Review of An Oak Hunch
From Bill Robertson , The Star Phoenix, Saskatoon (Saturday, May 27, 2006)

Language feast for Griffin banquet -Saskatoon poet is running for prestigious award

 Nerve Squall

Sylvia Legris, Coach House

An Oak Hunch

Phil Hall, Brick Books

            Here are two of the contenders for the Griffin Poetry Prize to be announced in early June.  The first is by Saskatoon poet Syvia Legris, and the second by Phil Hall, who teaches in Toronto.  This is Legris’ third collection of poetry and Hall’s eleventh.

            In Nerve Squall the poems are short, in some cases jagged, with nouns piled up against each other aiming for aptness of expression, and lines, even titles, may end in ellipses (…) as the poet struggles to articulate feelings or states of being that may not be acceptable to conventional society.

            How to describe the Nerve Storms – the first section’s title—that are the premonitions or the reality of migraine headaches, a debilitating condition that those who have never had one can’t imagine?  Or how even to approximate a fear that is out of the range of most people’s experience, of birds, for instance, as they hover ominously over, or chatter endlessly and nonsensically into, a headache-stretched day?

            There is, of course, the pathetic fallacy, an utterly old-fashioned trope for this very new-fashioned poetry.  What Legris does is make her sky both barbed and neuralgic, both dangerous and sick, as the wind is all “chimes and teeth, threadbare nerves.”  The river has a “grey lip” and water has a pulse “that melts the night into harsh beads – stinging throb of blood and temple.”  So the world outside is ill.     

            In Shifty Weather Legris writes, “Batten the hatches!  Sky is black, the grass grows backwards.  Rain fills your skull and fever your toes.  Lose your composure and/ SCARED COPROLALIC!”  Yes, she’s scared sh**less, so you play a little game with the dictionary as you trail Legris through poems about scary skies, frightening birds, fear of the dark, and phantom limbs and teeth, but is the collection all a fear catalogue of  a sensitive soul wrestling with a crazy society hell-bent on its own destruction?

            No, it isn’t.  On the one hand, all poems are written in the second person singular – you, your – so they never quite own words like hysteria, nausea, “queasy foreboding,” and hands that “won’t stop trembling.”  On the other hand, Legris loves to play with language, trotting out Latin nomenclature for birds and medical terms for fluttering eyelids and muscle spasms, while rolling round sounds like grackle sacrament, run –of-the-kill carrion, and woozy warblers/wobbling off-key.

            The you of the poems may be eyeing the weir or the bridge with self-ending intent, but it still has time to sing the Doublemint gum song, let out a cheer of Hip Hip Hip Hippocampus, recite a little Dr. Seuss, or joke about the difference between formication (the feeling of ants crawling all over you body) and the word many of us thought she said (“No not that”).

            It’s not all fun and games running scared in the 21st century, but you can still play with the words you use to try and describe how you, or you, feel. Sylvia Legris does it, and does it well.

            Phil Hall’s latest collection, An Oak Hunch, is a departure from his excellent 2000 release, Trouble Sleeping, certainly in terms of form, and to some extent in terms of content.

            The new collection’s poems, which come in five sections, look at first like those of Emily Dickinson: two-, three-, and one-line stanzas marching in strict formation down the page, many punctuated with dashes, and, unlike Emily’s, each poem’s opening being a fully-capitalized first line.

            The book’s jacket blurb suggests Hall “coloniz[es] forms not often associated with poetry,” which sounds important, but I’d suggest that he simply tries out various ways of getting said what he needs to say.  In section one, The Interview, a woman recalls events of her life in strict nine-syllable lines, while in section two, the title poem, subtitled An Essay on Purdy, Hall revisits the country we first encountered in Al Purdy’s The Country North of Belleville and in his In Search of Owen Roblin.

            “In these provincial jerkwaters,” as Hall calls them, he looks, with often wildly eccentric and idiosyncratic observations and turns of phrase, at the rural Ontario that Purdy built a house in and reclaimed for the Canadian imagination after it had laid dormant pretty much since Canadian writers rushed to the city and left old Charles G.D. Roberts and his gang behind.

            He looks lovingly at old tools, lovely old wood (the oak hunch), and rural self-reliance, while sneering slightly at literary poachers come to take what they can of Purdy’s land and life for themselves and at our knack for getting rid of the very tools and ancient machines that could keep us alive in case of, say, an ice storm.

            In Mucked Rushes Hall equates the mating habits of various birds with his own domestic life, while in Gank Pluck we go back to some of the brutal family history we last heard in Trouble Sleeping.  He even raids his own old poems for first lines to revise and update.  Hall’s imagination is an overgrown northern Ontario farmyard and he roots and roosts in it like the birds he so cleverly creates.

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