Rhetoric Is Territory

On four new books of poems.

The biggest surprise among this spring’s poetry books from McClelland and Stewart is that Tim Lilburn is finally hitting his stride—as a confessional poet. Lilburn has long been a religious nature poet in the tradition of Hopkins and Charles Wright, although never a particularly good one. His early poems have a wild linguistic energy that made them stand out from the plainspoken Canadian verse of the late 1980s, but they were immature, hyperbolic, unchastened: “bruited, busied, blessed these being-ward, barn-big,/bibulous on light, rampantly stolid/as Plato’s Ideas, Easter Island/flesh lumps of meaning.” (That is how he describes pumpkins, and incidentally his poems.) Reading the early work, one feels that if he were ever to get his gift under control, he would be superb.

In mid career, Lilburn delivered not maturity, but a disappointing lapse: breathless, overheated and maddeningly imprecise descriptions of natural scenery, and grandiose theological abstractions: “Everything is odoured with infinity; snow moves through high grass; everything is infinite.” That sort of thing. As he put it himself in a 2002 interview, “I’m not much interested in observing the clumsy self-absorption of my naming: you can invite the other things to say what they are. Writing—thinking—as erotic passivity. What do you think of that?” I think it was a disaster.

And yet it seems the way out of this clumsiness was there waiting for him all along. In that same interview he mentions “growing up in working-class Regina in the late fifties and sixties, where hockey, fighting, general thuggery and eventually finding a decent job made up the usual range of possibilities.” Now it seems to have finally occurred to him to make poetry out of that material, and I am happy to report that many of the resulting poems have a new discipline and clarity. Consider the opening of “Rosemont,” one of the best poems in Lilburn’s latest book:

I float over propane tanks, back lanes,

outhouses in pyjamas, twelve, over shacks and the more-

than-shacks, north of trolley wires and an edge of the city

forest. I drift just above the tips of elms, and am twelve.

June.

People are asleep below, the milkman’s

horse waits on Connaught for the man to come through

a lilac hedge, marsupial pouch

first, empties percussing in his iron basket.

Someone, Yvonne I guess, the Pelletiers’ -oldest,

sets kindling to take off the chill.

The horse is motionless above its cake-sized,

cement anchor.

This is marred a little by the unnecessary repetition of “twelve,” and the awkward enjambment in the middle of “city/forest.” But look at the way Lilburn takes his time with this description, cinematically orienting the point of view in time and space; you can smell the lilac hedge and the wood smoke, hear the glass bottles clinking in the basket and see the scene from above as if from a camera on a hovering drone. For all Lilburn’s earlier insistence on the importance of contemplative “listening” in nature, this kind of writerly patience seems to me entirely new to this poet’s work.

It turns out Lilburn is surprisingly good at describing people, notably some of the thugs he grew up with:

Surely Wilfred’s towering instant was

When he robbed the nightclub

Under the bank, emptying one barrel of his shotgun

Into the vermiculite ceiling,

Him descending through

The whallop of dust and its numb drift.

Lilburn still has his moments of imprecision, even here: “descending” does not seem quite right, does it? Perhaps “ascending” would better capture the illusion of Wilfred’s rising through the actually falling dust. Still, the scene is vivid, and I love the winking irony of the first line.

Much of the verse in The Names, Lilburn’s tenth collection, is condensed, clipped and often a bit (or very) odd and gnarled. His syntax at its best has tension, although sometimes it crashes. He makes effective use of overstressing, assonance and consonance, and these sonic effects, in conjunction with his torqued syntax, give his free verse a skittery arrhythmia that takes a little getting used to but has its pleasures. I am afraid several poems toward the end of the book abandon syntax for dull, loose fragments or just fail to cohere. As for the best of the confessional poems—confessional in the Augustinian sense, that is, since they are mostly about wasted youth and religious conversion—they include, besides “Rosemont,” “The Northern City,” “Fucked Up, All Fucked Up,” “Rabbit Lake Log House, Where I First Read the Tao,” “The Munroe Wing,” “The Fifties” and “That Time.” Two rather different poems, “The Marian River, Milan” and “Exempla,” are also exemplary. There are flaws in some of these—Lilburn can have trouble sticking the landing—but The Names is, by far, his best book of poems.

The finest lyric in Laurie D. Graham’s book Settler Education has the weirdest title: “_______, _______, _______, _______.” It’s a poem about remembering, or imagining, a girl, the poet’s “double,/same pigtails, same chance of a leather-belt teacher,” who grew up in the same Alberta town but went to a residential school. I say “the poet,” but in fact the poem is addressed to “you,” and that is powerful, because it takes the (non-Native) reader by the shirt and says listen. Here is the poem’s final stanza, which makes sense of the title:

These are four things you will not learn in school.

The name of the people. The name of the treaty.

The name of the nearest reserve. The name of the closest school.

This is where you are from.

The school well off the highway and -protected. The reserve not yours.

The treaty taught as history, if at all. The people,

nehiyaw and Métis, who live close and speak your language

you won’t even register as different from you.

For a while you won’t respond to your -mother’s

calling. Your legs keep pedalling, around and around.

This sounds like Margaret Atwood at her most political; for all the plain diction, there is just enough rhetorical variety to give this emotional force: the rhythmical parataxis, the parallel syntax, the anaphora and, elsewhere in the poem, hypotaxis, rhetorical questions, even a varied refrain. So many political poems lack the technique to live up to their own moral imperatives, but this one does not. It is the best poem on this subject by a non-Native poet I have read.

Most of the rest of the poems in the book spring from research into 19th-century prairie history, in particular the Frog Lake massacre and the Northwest Resistance of Louis Riel. The poems follow the poet (sometimes “I” or “we,” sometimes “you”) as she travels west by train and visits gravesites, museums, monuments, battlefields and so on. This is interspersed with large swaths of documentary quotation from historical journals, songs, letters and so forth, so there is a lot of variations on this:

In 1872 the Canadian Federal Parliament passed the Dominion Lands Act as a precursor to land settlement in the West as a great economic opportunity.

Fur, then fish, then grain, then minerals, wood, water, carbon, oil. A railroad deal. A pipeline deal.

You see why several times in reading this book I wanted to throw it across the room? There is no poetic force in this, and very little in the other poems in the book (with a few exceptions: there is some life in “In Praise of Idle No More” and the last stanza of “Fort Edmonton Park”). Graham, it seems, has learned nothing from the great modern examples of the long historical poem—Hart Crane’s Bridge, for instance, or Robert Hayden’s Middle Passage. The diction is plain, there are very few tropes of any kind, the syntax is either loose or flat—Graham’s default modes are the listless sentence fragment and the short, flat, declarative statement—and the activities she is describing are either void of, or drained of, dramatic and narrative force. Many of the poems, forehead-slappingly simple as they are, do not make much sense without reference to the six pages of notes and five pages of references at the back of the book, where the poet has buried her most interesting historical facts. And Graham’s endings tend to just stop, without any kind of volta or rhetorical shift to distinguish them from the rest of the poem.

I know hundreds of Canadian poets have been strapping on this same ratty rhetorical straitjacket for decades. But why?

“Rhetoric is territory,” writes Jacob McArthur Mooney, and his territory is the virtuoso’s place at the front of the stage. Mooney runs the Pivot Reading Series in Toronto, and you can hear the influence; many of the poems in his third book, Don’t Be Interesting, would go over at a public reading like a free round of drinks, especially if the audience had slammed a few already.

It is not easy to quote briefly from Mooney’s poems because they often depend on the -repetition-with-variations of a set of rhetorical schemes or word patterns whose rhythm builds an ironic but incantatory effect over many lines. The semantic content of those patterns tends to be as off the wall and surprising as possible, so that when this method is working well it has the effect of a relentless series of jokes. Here is a taste, from the beginning of “What Humans Like”:

I am the voodoo
of how what you do
does you.

 

My daddy issues deadpan
through descriptions of my work.
My work wanders, is statistics.

 

My oeuvre is the easy opportunity,
the path through unlocked doors.

The speaker is Emily Howell, that is to say, an artificial intelligence program designed to compose music and learn from the feedback of critics. (This thing actually exists; look her up—she is pretty good.) But Mooney clearly means this also as a critique of his own poems in this book, a kind of self-aware pre-emptive strike against his critics.

And the thing is, his critique is right; in many of these poems, the work wanders off into some unlocked upstairs bedroom and passes out. For all their drunken energy and style, they keep missing the opportunity to make an emotional or ethical connection, or even to have any significance at all. It is like eating candy; after more than a handful of these poems, it all begins to feel kind of nihilistic.

In the book’s best poems, however, the technique adds up to something meaningful. These include several that amount to wry aestheticist arguments for style over substance—for, as Mooney puts it, “kiss[ing] the compulsions/in a sentence’s façade”: “‘Creep’ by TLC Is a Better Song than ‘Creep’ by Radiohead,” “John Darnielle as Frank Oz in the Unfilmed Henson Biopic” and “Is This the Kind of Art That Makes the World Any Better?” There are also a few good satirical poems that feel significant because they work as tropes for something in social reality, including “The Fever Dreamer,” “At the Initial Settlement of Levittown, New York,” and “Golf Pro, Monobloc, A Theory of the Firm.”

But my favourites here are two poems in which you can finally sense some of Mooney’s own lived emotion, both of them, not coincidentally, about having a child. These are a poem called “Fertility” (the longer of two by that title) and the title sequence “Don’t Be Interesting.” Let me leave you with section iii of that sequence, which is the one truly moving thing in the book:

When the man sings of You
he means Jesus.

 

But when I sing of You
I mean you.

 

Take my love songs seriously,
in spite of me.

 

For when I sing of You
I mean you.

It shows you what Mooney is capable of when he finally puts his rhetorical skills to work for something deeper than fun and games. And what I would murmur to Mooney, from one aesthete to another, is that the poetic values of strong emotion, truth-to-life and ethical force that show up as if by accident in the best handful of poems in this book are all, from the perspective of poetry as an art, aesthetic values—which is to say, constitutive values of a strong poetic style.

Before you even get to the title page of Matt Rader’s fourth collection, Desecrations, you encounter one of the best things in the book, a brilliant translation of the first six tercets of Dante’s Inferno into anachronistic slang. Here’s the first one:

In the milieu of middle age, life left —
Turned me to a wooded maze and the good
Old way forward went AWOL, 404, MIA.

Tell me that didn’t make you smile. All 18 lines are so good, in fact, I would love to see Rader finish the first canto, at least—or, hell, translate the whole thing.

After such an auspicious start, I was bewildered to find myself 30 pages into the book before I hit another poem I liked at all. Rader’s go-to technique is plain (and often dull) narrative, interrupted continually with apparently random disjunction, a splicing together of disparate subjects whose connection is so tenuous it is merely puzzling—non sequiturs to the point of readerly indifference—and it soon becomes so predictable you can feel the shifts coming, so they lose even their effect of surprise. I kept muttering “this is so random,” over and over to myself with increasing exasperation as I read. (At one point in the book, Rader actually explains the obscure connections in one of the other poems—two calm horses in a field are somehow meant to represent two drunken men in a bar brawl—but when you return to that poem and reread it, the connection just is not there.) Moreover, the writing lacks the energetic diction of that opening translation, which would have done much to improve these poems.

Fortunately, there are notable exceptions. One, “The Assassination of Achilles the Cruel,” is like the Dante translation in its wild, slangy diction, but here it imagines an event from the Iliad that does not quite happen there, like a Mad Magazine or Asterix treatment of Homer. Another is “From Treaty Six, Fort Carlton, Fort Pitt and Battle River, 1876,” a found poem that Rader chose partly for its biblical rhythms and partly for the devastating self-damnation of its final line.

The other happy exceptions are six good blank sonnets scattered throughout the last half of the book, including “The Irish Cliffs of Moher by Wallace Stevens,” “The Dead Know All About Us,” “Knowth, Brú na Bóinne, Co. Meath, Ireland,” “Dove Creek Hall (Formerly Swedes’ Hall)” and “Alice Munro.” Rader is much better in these—first, because the brevity of the form prevents him from going off on dull and insignificant tangents, and, second, because he pays careful attention to the sounds of his words. Let me leave you with one of the best, “Divis and the Black Mountain, Belfast, Northern Ireland”:

We’re not of here and the heathland can’t see

Us and our camera beyond the kissing gate

With the bog cotton and heather and yellow

Bog asphodels, with the hare and the rare

Bog-spotted orchid, the wheaters and reed

Buntings, their circuits and transistors

Alerting us to our own presence, the one

Lost whimbrel hopscotched from the Hebrides.

Only the cattle feeding in the mud beneath

The slow dark fleet of clouds track us

Up the sheep path past the badger sett

To the transmitter mast the British pitched

When the only people who shared this view

Shared it through riflescopes, handheld radios.

That’s more like it. Here, the time shift at the end to an imagined past is introduced as a natural part of the grammar, and gives the sonnet its volta, instead of just being dropped in out of nowhere for no apparent reason.

But what is most lovely here is the sound. Just read it aloud, slowly, right now, and you will hear what I mean.