Leafing through Hall’s latest book, An Oak Hunch, I wonder what I’m reading. Poetry? Narrative? Word games? I can’t quite relate it to anything else. Yet for all its rips and jags and run-ons, Hall’s writing is grounded in the shield rock north of Belleville. When he pens lines like “my parents as kids wrapped in quilts that smell pissy – sockless/ in rubbers in the red snow . . .” Hall is neither proud nor ashamed, but there is pain. Hall’s world isn’t the squeaky clean country of Shania Twain and George Fox, but of the coin-biting doubt of hard scrabble. Take these lines:
Do not tell me what is great
or how great gets made
tell me reknown has no split hoof
madness is privacy past its expiry date
tell me how the world can cripple
what should have been great-in-its-way
how form is the coward’s defense against colour
beauty a roost
tell me how to bend lack
into a merit of language
a church-&-beans lingo
woven on surrural looms
don’t show me how to growl & eat
It’s hard to argue with this. Hall uses the imperative mode for the whole almost-rant. Well, on first read it sounds rant-ish. On subsequent reads the cri de coeur makes its way out. In spite of the rise of confessional poetry in the last century, and its pale persistance into this one, at bottom, the poet desires to speak to everyone at once. Hall especially. He writes like he does because that’s how it sounds inside his head – a rural vernacular, a mad contest of multiple voices: the kid whacking stones into the bush with a chewed up hockey stick, the killdeer and owl, “this ornate we”.
Oak Hunch is marvellous and intricate poetry, not a rational trip from point A to point B. The first section of the book, “The Interview”, sounds cluttered up with (il)logic and diction, full of stops and starts, interruptions and tangents. Ostensibly it’s about a bizarre murder, and the time immediately preceding and succeeding it: “it was a magical – if ruined// day that epitomizes those years”. We discover the interviewee is an old woman, perhaps dying in a hospital, likely of old age. But it is more like an exciting call & response from the past to the present with Hall transcribing the transitions.
Hall is open to influence. The notes section at the end of each sequence is replaced with a “Nodes” section. The nodes are like those signposts with twelve or fourteen arms pointing out place names and distances in different directions. I’m mostly unfamiliar with his suggestions for further reading, but they cover an eclectic range. From Edith Segal’s “I Call To You Across The Continent: Poems and Songs for Morton Sobell in Alcatraz, and in memory of Ether and Julius Rosenberg, executed June 19, 1953”, to Miroslav Holub’s Although, and to the Nihilist Spasm Band, it’s a whoopee ride. Rooting out the nodes would be a treat in itself that would occupy a month of Saturdays.
But its the patented Hall “Two Step” that I love. You read “A chasm we in the talking classes / like to think we have crossed // (a causm / we have crassed).” Then you skip back three pages and reread these lines: “from spent dishrags cauling spouts // each line with one end solidly pinned / penned to in the past // above a chasm we have crossed”. Hall double-takes endlessly: a strategy to work over the word on the ropes, rework our ears to accept a different take on what we hear, or thought we had heard. Or as Hall writes, it’s “saidiment running & flapping & lifting silt.” and “sediment-sentiment/ what I said I meant.” The either/or, o’er, ore, the lineseed/linseed oil, the soundpaper/sandpaper, picked apart and pushed back together. Hall gets the reader debating each word: “where yes has always been salt” as salt in the wound, or as seasoning?
In all his hemming and re-hawing Hall slips in perfect moments that remind us why poetry plays with language. It’s the kind of playing we used to do with knives when we weren’t allowed, because then the prohibited knife retained its dimension of danger in our hands. Look, for example, in the sequence “Mucked Rushes”, where Hall tells us about a boy catching a big jackrabbit and throwing the jack into the cellar in hopes of taming it. The jack – not a cute little ball of fur with a twitchy nose – rips up the kid’s forearm, and as the blood gushes onto the cellar floor, he’s startled to exclaim with typical understatement, “boy was my arm ever starting to sing”. His arm sings. Isn’t it just so?