WOODCOCK, Poetry Column 1989, Issue 3




IN CHINA, DURING HAPPIER SEASONS OF apparently expanding freedom, I came across an interesting essay in which the writer, a Chinese poet, stood up to attack his own tradition.

This poet argued that by their oblique methods of inference -- using images rather than the statement and argument of great European poetry classic Chinese poets had produced work of lesser magnitude, tied to passing impressions and therefore never attaining the grandeurs of European poetry at its best.

If one compares Milton or Dante with even a fine Chinese poet like Li Po, certainly there is in their work a sweep of metaphysical power that the Chinese lack.

The Chinese, having swallowed a meal of nineteenth-century European metaphysics (Hegel-and-Marx) that sits uneasily in their Tao-trained minds, have recently come to a position western poets have long abandoned, that of the bard as political or metaphysical teacher.

At the same time western poets have been turning, ever since Ezra Pound but increasingly these days, to the classic Chinese view of the poet as a medium through whom the voices of the natural world speak in their own tones.

The books I am reviewing this time round are unobtrusively' oriented' towards the Chinese tradition. Fred Candelaria, founder and longtime editor of West Coast Review, has come up with Chinese Chamber Music (Cacanadadada $9.95), a book quite unlike anything he has written in the past. Sometimes the items so closely resemble familiar Chinese poems that at first sight they seem to be translations, through one can remember no known originals.

In the double quatrain, "Li ChingChao", he writes:

He hears her move behind the screen but cannot would not see
through silk & bamboo
such delicacy
her silence is a perfumed fence exciting blinded touch
to read the unwritten
& lift the latch.

Michael Bullock's poems in Vancouver Moods (Third Eye) are the notations of a walker in Vancouver's parks and gardens, proceeding through the environment and passively recording its moods. This is not metaphysical but rather philosophic poetry, seeking the immanent rather than the transcendent.

In the process the poet tends to humanize the natural world and its creatures in ways that academic critics have long condemned as a "pathetic fallacy"the attribution of human feelings to to inhuman entities, animate or inanimate. But when, as in Taoism or in the animist cults of so-called primitive peoples, man belongs to the same continuum as other beings, the objections to such a viewpoint vanish.

So Michael Bullock moves like a sensitive membrane through the parks and gardens, absorbing their moods, as he does in "Sleeping River By the Fraser".

Evening--the river
sleeps in its bed
dreaming of fish and flowers
Gently
its green hair drifts
I walk on tiptoe.
The man walks, aware of the river's dreaming, in a relationship no classic Chinese poet would despise.

A remarkable little anthology, Light Like A Summons (Cacanadadada $12.95), contains the work of five women poets, Mary Choo, Margaret Fridel, Eileen Kernaghan, Sue Nevil and Laurel Wade. Edited and afterworded by J. Michael Yates perhaps to remove any suspicion of female chauvinismare titles like "By the Pond at Liu Pei T'ing", and "The Idea of Order in a Chinese Landscape".

Light Like A Summons is a true jeu d'esprit a remarkable collection of poems by writers who have not yet published volumes of their verse but who all seem on the verge of good careers. Good as the other contributions may be, it is the poetry of Eileen Kernaghan that seems to dominate Light Like a Summons, both quantitatively and in terms of poetic capability and ease.

She projects a living imaginative world, and she can declare her derivations and show them to be absorbed. As example of influence transfigured IS her last poemalso the last in the book--"Five Haiku".

at dawn
she plucks one faded petal
from the winter plum
green silk
shaken out to air on hedgerows ...another April
night river
the homed moon
tangled among reeds
harvest home
in ancient fields ..
the ceremonial fires snow on the night wind
this is the last station: here the track vanishes

Finally, a book in quite another category is The Grandmother's Poems Poemas de la Abuela (Workshop of Popular Salvadoran Literature, Write-on Press, Box 86606, North Van, B.C. V7L 4L2) by Maria Luise Villacorta. Villacorta is a refugee from E1 Salvador, born in the distant year of 1912 (a year that brought both Irving Layton and the present writer into the world).

She was a working class activist in EI Salvador who had been composing songs from her half-literate childhood. What she writes and offers in The Grandmother's Poems is the kind of verse intended for oral presentation that was developed from the late nineteenth century onwards among working class movements in the Latinspeaking countries.

This is defiant, resonant poetry (not many nuances but surprising moments of tenderness), rhetorically extravagant and exciting to hear, but highly vulnerable to critical analysis, since all it projects are grievances and primitive utopian visions.

It is in translation that such work usually falls down, since there have been no equivalent forms in English. since the days of the Wobbly bards three quarters of a century ago. In the original The Grandmother's Poems convey something of the vigour of a Latin American resistance movement. They are translated, alas, into the flat, dull, repellent jargon of North American present-day radicalism.

If you know a little Spanish, read the originals to admire the Grandmother's spirit and to get a real flavour of old-fashioned revolutionary rage.

Among George Woodcock's several new titles this year is a collection of essays inspired by quotations, Powers of Observation (Quarry Press).

[BCBW Autumn 1989]