J.K. Snyder

Black and White Tapestry by Fred Cogswell. Ottawa: Borealis Press. 1989. Unpriced.

Domestic Economy by John Donlan. Ilderton: @ Brick Books-Coldstream. 1989. $9.95.

Winter by Patrick Lane. Regina: Coteau Books, 1990. $8.00 paper; $21.95 cloth.

Fred Cogswell's forceful, passionate and convincing attachment to the strictness of such apparently archaic forms as the sestina and villanelle permits him to continue to be at over seventy years a vital and interesting poet. Black and White Tapesig contains poems about marriage and long love, about loneliness, teaching, and the heroism in any real attempt to live, but most of all about poetry and the poet's rage, even in old age. The rage is fiercely under control in his own case, but fully admitted; wild and uncontained and at last fatal in that of his friend and fellow artist Milton Acorn, who is the object of a fine elegiac sestina, as perceptive of Acorn's flaws as it is compassionate and forgiving.

In old age Cogswell senses an upwelling of forces, energies, passions that put before him the deep appeal of chaos, of letting go. In these poems, using these strict, intricate forms, he is able to look at the experience, to know it and survive it. The poetry is not always beautiful, nor often even very handsome, but there is a solidity of execution which grows on the reader and an unpretentious seriousness that commands respect. The pleasure one gets from this book is quite like that one has in finding one of the few remaining genuine hardware stores: a quiet, darkish place, with a settled sense of work and a notion of order that honours the idea of craft, knowing, as it does, that all serious craft is in the service of the beautiful and, in so far as we can make it, the true. I suppose it is a man's poetry, but one of those rare men strong enough to love and to absorb the hurt in loving. Perhaps Cogswell is responding to and challenging what is likely the best known villanelle in this century: the higher courage may be to go gentle into that good night, having so long acknowledged and mastered one's rage.

 But strength comes back as I
 remember well What a gypsy said
 at the county fair; "Don't quit on
 love, boy.  Though it hurts like
 hell, How much you live depends on
 how you care."

There are bigger and even better poems in this book, but "Lost and Found" gives I think the quickest picture of the man and the sources of his art.

With the unconscious importance
That money plays in an old man's life
I take the credit card from my purse
And in two seconds sign away
Sixty-nine dollars and fifty cents,
An evening's food and drink for two,
Plus ambience and a waitress' tip. 

But as I sign -I smile. In the glass
Beyond the cashier's head I see
The white flash of my own false teeth
And in my brain a memory-tape
Unrolls a cloudless weekend
In the fall of nineteen thirty-eight
When a long two days of searching brought
The greatest satisfaction I yet had known.

On hands and knees, face near to the ground, 
Foot by foot, I searched among the stubble
Of an eight-acre field of barley,
Hoping to find a porcelain tooth
That fell from my bridge during the day
When I gathered the shears into stocks.

On the second day in late afternoon
My eye picked it out from the tiny rocks
It resembled. I was ecstatic.
A new one would have cost six dollars.
At a dollar a day, the going rate
For labour, my time had been well spent.
Besides this, I had the satisfaction
Of proving all the folk wrong
Who called me a fool for looking.

The straightened youth, proud enough to look the fool, has lived to be a wise, old lover. Cogswell's sense of value is gold standard. The human rightness of this, the mix of memory and desire, is humanity at a very high, even extraordinary level. How selfdisciplined the boy, how wisely extravagant the older man. It is in this sense, and in this sense only, that law is the basis of freedom.

Patrick Lane's Winter is a weak, bad book, but it is the weak, bad book of a determined and ambitious poet. It is always a struggle to write and the struggle here is ghastly to watch, but one does watch it, ghastly as it is; which argues for some fundamental strength underlying the sloppy writing, the indulged bad habits, the absurdly portentous self-regard. Whatever else it may be about, Winter is not about the weather in Canada. Nothing in this collection is as good as Lane's "Winter Kill" (in The Measure, his best book), which, besides being a beautiful poem, is so deeply part of its place you expect to turn it over and find Property of Hudson Bay Company stamped on it. Winter is made up of forty-five sketches, each in turn titled "Winter", which seems to be a kind of universalizing term for a confused agglomeration of unhappy states, dominated by the most dreadful of them, the incapacity to feel anything at all and the perverse will to make that kind of impotence into a strength: "sitting perfectly/still/and only remotely human". Phyllis Webb's lines which Lane uses for an epigraph are an accurate epitome of the intention.

No one, not even a poet, is obliged to feel more than he or she actually does feel. Keats knew the 'feel of not to feel it', and it was a drowsy numbness that pained his sense; Coleridge's finest poem addressed his own awareness of his creative and emotional impotence. Lane is essentially a romantic, and exhaustion has always shadowed the romantic. It is not what Winter is about that is the problem; what is perplexing is the intellectual shambles consequent upon Lane's attempt to deal with it. In this book he seems to work from a notion that poetry is simply a matter of saying any damned thing you want, so long as it is sufficiently excessive and narrowly self-regarding. One would like to think that the abstract, anonymous 'he', who is the hero of these fragments - as if 'he' were less a pronoun than a mere cold, masculine syllable, a sort of degree zero morpheme - was other than autobiographical, but it isn't,likely, and the presence of a stifling egotism is hard to avoid. Like all egotisms, it is death-centered, death-obsessed. Dying, in terror of dying, but attracted, not entirely surprisingly, by a flight toward death, this kind of ego cannot bear either the happiness of courage, or even the anguish of others.

 He has already decided on the north
 He will die only when everyone else 
 is suffering the simple deprivations
 in the season where the weak have
 no place.
                          (Winter 32)

 a sharp lean hero, immaculate and alone.
 Already he is practising his cool walk, 
 hands in pockets, his cold clean eyes
 staring through all the pain there
 is at nothing.
                          (Winter 43)

Nor will it surprise to find this cold self-centredness accompanied by a truly bathetic sentimentality.

 His tears quickly freeze, forming
 delicate icicles on the pale hair 
 of his lip. If he stands perfectly
 still in the wind he can breathe
 their small impossible music.
                          (Winter 19)

Self-approval flirts dangerously with the ludicrous here; you can't contemplate the imagewithout wanting to laugh. It is doubtful that even Pater would have aspired to such exquisiteness. Or, further, given the current agony of the Roman Catholic priesthood in Canada and its victims, how could Lane permit himself these lines from Winter 10:

 he watches the people enter The Sacred Heart
 just before midnight, just before mass ...
 He likes to stare at the priest 
 standing behind them, the one who
 touches with great gentleness
 the choir boys in the sanctuary.

That's not far enough away from a thousand old jokes to stand as poetry at any time; at the moment it is either mindless or vicious. Nor will the picture of Christianity in the poem be recognized by anyone who actually practices the religion; it seems to be derived from the more expensive kind of Christmas card.

The real problem with Winter is that one cannot read it, if by reading one implies some possibility of understanding. This is not to speak of current critical notions of the impossibility of reading or the aporias of expression. One can, I suppose, move through the images, letting them register as they will. But the moment one asks what has been said, the trouble starts. Poetry has a certain responsibility to the facts, no matter what it may eventually want to do with those facts, even to the point of denying them; which is a different thing from just getting it wrong as Lane so often does. From Winter 16

 The old moon sleeps with the young moon in her arms.  
 Words like that are like reaching out
 in the darkness ...
 to find nothing at the end
 of the hand but cold.

But what the bard who made the grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spense wrote was

                       the new Moon
 With the Old Moon in her arms.

The difference matters. To what degree Coleridge's great Dejection Ode, which takes those lines for its epigraph, sponsors or lies behind Winter is not clear, but it would have been worth Lane's more careful study. From "Winter 27"

 Everything is so thin,
 a leaf, a thought,
 that moment in Kings when 
  the woman lies with the leper
 and he is not made whole.

There is a leper in Kings (there are several), but no woman lies with him and he is made whole.

 delphiniums because the temple in the rock
 and the oracle singing her enigmas
 as she tricked men
                        (Winter 29)

But the etymology of "delphinium" brings you to the dolphin, not the oracle at Delphi.

 The host is sitting in his study, staring
 at a painting from the Ming Dynasty
 ... so much like
 the porcelain of the period, pale
 with only the faintest of green
 buried beneath the pure hard surface.

But Sung celadon ware is not Ming enamelled cloissonné. It goes on.

The doubtful echoes of Bataille, the gratuitous slighting of Alex Colville, surely a greater poet of essential cold than Lane, the patronizing appropriation of a laughing old "Eskimo", the whole atmosphere of intellectual self-satisfaction resting on such shaky foundations is depressing; far more so than the attempt to write a book of poems out of Alden Nowlan's hyperbolic pronouncement that "we live in a country where simply to go outside is to die." You can freeze to death in the Sahara; it isn't just snow or cold that kills. If we have lost meaning -

But what does it mean?
The old Eskimo laughing at such a strange request,

we didn't begin to lose it at Cape Dorset, N.W.T. For us the question of meaning, the questioning of meaning, was posed in Tubingen, or Paris, or New Haven. Primitive art is always meaningful, just as everything is invested with meaning in the universe of the primitive. Nothing is gained by suggesting it is otherwise. It is precisely part of Colville's power that he is able to show us the uncanny quality of an ordinary present drained of meaning, but filled with an anxious absence that is almost palpable.

Perhaps having written this ugliness out of himself, Lane can make a new start. He is a poet of many starts, too many of them in the wrong direction. His real strength is narrative; as Marilyn Bowering so perceptively said at the beginning of the career, it lies in the "looking for something to share poems", in the "details of here". One gets these in the early poems; they are most fully achieved in The Measure. If you want to know how good Lane can be, put his "Just L' ing" from that book beside Frost's "Out, Out" and watch the Frost poem reveal itself for the more or less worked-up-out-of-the-newspaper thing that it is, while Lane goes for, and gets as nearly as a man can, the whole truth: a truth that includes the crazy, almost in admissible, surreal beauty of someone's tossing a severed hand from a bridge at night, only because there seemed to be no rational alternative.

 I knew I couldn't keep it and I couldn't
 give it to his wife.  Bury it?
 What for?  The life was gone
 and he was still alive.
 It was cold and it was night and I
 had shift-work in the morning. 
 I threw it high off the bridge
 and for one moment it held the moon
 still in its fingers before it dropped
 into that darkness below.

Lane might have stopped there; many poets would have, but he goes on to bring that strange moment back under the pitiless laws of production. The man who lost his hand loses his wife and his job as well, because "there is no work for a man/with a stump. And Claude, the boss,/didn't want him there. You can see why." I can't think of anyone who has captured the voice of working class stoicism better than that. It is Lane's subject and his real vocation:

 First-Aid-Man to this village
 of slaves and broken lives.
                (Blue Valley Night)

Canada still needs a poet who can tell the truth about those lives, since it so little wants to hear of them, and when Lane forgets himself he can tell that truth with powerful conviction. But, it should be added, only when.

John Donlan's Domestic Economy is a remarkable book; one way or another, it will be an important one. No one who cares for or about poetry, especially perhaps, poetry in this country will be disappointed in it; and there is a deep temptation in reviewing it to say only that if you do care, you will buy it; pointless even to single out or name poems, since none misses the extraordinary intelligence of the whole or the sheer, triumphing pleasure of the poet's sense of having broken through to statement:

 Tunnelling out of occupied space
 each barky trunk leaves its grave of ground
 writing in its green calendar
 Congratulations on finding your voice.

Domestic Economy constitutes one of the most assured, as well as the most beautiful, depictions we have of post-modern Canada; nor is it easy to say which is the more astonishing: the easy command of everything philosophical and cultural that has gone into bringing about the post-modern or the intimacy and immediacy with which the daily facts of life in this country are brought to art.

Beyond that, as if it weren't enough, Domestic Economy forms the most penetrating and serious criticism, certainly the most creative, yet made of the major poet of our time, John Ashbury. I suspect Donlan is a young poet - all that one can learn from the biographical material accompanying the book is that he lives in London, Ontario, and has a silver tabby cat - but he is a young poet who has given himself the hardest task of all: to unlock the technical secret of a master with such absolute authority that he is free to speak as he will with it; to do in fact what the master himself seemed incapable of or unwilling to do. Like Ashbery's Shadow Train (1981), Domestic Economy is a sonnet sequence: fifty poems make up Shadow Train; Domestic Economyhas forty-nine. This sonnet form, of which there were two or three instances in Ashbery's earlier collections (though they attracted no attention as the possible solution to the problem of the sonnet, a form which English poetry seems not able to do either with or without for very long), is made up of four unrhymed quatrains, whose verse has completely abandoned a metrical base. Rhythm is controlled solely through phrasal patterns measured with exacting tact by enjambment and caesura: here is Donlan on the "Wire"

 Making choices, we flex risk like a muscle,
 launch out over the near-absolute zero
 between solitudes. Another day, another
 universe to feed like an insatiable child

 who forgets the last time he was full. 
 His attention wanders like a searchlight,
 hates shut doors more than a cat, barges in
 with wet feet, sings as it flies

 its spaceship into a de Kooning.
 The figures of grace we shape in the air
 are necessary.  That they're performance too
 makes them invitations to a brief

 freedom from what most people consider
 possible. After the show, let's have
 a drink: let's have whatever the spruces are having
 if it'll make us as wild as them.

The effect is an exhilarating release into intelligence and inclusiveness - this is a poetry whose door is always open - without surrendering any of the luminous pleasure that comes from tight formal beauty. The aesthetic gain of closure comes almost miraculously without that sense of things being forced or foreshortened: the "frantic completeness, as Ashbery described it in "Grand Galop", of Surrey who with Wyatt brought the sonnet into English.

 Let us find out, if we must be constrained,
 Sandals more interwoven and complete
 To fit the naked foot of Poesy:
 Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
 Of every chord, and see what may be gained
 by ear industrious . . . ,
         ("If by dull rhymes our English
           must be chained")

Keats proposed nearly two centuries ago, endeavouring as he said he was, "to discover a better sonnet stanza than we have." No poet in the language has had a more industrious ear than Ashbery's; there is a sense in which it might be said (he has archly said it himselo that as a poet he has done anything but listen, but of course it was the listening of genius, and the reward has been immense for the vitality of the art. There is no more going around Ashbery than there was a way to go around Wordsworth or Eliot. Ashbery is never mentioned inDomestic Economy, nor in any direct way alluded to, unless it be in an anonymous bit of verse, more or less Ashberyesque, which makes up the second quatrain of the first and title poem. Eliot said good (we would now say strong) poets steal, weaker ones borrowed. Domestic Economy is an appropriation of a form, not the imitation of a style. Far from being a piece of ventriloquism or tour de force of pastiche, Donlan's Domestic Economy grants the highest kind of confirmation to the older poet's technical discovery: it now belongs to the book of forms as solidly and as certainly as Milton's breaking the "turn" (volta) at the sestet in the Petrarchan sonnet.

Donlan's own discovery is that the form is not necessarily wedded to the notorious Ashberyian obscurity, that apparent flight from meaning, the "leaving out business", which has reduced more than one critic to complaining that often there is nothing more going on in his work than an airless, somewhat supercilious display of bravura syntax, signalling little beyond its own virtuosity. Sufficient acquaintance with all of his work would of course limit that view, but one knows where it comes from. By contrast Donland is as direct, real and as simply 'there' as the

 Cutlasses, Challengers, Z28's! - hard as
 the Precambrian Shield we abandon, leaving
 its lakes beaming along neglected sideroads ...
                        (Cold Pastoral)

At the same time the cars are wonderfully and distantly commented on by the title's allusion to Keats and by the full phrase, "Put up your bright/Cutlasses . . . ", where Othello steps in for a cameo appearance. Donlan is a post-modern, but his security in the canon is consummate. His is a world in which a meditation, witty as Donne but gentler, on the Heideggerean notion of Venvindung (the historical 'overcoming' or healing which recognises that health is a kind of belonging and the beginning of responsibility though of course Donlan breathes no word of Heidegger) begins in history and ends in the new A&P that has replaced the old pool hall:

                  Doctoring history
 is one way we keep the present manageable,
 racking the pool balls into a tight triangle

 before the next hard break shatters their order
 as'far as the table's rubber boundaries.
 The old poolhall, where so much that is irreplaceable
 happened is gone.  But in the new A&P some faces

 still shockingly connect. You hadn't expected
 so much to survive, the important parts, the human
 memories that contradict or duplicate yours,
 those others who contain you as they live.
                                   (The Past)

The pleonastic insistence of the book's title ("economy" is literally,oikos, nemein, domestic management) is deliberate. ehind it lies indeed plenty of "homework" of the other sort; though their names, like Heidegger's, are never mentioned, the intellectual presences of Levi-Strauss, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Kristeva, the whole poststructuralist pantheon can be felt, but in no conceivable way as intimidating. They have to rub shoulders with ". . . Ti-jean, Stompin Tom, What's-his-ears,/play[ing] it for us again in our cheap kitchens . . . " We have come perhaps to that "condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything)" which Eliot at the end of Four Quartets sets as the prerequisite to "arrive at where we started/And know the place for the first time."

Does anything know us better, more prophetically, or with more troubled love, than "Stable", written two years ago, the day after Canada day

There must be something I forget to worry about.
That panic trying to lodge behind your breastbone
is useful energy, like the Reversing Falls,
for the right person. Who are you, anyway?

After several days on the respirator your sense of identity
can slip, leaving all that buoyed you up
unknowable. You drown in your strange body,
a terrified machine among machines.

You come out of it a step closer to the stars,
each self a story among other stories.
It's surprising how little your spirit really needs:
my letters to Santa went into the stove,

blackened to negatives, restless, flew up the chimney
on hope to the North Pole. 0 Canada
during your fireworks last night
many of us felt ash fall on our upturned faces.

If Domestic Economy is apprentice work, it is the apprentice work of an enormous talent. For the moment we can only be grateful for the compensation and consolation it offers to a country that has all but lost its soul.