An Oak Hunch, the new volume of poetry from Toronto poet Phil Hall, is that rarest of poetic beasts: a poetry book that is not so much a collection as an integral whole, an amalgamation that is stronger by far than the sum of its parts.
Which is not to disparage the individual poems in any way. An Oak Hunch draws heavily on non-traditional and non-poetic forms, retrofitting genres like the essay and the interview into experimental – and effective – poems. “The Interview” is precisely that, complete with notes (or “Nodes”), while “Index of First Lines: an angry mob of basted journals” collates brief prose journal fragments into a moving, associative narrative poem that gains force from its position at the close of the book (traditional home of indices, after all).
Despite the experimental and often abstract nature of the book, there is a frank thematic core. Hall explores the worlds of work and art, drawing lines between stumps and pages, linking creative labour to physical labour. The title poem, “An Oak Hunch: Essay on Purdy,” fixes Hall firmly in Al Purdy’s salt-of-the-earth tradition, but its creative risk-taking simultaneously sets him apart.
In An Oak Hunch, positioning is crucial. Grouped into five sections – each with their own distinct technical and stylistic approaches – the poems are, in isolation, often cryptic and elliptical, suggestive without commitment. The abstraction abates, however, as the poems accrue in the reader’s consciousness. Motifs emerge and expand, while symbols and themes fold in upon themselves. Narrative lines gradually reveal themselves, and the poems gain in richness and resonance until the close of the volume brings a powerful and unavoidable emotional resolution. It’s an impressive feat and genuinely surprising. The book as a whole is a challenging volume, but one with many rewards.
Reviewed by Robert J. Wiersema (from the November 2005 issue)