POETRY – Phil Hall worth the effort, finds Barbara Carey
An Oak Hunch, Toronto poet Phil Hall’s ninth book, opens with a poem about a haunted house. It’s a vivid metaphoric reminder that we can’t comfortably inhabit the present until the ghosts of the past are laid to rest (“the blood on the stairs would not fade / ’til the bones in the cellar were reburied // & the story told”). In essence, the whole book is a kind of ghost story, for much of it harks back to the poet’s harsh upbringing in rural Ontario and to literary influences that also have a feel for the “back townships” of this province.
We urbanites tend to romanticize life in the country, but there’s nothing folksy about it here. In one poem, looking back over Christmases past, Hall writes that it takes “some doing // to tenderize it all now as game – gobble – gravy – wish / get away from me with that CBC pander-mulch frippery.”
Yet “tenderizing” is precisely what he does, by turning the damage of the past into a kind of beauty on the page: “Originally, the 22 shell I dropped into my father’s coffin / was a patricide-sinker to keep him below, but it has / hollowed and lightened with time, become a tiny / thermos of tears….”
These are not smoothly flowing conversational narratives – Hall’s poems move haltingly and snag on the rough surfaces of memory, which must be worked over in order to yield their hard-won truths. But there’s power in those gnarly knots of phrasing; as in wood, that’s where the grain of he poem shows most richly. As Hall puts it: “flaws’ll buff up like treasure-knots in wood.”
In fact, there’s much to treasure in An Oak Hunch, with its inspired oddities of expression and piercingly evocative images. It’s a challenging read, but a rewarding one.
Barbara Carey is a Toronto writer whose poetry column appears monthly.