Allan Brown - Issue 112

Cities and Citizens

Toward A Catalogue of Falling by Méira Cook. London, Ont.: Brick Books, 1996.109 pp., $12.95.

Rush Hour by Kevin Fitzpatrick. St. Paul, Minn.: Midwest Villages & Voices, 1997. 82 pp., $9.00.

Hearthedral: A Folk-Hermetic by Phil Hall. London, Ont.: Brick Books, 1996. 105 pp., $12.95.

Nothing Vanishes by Robert Hilles. Toronto: Wolsak and Wynn, 1996. 95 pp., $12.00.

Rifts in the Visible / Fêlures dans le visible by Inge Israel. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 131

The Colour of Flight by Linda Waybrant. Toronto: Wolsak and Wynn. 96 pp., $12.00.

Some clichés are worth repeating. Both the much tried and sometimes true "The personal is the political" and its revisionist cousin "The political is the personal" kept echoing as I read, remembered, and then revisited these six collections of poetry that each in its way moves sometimes easily, sometimes uneasily through the rich dialectic of person and polis.

Méira Cook both observes and newly creates an engagingly lopsided society. This witty and well-varied collection was short listed for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. It is her second full-length book, following A Fine Grammar of Bones (Turnstone, 1993) and the chapbook the ruby garotte (disorientations, 1994). Her latest work maintains a nice balance of energy and control which may reflect Cook's experience as a poetry reader for the Winnipeg-based litmagPrairie Fire.

Aquality of learned playfulness is apparent in much of her writingShe employs a complex of circus/clown images in the open-ended prose poem "And now":

  let's us two clowns go halvsies 
  i have a nose a pair of shoes a string 
  of pearls that die if they're ignored

And in the more closely wrought, lyrical lament "the clowns are dying": "all over the world their faces / ajar luminous as dials under their wigs charred." She is clearly aware of her debt here to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's symbolic use of the acrobat as artist in his poem "constantly risking absurdity" and jauntily acknowledges and asserts her debt with the feminine rewrite of:

  gaudy she stands on one 
  leg on a painted horse the circus 
  is language too
          ("this way to the bamum & bailey").

Other aspects of her work apparent in Toward a Catalogue of Falling include the quiet, allegorical description of "Vertical cities" that "slide off their mountains and into the sea," as well as the populist, rather sentimental stance of the four-part performance piece "String Quartet." For a writer who appears to rely chiefly on gamesmanship, Cook is still also capable of some old fashioned rhetoric, as with the resonant display of "Rumours of bear in this lapsed valley / of uninflected pine, the lucid stones / cut slant."

There are many rings in her poetic circus and she manages to keep them all active without a stumble.

Like Méira Cook, the American poet Kevin Fitzpatrick can also bring a critical eye to his own work, though with considerably more experience, for he was editor of the Lake Street Review (St. Paul, Minnesota) for fourteen years. He has also been long involved with The Writer's Almanac and Weekend Edition programmes of Minnesota Public Radio. A deep concern with both people and polis is evident throughout his work.

As in his earlier collection Down on the Corner, Fitzpatrick provides a close, careful, yet compassionate look at his fellow citizens, presenting them always as individuals of one sort or another, but always also as part of a larger whole. The central section of the new book, Pedaling Back, contains a number of vivid evocations of past scenes. The unchanging tensions of adolescence are well caught in "A Gathering in the South High Parking Lot" as "Guys in jean jackets and smudged pants" are seen 11 slouching / near, but never on, a '73 Chevy." The youths are shown with a neatly balanced ironic sympathy that observes but does notjudge. A more complex observation occurs in the final poem of the collection, "Rush Hour," in which another adolescent appears, "slim with long blond hair," looking "eighteen or so in black T-shirt and jeans." But he is poised, a potential suicide, on a bridge over the freeway. The poet halts, hesitates, then continues on his way with the practical knowledge that "I'm no help here" and also with the deeper knowledge that "Both life and death have contracts out on him." On the poet, of course, as well as the young man.

Sometimes these multiple sympathies, along with the continuous strength and integrity of the individual, can be seen indirectly and by implication. Fitzpatrick's quietly defiant "Starting Over" begins with a kind of positive vacancy:

  My dream is simply to go,
  with the door wiae open, the TV blaring,
  my money scattered across the dresser,

  grabbing nothing,
  not even consulting a map,
  destination unknown.

The negative, indifferent forces of the city and the materialistic society behind it are presented in the concluding lines of the poem as:

  Let the landlord think
  I've gone for cigarettes.

  At rent time he'll remove the remains
  to a locker in the cellar.

More thanjust a good read, though it is certainly that; more also than merely the sound of another voice, even one with a Minnesota accent; Rush Hour provides one of the best reasons for literary cross-border shopping that I've experienced in a long while.

And talking of borders, I first encountered Phil Hall as a poet of Detroit-as seen from Windsor, Ont., where he lived for many years. I was guest editor for two issues of Nebula featuring writing on the theme of Cities and used his ironic pastoral "Ducks on the Detroit River: A Water Colour." With a typical reversal of roles, he perceived the birds as themselves perceiving: "The ducks / noticed the open ground. / Their eyes / blur each form that towers and shadows" (Nebula 14: Cities, 1980). The transformative power of perception hinted at here characterizes much of his other writing and thoroughly informs Hearthedral.

Hall's satirical touches are as deft (or "spry," to use his term) as ever in the new work, with memorable glimpses of dimly repetitive city life and living conditions: "each icecube in its bachelorette / each egg in its condominium." He sees, questions, and describes a society that often seems incapable of describing itself in a way that is both literal-historical and mythical at once.

Much of the scaffolding for this [c] ... a ... thedral (the pun is necessary, of course) comes appropriately from other writers, such as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, well known for their large and humane sympathies. "Where's Huck got to?" Hall asks, and again "here's / Micawber I think." He invokes poets also, with quotations and references extending from the "impalpable sustenance" of Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Bridge" to Woody Guthrie's ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd. Other American ancestral voices come from Hart Crane's The Bridge and, unavol 'dably, the Cantos of Ezra Pound. His near and Canadian precursors are the Dave Godfrey of /Ching Kanada and the Michael Ondaatje of In the Skin of a Lion.

And, yes, there are times here when the reader is tempted to ask, "where's Hall got to?" His voice is intriguingly, if sometimes somewhat confusingly, both individual and social, even composite. He muses upon this mixed point of view in the elegiac prose section "Epham Nanny":

 We speak from within a stillness that comes 
 of carrying run-toground sorrow fervently, 
 as if it were the last live coal of this 
 species.  If I carry my sorrow-ember far and 
 long enough it ceases to be my personal sorrow.

This and similar considerations of a felt, or at least a hoped for, consensus appear from time to time in the book and hint at some form of an individuated community; or as he put it in his earlier collection Old Enemy Juice (Quary 1988): "Inventing an inside / that is open to everyone" ("Swoop").

Much-indeed, I would say, more-of such openness is present in Robert Hilles's eleventh book Nothing Vanishes. While Hall strives with large and multiple gestures to erect a heart's cathedral, Hilles is content to wander quietly through chapels of his own competent construction. Loma Crozier claims as the special quality of his work here that: "he fashions poems that manage to be both domestic and sacred at the same time." He does, of course; but he fashions them also with an effectively combining, single and multiple awareness that represents his own version of the individual and the social.

The first section of the book, Blue Mud, provides several good examples of such interactions. The title poem of the book, for instance, is an apparently simple, reflective narrative that describes how


  My mother picks mushrooms
  out in the bush, small hands 
  reaching between the thistles 
  perfectly, never once getting 

The poet himself appears both as a character immediately involved in the story- "she / offers me one and I look at it / for awhile and then / put it in my mouth"-and, later, as the narrator of it: "Opening my eyes / the city looks aimless as it / vanishes at the horizon." The horizon itself expands farther, contracts, and finally centres upon: "my mother moving about/ her small house as if / she were already in heaven."

The second section of the book, There Are Horses, contains more abstract material. Some of this deals with the nature of perception which, forhilles, is as much about whatcannotbe seen as what can: "All is hidden. / Including what bodies are / and how they stand / so gently in a landscape" ("Hidden"). The concluding section, Invisible World, continues to explore modes of perception, but modulates from abstraction to a kind of mild expressionism:

  A small girl is chased 
  by a dog with three legs... 
  In the girl's eyes the dog 
  can see the sky and behind it
  a face he should know but doesn't
           ("The Wind Inside").

Hilles then balances this extravagance toward the end of the volume with the simpler statements of "Last Words to a Father" where: "You will stare at the empty chair. The house quiet on a quiet street. Off in the distance a dog will bark at someone."

For all the apparent shifts of style or points of view in the collection, all these forms of statement are fully typical of this poet with his persistently sophisticated yet humble attitude that sees, records, and then wanders quietly away again.

"Mild" or "quiet" are the last words that could be used to characterize Inge Israel's expressionistic techniques in Rifts in the Visible which brings together forty-five poems in parallel English and French versions that recount the life and work of the Russian-bom painter Chaim Sou'tine, along with other artists such as Modigliani, Chagall, and lipschitz. The volume also contains eight colou rreproductions of Soutine's lyaintings. It is a powerful if somewhat confusing evocation of his "emotionally charged colours," as Israel herself describes them. She has also explored this subject in prose with her radio play "Wild Rhythm," which appeared in The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature (No. 27, 1996).

Modigliani appears both as a character in the play and as a passing reference in the poem "Mademoiselle Garde." Marc Chagall takes a more significant role in this cityscape as he "spreads his memories / on endless feast tables / weddings holy days / one or two pogroms thrown in" ("Memories"). The ironic juxtaposition here is typical of Soutine's world view-or perhaps, more accurately, of Inge Israel's view of him and his world. A similar blend of the lyrical and the grotesque appears in the psychological study "Must Waif' ("II faut que j'attende") as the painter perceives:

  at first slow to warm 
  to melt icy blue remnants 
  of winter's glare, 
  beguilingly wraps itself 
  over surfaces like a spider 
  spinning silken threads
  around its victim before
  injecting the venom 
  that will preserve it 
  for slow consumption

Soutine's techniques a painter are replicated to some extent by the verbal method of the poems. The in-your-face vulgarity of his 1924 oil "Boeuf écorché" ("Carcass of Beef'), one of the plates in this volume, is re-created in the abrupt beginning of: "of courseRembrandt's "Slaughtered-Ox" / is magnificent!" followed by the hushed tones of "but I want to show / all of Paris in this slab of beef..." and concluding with a crudely casual reference to "the fresh blood / from the slaughterhouse" that he requires to "touch up / the rotting parts // and get on with my work."

It may be uncharitable to complain of a lack of plot I' me or even of much recoverable personal and historical matrix for these suggestive and often brilliant pieces, but in spite of her Introduction and a few endnotes, it is often very difficult to even tentatively locate them within Soutine's life and world. The play "Wild Rhythm" provides a useful background and leads in to this sometimes overwhelming vision and it might be appropriate to have it, or something similar to it, attached to a reprint of the collection.

Although both Inge Israel and Linda Waybrant deal with city life, there is a clear contrast between the "living throbbing" Parisian scenes ("Arrival") of Rifts in the Visible and the continuously shifting, unspec'fiable memories and images of The Colour of Flight.The personal aspects are different too, as Soutine and his fellow artists roil through a world of vivid, slashing colours, and Waybrant's quiet, rather wistful "I" inhabits a shadow place of hints and uncertainties.

Her impressively professional first book exposes the painful facts of an abusive childhood situation too complex to summarize here, by means of discontinuous narratives and carefully elided sequences. This is confessional poetry in the general tradition of Anne Sexton and others; and, like her predecessors, Waybrant is much concerned with "telifing] her story" and helping herself-sometimes identified as "she," sometimes as "I"-as well as the readerto "see the unimaginable" and by that act of seeing somehow find and fill "the empty space of understanding" ("The Colour of Flight"). The book is deeply self-reflective and acutely aware of the difficulties inherent in its own explorations when memories are "not reliable" ("Gifts 4: Grandfather's Funeral") and where movement is always in some sense distant or transient:

  You went to live somewhere else 
  with people who were much older
  but it didn't last more than a few weeks
                            ("Exodus I ").

The goal of the "she" or "child" of the title poem is a place of absence as much as presence, a "landscape" which is:

  too often defined by what it lacks
  a story-
  of a sinall dark place
  where a child tries to keep something warm.

This landscape is often, as I have mentioned, a cityscape which can be both mundanely literal-"crossing streets / through traffic / across parking lots"-and hauntingly metaphoric, "navigating the edge / the line between daylight / & the gasping for breath" ("Nothing Ever Warm Again").ThefugitivepresenceofLindaWaybrant's "I/she/child" throughout this unnamed, ubiquitous city is a unique creation, yet equally effective in its own rather ghostly way as the sardonic clown figures of M6ira Cook, the shrewdly observed adolescents of Kevin Fitzpatrick, the postmodern chock-a-block civic cosmos of Phil Hall, the decorously enspirited family of Robert Hilles, or the lurid "images taillées" ("Graven Images") of Inge Israel.