WOODCOCK, Poetry Column 1990, Issue 4




PHYLLIS WEBB OF SALTSPRING ISLAND IS a protean writer of lambent changeability.

The shifts in her style, like loops of a spiral, are always introducing us to something new; and usually to something better.

Lyrical and elegiac early poems—which now seem a shade conservative, though none the worse for that—gave way to an almost alarming austerity in Naked Poems (Periwinkle Press 1965), in which feeling and precision are extraordinarily combined.

More recently Wilson's Bowl (Coach House 1980) and two editions of selected poems culminated in The Vision Tree: Selected Poems (Talonbooks 1982; reprinted this year) which received the Governor-General's Award.

Now the poems in Hanging Fire (Coach House $12.95) have taken off in a new direction. An epigraph from Daphne Marlatt maintains that, in poetry, sound initiates thought "by a process of association." Words call each other up, nudging each other into utterance, through a way or thought that "is not rational because it works by attraction."

Webb's new poems are eminently thoughtful (she can never escape from the philosophic in her make-up) but they build by echo and osmosis. Without logical development an idea is formed to stand surprisingly in the mind.

Let me pick out, for the sake of a whole example, a poemlet of four lines entitled 'Cornflowers & Saffron Robes Belittle the Efforts'.

Ssh, sigh, silence is coming, the night-time blues. Hark.
Ahem. Sir? I lift my arm, the wind chimes through my holy raiment.
Mesmeric bells reduce the flies to slumber. Pajama party. The end of the Raj.

Each associative addition changes the shape and direction of the poem. In the end we are aware, not of a minor chaos, but of a compact and cumulative perception of history. Webb's perception in Hanging Fire is not intensely personal, as in Naked Poems, but historical and even political, embracing humankind not man.

Hanging Fire has to be welcomed not merely for itself, but because by cumulation it enhances Webb's standing and leaves her almost unrivalled among West Coast poets. Webb draws, almost fatalistically, towards experiment, innovation, the endless flux of sensibility and form.

"Hanging Fire", I take it, is not meant to be read in the sense of "holding fire" (for nothing of that kind goes on), but of fire hanging in the air, as in the cover illustration, the still flame rising into inspiration.

One might take the following verse from Webb's "Evensong" as a critical text for approaching the book overall.
Tending towards music, the artist's life tends towards solitary notes, slips of the tongue, hand, eerily like intelligence of higher orders.

A new poetry press—at least to me—has emerged in British Columbia. Called Nightwood Editions, it appears from the same address as Harbour Publishing. The first two Nightwood volumes to reach me are by prairie poets Ken Mitchell and Glen Sorestad.

There is certainly no harm in being reminded how people in all parts of the West share in their perceptions of the world and in their sense of the land past Kenora as a region. Or perhaps as two regions with distinctive identities and in many ways with distinctive political outlooks.

Both Mitchell and Sorestad are largely anecdotal poets, most at home when they are telling some story or recording some experience that the words make us sharply and usually comically realize—a practice adeptly pioneered by Al Purdy. Both have the kind of jocose and self-deprecating manner that is one of Purdy's several personae.

In Witches & Idiots (Nightwood $8.95) Ken Mitchell has a touch of mythic sensibility, so that the people out of real life who inhabit his pages acquire a kind of poetic stature, while he can also at times draw out with some intensity the magic of the prairie landscape he clearly loves.

Up there on the flat belly of the plains,
the governor of time blazes,
stirs the heath to madness.
In magic valley we dance
through orioles and violets;
fireflies light the path to bed.
Distant thunder qu'appelle
qu'appelle mutters us to sleep.

Glen Sorestad is much less flighty and lively than Mitchell. Indeed his travel anecdotes in Air Canada Owls (Nightwood $7.95) seem to require the histrionics of public presentation. There are some sharp vignettes, good comic touches, but always a tendency to lapse into descriptiveness or become merely risible, as on the occasions when Sorestad seems impelled self-consciously to remind us that he is a poet and travels with poets.

The vogue of the haiku, so permeative a decade or so ago, has declined of late, but at their best haiku still remind us of an imagist purity and minimalism that are easily lost. One of the few new collections of haiku of any merit I have seen recently is from the upper room (Wind Chimes Press, unpriced), published in Maryland by B.C. writer Anne McKay.

They form an unusual haiku narrative, each haiku bringing forth a detail of an old woman's long life. It is ingenious, immediately evocative and charming.

Gail D. Whitter claims in Insular Positions (Trabarni Productions, Coquitlam $7.95) to have been published in "over 140 magazines" in Canada and the U.S., though this is only her first book. It's remarkable proof of the breadth of the small publishing movement in North America. Her first book is too bold and brutal in many ways to appeal to every reader, but if you have an eye to possibilities it is worth reading for its attempts to explore the "field of common darkness".

Marya Fiamengo's Patience after Compline (Mosaic Press) is, as she declares, conservative in the right way (seeking both change and continuity) and in her poems she reflects this political attitude in following, in a modem idiom and in the formal dress of modernity, the ancient aims of the poet when she/he goes beyond the personal.

The personal is nonetheless present in her notations on mother-daughter relationships, which take on the tone of an angry elegy.

Fiamengo sees human destiny in modified elegiac terms; the disasters seem inevitable but perhaps they can be averted. But only if man can learn from the past, which is perhaps the most difficult feat of all. As she says in the last poem of her book, "Razpolozenje":

To live without history
is to nurture a fool's dream
of oblivion. Follow a fithless heraldry. Run after rain with
a sieve. Escape into deserts of stone.

Wonderful, so long as one avoids getting trapped in the coils of historical determinism, enslaved by Hegel's ghost.

George Woodcock is writing a new book on interpreting history in our modern age.