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Prose maps of the new freedom.

In these early post-historical days, words are frequently used to create cartographies of a thing called individual identity; poetry, meanwhile, is often discussed with reference to trochees, iambs, sapphics and anapests, and a historical artifact called the English Tradition. In this country, at the confluence of world migration, Englishness, identity and linguistic carpentry seem identical. However, another tradition arose a century ago, in another age of Empire and politics. It included Joyce (an Irishman living in Paris), Pound (an American living in London), the Dadaists (Romanians living in Zurich), Eliot (an American living in a bowler hat), Marteau, Char, Ponge, Reverdy, etc. (Frenchmen, living in the Resistance), Williams (an American living in America), and Lillard (an American living in British Columbia). That era also sketched prose maps for a land in which the human mind and body were equal citizens. Like the verse traditions of the English Tradition, they are poetry, and often poetry of a high degree of sophistication. This prose tradition in verse is still honoured, and being extended by Canadian poets. Out of respect for its spirit and knowledge, this review is an attempt to speak of it on its own terms.

At first glance, Antony Christie's symbolist selected poems Of Love and Drowning is basic fare: short lines; lots of line breaks to stress intention; mechanical pacing; and reliance on the written page rather than the voice on the air. "Bricks," for instance, proceeds in a lovely series of carriage returns: "that was the year we built the fort / of bricks and round stones / on the rocks near Webster's point / when the ice went out." The poem spills over line breaks, rises into rousing rhetoric, then slows into eddies, and back into brick. The poem's resonance in the mind couldn't live without the mechanistic frame of the book to provide a foil for the individual voice. Lines that could easily be twice as long are purposefully broken up, and the lines heard are not the ones on the page. "Fourteen," for example, is a one-line poem laid out for effect over a page. It masterfully uses the technologies of the book, a physical, manufactured, technical, and historical space, to complete itself and reveal the bodily knowledge that in verse poems is brought to the ear through equally complex aural effects. Here, it's not something a lover could whisper in your ear, but it doesn't have to be. It builds on sliding minimalist harmonies, often ending them with splashes of noisy, dissonant chords ("your face blurred and bloody / through the ice window"; "pass around baby photos / disguised as landscapes / that make your friends snicker").

Each poem is a logical sequence, revealed in the end as a code for another world. In true symbolist fashion, this world isn't there. Unlike symbolism, which is a poetry of the intellect struggling to find a language for physicality, such a physical poetry as this, built on bodily experience, requires more structural self-awareness in its endings to fully integrate its physical and spiritual drives. Intended to be the book's crowning strength, the endings of Christie's poems only imitate physical intimacy. They barely close their poems' exquisite music.

Nathalie Handal's Love and Strange Horses also misses opportunities. Whenever she structures her voice solely on the relationship of prose to its framing page, her poems tread into sentimentality. In lines such as "Do what I say: / behind the row of blue moons / is a tin cup. / Pick it up," for example, thought is too much a function of rhyme and rhythm to leave the world of needlepoint. Usually, however, she creates richer, hybrid forms, chiming to anchor cognitive sharpness through the use of aural harmonies, generating such ambiguities as "Stand naked with heels on. / Ask him to kiss your belly button. / To turn his breathing the other way, / and decide which way to enter," effectively turning pun into a wry dance.

Elsewhere, she runs through what looks like much of late twentieth-century tradition, from Strandian lists ("Who lives in a nest then hunts for freedom? / "Who lives in absence then rots in fever towers? / Who lives alone?") to Wrightian word play ("And what's ours. Gone and gone. / Here and here, there and there."), to grave Simical peasant dances ("It was late, // I was strangely stranded between his legs, // and he had faith in what deceived him."). It's masterly.

When she turns towards the paragraph tradition of prose poetry, however, these poems have a flat taste, like cardboard pressed tightly into the mouth. One, though, "In Jerusalem," uses commas instead of her usual periods, and soars in complex patterns. Still other sections, which add dashes and even a semi-colon to the mix, just start to get off the ground before periods drag them down again. In an art formed of the relationship of blocks of prose text to the effects of page-based timing, the effect of consistently blocking prose with periods, the most inflexible form of punctuation, is like writing with one hand tied behind the back. To be effectively staged, these poems deserve more of the skill of Handal's other literary form, playwriting, in which standard rules of punctuation are replaced by a flexible, alternate set allowing for great adaptability in the annotation of and control of voice and timing. As evidenced by her facility with individualizing the endings of her open forms, her actual words are capable of being anchored in form and anchoring it in turn.

Domenico Capilongo's hold the note is staged with panache. Its poems mix full sentences and fragments; they eschew capitalization to soften openings and endings, nicely filling the niche that the English tradition would fill with the controlled rollovers and enjambments of metrical lines; they employ line breaks to worry pages that redirect those lines in turn like white-gloved traffic cops; and they use aural effects to modulate tone. The latter, an infusion of rich voice effects from the English tradition proves remarkably flexible, delivering train rhythms ("when I say sicily you think mafia"), dance rhythms (the "tarantella" poems), and, with the addition of unpunctuated intrusions, the electrical overexcitement of "Seizure."

In contrast, the line-broken "tarantella: a wedding song" moves through the same patterns, but is less about music than music's human apprehension. It is richer, louder, more dramatic, more narrative, and less well integrated within its own body. Whereas the paragraphed versions feel like the dance itself, playing body, mind, instrument and tradition, the broken song is a tiny narrative of children moving through the dancers--an interlude in the music of footsteps through syntax. And so the hook's ending remains elusive. "hold," for example, begins with "hold her. feel the way you fit together, the bones, flesh," continues to reach for answers in bodily experience, but then breaks down into line-broken deliberateness, asking for sentiment it hasn't earned--"like a husband who knows the / meaning of prognosis, hold her like a husband who can / do nothing. hold her until she lets go."

The breakdown of the book within its last pages continues: first, it repudiates its textual strengths ("I could speak directly to the reader, talk about the page. / the syntax, write from the text's point of view"), then it dismisses the non-lyrical approaches of Oulipo, then it closes with pure, transparent, personal lyric: ("your / rhythmic breathing lulling our second child growing / nameless in the warm pit of your belly.") Unfortunately, the deep intelligence of Capilongo's fingerwork is ultimately undermined by conventional free verse lyricism and its need for linear narrative and tidy identity narratives. A little of that kind of thing goes a long way. The musical sequence that moves through the prose pieces needed only a very few lyrical pieces to cast it into light. At 50 pages, this book would have been a masterpiece.

In For and Against, Sharon McCartney shuns the bucking stresses of the paragraph to harness individual sentences: end-stopped units of thought contained here in forms echoing metrical verse, pouring over line breaks, but, unexpectedly, to undercut them, rather than to exploit the rise and swell of rhythm. Still, with "Like donning a tiara of nails, those days when I brewed / decaf by mistake, pain in my skull, something ungraspably / awry ..." ("Decal'), McCartney sets up a last line that doesn't complete a pattern of arrested musicality but lands with a thump, like eyes opening, startled, out of darkness: "the animal exaltation each time contact is made, / the blade bites deeper, and realizing you are married to him." These sentence structures don't all parse. Many aren't actually sentences. They're the units employed in playscripts: scores for timing (in this case for the act of silent reading.) Through them, McCartney scores thought: long lists; sentences that become so deeply embedded that missing verbs go unnoticed; sentences sliding against the expectation set up by the line breaks and the ghost of the poem and the body from which the mind attempts to flee but to which it is ultimately tethered.

This is sophisticated music and a welcome extension of the work of Levertov and Williams. They used the physical limitations of the horizontal and vertical processes of reading words printed on a limited page size to control timing to such an extent that the simple spoken voice was revealed to be a tool of deep sophistication and music, no matter how personal its thoughts were. In fact, they were deepened by their increasing simplicity.

Douglas Burnet Smith's Learning to Count stands in the tradition of those poets who, trained at the height of the English Tradition's entrancement with lyricism, nonetheless turned from poetry as entertainment to intellectual activities encompassing complex rhetoric, prose-rhythms, mechanization, and the textual responses of a modern society. This is the tradition of Pound and Eliot, and in it Bumet Smith rarely misses a beat. Even in tiny free verse lyrics like "Lizard and Tossed Cigarette" ("Even with only one eye ... he can tell-- / it is a dangerous gift") he rescues his lines from banality by careful, ironic timing.

When he throws lyrical stuff against the left margin it rarely sticks, such as in "Lizard and Mountain Shortcoming," with its "He pokes his petalled head / out of a crumbling crack. Like / the lower-down flowering / camelia, he has a necessary attachment / to dirt." There's nothing necessary about the way that poem grounds itself (or fails to).

When the left margins do work, the poems often have their tongue in their cheek, as if just resting there for a moment before springing off again. Sometimes they do so by leaving the margins completely and hanging in empty space. At other times, they use the regimentation of the margins to modulate voice in the manner of a piano sonata, like this: "If Wallace Stevens were here, the Wallace Stevens who, / in a letter / to a friend confided that the Italians / had as much right to take / Ethiopia...." A short quote can't do the forward drive of the lines justice. Too much poetry clings to the left margin, to keep from falling into the abyss of a white space of almost infinite subtleties of timing and tone. To fly there, it reverts to the safety of mechanical logic. Not this. This is as organically contructed as the continuously burnt, rebuilt, destroyed, rebuilt, redesigned, destroyed, reconfigured, rebuilt, and repeatedly resanctified Cathedral of Mainz.
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Author:Rhenisch, Harold
Publication:ARC Poetry Magazine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2012
Words:1878
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