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Delicious exercises in frustrated desire: three veteran poets lead the way.

"Paris is an infinite city," declares the introduction to Stephen Scobie's feast of a book-a rich fusion of travelogue, memoir, poetry and literary musings. How to take the measure of infinity? Across the street from the Palais du Luxembourg, you can still see the first metre-etalon, a one-metre standard of measure, carved on a wall in 1796. The paradox inherent in Scobie's title is one that, arguably, typifies the Parisian character with its combination of anarchy, eccentricity and precision. One attempts but never succeeds in measuring Paris. It is a delicious exercise in frustrated desire.

Scobie's means of measuring are literary, sensual, intellectual, historical. He is a constant questor, stimulated by a mind and imagination as adventurous as it is particular. His "long poem of walking" casts back to the mythological judgement of Paris, suggesting both the scope and ambler's ease with which Scobie conducts his investigations, delightful and profound.

From Baron Haussmann to Mavis Gallant, visions large and small keep re-inventing Paris. Under Napoleon III, Haussmann "reshaped the entire city from his own imagination," with the breezy boulevards and whirling intersections that render the romantic Paris of contemporary tourism. He is credited or accused-depending on both on your aesthetic sense and how you interpret revolutionary French history-of supplanting the organic and feudal with the rational and modern. Was this re-ordering of urban perspective a means of social and political control, Scobie asks? And does it continue?

In the twenties, literary luminaries such as Gertrude Stein and John Glassco provided their own reconstructions of Paris, mythologizing it through the individual lenses of autobiography, a genre as protean as the city itself. Postmodernist writer Gall Scott, whose prose relies on the present participle that "extend[s] the writing subject into its environment," becomes Scobie's perfect flaneur, always deliciously disappearing "into the text of the city."

If, as writers from Andre Breton to Daryl Hine have discovered, it is through street names that we actually read that urban text, and through city maps that it can be idealized and controlled, then it is the flaneur, Baudelaire's inspired walker, who activates the map. Scobie spends much insightful (if occasionally over-extended) energy on this creature, richly exemplified in the literature of Djuna Barnes, Sheila Watson and what he calls the particularly "Canadian visions" of Lola Lemire Tostevin and Gerry Shikatani.

Devoted to Parisian memories made with his beloved partner, Maureen (who died in 2001), the last sections--slightly enlivened by descriptions of the nearly disastrous 2002 French election that might have put the National Front in power--are somewhat enervatingly steeped in the sadness and nostalgia of material better left to poems able to track that particular story rather than trying to fit into this multi-genre evocation of Paris.

One of the best things about Paris (and this book) is "not just the imagination but the care, attention and respect devoted to pleasure." A poet quivering with questions, animated by the words of countless others (including notes and a bibliography sometimes as interesting as text), both careful and exhaustive, Scobie embraces more of Paris than many of us will ever do, and the measure of his success is that he leaves us feeling we still have worlds to discover.

"Barney Google with the goo-goo-googly eyes" goes the popular old song. Frank Davey, postmodern poet from a pre-wired world is the bard, driven by the great Google search engine, his eyes full of puzzlement and humour, asking, what is it we're all looking for? Particularly relevant following the anniversary of the birth of communications guru Marshall McLuhan, Davey's Bardy Google reproduces specific Internet searches undertaken between June 3, 2008 and July 29, 2009. The result is a species of found poetry; Davey's purpose is always to "to create poetic texts out of the materials of prose." Bardy's texts are meant to illustrate how quickly we "sacrifice our knowledge base to the immediacy of the Information Age." The searches themselves-the beginnings of which are reproduced on the front cover as a sort of sneak preview-are initiated by apparently random phrases like "getting paid," "time lapse action" and "global positioning." These are re-contextualized through paragraphs such as the following play on "conform," (inspired by Davey's own title "Conformation Class"): "By becoming the new normal, avant-garde art repeatedly recreates the challenge of nonconformism. Conformities, such as conservative Islam or Mormon polygamies or Western secularism are competing systems that, in this age of globalization, can increasingly be obliged to share social spaces. Why not call the new formalism the new conformalism?"

The above contains more wit and sense than many entries. So does the section called Digital Knowledge, with profundities ("Does nobody know anything any more?") buried beneath idiosyncrasies ("Does anybody know how to prosecute a 21st century pirate?"). Davey being the word wizard he is, reading Bardy is an oddly addictive experience. You may feel your synapses changing, your neural pathways re-invented. You may feel yourself becoming googly-eyed. Which is, of course, the point.

Gary Geddes regards poetry as "a kind of rescue work," a sort of "micro-history" giving voice to the underprivileged, the dispossessed, and the marginalized. Combining Blakean zeal with a natural lyricism, Geddes' documentary poetry is richly visual. His wide-ranging politics are also acutely personal. You care about those his words bring to life because he does.

Swimming Ginger is a small, exquisite volume, its cover intricately reproducing a scene from the twelfth-century Chinese scroll, the figures of which, as Geddes puts it "began to speak to me ... demanding their stories be told." We hear legends and glimpse lives as quirky and vivid as any of Chaucer's sitcom pilgrims: the grumbling apothecary, the philosophical woodcutter, the lovesick roof tiler who literally falls for an erotic vision of Mr. Wei's eldest daughter as she emerges from the hibiscus "bejewelled / with butterflies ... on an ordinary morning in June / without a flute accompaniment." Poems are archly leavened with irony and wit, and sometimes racy with raucous humour. The perfect son tells a tale of career attempts frustrated by misplaced loyalty to his father, who not only feigns illness but trims his beard to better compete with his son's amorous interest. The disgruntled storyteller gives us a personalized guide through his art forms: Buddhist parables, Taoist texts, the painter's "perfect / brush strokes, tapering to infinity/ like my patience." Searching for subjects--"Flowering / apricot, a man leading a donkey / by a rope"--the sadly uninspired calligrapher cannot write his dead son "back into existence." The "knackered" seller of knick-knacks, "chock-a-block / with bric-a-brac" is, despite his frantic sales pitch, ultimately "at a loss for words."

Though some modern colloquialisms may too literal, typically they flow easily into the text as cultural irony, thickening meaning. In structure, cadence and tone, these poems are generally faultless, as tight and suggestive as classical haiku. Geddes devotes a final section of the book to painter Zhan Zeduan and to poet Qu Yuan, with their jaded views on art and the world. Interesting intellectually, these voices lack the dramatic character of those depicted in the scroll itself, the facsimile of which graces seventeen pages at the centre of the book, taking us through the "urban realism" of Bianliang. Having met the people in the painting we are lured once again into their world of pagodas and pavilions, carts and mill wheels, high stone balustrades and bamboo poles; we are taken along the river of lanterned tea houses to a landscape of lonely huts and eternal trees. In the best traditions of an ancient art that fused visual and verbal, Geddes brings his people to us as across centuries as vividly as the girl in his title poem who tastes, for her lover, like "ginger crab."

Stephen Scobie. The Measure of Paris. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010. Frank Davey. Bardy Google. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2010. Gary Geddes. Swimming Ginger. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2010.
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Author:Keeney, Patricia
Publication:ARC Poetry Magazine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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