WOODCOCK, Poetry Column 1990, Issue 3




Walker's suitcase a basement success

THIS ISSUE I CAN WRITE WITH MUCH appreciation of three new poetry books; Victoria Walker's Suitcase (Gorse Press $6), Sharon Thesen's The Pangs of Summer (M&S $12.95) and Christopher Wiseman's Missing Persons (Sono Nis $7.95).

Suitcase was published in a limited edition of 126 copies by Barry McKinnon, a veteran small press man, at his Gorse Press c/o 1420 Gorse St., Prince George, V2L 1G3, with a supplementary printing of 100 after it won the Dorothy Livesay B.C. Book Prize for Poetry in 1990.

I always distrust book prizes, which depend so very much on the limitations of the judges; I know that when I've received them personally, they have not been awarded for my best books. Still on this occasion I do think the judges picked a real winner, a poet passionately interested in the craft as well as the inspiration, a poet who—the internal evidence of the work suggests—has waited a long time before committing herself to paper.

Walker's poems are often virtuoso performances with elaborate structures, like "Learning the Alphabet," with its 25 five-line stanzas in each of which the lines all begin with the same letter. The very nature of their form makes them hard to quote in a way that shows their wit and fine feeling and sheer skill.

I hope Barry McKinnon will publish an unlimited edition of Suitcase, for it is a book that should be read by many people including other beginning poets, but he is a full time teacher who operates his press without grants.

"Ironic that bookstores aren't really interested in this kind of publishing or content until they get orders because said book wins a prize," McKinnon reports. "It's not their fault. I just don't intend to distribute on a commercial level or solicit bookstore support.

"Gorse is a simple basement press—you know the story."

Alberta's Christopher Wiseman started writing in England, but Sono Nis in Victoria publishes him, which gives him something like squatter's rights in this column. He is a strongly reflective poet. One senses the distant influence of Wordsworth, a touch of his sententiousness as well as an acute sense of the poetry trapped in ordinary things.

As the title suggests, there is a great deal of nostalgia about this book by Wiseman. He has grown elderly since he first contacted me on coming from England in 1969, and many of these poems are about visits to haunts of boyhood and youth, or about
people who have dropped out of life but not out of memory. The poems have curious scope, from those that strive to reach the young to others that look forward into the doomed and weakened reaches of old age.

The following sonnet, "Reunion, Age 79", gives the flavour of his perception, his somewhat old-fashioned grace.

How casually we let them go,
the friends
From early life. And too often it's for good. So with these two, since 1927,
But now they're meeting again
when they are old,
By Exeter Cathedral. Smiles,
small cries
Of delight as they hold on to each
other, look
Hard into eyes, all the years to
squeeze
Away, lives to connect like the end
of a book.
Soon afterwards came word that one
had died,
Run over on the road close to her
house,
Not nimble, unprepared for sudden
speed.
No more meetings. But oh, just once,
the sight
Of those two friends, apart for sixty
years,
Arms open, trying to run across the
green.

Sharon Thesen's Pangs of Sunday is that typically Canadian kind of collection, a "selected and new poems," with perhaps the last quarter of the book new. So it serves as a kind of showcase of a fine and varied poet who has developed over the decade since her first book in 1980.

Sharon Thesen is, among other things, a student of Malcolm Lowry, and what attracts me about her work is her power to combine hypberbolic fancy of the type she appreciates in Lowry with a frank and almost casual lifting of imagery out of ordinary life. I do not find in her poetry the "quiet revelation" other readers seem to discover. I think it is full of disguised and exciting tensions and that this is what we respond to, as well as the kind of skill that can give a brief and simple-looking poem an extraordinary complexity of suggestion and feeling.

Pangs of Sunday is a good introduction to an intelligent, supremely craftswomanly poet still young enough to give us many other fine books.

Since the poetic explosion of the 1960s we have been faced not only with a great deal of new poetry that has genuine impulse but little finish, but also with critical attitudes that seem often in their sheer permissiveness to abandon any call for the necessary self-disciplines of the craft. And so we have books filled with promising sketches which would have to be developed considerably to become real poems.

In Sandy Shreve's The Speed of the Wheel is Up to the Potter (Quarry $10.95) we are told that hers are "powerful work poems" and that they show a "reverence for women's jobs."

Well and good, but with all due respect to that fine poet Tom Wayman, the dean of this kind of verse, we have to judge work poems as poems and not as statements about labour conditions.

Throughout The Speed of the Wheel one gets the sense that grievance is regarded as sufficient, and that when the poet has told us that she is annoyed at the way the librarian has treated her as a mere clerk, that is enough. The publisher talks of "positive comparison of Shreve's work to that of P.K. Page," and that statement begs an enormous question, sending one back to Page's poems about office workers. Immediately re-reading Page's "The Stenographers," one faces an intense, complex and superbly crafted poem beside which the best of Shreve counts as a good-ish apprentice effort.

I think not only reviewers but also poets should be protected from the excessive enthusiasms which publishers express in their blurbs. In The Wire-Thin Bride (Turnstone Press $8.95) we are told that Coquitlam's Cornelia Hoogland's first collection, "reveals a major new talent." I don't particularly like the major-minor terms of judging poets, but if we are to use them, surely it is obvious that in the Canadian context "major" means someone like Al Purdy or Margaret Atwood, someone who has thoroughly mastered the craft and writes with complexity and authority. Cornelia Hoogland is as yet far from being a poet of this kind.

Hoogland's notations of family life have small virtues, an occasional vividness of imagery, a turn of phrase, a flash of wayward wit, a good deal of emotional perception. I like what is here and hope to see more.