WOODCOCK, Poetry Column 1991, Issue 1




This calls for a revolution

AT LEAST SINCE THE EARLY ROMANTICS, poetry has alternated between public and private phases.

With the disappearance of the vast audiences commanded by Byron and Tennyson, poetry has on the whole tended to be personal, appealing to a select readership. But every now and then it has re-related itself to public affairs, temporarily taking seriously Shelley's idea of poets as the "unacknowledged legislators of the world."

The "war poetry" of 1914-18, and the poets of the Thirties and the Sixties, show such cyclic shifts; and perhaps the Gulf War will bring another. Even if unacknowledged, poets certainly could not be worse than most of the present "acknowledged" legislators of any country.

It is time again for a Revolution of the Imagination like that which the rebel students proclaimed in Paris in 1968, and one with more lasting results. As long as it steers away from partisan propaganda, I shall welcome it.

Engaged poets like Zoe Landale, and in his different way, Tom Wayman, may be in on the start of a redirection of poetry. Landale's Colours of WinterAir (Sono Nis $10) is very much in (and of) the world of here and now daily experience, the morning news and her work seems to exist on a whole series of frontiers, between the imagined and observed, between statement and suggestion.

At times, as for example when she is writing about the shame of being unemployed, or about the cynicism of chemical manufacturers trading to Iraq one wonders whether prose might not have been more effective than the verse she offers.

Yet Landale is a craftsmanly poet, free of fashionable affectations, and good at loud celebratory evocations of nature and its processes.

This early, grass is fervent,
goes up with a shout.
Shiny with newness,
leaves banner against atmosphere,
wave to passing long-billed herons,
rub ribs with skin-thin others,
alders, nine-bark, laurel.

Harold Enrico's poems in Dog Star (Cacanadada Press $12.95) took me quite by surprise with their imaginative sophistication and their verbal power. Enrico, a man of seventy, is not a British Columbian, but he has lived most of his life in the mountain areas that continue our own ranges into the state of Washington.

Much of his sparse production of finely-worked poetry has been published by a British Columbian press, Sono Nis, beginning with Now, A Thousand Years from Now, in 1975. I don't know why I missed those earlier books, but now, with Dog Star, I recognize that we have had a poet of real magnitude living just over the border without anyone saying much about it.

The setting of Enrico's poetry is largely the world of the Cascades but there is simultaneously an assurance and a precision about the writing that belongs to larger and broader traditions.

He can write as humbly as Cezanne painted apples. There is a sense of visual ceremony to his tiny poem, "Morels."

In mid-May
among the first trilliums
under the pines and white firs
the first morels,
feigning fir cones
push up through humus and dirt.
We fill a basket,
saute a panful in butter
smack our lips over the taste of earth.

Enrico's world is wide. Poems showing intense observation of Northwestern wildlife alternate with poems about gold-masked Mycenean kings and T'ang dynasty ladies. As well as with free flowing verse, he shows his skill with regular and rhymed forms, as in "The Northernmost Island."

Frost has welded earth-clods iron-hard,
Turned turf tufts black as embers,
The sky will always favor ice over
rain,
The advantage is all December's.

Its technical virtuosity and often vivid imagery makes Enrico's poetry very different from Ajmer Rode's Poems on My Doorstep (Caitlin $8.95) which work through the quiet ways of empathy. Writing in Punjabi as well as English, he projects the experience of generations of immigrants.

Rode presents the confusions of old age and the innocence of infancy; and he salutes the unity of life, as in the small poem, "Spanish Banks."

The grey sands
invite me to follow the
receding sea water
to recognize a clam shell
that could be the house
where my ancestors began
I walk slowly and with
respect.

Glen Downie’s Heartland (Mosaic $9.95) is as much the poetry of place and beings inhabiting place, as Rhode’s is the poetry of human society. Men and women pass through the places that the animals naturally inhabit. Even human relations seem to be viewed in territorial terms:

You are new
to me again as a seldom-visited country of the heart, where the native tongue is silence…

Downie's poems, with humans as camping intruders or disposed in strangely constrained groups, have the closeness and distance combined of old family photographs or snaps of trips long ago. They are skillful and sympathetic in their sadness of recollection.

In one of my earlier columns I wrote of a recent volume by Carolyn Zonailo, Zen Forest, and now I have the thick selection of her poems written from 1975 onwards, The Taste of Giving (Caitlin $10.95). It has become a common practice among Canadian poets to issue at various points in their careers these restrospective books that bring one up to date on their work, and a good one, I think.

Certainly it is interesting to observe the evolution of Zonailo's verse from their rather self-conscious beginnings, with their whiff of creative writing school, to the freer, more open and emotionally involved later works. I particularly like those springing from her Doukhobor heritage.

More poetry titles, in brief:

Men and women's relationships figure powerfully in John Pass's new poetry collection, The Hour's Acropolis (Harbour $9.95). Lesbian relationships and the genocide of Native peoples are chronicled by Native American writer Chrystos in her second book of poems, Dream On (Press Gang $10.95).

Also serious but sometimes humorous is a new anthology of work poems, Paperwork (Harbour $14.95), edited by Tom Wayman. Wayman is also one of the contributors to another "work" anthology, More Than Our Jobs (Pulp $12.95) edited by Glen Downie and Pam Tranfield. The contributors are all members of the Vancouver Industrial Writers' Union.

Other new poetry titles include Popular Narratives (Talonbooks $11.95) by Frank Davey, Gerry Gilbert's Azure Blues (Talon books $11.95), Nancy Holmes's Down to the Golden Chersonese (Sono Nis $9.95) and Leona Gom's The Collected Poems (Sono Nis $16.95)—which the author vows will be her last book of poetry.

Karen Connelly's first book, The Small Words in My Body (Kalmalka Writers $9.95) is the first winner of the Kalmalka New Writers bi-annual national competition.