Review of An Oak Hunch
From George Elliott Clarke , Halifax Chronicle-Herald, Sunday, September 10, 2006

Brainy poets sing out

PETER Sanger’s Aiken Drum (Gaspereau, $19.95) is his eighth book of poetry; Phil Hall’s An Oak Hunch (Brick, $17) is his ninth. The Nova Scotian and Ontarian poets are contrasts, though both apply bold and bare-faced intellectualism to their work. If you have to consult a dictionary or encyclopedia, so be it: this off-page prose is background music to the central melodies of the texts themselves.

Sanger is one of the wisest and most astute critics of English-Canadian poetry and one need only look at his phenomenol postscript to Robert Bringhurst’s Ursa Major (2003) to realize that this statement is no exaggeration. He is unabashedly an intellectual, but one rooted in nature.

No wonder that his earlier work was indebted to Gerard Manley Hopkins, while the later work moves in sympathy with Robert Bly, Ralph Gustafson, John Thompson, Douglas Lochhead and T’ang Dynasty poetry, But, now in his 60s, Sanger takes the entire tradition in his orbit.

The result is a marvellous collection, likely Sanger’s best, rich with modulations of diction, form and thought. Black Rain yields idea-packed stanzas: “Over the edge of the earth another war’s / in progress, covered prime time like ultimate / entertainment. Let us exchange vocabularies, / inspecting collateral damage long ago / called Death, an old termination whose / Asian parameters were christened extreme prejudice.”

Analysis reveals the contradiction between “war” and “progress,” the allusion to Leonard Cohen’s “Let us compare mythologies,” and the puns on “death” and “termination” and “christened.” So what? The lines swing.

Home economy is much simpler, but issues direct music: “We’ve almost built / this room of light // unanchored for now, / adrift and too new // for us to be sure / where even our // pictures have to be / hung . . .”

The narrative poem Abatos recalls Lochhead’s Homage to Henry Alline (1992), save that Sanger gives us a thief and a scamp, not a preacher: “All the crimes / I’ll commit can only be ordinary.” (How satisfying it is to read East Coast scoundrels.)

Love the clarity, too, of word-pictures like this one: “I knew a carpenter once / who stood with a fistful / of spikes, held up and ready to pound / when lightning fizzed / from their tips. He was / somewhat surprised.”

A gorgeous woodcut by Wesley Bates and the consummate designs of Andrew Steeves frame these fine poems.

Phil Hall’s An Oak Hunch boasts beautiful end-papers – and also zinging, singing poems. He’s more playful and surreal than is Sanger, and, while brainy, is also, to use a term rare for writers, nice.

Hall’s poems quote from other works, deploy dashes like battalions, and pile up surprise upon surprise. The constant form is an unrhymed couplet, a style that allows for a loosened tightness: a story or song is elaborated, but over an elongation of lines and space.

So, it’s difficult to quote a poem briefly. But here is a brief one: “Perhaps those cars – all wind & horse-hair / weren’t called roadsters – also from the grass // of the boulevard (the long delay) / I rescued into my shawl – this – which // had been thrown clear – scattered – his bundle / of war-time photographs – he appears // to have had a singular talent / – or – at least others who have perused // these photographs have ventured as much . . .”

There’s a nervy verve in unexpected conjunctions, suspensions, I mean, the ideas held together by a long dash: “Along the way to cheer ourselves we / sang the old ‘Owl & Pussycat’ song // sang the close of each refrain with two / distinct ‘t-ts’ at the end – oh yes // bit of a silly trademark with us / like this – ‘the owl and pussyca //t-t’ – you see – ‘t-t’ – and we drank / our dead friend’s wine – tart – thick – it made one // feel as if one’s teeth were coated – then . . .”

Hall’s work summons up the ghost of the old U.S. Beat poet Robert Duncan, even though one section of his book is dedicated to the ultra-down-to-earth Al Purdy: “& this clanking knot of cast iron / we have tugged from under edgings & brush // is a linked ladder – each rung / (once red-bent white on an anvil) // hooks into the rung above – choiring / (in Presbyterian steam & Orange Lodge water) // a finished form stood on as ‘good works…'”

The work is luminous.

George Elliott Clarke teaches literature at the University of Toronto and is a freelance reviewer. The Nova Scotia native won the Governor General’s award for poetry in 2001.


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