Allan Brown - Issue 107

Some West Coast Words

Burning Stone by Zoe Landale. Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 1995. 105 pp. $10.95.

The Centre by Barry McKinnon. Prince George, BC: Caitlin Press, 1995. 96 pp. $12.95.

The Edge of Time by Robin Skelton. Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 1995. 153 pp. $12.95.

Enchantment & Other Demons by Ron Smith. Lantzville, BC: Oolichan Books. 116 pp. $12.95.

Everything Arrives at the Light by Lorna Crozier. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1995. 152 pp. $14.99.

Kingsway by Michael Turner. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1995. 80 pp. $10.95.

Lonesome Monsters by Bud Osborn. Vancouver, BC: Anvil Press, 1995. 112 pp. $10.95.

Too Spare, Too Fierce by Patrick Lane. Madeira Park, BC: HarbourPublishing, 1995. 70 pp. $10.95.

To This Cedar Fountain by Kate Braid. Vancouver, BC: Polestar Book Publishing, 1995. 95 pp. $16.95.

A Way of Walking by Robin Skelton. Victoria, BC: Ekstasis Editions, 1995. 80 pp. $12.95.

In an essay with the intriguing title "Daylight In the Swamp," the poet and literary scholar Charles Lillard observed somewhat sententiously that "Poetry is the predominant feature of B.C.'s literary history." I agree, though I know a couple of novelists who might dispute the claim. It is, at least, sufficiently characteristic of this province's literary activity to serve as part for the whole.

And a part of that literary activity, if it is authentic and is to be sustained for any length of time, must be a certain degree of selfconsciousness, some kind of awareness of what it is and what it has been. The seminal work here is the anthology Contemporary Poetry of British Columbia (Sono Nis, 1973), edited by J. Michael Yates, Andreas Schroeder, and George McWhirter. Other collections like Robert Sward's Vancouver Island Poems (Soft Press, Victoria, 1973) brought many new writers together for the first time. The best known anthology from this period is probably Gary Geddes's Skookum Wawa; Writings of the Canadian Northwest (Oxford, 1976), in part, I suspect, through the marketing power of the publisher; yetthe carefully chosen Westem Windows: A Comparative Anthology of Poetry in British Columbia, edited by Patricia M. Ellis for CommCept, Vancouver (1977) is equally well worth perusal. Literary journals are as important in B.C. as anywhere else in the country, and Fred Candelaria's special issue of West Coast Review (XII/2, 1977) was published simultaneously in book form as the compendious New: West Coast / 72 Contemporary British Columbia Poets. The 1980s began with Robin Skelton's Six Poets of British Columbia (Sono Nis, 1980) and ended with Light Like a Summons, a collection of five women poets edited by J. Michael Yates (Cacanadadada, 1989) and Calvin Wharton and Tom Wayman's thematic volume East of Main: An Anthology of Poems from East Vancouver (Pulp, 1989) which contains work by Kate Braid, Bud Osborn, and Michael Turner.

One of the most varied and still usefully valid of the general collections is the West Coast Renaissance set of three linked issues of The Malahat Review (January, 1978; April, 1979; October, 1981) edited by Skelton and Lillard. In his extensive Comment to the first of these volumes Skelton offers a few critical guidelines, the most important (and typically contentious) being his emphatic statementthat "the poetry is symbolist ... the images attemptratherto express the numinous than to delineate the physical universe." A second, more particular (and somewhat safer) claim is that this urge appears most frequently "in terms of psychic, as distinct from psychological, adventures." He draws out some of the implications of that last term by further commenting that "All stories are legends in these parts, or at least a good story is regarded as good only if it has the potential of becoming legend."

In some ways these writings - Skelton's comments included form their own legends. At least, they can establish a particular shape or story for and about themselves - such as the collections of poetry bound singly that I have partially listed above, or a looser collection of collections such as the ten considered below. Three of them - The Edge of Time, To This Cedar Fountain, and Too Spare, Too Fierce - were shortlisted for the 1995 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Lane's book won it. These ten do not, of course, represent anything like a full survey of recent West Coast poetry; both Charles Lillard and Doug Beardsley, for instance, have recently published selecteds (with Sono Nis and Signal/Véhicule respectively) which now bring together significant amounts of material. But the samples here do open some independent yet still typical views and also show some interesting continuations and variations upon them.


Skeleton's distinction of psychic and psychological is particularly useful, I think, in responding to the work of Zoe Landale. In other hands, the impulse behind Burning Stone might degenerate into just one more dogged examination and exhumation of family roots. She is concerned, to be sure, with various members of her family, past and present, but in a disciplined and non-indulgent way. This is no mere loose, inchoate Life Writing, but rather a series of exercises in portraiture reminiscent of the heightened realism of artists like Christopher Pratt and Bruce St. Clair.

Landale usually concentrates on specific details to supply objective correlatives for her work of "exorcism," such as "the photograph / of my sixteen-year old Great-great-grandmother" suggestively marked "Circa 1850," or "My Great-grandmother's eyeglasses," or "My grandmother Minnie's diaries from 1917 to 1979" in the summarizing poem "My Beautiful Ghosts." Sometimes she creates an intentional confusion, as with the series of apparently random jottings about "Josie...... Cecil," and "Lorraine" in "The Old Vitriol," or more mysteriously with the anonymous suicide poem "Song of the River." More often, however, she will focus sharply upon one clearly delineated person, as with "Aunt Anne, Artist." An expansive image (a brief allegory, really) from this poem points out Landale's own artistic method:

 You separated beliefs and emotions neatly
 as a trout's backbone peels away from
 cooked flesh.

The nine-part title poem, the last in the section of the book called "Family," contains another example of this simple, yet almost unbearably tense domestic imagery. It begins casually, in a gently rocking, anecdotal style "Lunch was always the same / sliced hothouse tomatoes, the very best ground beef / orange Kraft dressing on both / with vanilla ice cream for dessert." T-ben comes the explanation of it all:

 The structure of meals a ritual which
 held back chaos

and then a final, flippant note to remark how this "ritual" (or perhaps the structure" itself) was the thing which "turned on the lights" and "made it look as though someone was home."

In her ongoing publications, Landale continues to manipulate and evoke this awesome clarity of description. The poem "Oatmeal Cookies," for instance, which appeared in the Autumn 1995 issue of Canadian Literature, casually records "the yellow radiance / the plastic mixing bowl makes against / the white counter."


Barry McKinnon achieves a similar effect of concentrated speech, paradoxically, by rigorously omitting just the sort of naturalistic detail that Landale dwells so carefully upon. His work is solitary in the richest sense, innerly directed without being solipsistic. As he states near the beginning of the longpoem "Arrhythmia":

 lost the natural world, - and
 must remake ourselves

The Centre is concerned with process rather than with product and moves characteristically, as the title poem has it, around "a centre to hold to when the / mind goes out of the heart, heart out of the mind."

The book is involved not so much with meaningful statements, though it never lacks for seriousness, as it is with statements about meaning. Not so much what, as how, for instance, "this part of the mind / is meaning," as he speculates in the poem "Railway," and then goes on to assert, or at least to accept that "the truth is... / a slightly twisted note not quite true."

Sometimes the shorter poems in The Centre manage to hold what he terms "a moment's connection" and maintain a fitful balance between analysis and image:

 not miserable
   but a sense of the end of things
 the baby wakes
         singing -
     ("Cabin": early morning/June)

But such moments pass quickly in McKinnons's fluid world: "your earlier life? images and thots just like now, but fewer words" ("Arrhythmia" Part II). This kind of metaphysical uncertainty can be confusing and Barry McKinnon's attenuated expression of it will not appeal to all readers, but it is at least consistent in its inconsistency and the sheer honesty of the book is unmistakeable.


In a sense, Robin Skelton's magisterial The Edge of Time takes McKinnon's forays around and within verbal abstraction one further step by inhabiting the realm of pure form. More simply, the book "makes poetry out of poetry," as Pat Lane puts it in his back-cover note, by employing and adapting various traditional verse structures from around the world.

Skelton has been experimenting with - or for him a better term would be, enjoying - a variety of verse forms, especially Greek and Welsh, for many years. His 2OO Poemsfrom the Greek Anthology appeared in 1971 and there is an example of englyn milwr, a Welsh triplet form, in the New: West Coast anthology. More recently, hisPopping Fuchias (Ronsdale, 1992) explores a variety of European forms, both familiar and relatively unfamiliar, as well as some of his own modifications of them. The poems in The Edge of Time are set out in six sections, including an "Indian Interlude" with examples of the bipartite doha, and the ovi quatrains which sound, in Skelton's version anyway, rather like rhyming sapphics. (A proper set of these also appears in the book as "The Isles of Greece.") The collection ends with some translations, mostly from the French modernists.

Yet however many countries and cultures he chooses to visit, Skelton's poetry here is as essentially symbolist in impulse, I think, as anywhere else, and in his own words, continuously striving to "express the numinous." He reflects in "Crawlspace" (an example of the Welsh gwawdodyn) on the implications of "scarred wood and stone." The poem combines atentative optimism, "as I gope ahead/clumsy with apprehension" with grimly understated fearfulness:

 What do I seek?  I have forgotten.
 Above my head the old house holds its tongue.
 Light shifts, shudders. Time remains a prison.

He deals more directly with this transformation in "Slow Music," a curtal sonnet dedicated to Murray Adaskin, where he states how "Each heard note [is] a footfall felt and known, / a comprehension of the weight of things." His method of confronting time and change extends also to persons. In "Her," an Italian sestet, he recalls a loved one, imperfectly yet with sufficient clarity and strength to finally understand that:

 it was she who brought me to
 the edge of time where I could see
 creation's moment rolling by.


There are different ways of "pursu[ing] dreams over the edges of time," as Ron Smith points out in his thematic "Naming the Song." Smith is concerned often in Enchantment & Other Demons with social issues and exhibits a broad compassion that I find strongly reminiscent of the late Tom Marshall. In the two-part elegy "Fires of Chernobyl," he demonstrates that the political is finally the personal. He addresses an unknown and unnamed victim in a way that leads us toward a general understanding of victimization and something of a possible victory:

 in going into the inferno, into the dead
 zone invisible as it is, you have healed
 my mind and closed the wound.

          ... may your spirit live here
 and others find it green and growing and

Aseries of prose poems or lyrical parables in the last half of the book establish Smith's insights into the writing process in general and many of the concerns of Enchantment & Other Demons in particular. "Arabesque," a revision of the longer A Buddha Named Baudelaire (Sono Nis, 1988), develops acomplex allegory of life and artby exploring human relationships. There is a distinct French flavour here, with the Baudelaire allusion, Rimbaud-like statements ("Assassins are rarely careless"), and a repeated image of "white sheets, white bodies, white paper" that effectively ties the piece together, repeating and expanding the famous "pages of a book" image which ends Valery's "Le Cimetière Marin." Smith's method here is to move out of himself, as with the Chernobyl poems, in order to more clearly present what he alone, of course, can present. It is a kind of artistic anonymity, akin to what Keats spoke of as the poet's necessary "negative capability." The method appears again in "Naming the Song," dedicated to Robert Kroetsch, a well-turned, friendly parody of Kroetsch's familiar catalogue poems. In describing his "friend's" style, Smith in fact describes his own: "my friend, Empedocles discovered the invisible air; / you, in turn, fill our mouths with words and waggle / our tongues with the world's invisible songs."


There is certainly nothing anonymous about the familiar poetic persona of Lorna Crozier. The symbolic and immediately assertive centre of her new book is the 17-poem ghazal sequence "If I call stones blue," published independently as a chapbook called Eye Witness (Reference West, 1993). The multiple puns of the earlier title - I/eye/witnessing/etc. - emphasize the notions of seeing sharply and newly that all the work in Everything Arrives at the Light touches on in one way or another. The visionary statements in the ghazals are both negative, "Gardens everywhere even when you cannot see them," and positive:

 Two strange hearts
          drift in feather boats
 across your sight.

The titles of other poems also emphasize this concern - "My Sister's Eyes...... Seeing [my emphasis] My Father in the Neighbour's Cockatoo," "Too Much Brightness," or "What the Eye Lets Go" with its deft blend of the elements of water and air as "the eye // releases this minnow-quick breath from its net."

The book ends with several narrative or quasi-narrative poems. Some of these, like "Fire Breather" (dedicated to Patrick Lane) and "The Travelling Poet," are in the confessional mode that characterized much of herearlier writing. Others work more objectively with traditional materials, such as "The Swan Girl," a sensitive re-telling of the Leda story, or "Noah's Wife," a monologue that could have come directly from the Chester pageant. Li its medieval predecessor, Crozier's poem deftly blends (visionary) romance - "the foxes's flaming tails, the eyes / of owls, pools of pure light" - and (equally visible) realism: "After a week at sea the air smelled / of rotting pomegranate and banana."

Crozier is further exploring narrative territory with her recent workin-progress A Staving Grace: The Collected Poems of Mrs. Bentley, a poetic recasting of Sinclar Ross' As For Me and My House, that is beginning to appear in periodical format. It will be interesting to see how she relumes one of our best-known novels.


I am tempted to say that everything in Michael Turner's Kingsway either arrives at or departs from the stop light. This is Tumer's third collection, following Company Town (1991) and Hard Rock Logo (1993). The three books bear an interesting relationship: the first explored the life and death of an imaginary but accurately representative fish cannery settlement in the Skeena River area of B.C.'s northern coast and the second followed the eccentric path of four rock and roll performers through a series of large and small towns. Kingsway is set in Vancouver or, more accurately, on the city's oldest thoroughfare. The book itself is set out in three sections: the ten-part longpoem "Kingsway," a sequence of "15 Poems About Kingsway," and "Yjngsway: A re: Development Project," consisting of 21 separate pieces, each with a title taken from the work of another B.C. poet, usually someone associated with Vancouver.

Turner frequently renders the street and its activities through a kind of mechanical repetition of phrase. In part iv of the "Kingsway" section, for instance, he imitates the clatter, hiss and whine of automobiles as well as making an unmistakeable statement about the culture they represent:

 the boardwalk
  the bored walk
   the low-rise
    the highway
     the stagecoach
      another stage
       the pit-stop
        the piss-stop
         the piss-up

The calmer, more reflective poems in the sequence identify themselves with and as the mechanical metaphor: "this will always be / driving the reading." The poem "And Sad Sorrow Walks My Salary" (whose title is taken from "Chronicles" by Judy Radul) in the third section of the book generalizes this notion further:

 the logo the product the text
 all suggest poetry as
 an organizational model
 a navigable way of arriving at

The book thus becomes both an assertion and a representation of its ostensible subject, with street becoming city becoming knowable ("logo[s]") world.

For all its vitality, though, this world is endured rather than enjoyed. I suggested in an earlier survey of West Coast poetry ("Of Mountains and Mirages," in Quarry 44/1) that Michael Tumer's first two books project a tragic vision. It now seems to me that Kingsway extends or, rather, modulates this to an essentially satiric point of view akin to the classical metropolitan scourgings of Horace and Juvenal.

Turner seems also to be developing a species of urban-based surrealism, partly paralleling the work of George Bowering (most recently in Urban Snow) or the metaphysical cityscapes of Norm Sibum (Among Other Howls In the Storm, and later collections). It is interesting to contrast the implications of these developments with the position taken earlier by Robin Skelton (in the Comment I cited above) that "the west coast imagination today [1978] is obsessed with the natural world and with the rural community, rather than with the urban scene." There is still truth in this observation, of course (though "obsessed" may be too strong a term), and significant examples of it in the ongoing work of Charles Lillard, say, or Harold Rhenisch; but it is also true that some West Coast poets are usefully pursuing their craft within as well as without the city limits.


Bud Osborn is one of these. Like the turner of Hard Core Logo, he glories in an on-the-road persona, "& a ride of a thousand miles ... with / sawed-off shotgun & reinforced grille" ("drapetomania"). Like Turner also, though with more than a hint of Ginsberg behind him, he employs the iterative effect of the catalogue poem to recreate the cacophony of "downtown eastside sidewalks" with their load of "those who wear the violent evenings / on faces bruised black & purple // & those crawling drunk & sick // & those who fall or get pushed or raving leap" ("down here").

Though the intensity of the violence of Osborn's street sights is unaltered throughout Lonesome Monsters, its forms of expression shift intriguingly from that of the Kerouac-like prose poem and the catalogues of "down here" and "keys of kingdoms" to a scattering of provocative, rather Chaplinesque haiku:

 who do you
 for real change?

This lyrical impulse appears also in the rather improbable but very effective dactylic rhythms of "drifting": "after the morning meal at the mission / I drift through the city / ...riding park benches and reading poe." The companionship of that gentle master of the macabre is certainly apt.


Bud Osborn's grim view of the human condition compares interestingly to that of Patrick Lane. Too Spare, Too Fierce, Lane's 22nd volume, consistently exhibits the formal control that is a product of three decades of sustained versecraft. There are many familiar touches here: the unexpected revelation that "What the body forgets is / what memory is" ("These Ones"); the clear, naturalistic description of the "Cougar" who "before she falls from her high limb / holds for one moment the ponderosa pine"; and even occasionally a touch of parody, as with the Purdyesque "the body full of whiskey ... pissing on the dead roses" ("Musical Phrase"). He is also and more seriously aware of his literary predecessors and honours the novelist Howard O'Hagan whose Tay John(1939) is so close in spirit to much of Lane's own work, with the softly brooding elegy "The Story In His Bones."


There is a great deal of energy in Too Spare, Too Fierce. There is also a peculiar tension, a kind of anger (the "ferocity" of the title?) that seems to be in some way self-directed, or directed at least toward a new (more "spare"?) self image. His second Selected Poems (Oxford, 1987, succeeding the Poems New & Selected of 1978) showed a movement away from the early rages and broadly based satire in such books as Albino Pheasants and Unborn Things to a more contemplative verse. This inclination to abstraction continued and possibly culminated with the booklength sequence Winter (Coteau, 1990). Now, at age 56, Lane seems to be engaged in a new, or at least in another, personalization. His recent series of prose "Memory writings," as he terms them ("Lives of the Poets" and others), withtheiroddyetcompellingblendofnaturalism andphantasmagoria, move in a similar, rather wayward direction, juggling his personae.


There i s a similar dialectic - or perhaps here, a confusion - of identities in Kate Braid's second book of poetry, To This Cedar Fountain, an exploration of the life and work of Emily Carr. Carr's painting has often provoked poetic reactions and replications such as the individual pieces by Charles Lillard ("Scorned As Timber") and Wilfred Watson ("Emily Carr"), both printed in the Skookum Wawa anthology; or more complexly in John Barton's book-length collection, West of Darkness (Penumbra, 1987). More recently, and much closer to Braid's work, is the evocation of Emily's voice by the Alberta short story writer Rebecca Luce-Kapler, in her extended poem "Finding the Space to Paint Among All These Humans" (Event, Spring, 1996).

To This Cedar Fountain is constructed as a loose narrative in five parts, or "a dialogue with Emily," as Braid describes it in her Foreward, partly by means of excerpts from Emily Carr's journals. The technique is similarto thatof Margaret Atwood in The Journals of Susanna Moodie, and indeed Kate Braid has borrowed an effect (the resurrected artist) from the conclusion of Atwood's book.

The individual poems fit well together but their particular effects are sometimes uneven. Braid's subjective stance and use of homely imagery can sometimes produce startling openings like:

 Emily, I could taste you,
 the salad of your palette,
 bitter chocolate of tree trunks
          ("British Columbia Forest")

At other times though, her familiar populist, prosy tone - "Its down-to-the-core-and-bursting, boys / with a lets-get-on-with-it-quick / kind of energy" - does scarce justice to its subject, the complex interweavings of Carr's late "Cedar" of 1942. Often the weaknesses and strengths of Braid's approach come close together, as when the clich6d "Alice through a West Coast looking glass" goes on to discover "the only way out, / a rough road leading perhaps / to treasure, green and powerful" ("i.e. Forest, British Columbia).


This search for a naming of the "road" or the "way" may well be one of the most illuminating, as well as probably one of the most pervasive images or image clusters in the work of these poets. It certainly provides a convenient transition to the last I will look at. A Way of Walking is the second of Robin Skelton's recent collections, followingIslands (Ekstasis, 1993), to consist of "Poems in the traditional forms and metres of Japan."

The most easily recognizable of these forms, which include exotics such as the Katauta, imayo, and mondo, are the five-line tanka and the threeline haiku or senryu. One of these last, for instance, neatly echoes the general concerns of The Edge of Time:

 A thread-bome spider,
 dropping deftly as time,
 stops just short of my hand.

The precisely maintained syllable count of these verses - the 5+7+7 pattern of sedoka, forinstance-emphasizestheequallyprecisedescriptions:

 On the tiled roof ridge
 a casual bright-eyed crow
 extends an eclectic claw.
                      ("In Oak Bay")

However, even with his concern for such details and carefully applied metrical dexterity, it is clear that Skelton is more interested in adapting these forms to his purposes, than his purposes to the forms. Indeed, as he points out in rather school-masterish tones: "I have not followed any prescriptions concerning the subject matter appropriate for each form with any regularity." West and East do meet in A Way of Walking, but only glancingly. If Skelton's work here bears any persistent relationship to the classic Japanese masters, it is to the sophisticated pictorial techniques and rather rarefied aesthetic positions of Buson, rather than, say, Basho's rough mysticism or the simple humanitarianism of Issa. Yet he appears to be quite content now merely to be himself and the dominantly elegiac concerns of this volume often turn inward, though always with a typical quixotic humour:

 My poems are growing smaller:
 it appears appropriate
 as the years ahead dwindle
 and my breath shortens.
               ("Reflective Footnote"

The eight B.C. publishers I have drawn from for this brief survey continue to actively support poetry, even though they may not always make very much money from it. There are also many smaller firms in the province who specialize in chapbook production, like Gorse Press, The Hawthorne Society/Reference West, and Outlaw Editions. As well, there are a number of individual poetry broadsides issued from time to time from such independents as High Ground Press, located somewhat to the south of Powell River and operated by Theresa Kishkan and John Pass.

And of course new work always continues to appear in the literary journals, both in province (such as Canadian Literature, Event, The Malahat Review, and many others) and out of province. Out of country too, for that matter - such as "Cartier's Glossary," a poem by John Pass which came out a while back in Poetry Ireland. John's playfully serious or seriously playful paradox on the name and nature of some (at least) literary matters will provide an apt ending to this study of some West Coast Words:

 but now "Word" is his last word, his horizon.