WOODCOCK, Poetry Column 1988, Issue 2




by George Woodcock

Ever since the 1940s when Alan Crawley ran his poetry magazine Contemporary Verse from the West Coast, British Columbia has been a place for poets to live and work. I can well remember the days in the 1960's when Earle Birney, Dorothy Livesay, Al Purdy, Margaret Atwood, John Newlove, Phyllis Webb and Milton Acorn could all be found in Vancouver. There is still a high West Coast population of poets and fortunately there are also dedicated local publishers who concentrate on bringing verse to whatever public there is for it.

Of twelve new books of poetry on the desk beside me, ten are collections of work by B.C. poets issued by B.C. presses.

The eleventh is David McFadden's fascinating suite of prose poems, Gypsy Guitar, by a poet from east of the Rockies brought out by a Vancouver house, Talonbooks a pleasant sign that while our loyalties may be provincial, our publishing is not parochial. The twelfth is Evolution in Every Direction by West Coaster Brian Brett, issued by Thistledown Press in Winnipeg; a collection that seeks the evocative correspondence between human mythology and the patterns inherent in the natural world.

Only one of the other poets is a newcomer to publication in book form. They vary from prolific bill bissett, who claims "over fifty published books of poetry" before his present collection, Animal Uproar, to newcomer Linda Wikene Johnson; her Showcase Animals offers plain-spoken, unpretentious poems that often transmit with a great poignancy the quality of the Fraser Valley landscape in which she lives, with its animal life and human society observed through the lens of compassionate involvement.

In a cover comment to one of these books, critic and poet Robin Skelton makes with his usual perceptiveness the distinction between poets who "report and comment" and those who "seek and find." He is defining rather than judging, and the definition is a useful one in considering the following books:

Helen Potrebenko's intensely polemical Life, Love and Unions, for example, tells one a great deal about the contemporary world seen from the viewpoint of a worker who is a woman: she writes some good poetry of protest but she does not go beyond or beneath the political viewpoint. Beth Jankola’s Shadows in the Glass shows the strong visual sense of the graphic artist she also is, but all is not surface, and there is also a verbal dexterity, an elusive wit, to her poetry that often dips and deepens below the imagist epidermis.

Carolyn Zonailo is a more emotional poet, soberer, less witty, yet in her Zen Forest she remains closely attached to physical presences, sensing their mana, and, despite her Buddhist title I would see her poetry as expressing a deep Taoist empathy with the natural world. A similar affinity with Asian attitudes appears in Allan Safarik's Advertisements for Paradise, a series of love poems in which, much as in Chinese poetry, visual images are used both for their own beauty and for what they imply.

All these poets, it seems to me, are in some way reporters and commentators, at best receiving echoes from the great collective unconscious rather than entering its depths. The other four poets I would class as "seekers and finders", poets who have gone beyond or below the immediate world of their perceptions and their personal emotions.
In Singing Rib, Linda Rogers takes the old myth of Genesis, Eden and the Fall, and presents it in a series of poems, often brief and gnomic; they are ordered in narrative form, but one can perhaps best read them as a series of variations presenting, from Eve's viewpoint, the dark awakening of self knowledge and self-consciousness.

St. John Simmons offers, in Driving Out the Angels, a less obvious structure of unity, moving through the symbolist device of correspondence rather than consequences to create an almost Platonic sense of the metaphysical forms embracing the apparent chaos of our existence.

Patricia Young takes us back to the narrative form in All I Ever Needed was a Beautiful Room, selected as the winner of this year's B.C. Book Prize for Poetry. In a series of monologues by the author and her characters, Young tells the pathetic rather than tragic story of the mid-century novelist Jean Rhys. The book is both tribute and elegy, perhaps more interesting as an act of empathy than as poetry.

Finally, there is The Classical Torso in 1980 by Diana Hayes; these are extremely skillful meditative poems emerging from the movement of thought between the serenities of the writer's coastal environment and her haunted psychic landscape. It is a book that offers itself for repeated reading and deeper understanding.

Gypsy Guitar, Talonbooks, $10.95
Evolution in Every Direction, Thistledown Press, $8.95
Animal Uproar, Talonbooks, $8.95
Showcase Animals, Oberon.
Live, Love and Unions, Lazara Publications, $7.95
Shadows in the Glass, Caitlin Press, $8.95
Zen Forest, Caitlin Press, $8.95
Advertisements for Paradise, Oolichan Books, $7.95
Singing Rib, Oolichan Books, $7.95
Driving the Angels Out, Pulp Press, $6.95
All I Ever Needed was a Beautiful Room, Oolichan, $7.95
The Classical Torso, Pulp Press, $6.95

[BCBW Summer 1988]