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These Poems, She Said: Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst

Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst read together at Green College, at the University of British Columbia, on Wednesday, March 20, in the late afternoon: the last event in this year’s Play Chthonics series. I was set to introduce them to the 40-odd people who had come to hear them in the Graham House fireside lounge – a capacity crowd for a poetry reading, for that intimate space – and Jan reminded me about one of the first times we had met, which was in a two-term graduate seminar led by Don McKay at Western in the fall-winter of 1986-87. She was teaching philosophy at Waterloo, I think, but would come weekly down to London to audit the Monday evening class; her Wittgenstein Elegies had been published by Brick Books earlier that year. I was a master’s student, and was just getting underway writing what would turn out to be a thesis on the poetry and poetics of Robert Bringhurst, which McKay was supervising. The seminar was called “Poetry After 1945,” if I am remembering right, and each week was focused on a different book, a different poet – chosen, I’m pretty sure, not for any particular thematic or ideological reason, but because Don was interested in them, and he thought that theirs were poems that we ought at the very least to know about, to know: Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and For the Union Dead, Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares, John Ashbery’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ted Hughes’s Crow, Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies, and selected poems from Denise Levertov, Daphne Marlatt, Seamus Heaney, Charles Olson, others. One guy in the seminar was keen to do something with Sylvia Plath. (I remember also discovering, through Don, Charles Wright’s The Other Side of the River that year.)  And, near the end of term, Don had put on Robert Bringhurst’s The Beauty of the Weapons.
I don’t know what had drawn or what was drawing me into Bringhurst’s work at the time, whether I had picked it out from McKay’s syllabus, or found it on my own and then taken the seminar to hear more about it and to encounter those poems more fully. There was something that spoke to me quite forcefully and seriously in those days, from Bringhurst’s writing, something important. And he was also one of the few poets I had discovered who had a rigorous interest in philosophy, in thinking. What caught my ear was that Bringhurst didn’t ever merely namecheck Heidegger or Levinasor the Pre-Socratics, never merely rehearsed  Zen traditions (via Gary Snyder) or First Nations mythtelling; he took these inheritances up with a keenness, a self-awareness and a deliberateness that I had never met before, and he did it not simply in but through poems, as poetry. Bringhurst aimed to have his work converse, materially and essentially, with what Kinnell called(in his brief “Prayer”) “whatever what is is.” Later poems would make this conversation more formally explicit – his “Blue Roofs of Japan” had just appeared in Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, Bringhurst’s just-issued collection from McClelland and Stewart. The way I remember, it was this kind of poetically-informed conversation to which I hoped that seminar aspired.
By the start of second term, after I had been working at Bringhurst’s books for some time and with the in-class discussion of his poetry fast approaching, I was certainly aware that both McKay and Zwicky had been somehow more directly and closely implicated in his writing than I might have realized at first (although I knew McKay knew Bringhurst personally, and had sent him a few questions on my behalf about sources for poems). “Sunday Morning,” from Pieces of Map, is dedicated to them both, and suggests a kinship of thought and approach – around listening, around wilderness, around alterity and ontology – that Bringhurst characterizes as an interest, an inter-esse, in “the musical density of being.” Their poetry, in many and various registers, aspires to sing, to attain the condition of song. They were concerned, in the late 1980s, to reactivate a particular trajectory of the lyric, its noetic intensities.
So, what happened in the seminar was: one of the assignments involved presenting a close reading of a poem. I had chosen to examine Bringhurst’s “These Poems, She Said,” partly in response to an emergent line of questioning in the class around gender politics. Bringhurst placed the poem first in his selected, to enact a distancing irony, and to suggest a self-awareness about the contingency of the seemingly sculptural monumentality, the mythic reach, of the texts that followed:
         These poems, these poems,
         these poems, she said, are poems
                  with no love in them. These are the poems of a man
                  who would leave his wife and child because
                  they made noise in his study.
                  [. . .] These are the poems of a man
                  like Plato, she said, meaning something I did not
                  comprehend but which nevertheless
                  offended me. (Selected Poems 75)            
The gesture at Plato isn’t just a philosophy joke about an authoritarian metaphysian’s aversion to the erotic. (It’s worth comparing Zwicky’s recent Plato as Artist, which recuperates an alternative Plato.) Bringhurst creates a miniature Socratic elenchus, replete with self-deprecating irony. Uncharacteristically for Plato, however, the interlocutor in this poem is female; the text’s antithetical manoeuvres, shifting from iterated critique to discomfited reaction, both sustains the authority of the male poet’s voice – everything remains filtered through him, and he is the one who affirms, at the poem’s close, that the woman’s voice has spoken “rightly” – and also dismantles any grounds he might have, other than a kind of empty verbal aestheticism (“You are, he said,/ beautiful”), to claim argumentative high ground. He sounds like he wins, but he can win only by losing, since the love he craves entails receptive openness rather than the abstract and detached rhetorical management of a well-turned phrase or line. In the seminar, I think it was difficult for me to hear the conflictedness at the core of the poem, and instead I focused only its apparent claim to rightness, its mistaken feel of surety. This reading, as you can imagine, didn’t sit well with Jan, and she told me so. What she valued in the poem wasn’t any feint of attention or pretense of listening, but a deliberate, intentional disavowal of ego; the poem, for her, in the white space that slashes through its penultimate line on the page, opens itself to what remains otherwise, to its ungovernable outside. (As I write this, I don’t think those would have been Zwicky’s terms; this is me, I’m sure, re-casting her critique. But however she put it, her point was a good one.) She argued.
         What came out wasn’t just a corrective for me. More importantly, it was the sense that there were real stakes here, that something in this poetry mattered. And what mattered was the honing and the intensification and the acuity of thinking, of thought as an exacting, lyrical unknitting of selfishness, of self. That debate about poetics wasn’t just a remedial exercise, but an enactment of this rigorous openness, one that takes itself seriously. “Knowing, not owning” as Bringhurst puts in what he then called “Thirty Words,” which he would incorporate into his “credo” in later editions of his selected poems: “Praise of what is, / not of what flatters us / into mere pleasure” (Selected Poems 159). Neither Zwicky nor Bringhurst takes this demand lightly; poetry is careful, serious business, and since that evening seminar in 1987, I have tried to learn from and through their work – and I continue to do so – to correspond with, to be responsive to and responsible for, that care.
Robert Bringhurst Reading at Green College
         The Play Chthonics reading, for me, reactivated this commitment to a poetry that matters. Both Bringhurst and Zwicky presented principally new work, but their tactics and idioms were still closely and thoroughly enmeshed in the kinds of lyric thinking they have been practicing, in their distinctive ways, for decades, and for which I have, for decades, admired them. Bringhurst read from a set of what he called “language” poems, works that have little to do with idiomatic American experimentalism, but addressed themselves to the foundational becoming, the ontological pluralism, that he has pursued throughout his career. Zwicky’s poems, by contrast, focused elegiacally on the essential unknowability of things, on lost connections and on gaps and silences. But her poems also distill their music from that loss, a music that wants to draw out some of the human resonances with a world in which we are all implicated, to converse openly with the unvoiced plentitude of what we are not, which is also what we are. At different points, both she and Bringhurst coincidentally described encounters with a heron as an image of this attentive address.
         After the reading, I picked up a copy of a CD that Zwicky had recorded (in June 2011) called, simply, Jan Zwicky Reads. I have been listening to it off and on for the past month. As at the live reading, I find that as I listen certain of her lines seem to hang in the air, to resonate: “that bare light not yet sweet with birds.” Zwicky’s melopoeic technique, her mastery of the phonemic music of language, evident here in the audible meshwork of consonants and gently modulating vowels, is more than “sweet” craft; what inheres in these voicings – I’m sure that’s the right term for this lyric practice – is more than the mere pleasures of listening. Zwicky offers in small, in lines such as these, a musical elenchus, a negation (“not yet”) that highlights the hiatuses and epistemological uncertainties that poetry seeks to bridge, as metaphor, but also construes as its substance, as its inevitable shortfall, again as metaphor, as approximation, as asymptote: a version, I’d say, of what Bringhurst has called, translating Paul Celan, “the caught light’s closeness / to audibility” (Selected Poems 143). The sweetness Zwicky’s poetry seeks out is never the sugary or the saccharine, but is consistently a resonance, a harmonic sweet spot, where the disparate textures of an unclosed world can briefly, barely, touch and argue, catch and hum, collide and sing.