Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Review byTanja Cvetkovic
REFLECTIONS ON THE STONE HAMMER POEMS (1960-1975)
The Stone Hammer Poems, published in 1975, comprises the poems written between 1960 and 1975. The collection opens with Old Man Stories and includes iconic poems like Stone Hammer Poem, Pumpkin: A Love Poem, F.R.Grove: The Finding, Meditation on Tom Thomson, Poem of Albert Johnson, Elegy for Wong Toy, Mile Zero.
The collection shows Kroetsch’s principle of combining memory and meditation to produce a true poem. His poems convey his vision and prophetic voice as the result of memory used in the process of creation in relation to the past events. The poems are Kroetsch’s examples of the search for the original place and the original voice hidden under the layers of inherited meanings. Sometimes the search is nostalgic as in Elegy for Wong Toy or existential involving the rebirth of the authentic voice as in Mile Zero. The process of finding the authentic voice through memory is something that Kroetsch refers to as decreation, uninventing, unnaming.
Stone Hammer Poem is a poem about the search for the original place and home as embodied by the stone. The poem releases associations and memories attached to the stone hammer. It was found by the poet’s father “on a rockpile in the/north-west corner of what/he thought of/ as his wheatfield”,1 and immediately invokes in the speaker meditation on its origins and its prior history. Linking the history of the stone to the history of the land, the speaker assumes that the stone belonged to a Blackfoot or a Cree man.
The stone makes the connection to place and problematizes the sense of ownership. There is a list of owners/predecessors starting from the Indian, the Queen, CPR, the poet’s grandfather and father who “gave it to his son/(who sold it)”.2 The problem arises with the son who sells the land and who actually owns the land by not owning it anymore. The possession through memory appears to be more lasting than real legal ownership. The land comes into existence in the poem which is the reflection on its origins.
The poet meditates on different uses and meanings of the stone. The stone is “a million/ years older than/the hand that/chipped stone or//”3 It is a symbol of imagined origins:
“It is a stone
old as the last
Ice Age, the
For the poet to retreat into time is to recreate the moment of conception. The stone merges the present into the memories of the past and brings to the surface several ancestors who transformed it to suit their needs. The stone was turned into a maul, and “this stone/become a hammer/of stone, this maul//”5 Eventually it was found as a “paperweight on my desk/ where I begin/this poem//”6 The stone becomes the poem and is firmly connected to the origins of writing.
By searching for the stone’s past and revealing its history, the poet invites us to submerge into the realm of contradictions, to be involved in the process of knowing by way of paradox:
I have to/ I want
to know (not know)
? WHAT HAPPENED”7
The poet wants knowing to meet unknowing (not know) in the realm of the chaos of meanings that the stone produces.
The collection contains four poems dedicated to four people the poet wants to remember: Elegy for Wong Toy, F.P. Grove: The Finding, Poem of Albert Johnson, Meditation on Tom Thomson. According to Peter Thomas ,the poems are “the most richly self-reflective group of poems Kroetsch has published so far.”8 The poems are about the four iconic persons in the history of Canada and are written in the form of elegy.
Through the figure of Wong Toy, the owner of the coffee house in Heisler, the poet speaks of the immigrant who gives his own contribution to the history of Canada. Along with the poet’s memories, we see the man, Wong Toy, whose silent presence plays an important role in Kroetsch’s childhood.
Another “silent man”,9 “the poet of our survival”,10 who was hunted to death by a group of men in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon in 1932, “Mad Trapper of Rat River”, is Albert Johnson. Though he became a mythic figure of the North, he “will give no name”11 and his wordlessness and silence expressed the existence of the North in the poem.
Tom Thomson, a member of the Group of Seven, is the subject of another elegy. He drowned mysteriously in Lake Algonquin one morning and became “our story/ and art, man, art is the essential/ luxury the imperative QUESTION (?)”.12 By descending into silence, like Albert Johnson, Tom Thomson becomes one of many characters who suffered death by water in Kroetsch’s fiction, the act which is very Orphic in its nature. Thomas explains the idea of a watery descent “as a return to the undifferentiated source of being, a profound un-naming of the self”.13
F.P.Grove underwent the process of unnaming of the self when he arrived in the New World assuming a new identity. He is in search of “the name under the name”,14 of “a new man” inventing (beyond /America) a new world//”15 Though Grove dreams of Europe “if only to find a place to be from”,16 he can’t rely on European heritage in the New World. His New World self can’t be voiced and “the finding” is lost in the words of the poem whose ultimate nature is still not transformative enough for the new self to be born.
The metamorphic nature of the self is expressed through twelve versions of Blackfoot Old Man stories. In Old Man Stories, the poet explores the trickster principle with the trickster figure demonstrating the instability of the self capable of knowledge and creative energy changing its forms. The central fable is the story of the shaman, Old Man, casting a buffalo chip into a river while predicting the eternity of human life.
Pumpkin: A Love Poem is a symbolic and self-reflective poem. It is about the power of imagination and vision which transform reality into a symbolic order of creation. The poem combines the process of creation with the erotic impulse which the repressed self seeks to release. In the essay “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction: An Erotics of Space” (1979), Kroetsch associates the erotic impulse to the creative act of writing. The poet places himself “inside the pumpkin”17 and by doing so says: “I have entered/ new territory”,18 thus fashioning a new head out of pumpkin in the shape of the mind’s new vision. The central part is the mouth as a symbol of voice linked to the metaphor of creation which unites all opposites in the poem into an orgasmic act of freedom. Kroetsch is ironic here and the whole story of a voice caught in a pumpkin is a trick he plays on the reader.
If the reader wants to brush up on Kroetsch’s trickster principle and the way he explores the origins of place and writing, and how his meditations on the object work out different meanings, then this collection of poems, though published a long ago, is worth (re)reading.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
Reviewed by David S. West
A POEM SHOULD BE economic and precise. It should be free of too strong an authorial presence. Objectivity is a virtue that lends shapeliness and focus to the finished product. B u t Kroetsch is writing about writing, and that changes the rules. There is always, here, a sense of the author lurking behind the language, manipulating, contriving, and interjecting at will. There is much will- fullness, butlittle restraint, little attempt at control or discipline. In some way this is a disadvantage, but it does reflect the subject. In a book concerned with basiccom- munication, these characteristics illustrate the struggle of the individual to express publicly his emotions and responses to the external world. Theinner and outer worlds meet o n t h e plain of language, where poetry is the struggle to share ex- perience andperception. Andduringthe life-long conflict, an author must develop a sense of what language and communi- cation mean tohimboth asthemeansof expression and as an objective phenome- non — the whole range of the sounds and shapes of letters and words and all that they can be made to mean. What- ever the penalties for being a poet, at least the satisfaction of putting words on paper rewards the author; no matter what else goes wrong in life, he has his 'poetry to protect' him: "I have mywork to sustain me, my poetry, the satisfaction / of a jobwell done...." But the poetry alone is never enough. The poet lives in a living world; life rushes on about him,he responds to it, he makes it part of his living changing craft. T h e poet is a life-junkie; hooked on it, harmed by it, he is beyond the reach of any sedative except the actof writing, which relieves the aches of life even as it dredges them from the inner deeps. The poet becomes dependent on language and life but remains as human as a n y bricklayers: " I d o have feelings, just because I'm a poet doesn't mean / I have no feelings of my own, poets are human; I am,you/ might say,a kindof Phoenician, with reference, that is, / to my trading in language, even in,to stretch a point, / ha, my being at sea." Kroetsch is always present, reminding the reader that yes there is a real live person behind the poetry, that yes poets and fallible and human — that they want to be recognized as people just as much as they desire fame as poets. We are aware of the poet: "the dreamer, him- self: /lurching, leaping, flying; о to be mere gerund; no past, / no future: what do you do in life: I ing." Yet there is no room for complacency. Life is full of surprises: "once a year a rubber breaks and we / learn to count" ; no matter how we try, we always face uncertainty. Love and its uncertainties are part of living, and often the poet retreats from emotion in wounded confusion; he is "The Sad Phoenician of Love / slighted by the woman." But, as with language and life, the poet is drawn mothlike to the flame of love. Singed, he writes an- other poem and survives: "lonely is only lonely, it has no other name like / hand or hope or trust, or pissing against the wind, / it has no habit of upside-down, it slams no doors, / it does not fly south in autumn." The urgent demands of sexuality as a means of expression and fulfillment are as loud and raucous as the insistent call of art, of the addition to life and love. One is forced to venture continually into the outer world for one's needs: love, comfort, reassurance. And, as with any voyage or quest, the journey is fraught with peril: "keep an ear cocked for sirens, you one-eyed mariner" in the voyage of life where communica- tion requires as much skill as sailing a ship. The Sad Phoenician is an ambitious undertaking; an existential portrait of the plight of sensitive individuals, it is an excursion into the turbulent waters of communication that it attempts to de- scribe and chart even as it traverses them for the first time. It is a reminder that each day is capable of presenting a new world, a new-beginning as life-affirming as the tree in the garden, and as dan- gerous : you're out of it, the lady said, she was very polite, she wore a chair on her head, a basket between her knees full of salmon; a butterfly almost the shade of a Baltimore oriole licked its perfect proboscis to her right nipple: she was the guardian of the tree, that was clear . . . the tree itself stood in the distance behind her, possibly green, possibly not a tree at all, a sail A complex poem, The Sad Phoenician defies full analysis in the space of a re- view: its fuller significance the reader himself must determine. As if to confirm that the first section of the book is about the poet as human being as well as creative artist, the second part, "The Silent Poet Sequence," pre- sents the poet more objectively. The poems employ a schizoid splitting of per- sonality; two characters emerge: The Poet and The Professor. Both are the same. Any poet lives a double life: if he lives for his writing, he must still earn bread. If he lives for his teaching, he must still answer to his compulsion to write. Sometimes the two urges conflict: and Earache the Red, at coffee, for god's sake hit the sack early, he says, you look lile you never sleep but watch those dirty dreams; he winks and shakeshisspooninmydirection but I don't let on that I understand but Earache, there's a new law, he says, you're legally responsible for all your dreams and I buy his coffee but just last night, while he snored in her arms, I pitched black dirt at his win- dow and walled himin but he doesn't let on . . . ("The Silent Poet FindsOut") As may be seen from this excerpt, the form of the poems is an experiment, separating conjunctions from clauses. The sequence ends with a further devo- lution of words into shapes — letters divided by appearance rather than sense. The last page, once one deciphers it, affirms the thirst for life and love and experience apparent from t h e first. T h e humour found throughout the book is hard to describe, yet it has a good deal to do with the final willingness to under- go thefrustrations, failures, andimbecili- ties of life encountered during the quest for ways of expression.
Reviewed by Weldon Hunter
There are many ways to die while travelling in Peru by Alanna F. Bondar is a hybrid text of poetry and prose that juxtaposes her experiences as an eco-tourist in Peru with the familiar and familial landscapes of Northern Ontario. Bondar announces her discovery of the surprising relations between the two at the beginning of her poetic narrative:
You are among the first to be told of Peru’s tourism cover story. This secret knowledge is your reward for reading Canadian poetry.As national and continental boundaries are blurred, so are the distinctions between prose and poetry. Bondar employs diacritical marks of linebreaks (/) within prose paragraphs to disrupt generic conventions and geographic spatiality:
What the traveler takes into the virtual reality tank is everything & nothing at all. // You are reading the output from my collected data—from Northern Ontario, my home and native land & Peru, likewise remote & in spots under-populated, with space to explore a wilder geopsyche.Bondar alternates narrative perspectives between places, frontiers, and
solitudes,always in lively and convivial voices.
Julie Bruck’s collection, Monkey Ranch, is notable for winning the 2012 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, as well as for possessing the kind of cover that will garner curious looks if read in public. The poems themselves are witty and formally elegant, often balancing the tragic with the comic, the human with the anthropoid. Bruck’s poems are
keenly observed,but they go further than that rather pedestrian classification, in exploring what happens to our perspective when our non-human companions stare back at us—at zoos, in our homes, and even on the covers of our poetry books! InThe Mandrill’s Gaze,the titular beast’shazel eyes, are small, deep-set, and when / he fixes them on yours, I dare you, / turn away.Bruck also raises the question of how we look at, look for, and look after our fellow humans. In the poemMissing Jerry Tang,when the search for that titular character peters out, the flyers of the missing man arereplaced with more recent sightings: / pictures of the two blue herons who nest here, / an egret teetering on its fragile orange legs.There is the sense that animals and humans live parallel, but not always synchronous lives, where momentous human events, like the destruction of the Twin Towers, only present asmall disturbance / quickly settledto the eels of Jamaica Bay, Queens, in the poemScientists Say.
John Gilmore’s Head of a Man presents an unusual twist on the conventional travel narrative. The protagonist of this spare, lyrical novel remains mostly in one room, sequestered in a hostel in an unidentified Asian country. Unlike other tourists, who come to
see the valley and the terraces . . . stay a few nights, and then move on,our reluctant narrator (who may or may not be named “Joe”) is locked in an unsettling stasis, unable or unwilling to provide the details of a recent trauma. In fact, he seems, as much as the reader, to be waiting for his story to surface:
I am at rest. A tongue at rest. Waiting.The novel shows that our societal discourse of distress is no easy path to catharsis. Instead of language
containingtrauma, in the sense of healing or holding within bounds—the
talking cure—our narrator reveals how language is comprised of dangerous elements, which can inflame our suffering:
Words cut the throat. Scratch stone. Leave lines behind. Once incised, indelible.Gilmore’s minimalism would make for an interesting travelling companion with Bondar’s loquacious volume.