Enns, Karen, Ordinary Hours. London, Ontario. Brick Books, 2014. Pp. 72. $20.00.
Kenyon, MichaeL, Astatine. London, Ontario. Brick Books, 2014. Pp. 135. $20.00.
Munro, Jane, Blue Sonoma. London, Ontario. Brick Books, 2014. Pp. 79. $20.00.
Brick Books is riding something like a “western wave” with these three excellent entries in their 2014 publication list. All three poets are happy to call Victoria or Vancouver their home, and practically to a one either acknowledges the Malahat Review (stabled at the University of Victoria under the guiding editorship of John Barton) as an important venue for their work, or recognizes accomplished west coast writers like Lorna Crozier and Jan Zwicky as important mentors over the years. Yet it would be misleading to assume that the three poets under review come together here as some kind of unified “movement” or programmatic “school.” Indeed, a unique literary aesthetic, to my mind, is what distinguishes the project in each case. And for the purpose of prizing that aesthetic apart in order to give each its due, it’s perhaps still the case today (as M. H. Abrams remarked several decades ago) that poets will often tend to line up as writers privileging, on the one hand, a discourse tending towards “realism” (“No ideas but in things,” in William Carlos Williams’s famous formulation), or a brand of textual “formalism” on the other (Ezra Pound’s notion of “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” perhaps). Hence, with the present trio of writers, if Karen Enns’s Ordinary Hours presents the case for a realist approach to poetry writing, and Michael Kenyon’s Astatine for formalism, it may just be that Jane Munro’s Blue Sonoma tacks back-and-forth artfully and inventively somewhere in between. But let’s begin with what appears to be the formalist.
Given Kenyon’s prolific output as an acclaimed writer of fiction—seven prize-nominated titles to date including The Beautiful Children for which he won the “ReLit Award” for the best novel in 2010—it’s understandable how he might wish to switch artistic forms and assemble collections of poetry from time to time, with Astatine as his fourth outing in the genre. Commenting some seven years ago in these pages onThe Sutler, Kenyon’s second collection of poetry from 2005, I had occasion then to remark upon the writer’s “vertiginous treatment of loss” throughout that volume (and its attendant thematic overlap with “house and home”). It was therefore interesting for me to read in this new assemblage the opening line of a poem entitled “Cranky” (in the first of four sections of the book), which reads “When we have finished with loss,” and then continues in a similar vein throughout the text, ending with
When I have finished with loss, I’ll take
the chute over South Mountain
between blasted shale and blue elder
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
between blue elder and blasted shale
taking the chute over South Mountain
when I have finished with loss.
The mirror-like concluding repetitions here thus make clear that the formal properties of thematic statement matter much more to Kenyon as a practising poet, I now come to recognize, than the content itself, and thereby authenticate such rhetorical iteration as a variorum artistic tenet tout court, as for instance in the poem entitled “Chute” a couple of pages further along. Picking up on that very image in the passage cited above, this new poem once again commences with “I have finished with loss and with the chute, / the unstable valley, seed and sapling,” and concludes (in Italian) with “Sono instabile, Astatos, amore mio” (translation: “I’m unstable, astatos [Gk. unstable], my love.”), just in case the effect may have escaped the reader in English. In like fashion, the technique will variously proceed throughout the volume, thus providing a final flourish arguably in the poem entitled “Swim Forty-five” partway through the volume’s concluding fourth section: “When I finish with you / the branch to the fence / a crease in the light / I’ll finish with loss.”
Attentive readers of Kenyon therefore might be pleased to find this new collection somewhat reminiscent of the French-speaking “Oulipo School” of writers and mathematicians (made famous by Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec back in the 1960s) who similarly resort to ultra-constrained and highly contrived compositional techniques in order to derive inspiration for their work more generally. Try, for instance, writing a two- to three-page poem in which the second and fourth lines of any four-line stanza serve as the first and third lines of the stanza that immediately follows, and it may turn out something like “Silver Boat,” the penultimate entry in the present volume’s second section, as follows:
we will explore the salt and the fresh
safe under grey skies
and tides’ calm moments
alone eternally together
safe under grey skies
bounded by the ripples
alone eternally together
the same as the sun’s
Or even more daringly, try writing a poem (entitled “Thirteen Seconds”) to be read in precisely that brief span of time. Here, my flipping to the “translations” provided at the back of the book to negotiate the “ninth second”—“still raining? / fields fenced to the horizon / sì sta ancora piovendo” (translation: “yes, it’s still raining”)—admittedly caught me off guard momentarily. But you get the idea. Any readers looking for big bow-wow thematic pronouncements in this latest from Kenyon—“birth immigration marriage loss and loss,” for starters (“Near the Caravan”)—will similarly be at a loss. As that very poem near the end of section one concludes: “meaning it’s time for us to shake meaning / God and all his friends and all our loved ones.” Elsewhere in that section, a poem entitled “Ciao?” immediately quashes the logocentric reader’s “I don’t understand” resoundingly: “Ah cazzo, il nostro tempo è finite” (translation: “ah, fuck, our time is up.”).
As suggested by the title to Kenyon’s book that is helpfully explained in a prefatory note supplied by Wikipedia—“elemental astatine [in the periodic table] has never been viewed because a mass large enough to be seen by the naked human eye would immediately be vapourized by the heat generated by its own radioactivity”—taking one’s time with such verse-making seems quite beside the point, if it matters at all according to that last citation. But not so with Enns’s Ordinary Hours, her second poetry collection after the award-nominated That Other Beauty (2010), where this new title’s lavish invocation of time tends to underscore what’s at stake when a more realist approach to the verse-making takes precedence over the timeless abstractions of formalism. Indeed, when so much of the realist’s investment in worldly experience depends upon the keenness of observation and the fineness of perception, the existential presentiment of loss returns to the poetic project with a vengeance as we observe in a superbly crafted lyric like “In the Waiting Room” halfway through the third and final section of the collection:
the man who walks out into the day and the city
isn’t you, but there is something in his shoulders,
in the way he holds his back
as if he’s lived with reticence and dream
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and isn’t this the finest bloom of loss?
the opening of recognition into all its other lives.
In an instant: resonance
reminding us of everything at once
The “something” at the beginning of this poem that modulates into “everything” by its end instructively serves to reveal that the realist’s investment in the phenomenal world cannot end anytime soon. As the volume’s opening poem entitled “Prelude” declaratively asserts: “Nothing is happening . . . [and yet] there is absence, not emptiness, / and something close to echo” (emphasis added).
That important “something” linked to absence, then, becomes a kind of leit-motif stitching several other of Enns’s deftly composed lyrics together throughout the entire volume: in “Open Bloom” (concluding section one), which recounts “the hours of waiting / in shadow and grime for the pitch of something absolute, the long held note at the end of everything”; or in “Violets” (concluding section two) wherein “We come in off the back step / and feel a breath of something half-familiar, / bold, as we close the door behind us, / make the tea”; or in “The Polish Class Sits Down to Dinner” (near the end of section three), which concludes: “Something like dialect is taking us in, / something like speaking in tongues.” Somewhere within the backward and abysm of time, in childhood say, it might have seemed possible to fathom the fullest extent of that something’s presentiment: “the way we know as children / sameness, taking in everything as fixed and right and infinite . . . listening to that sound so like the one cicadas make, believing in it / as a certainty, as we believed in God” (“Cicadas”). However with and through time, more and more the realist poet comes to discover “that we were wrong,” but more importantly for her project, as “Cicadas” concludes, “what stays in the ear is closer to song / than speech . . . one turn from silence, one turn / from never having heard at all.”
Not unexpectedly, therefore, “silence” becomes the very last word that Enns masterfully chooses to conclude Ordinary Hours: “as if breath / has more to do with silence,” as the final “Winter” reports. In this way, the collection turns back upon the “absence” with which it begins, or as another lyric entitled “Muse” from that opening section would have it, “nothing in [the muse’s] hands.” “Which is not to say / she carries nothing,” as that text scruples to assert, since “there is a kind of light / undefined, / a kind of density . . . [that is] almost imagined, / almost real” (emphasis added). “Suite for Tools: Plow” makes the same point in yet another play on turning: “Dark matter turned / to the understorey light.” Between ending and beginning, accordingly, this superb collection of verse enacts a kind of generative turning upon that imagined “almost real” just mentioned: “If in the moment of dry things / I have wondered / and turned” (“Dust and Salt”); “northern men, / down from the reserves, / turn their faces to the blue lake” (“Restraint”); “an empty kitchen chair / turned to the window and the world” (“Wonder”); and so forth. By such turnings upon what Wallace Stevens once referred to as “absence in reality” (The Man with the Blue Guitar), or what “Metaphor” in the present volume imagines as “a crevice wide enough / to matter here. More than words.”—by such means Enns ingeniously fashions a statement of her own motive for metaphor whose “echo ris[ing] to the surface, / but with greater clarity, / and greater force,” if the present volume is any indication, shows no sign of abatement any time soon.
When “the old man / takes his choppers out / when chicken sticks to them . . . [and] parks them in a glass of blue fizz” in the poem that concludes the “Old Man Vacanas” section of Munro’s Blue Sonoma, for a moment we are almost persuaded that there might be a considerable rhetorical overlap between the present volume and the realistic contouring of the one previously scanned. Apart from the fact that Munro is the more senior writer—her five previous collections of verse, including Point No Point (2006) and Active Pass (2010), have won her several awards and prizes—this latest book pulls the reader back in the direction of a writing project more formalist in design, and especially so with its deployment of the “vacana” or prayer poem, which in the original Kannada dialect means “saying; or, thing said.” “Although this is a form used with sophistication by yogi-philosophers,” Munro observes in an accompanying endnote, “in twelfth-century India the verse is not aureate; it remains frank, accessible and striking.” The demotic accessibility is especially conveyed in the eighth entry of this middle section in the depiction of “My old man / oh, my old man, oh my / old man”:
He sleeps on his back,
straight as a broom.
He sleeps on his side,
curled like a cat.
He sleeps with the heater going
and a t-shirt on.
My old man likes
to catch some zzzzzzzs.
As a depiction of a beloved partner afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, one tends to feel that the vacana-form here provides a type of rhetorical strategy for controlling one’s emotional response to such pathological abjectness that Munro so movingly renders, particularly at those times in the sequence when the strategy can sometimes be seen almost to fail, as in this moment in the concluding “Sutra” section of the volume: “In the slow spin of stars, a boat glides. / It rides the currents . . . In the slow spin of stars, a yellow dog / lies on the pavement, her nose in her groin. / She is a bitch, a cur. She has tits and pups” (“In the slow spin of stars, a dancer turns”).
Tacking back and forth between formalism and realism here as the “dancer turns” in that last lyric, Munro succeeds in demonstrating effectively what we admire so much in the achievements of the previous two writers. For “if memory were destroyed in the human brain,” as Joyce Carol Oates recently observes revolving a related set of issues in a recent talk entitled “Inspiration and obsession in Life and Literature,” “our identities corrode, and we ‘were’ no one—we become merely a shifting succession of impressions attached to no fixed source . . . [as] in contemporary societies, where so much concentration is focused upon social media insatiable in its fleeting interests [so that] the ‘stillness and thoughtfulness’ of a more permanent art feels threatened” (New York Review of Books: August 13, 2015). For Enns, the stillness and thoughtfulness of the poetic art are conceivably located and upheld in “silence” noted previously. Likewise, the eponymous “Blue Sonoma” (literally a GMC truck totalled in an introductory poem premonitory to an opening sequence of twelve short lyrics entitled “Darkling”)—that bluesy title foisted upon the black hole of the Rorsach-like blotch in Munro’s striking cover art might seem almost a bow in the direction of that dark and mysterious silence of Enns (with faces trained on “blue lake” we recall). Yet Munro, for her part, turns back formally on the “fullness” of the Isha Upanishad in an inaugural epigraph for creative inspiration: “Om shanti, shanti, shanti . . . When fullness is taken from fullness, / fullness still remains.” Artfully reiterating that “fullness” in her “Valley of the Moon” that movingly concludes her entire collection—“a mountain, / a river—fully this, / fully that.”—all is made permanent again “In the moment of leaving, / when words set sail from paper,” even, Munro labours to note, “when the mind’s a sieve.”