Surveying the Landscape: Innovation in Contemporary Canadian Poetry
Reviewed by Sina Queyras (Gulf Coast Reviews, fall 2007)
Essay on: Ashland by Gil Adamson, Curious: Grotesques and Satires from the Electronic Age by Elizabeth Bachinsky, Home of Sudden Service by Elizabeth Bachinsky, Excessive Love Prosthesis by Margaret Christakos, Sooner by Margaret Christakos, Lunar Drift by Marlene Cookshaw, Shameless by Marlene Cookshaw, Merrybegot by Mary Dalton, The Red Ledger by Mary Dalton, Avatar by Sharon Harris, Out to Dry in Cape Breton by Anita Lahey, Search Procedures by Erin Mouré, Debbie: An Epic by Lisa Robertson, Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry edited by derek beaulieu, Jason Christie and Angela Rawlings, Loop by Anne Simpson, Modern and Normal by Karen Solie, Short Haul Engine by Karen Solie, Somewhere Running by Nathalie Stephens, Paper City by Nathalie Stephens, Small Arguments by Souvankham Thammavongsa, Seven into Even by Jacqueline Turner, and Parlance by Suzanne Zelazo
Known as a nation of vast geographic scale, Canada is coming into its poetic maturity with appropriate range and diversity. Still, not unlike other contemporary poetries, it could also be described as a tale of two extremes – one experimental, one formal.
The experimenters are frequently associated with Tish, the Toronto Research Group founded by the radically innovative duo of Steve McCaffery and the late bpNichol. Born in the 1960s, the Tish movement began after American poets Robert Creeley and Charles Olson visited the University of British Columbia; it is because of their influence – specifically the influence of Olson’s famous essay “Projective Verse” – that critics have characterized Tish as an extension of Black Mountain poetics. There is also the Kootenay School of Writing, originally located in the Kootenay mountain range of British Columbia’s interior. Now in Vancouver, the Kootenay School has been shaped by Fred Wah, George Bowering, Jeff Derksen (among others) – a group of poets who have effectively marshaled a politically and theoretically savvy experimentalist sensibility that is wholly indigenous to the West Coast.
In light of these experimentalist traditions, Canadian icon Robert Kroetsch once described his country’s literature as leaping directly from the Victorian to the Postmodern. According to poet and editor Carmine Starnino, in the introduction to his recent anthology The New Canon (Signal Editions, 2005), formalist poetry has somehow been underprivileged in the national poetry scene. In a passionate bid to revise Canada’s literary history, Starnino sets out to eradicate the “nonsense” from the literary landscape. But too often, what Starnino suggests is nonsense is simply “other.” Not that Starnino doesn’t make good points, or good choices in terms of his inclusions (several of which are included in this essay), but the vision of Canada he puts forth is homogenous and regressive – as though suggesting that the school of quietude could or should represent “all” American poetry. To complicate matters, prominent anthologist Gary Geddes, who edits several blends of Canadian poetry for Oxford University Press, has all but edited out experimental (concrete, visual and/or language) poetry from recent editions, further emphasizing a shift to more conservative poetics.
Despite the entrenched and oppositional positions of some, there is no single strand of influence, no dominant Canadian poetic. Rather, there are more dispersed modes of influence. The modernist Anglo-Montreal poets are a good example of this, as they are more apt to position themselves with Auden, Stevens, or British influences such as Seamus Heaney, Robin Robertson, or Don Paterson than with American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. What all of this points to is a healthy poetics, a poetics forged by interaction and response. This awareness is what makes Canadian poetry so different from other English language poetries. Awareness of and appreciation of other positions and approaches makes for more original and daring work.
A recent spate of anthologies has, in various ways, attempted to both give shape to and set a course for a future poetics in our country. But perhaps we have now passed the point where a single volume can give an accurate or adequate representation. Like the poetries of the United States, we may be so fragmented that editors are beginning to see schools – and are beginning to put forth their individual theories about these schools – rather than trying to represent an accurate national poetic. In any case, there are many who would suggest that a national poetic is impossible. While I am not one of those, it might be useful to sketch out some of the more provocative and engaging lines of influences and preoccupations.
Nature “Made Strange”: The Canadian Pastoral
[… Discussion of the work of Karen Solie …] http://www.brickbooks.ca/?page_id=76&reviewid=665
Nature is everywhere in the work of Marlene Cookshaw, who, not unlike fellow Brick poet Karen Solie, is precise and playfully earnest: “The cornstubble field, abandoned, is on its way to lots,” she notes blankly in Shameless (2002), and in Lunar Drift (2005), she observes, “I believe there are details in the eagle bone I need to know.” Cookshaw, former editor of the Malahat Review, meticulously crafts and polishes startling shards of quotidian images, slowing them to the point of still life. There she shows the self looking into nature – “the tiny silver luck of minnows” – and inscribes onto that looking moments of insight. Like Solie’s wonder at a fish suddenly trying to breathe air, Cookshaw attempts to measure the passing of things, the self in the world, as well as the self in the self.
In Lunar Drift, Cookshaw achieves a wider-ranging gaze, folding in philosophical and historical questions while her commitment to a lyric “I” is maintained. In “Tuck Everlasting,” for example, we are asked to contemplate the use of death in an urban landscape as from a window (one we assume to be a hospital window): the narrator watches men in machines “disassemble” a dying tree, one that might serve as food for woodpeckers in the wild, yet has no purpose in this urban world. For the most part, the human condition is accepted in these poems. In Cookshaw’s hands, largely unseen and rarely commemorated moments shimmer. Like Don McKay and Karen Solie, the flint of nature in Cookshaw can be surprisingly “North American,” having moved on from the theses of Margaret Atwood’s Survival and Dennis Lee’s Savage Fields. The natural world in contemporary Canadian poetry, not surprisingly, is a benign and beleaguered one, and as we witness in other poems such as “Field,” it is reminiscent of Jane Hirschfield, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver (as Cookshaw points out herself with her epigram) or Louise Glück as it is with Phyllis Webb, PK Page, or McKay himself. This space is “natural,” yet it is made strange by human sight and contemplation.