Devices of compression characterize much of Phil Hall’s poetry in his ninth book, An Oak Hunch. Punning combines two or more meanings; aphorisms aspire to maximize the delivery of wisdom within a minimal syntactic unit; metaphors do without the mediating “like” or “as” of similes; apposition dispenses with conjunctions; the omission of articles definite and indefinite sets parts of speech as closely together as the stones that comprise a wall; even the use of the ampersand economizes, a single symbol sufficing for a word that demands three characters. Yet Hall’s verse is not, despite its syncopations, cryptic or recondite.
Hall’s collection includes a poem about the great Romanian poet Antschel (who wrote under the penname of Celan, and in 1970 drowned himself in the Seine):
THE DAY CELAN SAW ANTSCHEL IN THE SEINE
& slipped into the ripples of the bookstalls
he rowed into the troughs of our shadows.
Celan is famous for his enigmatic poetry, its opacity arising in part from an attempt to reckon with the Holocaust in the language of its perpetrators. Some of Hall’s surface techniques may resemble the Romanian’s, but, indebted to writers such as George Oppen on the one hand and Al Purdy on the other, Hall—avoiding immodesty—has developed a North American idiom that is adaptable to whatever concerns engage him, poem by poem. At times, he sounds like the Dennis Lee of Riffs or of UN. In an elliptical sequence honouring Al Purdy—the titular “Oak Hunch”—Hall writes with characteristically enriched spareness:
FROM THE LONG FEUD HE MEDIATED
between am & I
come anonymity’s rusty old blunderbuss
this ornate we
Some of Hall’s favoured techniques are in evidence here. Note the compound nouns “lemon-light” and “gull-beseech,” which nicely import concreteness into a poem of abstract aspirations, conjuring up several sorts of sharpness or sensual acuity: a lemon’s tart clarity, the sun’s brightness, the shrill clangour of the bird’s cry, the bare-bones starkness of desperate prayer. Also present is nearly subliminal punning: “blunderbuss,” besides denoting a comic antiquated weapon, also suggests awkward but perhaps fruitful error (“blunder”) as well as old-fashioned, whole-hearted kissing (“buss”). The poem works almost like an equation. Properly synthesized in the hands of a worthy artist, the ontological am and the egotistic I result in both the impression of selflessness and a collective we that Hall persuades us here may be admirable and plausible. This consideration of Purdy’s achievement is intriguing, because it displaces a too familiar focus on nationality, inquiring instead into the ways in which anonymity and plurality may arise from a poetic practice inevitably engaged by questions of ontology as well as of ego. Especially touching (from a sheerly biographical vantage) is Hall’s engagement with the shift in Purdy’s sensibility from bravado to awe.
Often enough Hall’s verse exhibits the humour—if not necessarily the wisdom—of juxtaposition. Just as Michael Ondaatje made King Kong a poetical associate of Wallace Stevens, so Hall ventures to acquaint Rainer Maria Rilke intimately with Dolly Parton:
her mandolin-delicate fingers pinching
the points of his moustache—toy reins
without her wig or backup
she is even more homegrown-radiant
without his bookkeeper’s hauteur
he is just another Bible lesson in Dogpatch.
And Hall of course adds to that capacious category, the great Canadian ornithological poem. His contribution—about listening to an owl—ends satisfyingly:
what won’t be—& on
what won’t be.
The idea is memorable and, as it seems to me, original. The owl’s hoot here offers a spectral sort of nourishment for non-existence, or for a plurality of non-existences. At the same time, the bird quite literally nourishes itself on what won’t be, on what will have no future, on the prey whose life has been terminated by its beak and its talons. The lyric “I” merges with the owl, whose unconscious selflessness allows us to share its unnerving meal.
Readers who thirst for syntactical magnitude, metaphoric elaboration or argumentative expansiveness may occasionally feel cramped within the confines of An Oak Hunch. But Hall manages to maintain linguistic interest, and this strength is proof of the kind of integrity defined by the double requisites he parenthetically prescribes: (barefoot light down the fresh-cut furrows / & the smudged folios).