Poetry

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Post-glacial

Post-glacial

The Poetry of Robert Kroetsch
edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian, poetry
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Margin of Interest

Margin of Interest

Essays on English Language Poetry of the Maritimes
edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian, poetry
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From "Maritime Poetry: A Unifying Field Theory"

One of the great temptations of any book of criticism is to generate a thesis which can be tested throughout its length. The point of publication, for some, is to devise a new idea which adds to the body of knowledge about a person, place, or thing. It's tempting to try to fashion descriptive and analytic tools. Since this book is about my people (Maritimers), my place (the Maritimes), and the most valued thing outside of my family (poetry), I was sorely tempted to reinvent the wheel.

I've rejected developing a novel thesis about Maritime poetry. I don't believe the idea of a single theoretical model which can incorporate the region's writers and writings. In 2006, Marta Dvorak and Coral Ann Howells wrote in their introduction to the special issue of Canadian Literature devoted to east coast writing that there is a 'richness of social and cultural histories, such a multiplicity of voices speaking from so many different angles and in such a variety of literary modes that what is produced amounts to far more than a mapping of region.' Instead, 'any definition of regional specificity' is both comprehended but also exceeded.'

Universalizing ideas only cause trouble, anyway. I'm not able to offer a unifying theory because I lack the intrinsic understanding of French-Canadian/Acadian and Indigenous identities and histories, and these literatures are far older than relatively recent English ones. Moreover, one could argue that other identity shards should be added to my (ironically) centrist history-the history of women writers in the Maritimes, the history of LGTBQ2S+ writers in the Maritimes, the history of Africadian writers in the Maritimes. By now you must realize that any theory I might offer an audience is already suspiciously narrow, but if it did include all the aforementioned categories, it would be uselessly broad. Besides, any claim for the primacy of a single idea is inherently suspicious. Such an idea would suspiciously become 'the centre'-a centre ridden with exceptions, as is the rule in any critical framework with specificity. I would soon want to write a book about the exceptions that disproved my idea, trying to make my own idea marginal. As Wolfgang Hochbruck writes in his introduction to Down East: Critical Essays on Contemporary Maritime Canadian Literature, '[N]o one perspective will ever suffice to explain everything' and 'summarizing and centreing statements will always be made at the expense of margins, fringes, and diversity.' I might even get bored with the Unifying Theory since it seemed so Unifying. Finally, we're talking about a region that has been told to Unify For The Sake of Survival for several decades now, and take it from me, contemporary Maritimers don't like that kind of talk. If you're disappointed, though, reassure yourself that the centrist homogenizing edicts are reflected in your disappointment. This place is too various and diverse to conform to your expectation.

[Continued in Margin of Interest...]

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We Are Not Avatars

We Are Not Avatars

Essays, Memoirs, Manifestos
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from "Queer Rose Country"For queer people who were raised in or find themselves in places like the Alberta ofmy youth, the known environment is overshadowed by straight, mainstreamhegemony whose answer to the question "who am I?" is, by design, quite limited. Formany gay men and lesbians, whether they are writers or pipefitters or vodkadrinkers, "Where is here?" must be restated as "Where is queer?" or at least as itsderivative: "Where is straight-acting?"And we go looking for it.Eventually.Here or elsewhere.Elsewhere and here.I grew up in Charleswood, near the university in Calgary's northwest. TheRockies formed an early western limit to my thoughts, and Highway 1A remains myfavourite approach. It veers downhill past Cochrane toward Ghost Lake and JumpingPound, then swerves archetypically into my flesh. Even as a child I would believe Icould stand on my bed, gaze out the window--and there they'd be, waiting.Mountains: distant and sentinel, but patient and reassuring. Each spring their dustyindigo insouciance was echoed by the windblown slopes of prairie crocus in thefoothills. The mauve chrysalides would poke through slowly browning grasses, shyheads bowing as they opened.I believe our first landscape imprints the porous and visceral inside us,shapes the nervous system's involuntary responses. Words rise through the body,which is geologic, stratified--layers of place, of family, silted over by subsequentfutures. The oldest words, as they well up, conjoin with others more recent.Meanings blur. After I grew up and moved beyond the provincial borders of myimagination, Alberta--or rather my Alberta and everything that occurredthere--continued to assert itself, imposed its template on all later geographies. Myanswer is always physical. I am comfortable in cities like Calgary where the landoverwhelmingly intrudes. In Ottawa, the Gatineau Hills across the Ottawa River,which in itself was exotic, for it has breadth no river should have, reassured me,though in late September the feverish maroon haze incandescing over their flanks,as the maples turned, both disoriented and delighted me. Something inside linkedthis purpled fluorescence with spring.From "We Are Not Avatars: How the Universal Disembodies Us"Imagine of how differently we would read "First Year" if Eavan Boland were a man,the love's queerness signaled to us as readers the moment we encountered "yourboyhood," our experience of this poem taking us in an entirely different direction.The present debate about gay marriage could not fail to impinge upon the line,"Where is the soul of a marriage?," which would elicit an interpretation that noheterosexual reading of it need contemplate, especially in California, where Bolandteaches at Stanford. Because "First Year" is the eighth poem in an eleven-partsequence of love poems in her ironically titled collection, Against Love Poetry, itsplacement in relation to what precedes and follows it further determines howreaders will understand what's meant. Once they learn that this marriage was"solemnized" over thirty years ago, they would immediately know that no churchwould have agreed to host, let alone sanction a marriage between two men in the1970s; nor would it have been legal. The couple would have instead appropriatedthe idea of "marriage" for their own purposes, the poem reading as a testament ofthe forbearance of "forbidden love" to rise above societal prohibition, its resilienceequal to heterosexual love's putative stability. The celebrants attending thisunrecognized marriage of alike bodies and two minds might even tender itscandidacy to be declared universal--but only in a subcultural way, to echo Collins'definition--and, depending on each reader's capacity for tolerance, privately viewedwrong or right. The poem's decorous tone might nonetheless let it fly under theradar, much like the love poems in [my book] Great Men did, for not once are theshibboleths against sexual explicitness violated. There's nothing juicy in Boland'spoem no matter how you choose to read or misread it.

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How a Poem Moves

How a Poem Moves

A Field Guide for Readers of Poetry
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also available: eBook
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How a Poem Reaches for Transcendence: Eric Pankey, “Ash”

 

Religious poetry was probably the first kind of poetry, but that doesn’t make it easy to write. What impresses me about this poem is how it is unafraid to draw from various traditions and approaches in a small space, while confronting a religious difficulty that is both ancient and very contemporary. 

 

Ash

 

At the threshold of the divine, how to know

But indirectly, to hear the static as

Pattern, to hear the rough-edged white noise as song—

 

Wait, not as song – but to intuit the songbird

Within the thorn thicket, safe, hidden there.

Every moment is not a time for song

 

or singing. Imagine a Buddha, handmade,

Four meters high of compacted ash, the ash

Remnants of joss sticks that incarnated prayer.

 

With each breath, the whole slowly disintegrates.

With each footfall, ash shifts. The Buddha crumbles.

To face it, we efface it with our presence.

 

An infant will often turn away as if

Not to see is the same as not being seen.

There was fire, but God was not the fire.

- from Crow-Work, by Eric Pankey (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Eric Pankey. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org

 

We start “on the threshold of the divine” – that is, near something mysterious, revelatory, but not in it or on it or whatever. The first sentence of the poem is abstract, and at first the poet might seem to be wondering about how to get over that threshold, but that’s not it. Instead he wants to learn “how to know / But indirectly.” In a sense the desire he’s articulating is about living comfortably on the threshold, to have his ear pricked to what’s happening over it. As Pankey zeroes in on this idea he’s able to find metaphors to approach it – the static, and then the songbird. There are problems in both, though: hearing “the static as pattern,” for example, would be an illusion, finding meaning or intention in a phenomenon that actually has none. (An atheist’s accusation of the foolishness of a believer is that she sees a pattern in static.) On the other hand, Pankey’s form of belief isn’t quite ready to proclaim an actual bird singing in the thicket (“Wait – not as song”), but only the possibility of intuiting a hidden presence there. Pankey’s language is exploratory, tentative, careful – there are so many obstacles to portraying genuine religious experience and he seems to be trying to navigate between the obvious pitfalls.

One of those pitfalls is simply focusing attention on a sensation that is supposed to function outside of articulate thought. By writing the poem at all, Pankey is gesturing toward feelings that defy or transcend language, and so his next step, the most vivid image of the poem and the one that takes up the most space here, is about how our very conscious presence precludes the possibility of pure revelation.

The image of the crumbling ash Buddha evokes a few things for me. First, Pankey is referring specifically to the work of artist Zhang Huan, who constructed an Ash Buddha at the Sidney Festival in early 2015, and has done similar work elsewhere. (You can find some wonderful depictions of his work online.) One essential aspect of the work is that it disintegrates over time, partly because of the presence of the people who view it. Another is that the ash itself is gathered from the remnants of others’ religious rituals (“Remnants of joss sticks that incarnated prayer”), and so represents a kind of accumulation of faithful gestures.

The image of the disintegrating Buddha also seems connected to the “observer effect,” an idea in quantum mechanics that certain phenomenon are disturbed by any attempt to measure them. The familiar illustrative example is tire pressure – in order to measure tire pressure, you have to let a bit of air out of the tire, which slightly changes the very pressure you’re trying to measure. Contrary to our usual scientific practice, observation in these cases is an obstacle to understanding.

A similar notion has been present in poetry since the Romantics – the idea that we can’t describe transcendent feelings (religious, emotional, artistic, sexual, etc) and experience them at the same time. For Keats, in “Ode to a Nightingale,” the choice is to fall from the ecstasy of hearing the nightingale song in order to write his poem or, by submitting to it permanently, “become a sod.”

For Pankey the choice is to face the ash Buddha and accept that our presence will contribute to its disintegration, or to turn away and take it on trust that the Buddha still stands. It’s worth noting that the first word of this description (starting on line 7) is “Imagine,” and it seems that, in the mind of this poem, as it was for the Romantics as well, imagination can be a facilitator, a bridge between conscious thought and transcendence.

I should mention that there’s a lovely light music here too, mostly based on un-rhymed alliterative pairings – static/pattern in lines 2-3, thorn/thicket in line 5, then whole/slowly, ash/shifts, and face/efface/presence later. It’s understated, a bit of not-song in the white noise.

If the ash Buddha image seems to encourage a lingering, attentive turning away from the divine, the penultimate lines point to its inverse, an immature kind of turning away. The infant who believes that “Not to see is the same as not being seen” is clearly mistaken, and Pankey seems to imply that those of us who turn away from the possibility of spiritual transcendence are doing the same thing. Not everyone would agree, perhaps, but I like Pankey’s willingness to allow a bit of the affectionate admonishing preacher to make an appearance here.

Last point: to my mind the biggest obstacle to writing about religious experience is the massive amount of texts, histories, and arguments that have already traveled there. We probably don’t wish to adhere too closely to ideas that are antiquated, but we also don’t want to dismiss our predecessors just because our cellphones have better resolution. Pankey takes this challenge head on at the end of “Ash,” drawing forth one more important origin text.

“God was not the fire” circles back to how the ash in Huang’s Buddha was created, but is also a reference to First Kings chapter 19, in which the prophet Elijah has a vision. It’s worth quoting a bit from verses 11-12: “And behold God passed by, and a great strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”

Notice how much more time the biblical authors spend talking about what isn’t God. The wind and the earthquake and the fire – such things are vividly evoked, but they are not where God can be found. Even the final phrase stops just short of pointing at God’s presence. The “still small voice” is clearly intended to be seen as where “God is,” but refrains from explicitly declaring it.

Why do I mention all of this? This whole poem has been circling around our struggles to connect with transcendence, to encounter God, and despite numerous near-misses we still end up where “God was not.” Buddha and the God of the Hebrew Bible have made their appearances, as have Romanticism, quantum physics, and child psychology. But the God that Eric Pankey is looking for isn’t in the Buddha, but rather in the disintegrating ash. Not the bearded patriarchal God that reaches for Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but in the space between the fingers. Not in any vision, but in our periphery, as we turn away, pretending not to see.

“Ash” is about the search for God, about trying to be open to an encounter with the divine, despite its inherent, tantalizing ephemerality. What I love about this poem is that it is willing to live in its uncertainty, in fact to articulate that uncertainty, that longing for something just beyond our reach, freighted with conflicting traditions and frustrations, and yet still propelling us toward a higher sense of ourselves and the world.

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The Lone Shieling

Origin and Authorship of the Blackwood 'Canadian Boat-Song'
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Tradition in Exile

A Comparative Study of Social Influences on the Development of Australian and Canadian Poetry in the Nineteenth Century
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