he suddenly desires to know all he can.

Shocked by his first encounter with Trakl’s awkward visage inside the covers of the slender biography he finds, Fühmann makes his way through the book in a single, fevered night. He is drawn into the account of “an unliveable life: an existence that fell to poetry.—An existence that fell to drugs and incest; a fall into decay, a plunge into suicide; a life at the zenith of European poetry.” What follows then, is a biography within this memoir, which includes the complete text of the sole eyewitness account of Trakl’s final days in a Krakow hospital.

Continuing to alternate between the analysis of what poetry can tell us about its author and, more critically, what it reveals about ourselves, Fühmann’s personal journey of self-discovery moves forward with an intensity that is powerful, irresistible and fundamentally human. The experience of the Trakl poem changes him and allows him to heal in a way doctrine never could. The reader can feel his pain and his passion, appreciate his conflicts and share his exhilaration when everything finally falls into place. “I believe in poetry,” he says, “because it works like fate—provided you stand within its magic circle.”

Well said, indeed.

At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann, is translated with great dedication and affection by Isabel Fargo Cole, and published by Seagull Books.

With a multitude of voices: Star Struck by David McCooey

There is a line from Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge that has haunted me since I first encountered it about a month ago. Quoted at the opening of Franz Fühmann’s At the Burning Abyss it reads: “For poems are not feelings, as people think (you have feelings early enough)—they are experiences.”

A simple statement, but one that instantly made sense. Poems are experiences. Rilke goes on to insist that everything the poet observes, everyone he or she encounters becomes part of the potential material for a poem. I have read a few highly praised poetry collections recently, typically by popular younger poets, that seemed to be exploiting emotional intensity without sufficient substance. By the end of a short book I tend to feel a little bludgeoned by the sameness and relentlessness of the imagery. I find myself wondering what the same poet might be like with just a little more life to draw from. Experience.

And so to my first review of the year, which happens to be the last book I finished in 2017. It is a collection of contemporary poetry and, once again, it’s Australian. David McCooey’s Star Struck is another book that came to my attention through a review and interview on Tony Messenger’s website. What initially drew my attention was a very immediate and personal connection. I was intrigued by the fact that one of the sections was inspired by his own encounter with a life-threatening medical event. Like McCooey, I have spent time on the cardiac ward and, whether the circumstances differ or not, there is nothing quite like heart trauma to upset your fragile equilibrium. To this date, I have not been able to write about my own experience, much of which is forever lost to my memory. And so I was curious to see where he would take his own explorations. Of course, I also found much more.

Star Struck is a lyrical collection, rich with musical and literary references, that relies on a wide range of voices and characters. Two poems, both titled “This Voice,” frame the work, reflecting the ambiguity and universality of speakers to be found within:

It goes without saying
that it sounds like your voice.
But is it yours? And if
not yours, then whose?

In his interview with Tony Messenger, McCooey admits that the second person “voice” here is intended “to be alienating, and to undermine simple ideas of my poems simply expressing ‘my voice’.” This is an awareness that continues, in varying forms throughout the main body of the text. Divided into four sections, the first part, “Documents,” traces his hospital adventure, from presentation at Accident and Emergency through surgery to rehabilitation. The experience is recounted with a level restraint that is mediated by the use of the second-person perspective. Addressing himself at a distance has several advantages—it allows the poet to ensure that it is not entirely about himself, accommodates exploration of some of the oddity of the hospital environment, and, as I read it, captures the strange surreality of the patient experience itself, the temporary suspension of control required:

There had been an earlier
waking,
in the ICU,

a time you have
deeply forgotten,
when you had the worst

of it—the pain, the detubation,
the harrowing scenes
of your return to life…

– from “Intensive Care (ii)”

Literary references appear throughout this work, his cardiac patient turns to Calvino, Muriel Spark and Tomas Tranströmer, while Georges Perec-style constraints shape a simple domestic scene; but since McCooey is also a musician, it is no surprise that he delights in incorporating characters and themes drawn from popular music into the eighteen dramatic monologues that comprise the third section of Star Struck, “Pastorals.” Here he takes on the voices of artists like Joni Mitchell and James Morrison, imagines scenes involving rock stars, music fans, and even peers out of the eyes of a caged primate watching a curious tailless creature  in a poem with the Peter Gabriel-inspired title “Shock the Monkey.” There is a restrained  confidence in these resulting mini-portraits that shift effortlessly between male and female speakers, taking their cues from music, musicians, movies, along with classic poetic sources, to give voice to those moments in life marked by association with an artist or piece of pop culture.

Poems as experience.

What marks the reading of this collection for me, moving in and out of it for several weeks as I have, is the way that the simplest observations can be spun into narratives that hint at a larger story. This is not say that there are not pieces that take on grander themes—“Election,” for example takes direct aim at the detention centre on Manus Island—but it is in the ordinary that we see ourselves. However, being drawn to this book for its hospital poetics, if you will, the poems that struck closest to home for me were those that revolved around the experience of illness and recovery. The final poem (before the closing version of “This Voice”) is one of my highlights. The narrator of “La Notte: A Tale of the Uncanny” is a widowed sixty-two-year-old who is recovering from a recent illness and surgery. It is a extended meditation on aging, loneliness, and the strangeness of post-illness existence, every other stanza an aside in parentheses:

I put off the performance of dinner, deciding
instead to have a lie down. Perhaps I had, after all,
overdone things a little by going out that afternoon.

(Time takes on a different quality when one lives alone;
the hours I sometimes longed for thirty years ago
can now feel like a ghostly presence in the house.)

I went to the bedroom, which used to be my son’s,
about to lie down, when something caught my eye.
The small glass owl on the windowsill had been moved.

(I do not say ‘had moved’, since such objects can’t move
by themselves. This goes without saying, I know, but I
want to make it clear this is not a supernatural story.)

Sometimes serious, sometimes satirical, Star Struck offers much to enjoy. Unsentimental, but attentive to the nuances of character, McCooey highlights the passions, regrets, and familiar associations that bind us in this accomplished collection.

Star Struck by David McCooey is published by UWAP, the poetry series of UWA Publishing of the University of Western Australia.

Idly tossing stones: Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes

Although I’ve never been a stranger to poetry, I have read (and acquired) more this year than ever before. I have even, cautiously, attempted to write about some of the shorter collections that have resonated with me most strongly. However, whereas the more I read, the easier it is to articulate why some books—even a couple of those by the celebrated young poetic stars of the day—fail to win me over, I am often at a loss to write with confidence about the collections that draw me in, hold my attention, and continue to call me back.

If there’s a moment when the proverb that likens offering unjustified criticism to throwing stones seems especially apt, I can’t think of a better one than this: my attempt to gather my thoughts about Glasshouses by Australian poet, Stuart Barnes. And yes, I know I am twisting the intent of the original wisdom, but I am slowly learning enough about poetry to be increasingly aware of what I don’t know.

I read this book through, listening to the rhythms, enjoying the wealth of rural and natural imagery, the sensitivity to the nuances of familial and intimate relationships, and the recognizable cultural references. And then I hit the detailed Notes at the end of the book and discovered what a cento is (a patchwork of lines taken from the work of other poets), and learned that some of the poems sample or rework other texts, or incorporate very specific structures and form. Tony Messenger’s interview with Barnes further confirmed my suspicion that I was missing entire levels of structural significance and poetic discipline; an awareness that is at once exciting and intimidating.

If one stops at superficial impact is that enough? What does it mean to enjoy a poem? If a line that catches me short in a cento actually originates from another work, who owns the power? The poet who crystalized the image, or the poet who re-envisions it, a jewel among other salvaged (and fully credited) jewels? Or—and I should hope this is correct—both but in different ways?

At the same time, returning to the closing poem in the collection, “Double Acrostic,” one of my favourites, after taking a moment to refresh my memory (again) about what an acrostic poem is (words or names are spelled out through the first—and if double, last—letters of each line), I found it thrilling to re-experience the poem on two levels, appreciating the beauty and the precision of the language anew.

For the novice poetry critic like myself, Glasshouses is a luminous example of what can be done within an array of poetic forms. Barnes openly takes rhythm and inspiration from his mentors, his favourite music, and from the application of specific limits. As he admits in the interview linked above:

I adore writing in form, be it fixed or one I’ve altered or one I’ve conceived; when writing in form I feel as if I’m at my most creative; I feel liberated, not constrained.

But, of course, the true test is, do his poems work for the casual reader? I would be inclined to think that form, if it is effective, should function beneath the surface—neither obvious nor necessary for the enjoyment of the piece. After all is there only one way to understand a poem? Poetry is, ideally, not written from the top down. A poem is not an intentional exercise to illustrate the universal by forcing specific images and allusions; the poet enters the process of writing to see where it takes him or her, and the reader has to feel comfortable to do the same.

Or perhaps I am tossing stones after all.

And so, to the reading. Glasshouses is a collection that feels intensely intimate and personal, in the sense that Barnes seems to be engaging directly with his reader, sharing his love of the poets who have guided him, directly or through his careful reading, drawing inspiration from his family and from his own experience as a gay man, and openly riffing on the influence of music and pop culture. The wide range of voices that emerge, together with the variety afforded by his delight in structure and form, allows for a reading experience that never falls into tired and predictable patterns. There are misted melancholic pieces, and poems that explode in loud, energetic bursts. In short, this collection is so much fun to read that I can easily imagine myself returning to its pages again and again.

Yet, within the limitations of this brief review/reflection, it’s impossible to offer more than a glance at a poem or two. Many cannot be reproduced because they are printed in landscape format, are shaped, or employ unusual fonts for emphasis and impact. Otherwise, it is difficult to zero in on any one representative example. For me, at this point in my life, I found the translucent beauty of a series of in memoriam poems to be especially powerful—“eggshells” and “colour wheel” in particular. The latter (i.m. Mervyn Barnes) begins:

The American-
barn-red-off-centre
timber shed

trumpeting
through blood &
bone the glasshouse’s
yellow stars

the front yard’s statue-
sque rooster
screaming blue
murder till blue

in the face
Bay of Fires’
orange lichen,
zinc-creamed lips…

However, since I began with an allusion to a proverb, it seems fitting to close with a taste of “Proverbs”—a playful literary take on proverbial witticisms:

A fish always stinks from the elegy down.
Hell hath no fury like a metaphor scorned.
The senryū does not change its spots.
You can’t get blood out of a trope.

Love of the couplet’s the root of all evil.
Procrastination’s the thief of metre.
Nothing is certain but stress and narrative.
The darkest stanza’s before the dawn.

Ah, yes, but fortunately I have a copy of Glasshouses to wake up to.

Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes is published by University of Queensland Press.

Lanterns buried: Injun by Jordan Abel

From the mid-60s through the mid-70s, I attended a small rural school west of Calgary, Alberta in western Canada. Treaty 7 land, though no one called it that. Children were bussed in from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation (though no one called it that either). The majority would not last beyond grade 5. This was the era of the Sixties Scoop when children were pulled from their homes and placed in foster care, and the wounds of the Residential School System (which was still in operation) ran deep. All we knew was that our friends disappeared one by one. And what did we know of the Indigenous populations of our region? Nothing. In school, when it came time to learn about “Indians,” we studied the Iroquois. The “people of the longhouse” are, let’s say for the sake of argument, about 3,000 kilometres off target.

I am also old enough to remember watching old Western movies and reruns of The Lone Ranger on TV on Saturday afternoons, and to have played “cowboys and Indians” without a second thought. Yet wise enough that, several decades later, when I took my own children to the library to see a screening of Walt Disney’s Peter Pan, I was absolutely ashamed and horrified by the depiction of the native characters in the film. I had a long talk with the kids afterward, insisting that it was not acceptable to entertain those offensive stereotypes under any circumstances. But it is only in recent years that the full force of the need to address the impact of colonialism at home and elsewhere has really started to settle into my consciousness in a profound way.

My most important role now is to listen.

One of the most exciting young Indigenous voices here in Canada today belongs to Jordan Abel, a Nisga’a writer from Vancouver. His book Injun, the winner of this year’s Griffin Poetry Prize is a vital examination of racism and the language of hate. However, for anyone anticipating conventional verse, that expectation is quickly undone in this inventive exercise to reclaim a dehumanizing and insulting slur and undermine the mythology of the West that still holds a romantic appeal. The decorations and themes of the annual Calgary Stampede in my hometown may have been toned down and “corrected,” but the subtext of the spectacle is still intact.

Abel’s work stands, as a reflection of his academic study, at the intersection of the Digital Humanities and Indigenous Literary Studies. He mines documents in the public domain to create what might be imagined as a “revisioned” literature. His third collection, Injun, is a powerful and necessary project of reclamation in the face of a long history of racism, an inventive exercise in decolonial poetics that takes as its initial source material 91 western novels. Using Control+F, he searched these texts for the word “injun” and came up with 509 results.  As he explains:

After separating out each of the sentences that contained the word, I ended up with 26 print pages. I then cut up each page into a section of a long poem. Sometimes I would cut up a page into three- to five- word clusters. Sometimes I would cut up a page without looking. Sometimes I would arrange a page until something sounded right. Sometimes I would just write down how the pieces fell together.

I am aware that many are apprehensive about poetry at its most conventional. They may be wondering what it is like to enter into the territory claimed by Injun. The 26-part title poem, “Injun” runs from strangely lyrical couplets, to the increasingly disjointed and abstracted, and back again to verses formed with fragmented, wounded words. Roughly two thirds of the way through, at its most dispersed, the text flips over and the final sections are read upside down. The format, in itself, speaks to the legacy of colonialism: peoples disrupted, dispersed, almost destroyed, slowly healing. It is not “easy” to read, nor should it be. But is not as difficult or inaccessible as it may sound. Part c), for example, reads:

Some fearful heap
some crooked swell

bent towards him
and produced a pair

of nickel-plated pullers
a bull winder of

dirty tenderness*
that stiffened into

that low-brow ice
that dead injun game

Later, section u) begins:

             th e  d ayki     cksup
lik         e a pa  ck of wo       lves
o              n the         c     ut

    bu   zza            rds
ar     efin              e b     irds
th       at a   refo           ol    ed
b      y m    y    re           dsk   in*
sc  ent

The poem is followed by “Notes.” In this part, faded fragments of sentences containing words marked by numbered notation in the preceding poem (asterisks here, i.e. tenderness, redskin) are aligned by the specific word in bold print, offering an interesting indication of context. As one might expect, a selection of passages containing words like warpath, squaw, or scalped, leave an ugly taste in the mouth.

The final part, “Appendix” is effectively an extended prose piece, created, I presume, by running through the stream of sentences harvested from the source material and digitally erasing every occurrence of i-n-j-u-n. Thus, the very texts that have arisen from and perpetuated a white mythology of the Wild West, are sifted and distilled to create a condensed narrative that is difficult to read without flinching. There is a delicious irony in the repurposing of this material in this way. But the blank spaces solve nothing. They only serve to render visible the ugliness of hatred and racism, and the resulting erasure and stereotyping of Indigenous peoples. The appropriation of language from this “canon” of Western pulp fiction, becomes a sharp commentary on appropriation and how it functions as an instrument of colonialism.

An important and experimentally powerful work, Injun is much more than an exercise in abstraction and recombination. It is a defiant act of reclamation, another step toward the recovery of identity. Nonetheless, it is also a commanding example of the ability of digital tools to assist in the creation of literature.

To that final note, the methodology employed here holds particular interest to me with respect to a project I’m working on to honour my father using material salvaged from his Russian literature collection, the translations of which are almost certainly in the public domain. I wish I had been paying more attention to the Canadian poetry scene before I met Jordan Abel a few weeks ago here at Wordfest. I knew he had won a major award and we talked about writing and poetry as I drove him from the hotel to the venue and back for a sound check, but had I been more familiar with his work beforehand I would have engaged in a serious discussion of technique! All the same, he is a great guy, and an exciting talent to watch.