Kateri Lanthier on The Magpie Reader: Reading for the Shiny Bits
I read as a devoted reader—that is, I enjoy letting a writer’s work flow into me. I surrender to a book, sip, swallow, dream about it and move on to the next. But I read in another way, too: as a writer. And that writer is a magpie swooping down on the "shiny bits" (as Margaret Atwood called them in Negotiating with the Dead) and carrying them off, hoarding them and turning them over in the light. She likened writers to jackdaws—I've chosen the magpie, but the notion is the same. The bright bits hold a seductive appeal for everyone, and certain of them are irresistible to other writers. This piece cites passages from a few recently published books of Canadian poetry to illustrate a writer's way of reading.
There are lines and passages that dazzle most of us when we first read them. Over time, some might start to seem like flashy baubles, fool’s gold. Or the wires seem to be showing, the makeup rubbed off. You’ll find such lines on T-shirts, coffee cups and j-peg “posters” on Facebook. It’s hard to keep a good line down, though. There will always be new readers who haven’t encountered it before. It’s best to avoid word-weariness, and, instead, to take vicarious pleasure in the thunderstruck reactions around you.
“Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow/ Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn'd brain.” Sidney was right—writers turn to literature for inspiration, even if it induces envy or, at times, borderline despair. We could easily throw up our hands and declare that Shakespeare said everything first and best, dammit, as we go about “Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope” (Sonnet 29). But some of us are incorrigible. We press on. I won’t get into a long discussion about the Deeper Meaning of the legacy of words. (See Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence and, for a contemporary look at plundering, appropriation and allusion, Jonathon Lethem’s “The ecstasy of influence: a plagiarism”.) A restless bird, I’ll just hop to a few examples from recently published books of Canadian poetry.
First, Linda Besner’s collection of poetry, The Id Kid. Let me recommend the entire book, which crackles with intelligence and humour. I’ll ease out one gem here: “Villeneuve Villanelle.” Consider the first three stanzas:
A van, verily, une livraison, l’avenir arrived d’ailleurs, a day
avowed comely, lueur d’avril bespoke, bespilled—ça brille.
L’imprévu s’avance impervious; appears apace, s’est envolé.
A novice driver, évidemment. One virage rapide, and all bouleversé,
An avalanche of navel oranges devant la fruiterie.
A future in delivery, vraiment. Moreover, this arrival—le camion, la journée—
grand événement for the vagrants pocketing oranges à volunté,
poursuivis by the vainglorious vendor, à petit avail. Ainsi,
unforeseen advances; une apparition imperméable that vite blows away.
I admire this for the echoes in the music of French and English, the cleverness of writing a villanelle—an echoey form in itself—in our country’s official languages and the smarty-pants move of opening up the possibilities within two languages and dishing some of them out within the same phrase or line. I also love it for personal reasons—it reminds me so vividly of the Franglais I shift into when speaking with my French-Canadian relatives, and of what it’s like to walk down the street in Montreal, of that city’s aural landscape. Why aren’t more poems written like this? Not long after I read this villanelle, I wrote a poem that wove in some French, and I realize I’m in Besner’s debt. Now I’m thinking of other poems…I want to see some Cree with the English, some Cantonese, some Urdu…
The structure, strategies and wit of Gabe Foreman’s A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People impressed me greatly. It’s a book glittering with treasures. He’s a jokester with his titles, e.g., “ZOMBIES”—“See Working Stiffs”
And he makes you think twice:
A few months of feeling plowing under, ourselves.
A few months of feeling ploughed under ourselves.
He can also wring your emotions, as he does in “Organ Donors” with the post-mortem song of a grackle: “Each better place is next to nothing, he sang/The difference is both hard and clear.” I aspire to twist, amuse and change registers in this way.
Themes can be shiny bits, too. I’ll admit that when I read the “The Decor,” the first poem in Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet, I was annoyed. I felt as if he’d scooped me. Before I returned to writing poetry four years ago, I wrote for years (and still do) for design magazines. He was skewering the very stuff I intended to grapple with—I had in mind an Edith Wharton-esque mordancy on the topic, translated into a poem…and there it was! But, much as I like his poem, I won’t give him the last word: it’s still on my list of subjects to tackle.
Sandra Ridley’s poetry collection Post-Apothecary is a gothic marvel of delicacy and toughness. It’s almost painfully beautiful as it anatomizes pain. From “Rest Cure”: “Thorax cracked & ribs cut & her tongue-flicked teeth./Abacus pearls.” From “Blood-let”: “A husk of blue-veined cocklebur/He turns the thumbscrew hourglass of sand.” From “Unguent of Blackthorn”: “She’s bramble. She’s oak burl./She’s bone-fuse. She’s withered branches suspended by chains.//She’s nightshade & a numbered grave.” I crave this exquisite degree of finesse.
I’d like to acknowledge the influence of the poet Anthony Madrid on my train of thought here. In a recent guest blog post for Best American Poetry, he proposed what he calls, rather elegantly, a “gallery review”: “I have this idea for a new kind of review. Call it a ‘gallery’ review. Just a long list of quotations, individual lines mostly. Maybe a few two-fers and three-fers. At any rate: the best lines from the book, cherry-picked and re-typed by the reviewer. No commentary at all….Me, I just go by good lines anyway. Actually, now I think of it, Auden says almost the exact same thing somewhere. That the quotes in a review are usually the only part worth reading, if you’re trying to actually get anywhere. Must be in The Dyer’s Hand.”
The best lines and passages, the cleverest recastings and most startling images shimmer up at me. It might be impossible for me (or any of us) to write lines as good as these from Finnegans Wake: “Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm. Night night. Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!” Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try…
Look in thy heart, and write: sure. But pump it up. Make sure the finest lines are circulating through it.
Kateri Lanthier was born in Toronto and has lived in St. Catharines, Sudbury and Kingston. She has a BA and MA in English from the University of Toronto. After working as an editor in educational publishing, she became a freelance writer for magazines, television and the web, specializing in design, architecture and fine art. Her poetry has been published in literary journals and magazines in Canada, the United States, and England, including Descant, Grain, Matrix, The Antigonish Review, Acta Victoriana, The U.C. Review, The Greenfield Review, Saturday Night, Quarry, Writing Women, London Magazine, The Toronto Quarterly, www.levelerpoetry.com and www.lyrelyre.com. Her first collection of poetry, Reporting from Night, was published by Iguana Books in December 2011. She is currently at work on a novel set in Toronto’s Beach neighborhood, where she lives with her husband and three children.