Review of Cartography and Walking
From Gregory Maillet , Antigonish Review, issue 138, summer 2004

Cartography and Walking by Adam Dickinson

resume drowning by Jon Paul Fiorentino.
(Broken Jaw Press, 2002. 95 pp., $15.95).

Cartography and Walking by Adam Dickinson.
(Brick Books, 2002. 95 pp., $15.00).

Any nation with landscapes as large, varied, and unpopulated as Canada’s is sure to produce literature that reflects the importance of place. So common, in fact, is this theme within our contemporary literary culture that it threatens to become a cliched sub-title of any text specifically set in Canada. Yet just as one is tempted to deem this overly-familiar term utterly useless in any serious attempt to say who we are, and where we may be going as a national literary culture, along come two talented young poets who de-familiarize the concept by reminding us how complex are Canadian places newly explored by energetic, intelligent, honest minds, open to seeing what duller eyes do not.

Jon Paul Fiorentino’s resume drowning is the more eccentric of the two, and even an initial browse through its very contemporary blend of cynical academic theory, narcotic depression prescriptions, and cold Winnipeg and Montreal landscapes will avert all but the most determinedly melancholy of readers. Who else will want to “possess [Jon Paul] in [his] lacanian sleepwalking … impenetrable self- / reflexivity … sleep dis order,” set within “systemic Winnipeg,” where the “wind just howls”? Yet though Fiorentino, currently an M.A. in Creative Writing at Concordia, purposely avoids readers seeking light entertainment, he also includes a postscript that, while outlining his self-consciously theoretical approach to lyric and annotating his inter-textual allies (Sappho, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, among others), most significantly hints at the playful, light-hearted spirit hidden within many of these generally dark poems. The “true inspiration for this collection,” Fiorentino reveals, is Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning.” As with Smith’s famously ambiguous sign, Fiorentino’s poems, at their “most abject melancholy,” “are also at their most hyperbolic”; made figurative, melancholy can become black humour, at once, the post-script reminds us, “confessional, emotive, playful.” In the middle of “lyric 1,” for example, the poet, “fixated on place / underplaced,” becomes the drunk looking for love. “i’d love to take you home,” his cliched persona burbles, before remembering, “but i haven’t got one / i have no place to drown.” Typically urban, anonymous angst is thus presented in unusually humble, almost personal imagery, but its full, comically painful depth is then conveyed by the single, non-rhetorical question that occupies the entire next page:

    could you possibly
    drown me?”

resume drowning is Fiorentino’s second collection of poetry, and its postscript also explains its content and style as a reaction against his first collection, hover, which celebrated “the narcotic possibilities of poetry” through “an exuberance of verse.” The new lyrics, by contrast, “resume drowning” in playful imitation of Smith’s comically defiant rejection of convention and form. Though its deliberately unpopular style and conventionally cold portrait of Canadian winters suggest the obvious pun in the collection’s title, these lyrics do add to Fiorentino’s poetic resume, inscribing him not only as a linguistically skilled, theoretically avante-garde academic poet, but also a humane, sometimes warm, always beating heart whose very cynicism, at times, transcends the limitations of post-modern nihilism.

Adam Dickinson, currently a Ph.D. student of English at the University of Alberta, also writes from within the recognizably academic concept of language as map-making, but his Cartography and Walking consciously walks away from most forms of civil postmodern and modern society, instead choosing to re-map the individual human relationship to nature. Yet though Dickinson did grow up in the Muskoka Lakes region of Ontario, his poetic should not be labeled as a return to Romanticism. Rather, it seems much more influenced by the concrete, almost objective attending to nature found, for example, in the poetry of Tim Lilburn, whose “Conversation and Silence” group at St. Peter’s College in Saskatchewan is acknowledged by Dickinson. The comparison should not be exaggerated, for Lilburn himself always stresses the irreducible individuality of all living things, and the poetic maps carefully sketched by Dickinson – though based upon the natural places of Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and Alberta – bear the distinct imprint of his own unique interests and sensibilities. How many collections of poems open, for example, with a poem about the certainty of bats’ presence? Dickinson’s “Disappointment in the Masonry” gives, in microcosm, his simultaneous conviction of the reality of nature, as its opening lines affirm that “There is little doubt / that bats are in the chimney,” but also the inability of humans to perceive fully how creatures like bats “dart in the cover of tree tops,” leaving us “half of the mind / they are leaves we’ve mistaken.” Such uncertainty often brings fear, which in turn begets violence, but here, rather than reaching for “the paddle or the broom,” the poet and his friends “opened all the windows, / turned out the lamps, / and felt for the railing in the street, / its cold abashment / working blindly in our hands.”

This brilliant but understated communal turn to natural light, guided by the human senses but ever aware of how much dimmer these are than even the sensibility of technically ‘blind’ creatures, is an apt summary of Dickinson’s poetic. Concrete, highly original appeals to the physical senses detail, enliven, enflesh almost every poem in the collection, but there is never the sense that this is done for decoration, much less as information for tourist or even scientific purposes. Nor is Dickinson’s attentiveness linked to any clear ethic or metaphysic of contemplation as, for example, Lilburn’s explicitly is; indeed, one of the few theoretically or philosophically oriented pieces in the collection, “Knowing Where to Look,” is ironically titled, almost an anti-manifesto poem which asks rhetorical questions to refute any human program for mastering or measuring the irreducible complexity of nature. If “knowing where to look” is, as some claim, “a matter of learning how to love,” in doing so

    Do we risk a kind of flight
    That teaches us to jump from the shoulders
    of those whose roots have now busted
    in through the bricks of our basements?

In other words, is not a flight into idealism or abstraction, of any kind, a flight away from understanding the intense vitality of actual nature? Thus “How We Look at Maps” similarly reminds us that the map of living nature is far more vital and complex than any humanly-made map. “In the living room,” an atlas seems impressive; outside, “The rain soaks you, it hangs hair / in your eyes like an unsettled cape.” Always, even in poems dedicated to his family, Dickenson’s eyes remain fixed on the complexity and vitality of nature, no matter how unsettling it becomes.

Throughout their collections, both Dickinson and Fiorentino remind us that the importance of place in poetry, even Canadian poetry, is about much more than landscape or physical detail. For them, place is not merely a backdrop, or a setting, but much more an atmosphere, a mood, a prism through which is reflected the poet’s myriad other interests and concerns. Words fail, for the effect is something much richer than can be conveyed through psychological or visual metaphors, but anyone reading these poems will feel the presence of both familiar and new Canadian places. More importantly, one will be thankful for the presence in Canada of these two poets, creative minds whose words re-animate, re-imagine at least some of the innumerable, complex, undeniably real places of our diverse country.

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