Review of An Oak Hunch
From Kenneth Sherman , National Post (Saturday, May 27, 2006)

Griffin Poetry Prize – Night of the Poetry All-Stars

Baudelaire said that he could imagine a person going without food for two days, but not without poetry.

            And yet, many go without.  Poetry’s partisans contend that the public is simply unaware.  Offer people poetry and they will take to it.  There are encouraging signs.  American poet Billy Collins, a writer of accessible and intelligently entertaining poetry, reportedly earns a living from royalties and readings.  Camille Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn, a lucid explication of 43 traditional and modern poems, has been a brisk seller since its publication last year.

            In Canada, the Griffin Poetry Prize has done much to advance the cause.  Named for Scott Griffin, their generous patron, the annual awards go to the two best books of poetry, including translations, published in English in the previous year.  One book is chosen from a Canadian, the other from an international shortlist.  The inclusion of translations has enlivened the proceedings with such foreign-language heavyweights as Yehuda Amichai (Hebrew) and Paul Celan (German).  Regrettably, since the Griffin’s inception in 2001, no translated Québécois poet has been nominated for the Canadian award.  This is not the fault of the adjudicators.  The volumes of French Canadian poetry translated into English in the past five years can be counted on one hand. (I hope someone from the Canada Council is reading this.)

            On June 1, when the winners are announced, an international and a Canadian poet will each take home $50,000, up $10,000 from previous years.  This is small change in major-league baseball, but big bucks in the world of poetry.  If your average Canadian poet outlived Methuselah’s 969 years, he or she would have trouble earning $50,000 in royalties.

            Who are this year’s contenders for the Griffin?  Let’s begin with the international list, a diverse group strong in theme and technique.

            Born in Barbados, Kamau Brathwaite was educated at Cambridge and now lives in New York City.  In Born to Slow Horses (University of British Columbia Press), he employs the inflections and rhythms of Caribbean English, a vernacular he calls “nation language.”  The result is poetry rich with indigenous voice.  Along with the cadences of calypso, we hear echoes of Walt Whitman, the Beats and Black Mountain poets:

            suns & mothers
            of the murthered world
            the headless heedless
            streetless IIIWorld wo-
            man’s infants aban-
            don on hospital steps
            in pothole sidewalks

            The segment titled “9/11 Hawk” juxtaposes a concert Coleman Hawkins gave on Sept. 11, 1967, with the catastrophic events that occurred 34 years later when high-jacked airliners brought down the Twin Towers.  The jazzlike poem incorporates fragments of letters and speeches (one from the wife of a firefighter who perished in the aftermath), Brathwaite’s often prophetic poetry, aspiring toward music, has a tendency to be verbose.  Yet his concerns are humanistic, and his voice, compelling.

            Literary awards often introduce us to authors.  The work of American poet Michael Palmer is new to me.  Educated at Harvard and now living in San Francisco, he began publishing in the early 1970s.  He is reluctant to reveal biographical details, or what he calls in an interview “real facts.”  His Company of Moths (New Directions) is influenced by the austere Brazilian Modernists Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Manuel Bandeira.  Ontological uncertainties haunt Palmer’s poetry; absence becomes presence, void becomes voice.

            Of the paradise that was not
            No one can speak. 
           Of the place that was
            No one can speak….
            The shadow, the wheel of absence,
            The past of each space.

            Palmer’s central concern is the elusiveness of identity.  His meditative, deftly crafted poems often consist of double-line stanzas, as if to signal poetry’s ability to accommodate opposing worlds.

            Durs Grünbein was born in East Germany, where, he has said, “the best refuge was a closed mouth.”  In Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems (Douglas & McIntyre), words are weighed for their exactness.  Observing a cheetah in the Moscow Zoo, he writes:

            Furs this expensive you normally only
find wrapped around the shoulders
            Of gangsters’ molls outside the casino,
movements this slinky
            Only on the catwalk from the androgy-
nous models…

            A penguin in the New York aquarium is “the butler in tails, teetering on the brink of the pool.”  Bathtubs are “Real suicide machines on their / stumpy legs.”  In the introduction, Palmer’s translator, the talented poet Michael Hofmann, talks perceptively about the problems inherent in translating poetry, and likens Grünbein’s energetic, often satirical poetry to that of Russian master Joseph Brodsky.  A poet intrigued by the metrical structure of verse, Grünbein occasionally adopts classical modes (sonnets, rhyming quatrains).  My only complaint is that Hofmann did not attempt, in poems like Greetings from Oblivion City, to capture Grünbein’s end rhymes.  Doing so would have raised the dazzling effect.

            Like Durs Grünbein, Dunya Mikhail grew up in a troubled nation.  A member of the Iraqi Christian minority, she was born in 1965, when the Baath party was routing out what was left of their opposition.  As Saadi Simawe tells us in his insightful introduction to Mikhail’s powerful collection, The War Works Hard (New Directions), the young poet’s “imagination was saturated with horror stories of imprisonment, torture … massacres and rape.”  Mikhail fled to the U.S. in 1996, earned an MA in Near Eastern studies department at Wayne State University in Michigan and currently teaches Arabic.  Simawe’s introduction notes the significant innovations Mikhail has contributed to Arabic poetry, and Elizabeth Winslow, the translator, has rendered Mikhail’s voice, which modulates between the acerbic and tender, into clear and precise English.  This is from Mikhail’s Bag of Bones:

            What good luck!
            She has found his bones.
            The skull is also in the bag
            the bag in her hand
            like all other bags
            in all other trembling hands.
            his bones, like thousands of bones
            in the mass graveyard,
            His skull…
            Two eyes or holes
            which saw too much… 
           a mouth, open like a chasm,
            was not like that when he kissed her
            there, quietly,
            not in this place
            noisy with skulls and bones and dust…

Ezra Pound’s assertion that “Only emotion endures” may account for my premonition that Mikhail’s is a poetry that will last.

            Now, to the Canadian entries.

            Erin Mouré, who lives in Montreal, was a nominee for the Griffin in 2002, and in 2005 served as the Canadian judge.  Anansi, her publisher, tells us that the poems in Little Theatres “enter small quizzical territories of water and language.”  I am not quite sure what that means.  Mouré has an ear, though, and several of her lines are felicitous:

            On the hill there is no hay
            But rain

            No hay for a hayrick but
            Small rivulets singing the grass down

            In one of her “prose bits,” Mouré tells us:  “The protagonist in little theatres is most often language itself.”  Perhaps that declaration accounts for such passages as:

            Previously we received exemptions for
grammar to
            enable new structures
           A whole book of hours could be built
on the Verb
            But not its subjunctive

            Mouré’s approach to language often results in poetry that is inaccessible, to this reader at least.

            Saskatoon’s Sylvia Legris has won the Malahat Review’s long poem prize.  Legris’s Nerve Squall is described by her publisher, Coach House Press, as “a vital exploration of the symbiosis of storm, nerve and language, a sure-handed guide to the end of the world.”  Her models seem to be two senior Canadian poets, Chris Dewdney and Joe Rosenblatt.  Legris’ strength is her sense of urgency; her voice is consistently edgy:  “Sink now or forever hold your tongue – against cold steel and deception.”  But much of the writing in Nerve Squall is haphazard, and Legris has a tendency to overload her lines.

            Butcherbird-flustered (garnished to kill
and nowhere to go:
            sleep-paralyzed and rotisseried
            in allegory spinning spinning
            bed of coals, a Macintosh in yourmouth
            –bird-pecked-apple-apnea…don’t gag
don’t gag)

            While this stanza captures Legris’ frenetic energy, it leaves me unmoved.

            Toronto’s Phil Hall published his first book in 1973.  His current publisher, Brick Books, describes him as a poet who challenges “linguistic boundaries.”  In his collection, An Oak Hunch, we find that, once again, language itself is the central concern: “Saying the old chipped words, I liked to think I was helping them pray….”

            Hall can conjure a striking image.  He writes that a killdeer

            has drummed her wings long & hard…
            beaten nests of feathered chips…
            folded herself into my pages…

            According to the publisher’s notes, Hall is “an experimental poet with a populist heart.”  Yet much of the writing is difficult to follow.  This is from Section II of An Oak Hunch, subtitled “Essay on Purdy”:

                        the voice is coming from
            stones & cement chickens are flying

            like pucks past bedtime
            through leaves & landing to not move

            for another 2000 years of so   

            What is the reader to make of these lines?  How did we get from Al Purdy’s fluent poems to the staccato non sequiturs of “Essay on Purdy”?

            The radical use to which these nominated Canadian poets put language is scarcely new.  It is a legacy of Gertrude Stein’s Paris of the 1920s.  One should never impose limits on poetry.  That said, I must state my preference for poetry that invites the reader to share experience.  Impenetrable writing turns the reader away.  There are other types of poetry being written in Canada.  Among the volumes published last year, Goran Simic’s superb From Sarajevo With Sorrow (Biblioasis) comes to mind.

            The Griffin Poetry Prize is important.  It brings to centre stage an art form that is, as Baudelaire suggested, essential.  Poetry that is engaging has the power to sustain us, and that is cause for celebration.

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