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Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurstcomposed new poetry for a week-long series of performances of Joseph Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” for string quartet, collaborating with a quartet from Early Music Vancouver that included Marc Destrubé and Linda Melsted on violins, Stephen Creswell on viola and Tanya Tomkins on cello. The last concert of the series took place on January 24, 2015, in Pyatt Hall in the Orpheum Annex in downtown Vancouver, with the space arranged as a café with candlelit tables, setting a mood of intimate intensity. Performing Haydn’s Op. 51 presents some unique challenges, not the least of which is what to do with what Bringhurst and Zwicky call in their programme notes “the presence of a text” in a work “designed as a magnificent musical envelope with seven pockets for spoken words.” The seven “words” are “seven short phrases from the Latin bible” that register in the rhythms and phrasings of musical lines, and it’s tempting to hear a form of textual mimesis in Haydn’s music, not unlike (for example) the fourth section of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, in which a “psalm” is delivered as a verbal recitation in the lead melody: “the musical phrases,” Zwicky and Bringhurst note, “rise from the meaning and shape of the text.” This noetic melopoeia seems to be what draws Bringhurst’s ear, in particular, to this work; his poetry recurrently pursues what he has called “the musical density of being.” I’m not sure that Haydn’s classicism would effect quite as much pull, although its measured textures mesh well with the chiseled exactitude of Bringhurst’s sense of line. Zwicky, too, shapes lyrical meshes of the musical and the philosophical in her poetry, and she has mined both Classical and Romantic European musical history for source material for her work.
In a pre-concert interview, Zwicky and Destrubé described the rehearsal process (at Zwicky and Bringhurst’s Quadra Island home), with Zwicky noting how for her, above all else, both poetry and music strove to realize an immediacy and a clarity, that the work could be taken in at “one hearing.” In their programme notes, Bringhurst and Zwicky describe how they developed a more ecumenically ecological set of texts, cued by the lines from the Latin translations of gospels that provided Haydn’s music with its original scaffolding, the seven last words of Christ at his crucifixion; noting that other poets – notably, Mark Strand – have written poems to accompany Haydn’s music, and that performances and recordings of the quartet have included interleaved readings from the biblical texts and other “poems on Christian themes,” they frame a pressing compositional problem:
After all these experiments, and in the face of Haydn’s own wordless eloquence, could there still be something to say? One reason to think there might be is, of course, that the crucifixion has never ceased. Man’s deliberate and vengeful inhumanity to man – and to just about everything else – is no less vivid and casual in the twenty-first century than in the first. So in 2014, when we were invited to supply some words for a performance of Opus 51 by Early Music Vancouver, we said yes. And our theme became what we thought it had to be in our time: the crucifixion of the earth.
This last phrase echoes the title of Zwicky’s award-winning 1999 collection, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, as well as the text of Bringhurst’s “Thirty Words” (1987), which was revised and expanded in the subsequent decade into an ecologically-focused liturgy, his “Gloria, Credo, Sanctus et Oreamnos Deorum”:
Knowing, not owning.
Praise of what is,
not of what flatters us
into mere pleasure.
Earth speaking earth,
singing water and air,
there is no one to listen.
(Selected Poems, Gaspereau Press, 159)
The kind of listening Bringhurst both calls for and wants to enact in his work refuses the “mere pleasure” of distraction and pushes instead toward the excoriation and even the extinction of the callous “inhumanity” of the human, an audibility that demands that “no one” be listening, not in the service of nihilism but rather of the dissolution of our domineering egocentrisms. Zwicky can sound, at times, less confrontational, but she is no less exacting in her demand that, as Rilke famous has it, we change our lives: “Learn stillness,” she writes, “if you would run clear.” The clarity of style and the communicative immediacy that she wants in her poetry incline toward just such an attentive stillness, an extinguishing of our all-too-human desires for control and agency: a relinquishing.
I’m going to concentrate my commentary on the poetry, which I’m recalling from memory (none of the texts is published, and all were newly written for the Haydn) and from whatever notes I managed to take. The string quartet played with lyrical ferocity and focus throughout; their performance was, for me, a marvel of concentration and emotive power – not at all, I have to confess, what I expected from a concert of Haydn. As for the poetry, the first of the seven pieces was a colloquy, a dialogue between the two poets modeled on the polyphonic (that is, multi-voiced) forms of Bringhurst’s “The Blue Roofs of Japan” or “Conversations with a Toad,” or Zwicky’s Wittgenstein Elegies. Both poets exchanged admissions of failure, their mea culpas, with Zwicky intoning how, as human subject, “I” have “failed to let the great breath of you move through me.” Uncannily, the concentrated, collective intake of breath by the members of the string quartet was audible as they launched into Haydn’s music with fierce conviction and palpable energy, making the lines appear to breathe through them. If Zwicky and Bringhurst acknowledged human failure, that loss was answered by the creative drive of the music that followed, a gesture at some form of responsive forgiveness. Bringhurst’s poetic prelude to the second sonata (“Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” Luke 23:43) declared that “This is it,” that humanity needs to recognize that paradise is present to us on earth, if we can recognize it. To lead into Sonata III (“Woman, behold thy son,” John 19:26), Zwicky picked up on this same imperative, to behold, to come to awareness, but again stressing the haecceity, the this-ness or the present-ness of the earth as it is, vitally:
It’s the sky.
And the rain that is falling
(I have no access to the print text: the line breaks are based on how Zwicky paused as she read.) That honouring of things in themselves was counterpointed by Bringhurst’s hard-edged text for Sonata IV (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46), which began by declaring almost Miltonically that “Hell is the absence of heaven and earth.” Bringhurst also composed the poem for Sonata V (“I thirst,” John 19:28), which again took up a condemnatory tone: “They will take much more than everything you have.” Notably, Bringhurst’s texts often distanced and objured the human – theywill – while Zwicky’s texts tended to emphasize collective complicity – we will . . . . For Sonata VI (“It is finished,” John 19:30), Zwicky offered a list of extinct species, in what was perhaps the most deeply affecting moments of the performance. She also closed out the poetic part of the performance, leading into Sonata VII (“Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” Luke 23:46) with a lyrical framing not of guilt or condemnation but of tenderness,
a tenderness we can’t imagine
but still recognize, opening
(Again, my line breaks – not necessarily Zwicky’s.) That recognition, if only a prayerful gesture toward the relinquishment of shared self, a selflessness we might share at the limits of words, opened into a passionate musical response from the quartet, as the potentially cold edges of Haydn’s calculated classicism evolved into what felt to me almost Steve Reich-likerhythmic loops and cascades: a present-tense music that wanted to open our ears, collectively in that space and that moment, to hope and to possibility.
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.
What follows is a lightly trimmed (from what was, in fact, an unfinished document) and revised version of a review-essay intended (in 2005) for publication in Canadian Literature, but which never made it (not for reasons of quality, I hope, but because – I’m assuming, I’m assuming – of space constraints and special-issue themes, which caused it to be bumped until it became too dated.) I think it still raises some relevant issues, though, and also engages with David Solway’s poetics and poetry in what I hope is a disinterested and rigorous manner. It also bears on current debates over negative reviewing in Canada.
David Solway was fast becoming our Alexander Pope. In the introduction to the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, W. B. Yeats disparaged T. S. Eliot as “an Alexander Pope, working without apparent imagination.” My intention with this echo isn’t some sort of elaborate literary name-calling, but to describe what I hear as divisiveness informing much of Solway’s work, both poetry and polemic. In the preface to Director’s Cut: Essays (Porcupine’s Quill), Solway acknowledges that his sharp-edged and aesthetically partisan writing may draw “charges of self-righteousness, presumption and pontifical imperiousness of temper” from academic critics who, in his view, immerse themselves in “diffidence and complicity” by praising and promoting the work of inferior or insubstantial writers; he excuses his often harsh, even vindictive tone by claiming the ethical superiority of the satirist, the judiciousness and balanced erudition of a witty man-of-letters — whose crafted, caustic voice is uncannily close to that of Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.” There are several direct and approving citations of the eighteenth-century poet in Solway’s essays, but their relation is more than occasional. Solway’s insistence on rationality and mastery, fitness and form, not just in his own poems but in any good writing, suggests on first pass a transplanted neo-classicism that draws heavily on both Pope and Eliot as its forebears.
Separating the sheep from the goats, as narrowly and as rigorously as he can, appears to be what Solway understands as “responsible” criticism. To seek out “quality work,” he asserts, is to ply “the counter-discourse of antithetical discrimination,” by which he means to be thoroughly and carefully withering toward any Canadian poets whose work he dislikes — which, he openly admits, is most of it. To pull his punches would be “a way of evading responsibility,” and he strives “to cease trading in the usual velleities and placebos that double for criticism in today’s literary environment and embark on a process of audits and disclosures to reveal the real value of most of the work now being mass-produced.” The wool, in other words, needs to be pulled from most of our eyes, and the sloppy populism and prosaic flatness of what passes for poetry needs clearing: so we are invited, rather forcibly, to trust in the surety of Solway’s ear and eye, and in the acuity of his shit-detector. (Irving Layton’s deluded Neruda comes to mind.) And many times this trust pays off. Solway’s enthusiasm for his fellow poets of Anglo-Montreal and environs, including Michael Harris, Robyn Sarah, Peter van Toorn, Eric Ormsby and Carmine Starnino, is catching. And while much of his effusiveness smacks of nepotism and cliquishness — most of those he praises tend to be personal friends and acolytes, a network he openly acknowledges in “Double Exile and Montreal English-Language Poetry” — his exactitude and unflinching engagement with their texts nonetheless sustain his approval, and encourage mine. And while none these poets (perhaps with the exception of van Toorn) is as obscure or unlauded as Solway claims, the very fine poems he cites certainly call out for fuller critical engagement and a wider, thoughtful audience: as wide as poetry might have, these days. Solway makes me want to read more of them than I have, and to keep reading.
There is, however, a backlash to the lauds, which I think is truly unfortunate and which detracts from all this well-deserved praise. Solway seems so invested in contrariety as to be unable to resist attacking, without serving any substantial critical purpose, those whose writing he cannot, usually for merely ideological reasons, abide. His thinking is antagonistic, and often casts him, as the apologist for his cohort, in the role of scrappy underdog. In “The Great Disconnect,” the long-winded ramble from poetry sample to sample that closes his prose collection, he contrives an extended set of duels between counterposed pairs of poets in order to prove the neglected worth of less famous but, in his view, more technically and imaginatively accomplished writers: Ricardo Sternberg defeats Margaret Atwood, Brent MacLaine out-writes Anne Michaels, Norm Sibum takes down George Elliott Clarke, Mary Dalton pins Christian Bök, Carmine Starnino routs Jan Zwicky and, in the final round, Rodney Jones conquers Michael Ondaatje. (There are other crucial matches, although it takes three poets — Ormsby, Harris and Sarah — to overcome Anne Carson, which doesn’t seem sporting, and the spectres of W. H. Auden and Al Purdy grappling for linguistic supremacy is patently absurd.) What strives to pass for critical acuity in such writing is, sadly, too contrived, too forced. Solway seems to me to displace his own need to wrestle with those “bad poets,” this “crowd of mountebanks” (he must have been feeling vaguely Shakespearean), as he tries to labour “in defiance of the aesthetic and political orthodoxies of the times,” and to produce, at times in spite of his contrarian rhetoric, a reactionary orthodoxy of his own; insisting on the artificiality of poetry — on the character of its making — leads him to insist that the poem is a “shapely utterance, . . . a constructed linguistic object irradiated by lexical joy no matter what its subject” (original italics), but I fail to see much of a critical point in such a truism. All of the writers he cites, both pro and con, surely recognize this assertion as a given, and find themselves called to their work by an irreducible love of language. And an insistence on “lexical” joy, while conceptually attractive, is also a troubling blurriness from a writer who insists on verbal precision; I hear next to no joy in Solway’s writing, which leads me to worry over what he might mean by it here, amid the smirking. Given, for example, Jan Zwicky’s pervasive desire to uncover joyous, vital ecologies in poetic metaphor, I can’t help but suspect Solway of being wilfully tone-deaf to the obvious virtues and to the achievement of her writing, and of covering his tracks in misleading mystifications. I still take his enterprise seriously and sincerely, and admire his astringent demand to hear, from any poet, words in their fullness, but I can only deplore the lack of humility or of any willingness to listen beyond his own narrowly drawn poetic confines. For instance, “The Trouble with Annie,” his extended attack on Anne Carson, whom he regards as a poetic imposter, comes off not as “a reality check” but as whiny petulance and petty jealousy at the success of another writer, trying in vain to justify itself as objective critique. (He tends to be hoist by his own pedantic petard, questioning the accuracy of Carson’s scholarship while — when he mistakes a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s manuscripts for Carson’s fragmentary postmodernism, for instance — his own reading turns sloppy and uninformed.) Any possible joy in words ultimately gets reigned in by an astringent measure, his hard critical yardstick. Despite his acclaim for colleagues and mentors, Solway refrains too often from praise, from teaching us how to praise, a task Auden once assigned the poet — and, I think, the poet-critic. Instead, stymied amid so much critical potential, and so richly varied a national poetry, he finally strains to direct his considerable sensitivities toward an ignominious end: picking imaginary fights where he could be discovering imaginative vitalities.
One last point on Solway’s criticism. I think that he would probably be unhappy with the possessive in the opening sentence of my remarks, that “our,” which implicates his work in a kind of cultural nationalism. His essay “The Flight from Canada” offers a cogent and persuasive alternative to what he calls the “Canadian content syndrome,” a canonizing of Canada’s national literature based not on qualitative discriminations but on the mere fact of its being Canadian. Still, Solway doesn’t actually refuse a national cultural thematics so much as re-think it, carefully and provocatively. It isn’t, for him, a question of poetically formulating, or adhering to, an identity but of inhabiting its negation: “it is precisely the comfortless absence of a secure identity, the rootlessness, the sense of radical alienation which is our greatest gift and blessing.” He wants, he asserts, identity “solidly founded in difference.” He becomes ours, in a sense, by refusing us. But claiming a solidness for that foundation also distinguishes his work from more openly alternative poetics; difference, for him, means “that each poet can work up the materials of place and language into that signature alloy we call individual style”; flight is predicated on a thoroughly conservative cosmopolitanism, a flight made radical, in other words, only by its rootedness in the solid ground of a distinctive poetic diction. This conceptual mix may be, at its base, self-contradictory, but surely Solway has managed at least to point up a viable means of confronting poetically, formally, the question of a late nationalism, of the differential ethos of the Canadian.
This somewhat fraught cultural nationalism is inflected by historical narrative in Franklin’s Passage (McGill-Queen’s UP), a book-length sequence of poems by Solway that map out an attempt to re-discover and make sense of John Franklin’s doomed Victorian expedition through the fabled Northwest Passage. Much has been written on, and overwritten, Franklin — including Margaret Atwood’s recent lecture in Strange Things, in which the expedition becomes an archetype for the alienated Anglo-Canadian psyche, more finely developed than her early efforts at a national literary thematics in Survival, but still part of the same cultural project. Rather than contribute more of the same, Solway produces not so much countermyth as a series of reflections on the processes, both solitary and collective, of myth making. In the face of his professed distaste for postmodern antics of pastiche and self-consciousness, Solway appears to want to show us how it’s done: a finer tuned, better turned reflexivity. The collective first-person – some form of a communal Anglo-Canadian voice – shows up, despite Solway’s difficult nationalism, in the first line of the first poem, a “dedicatory” sonnet:
We voyage as companions in ships
there’s no way to abandon or desert – on
authority of Mowat and Berton
who chart our encounters with the weathers
that beset our soul. (2)
Almost emblematically, “Dedicatory” appears as the verso – the flipside – of the collection’s first page, which reprints a set of four epigraphs, as if this poetry were at its best an epigone commentary, an act of coming after if not too late. Years earlier, in “A Poem for my Sons,” Solway cautiously thanks his children “for the rejuvenating faith in epigones” (Selected Poems 59), suggesting both the inevitability of his own position in whatever literary history may come as a late arrival, compelled to be retrospective and deferential, and the poetically empowering humility, of all things, of the afterword, overwhelmed but also revitalized by the long burden of a past. Here, too, faced with the task of retracing not only Franklin’s steps but the tracks of all those who have already written (populist historians like Farley Mowat and Pierre Berton, say), Solway nevertheless affirms the poetic necessity of rewriting, of continuing the process and of remarking the passage of his own work as a writer. He may suspect the tiredness of an thoroughly assimilated Canadian myth, of telling the same old story over again, but he also asserts, plainly, that we have no alternatives but to re-confront what we’ve been told, and to remake something vital of it.
The project, after all, never closes off, as succeeding generations of writers inherit, interpret and retell, driven by a desire for veracity that can never be satisfied by this or that brief hypostasis: “We are always at least one chronicle from the truth.” The need to rectify the fragmentary and unkempt details of human experience into pattern, into the fixity of form, is not predicated, for Solway, on the neatness of fictitious national, cultural or literary archetypes or on any claims of achievement; rather, his formalism remains projective and aspirant, a “dream,” a longing for a completion he recognizes that, however neat or succinct appearances may be, he cannot finally claim:
One way or another we are stuck here,
clenched in the dream that drove us far from home
to confront the narratives we’ve come from
and try to make asymmetries cohere.
Despite the enclosures of the envelope rhyme here, for example, the spectral chiasmus of rime riche and slant rhyme (“. . . from home / . . . come from”), alliteration, vowel echoes marks both an aspiration toward symmetry and the unfinished business of writing itself, as it traces a sustained counterpoint of formal elegance and common, loose chat, the promise of coherence set against “a process called decoherence.” For Solway, Franklin can only ever be “partially intelligible,” which is to say both interpreted and fragmentary; the poet wants to take what remains beyond account, “beyond the imagination / of the present moment,” a vague outside that slips from verbalizing, and give it an accounting: if he can’t ever confirm or uncover historical truth, converting the unknowable “into something / decipherable, / a legible report,” what he can do is account for himself as a mediating, intervening presence in that uncertain history. His measured verse, as he puts it, also “resists the illusion of measurement.”
Even if “there is no way to tell” what happened, even if the writer can only strain to produce “a forced passage,” “as if listening for the sound / that no one else can hear” when faced with an insurmountable barrier of silence, “we can always,” Solway asserts “photograph ourselves,” acknowledging openly that history is never a given but is always made by – and inflected by, fabricated by – somebody doing the telling: “We can always tell another story.” This accounting becomes far more than deferential acknowledgement in Solway’s text; out of “the kingdom of contingency” – a moniker, it sounds to me, for the postmodern condition and for an attendant dearth of cultural literacy and historical sense lamented by academics such as Fredric Jameson – Solway draws both healthy refusal, that inherent formal resistance, and a renewed vitality; even if poems appear to become “a casting of words / accounting for nothing but recurrence,” that accounting also finds its passage in the same “arc of discovery and loss” that Solway imagines in Franklin, a reflexive vacillation that “bear[s] us back, astonished, to ourselves.” Poetry can still astonish, even amid the self-involvement of a deprived and faltering present. There isn’t much of the historical Franklin in Solway’s book; it’s mostly about Solway, trying to compose for himself viable historical poetics, and to enact it. But, frankly, that’s the point: poetry as aspiration, effort, remaking – poetry as needed, as need.
Poet Yves Gosselin, despite his candid admission in his preface that “[il] connai[t] peu David Solway,” offers a fine and representative overview of Solway’s work, translating forty-odd poems as Poèmes choisis 1963-2003 (Éditions du Noroît). Solway had for some time published translations of Québécois poetry in Books in Canada – I am not sure if he has translated Gosselin’s work or not – but in some measure these translations return the favour. While Gosselin’s own poetry tends (to my ear, at least) toward concision and declarative rigour generally in a rather clipped short line – peruse such volumes as his Programme pour une mort lente and Les guerres sont éternelle, or the more recent La mort d’Arthur Rimbaud (the latter also from Noroît) – his versions of Solway are much less compact or honed. For example, Solway’s “Pip” – a lyric from his 1979 collection Mephistopheles and the Astronaut that describes the “slow disintegration to his elements” of a man lost at sea, a figure, perhaps, for Solway himself as disillusioned poet-critic – loses much of its sonic craft, its carefully worked echolalia, when provocative and sharply edged conceits like “lonely in the frantic vatican of himself” get converted by Gosselin into prosaic précis: “solitaire au milieu de sa proper agitation.” The sense is there, but the poetry has fallen away. Compare
Encompassed by the hard horizon, he pondered
his gradual declination to the void,
his northless destiny, his loony afternoons
and slow disintegration to his elements
Cerné par l’horizon impityoable, il a pris la mesure
de sa derive progressive vers le néant,
de son destine sans direction, de ses après-midi de folie
et de sa disintegration lente, réduit à ses elements[.]
“Cerné” – encircled or surrounded – is a nice choice here, and suggests, I think, a certain tightness or enclosure against the deathly limitlessness of the ocean, but it also elides the sustained metaphor that surfaces in Solway’s lines, that of magnetic north; Gosselin’s version is literally north-less, which essentially catches Solway’s drift here but loses its textures. While I can’t expect Gosselin to reproduce Solway’s phonemic music in French, I think it’s fair to ask, given Gosselin’s obvious verbal craft in his own work, for more than a crib or gloss on the original. The hardness of the poem is, I think, an essential aspect of its presentation, and something of that sculptural deftness needs to come across in translation. The opening of Solway’s earlier “New England Poets” – “New England poets grow tall and coniferous. / They are famous for their disciplined metres / and their evergreen intelligence.” – articulates with measured irony the uncompromised relationship to poetic discipline that Solway’s criticism also constantly pursues: he notes the poets’ metrical regularity in a line that both lightly and deliberately overwhelms its rhythmic containments. Gosslelin’s version, however, seems to lose its boundaries altogether:
Les poètes de la Nouvelle Angleterre sont grandes, ce sont des confères.
Ils sont célèbres pour leurs poésie bien sage
et leur esprit de conservation séduit toujours les generations d’étudiants.
Again, key tropes – “evergreen” – get dropped and over-reaching glosses – what students are those? – get introduced, but these things happen in any translation; what concerns me, though, is the rhythmic incoherence of the lines themselves, their relinquishing of muscle-tone or definition. To be fair, Gosselin’s translations offer moments of intensity, of thick poetic cross-pollination, but all too often the crisp edges of Solway’s lines are lost in Gallic sesquipedalian diction. Still, in returning the favour of translation, Gosselin gestures toward invigorating a key trajectory of Solway’s cosmopolitan cultural flight.
The cheap contrarian tactics that permeate Michael Lista’s recent National Post blog entry, “The good in bad reviews,” do more to provoke acrimony than to invite the kind of genuine disagreement he appears, in the piece, to crave. To his credit, he has succeeded in provoking me, as a committed reader of poetry (and as someone who worked for a number of years as an associate editor, responsible for book reviews, at a scholarly journal, Canadian Literature), to reconsider what I think a well-crafted review needs to do. “The purpose of a review, good or bad, is to begin a conversation, not to end it,” he writes, an assertion that sounds as inherently laudable and reasonable as it is slippery. (I’ll come to what I think are some of the buried complexities in such claims in a moment.) He certainly has, well, not so much initiated a conversation as needled me – and, I’m assuming, many other readers – into reactive self-critique: no one, after all, likes to be called out as uninformed or misguided, which is what his short editorial frequently does. (I’m pussyfooting: what I mean is, when Lista declares “Enough of this bulls–t,” I can’t imagine anybody wanting to admit to themselves that they might be knee-deep in complicity. —Or would they? The rhetorical feint in such “straight-talking” faux-bluntness presumes, after all, that a reader won’t be inclined to push back, but prefers to be led, and to be told directly: that he or she likely won’t have the temerity to call bulls–t on Lista’s bulls–t.) Straight up, his review of reviewing made me mad, which is why I have taken a few days to reconsider what I actually do think, so I won’t feel like I’m being pulled, in my own small way, into a non-starter of a debate I’m somehow predestined to lose, and that, really, I don’t want or need to have. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to think about, to re-consider and to re-view, here. But I won’t have Lista’s article setting the terms or trajectories of that discussion: he’s wrong, and wrong-headed, and his text should serve as no more than a point of departure, and as an entry into a wider cultural conversation from which, on the evidence of invectives such as this, he has effectively excluded himself.
Lista’s piece is occasioned by the re-posting on the CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) website of an essay by Jan Zwicky on “The Ethics of the Negative Review,” which originally appeared in the fall 2003 issue (no. 144) of The Malahat Review. (Both Zach Wells and Carmine Starnino offered rather mean-spirited rebuttals to this essay some years ago, doing what Starnino calls “speaking truth to stupidity” but which, from my vantage point, only comes off as misconceived and unconvincing harangue. Lista has now joined their sidelined and fading fray, as its new epigone.) It’s Zwicky’s thinking I really want to engage now, because her essay deserves the sort of careful and considered attention that she invites from herself, poetically, as a reviewer and as a reader of the work of others. But first, I feel like I have to get this Lista business out of the way. The key failing of his meta-review, and what I believe in the end got my dander up, is a lack of strength in the writing. Lista’s approach and prose style are consistent throughout; for instance, he gets up a head of steam when he takes on Zwicky’s opening mention of Byron’s lament that “the critics killed Keats”:
Cue the violins, folks. The essay, woozy with Romantic anemia, begins by paraphrasing Byron’s idiotic diagnosis that “the critics killed Keats” (Keats died of an infection of the tubercle bacillus, TB), and along its way manages to summon every black-beret cliché about the poetic temperament, so that by its conclusion we can all but smell Chatterton’s extinguished candle. And beneath those black berets are the empty heads of red herrings and straw men.
The flippant evocation of “folks” and the pointless correction of Byronic hyperbole with smug fact-mongering point up his attempt to produce a kind of audience solidarity in elitism, the sort of bluster I mentioned above that appears designed to silence rebuttal. More significantly, Lista seems to mistake his own meanness and invective for candour and critical acuity. “Call me old-fashioned,” he opines, “but I think the truth sounds beautiful, and there’s an intrinsic value in discovering what writers think of each other’s work.” I don’t think this is discovery, nor that the writing evinces even the sort of Leavisite clarity it purports to desire. His version of the Keatsian collision of beauty and truth – a collision that, with considerable philosophical heft, informs much of Zwicky’s poetry, it turns out – doesn’t convince me; Lista’s “truth” needs to be put in scare-quotes, because it presents a narrowness of vision – the hypostasis of a very particular Anglo-American positivism, I’d say – as truth itself, and elides the varieties of aesthetic experience, experiences, in a misdirected yen for what reductively offers itself up as fact, but turns out to be deeply and thoroughly socially and culturally coded: masculinist, old-fashioned and contrived. Zwicky, in the essay confronted in Lista’s piece, laments that “we are a culture, perhaps a species, drunk on a narrow notion of assertiveness and virility.” It’s hard not to see this brief National Post rant as a case in point. (Zwicky has since published a response to Lista, well worth reading.)
So, as I said, I’m using that text as a point of departure rather than as a substantive interlocutor, and I’m happy to leave it behind now. I can’t hope to be critically thorough enough in a blog entry such as this one, but I want to take up three issues arising out of Jan Zwicky’s take (pace her title) on the ethics of positive engagement, of poetic listening. They’re biggish abstractions – truth, gender and community – but they connect in specific and situated ways in what I understand as her poetics. That conceptual ecology also partakes in some of the work being done in and around the CWILA site, as members of and adherents to this loose, emergent collective start to reconsider and reframe – to review – what constitutes a listening community.
Okay: truth. And, notably, truth with a down-case t. It might appear on first pass as if I might be trying to ally Zwicky – and that’s my Zwicky, the Zwicky I read, not the real Jan; the poems not the person – with a more relative conception of truth, of truths plural: that cultural and social and biological differences produce a multiplicity, and that it is dangerous and ethically fraught to lay claim to any sort of unified or holistic truth. But, postmodern relativisms are very un-Zwicky; she has, from the outset of her writing career, consistently sought out, not merely alterity, but “Absence,/ Clear, still space where truth might echo” (Wittgenstein Elegies23). Writing wants honesty, clarity, truth. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t a call for a mere rhetoric of candour, for sounding like you’re being direct. Zwicky might not agree, and my reading of her is certainly coloured by her reading of Robert Bringhurst, but I hear Parmenides in these early lines as much as a mystical version of Wittgenstein: that truth has no negative. This Parmenidean ontology isn’t anodyne, but instrumental: ex-istence as outward making, as productive, or – in a refabricated and ancient Greek-ish sense – as poetic, poieitic. Absence (and I’m starting to sound like E. M. Forster now) is not non-existence, but opening, an acoustic space (note the “echo”) into which attention – particularly poetic attention – can enter. Representation and semiosis – and this is Zwicky’s understanding of metaphor, I think – become compiled soundings, resonances. This all might seem a bit murky the way I’m articulating it, but it’s important to acknowledge Zwicky’s insistence on the laser-like precision of metaphor, its absolutely non-Romantic quality. There is nothing woozy or anemic about her work, ever. At least, there is a precision to which she aspires.
That exactitude, moreover, is not dialectical – not an excrescence of negation – but responsible. That is, it tends to engage its objects, whether textual or material, with both responsiveness and respect. Such responsibility is what I take to be the ethical dimension of reviewing, of the art of reviewing. The conversation, the call-and-response into which the poem or the review enters, is not characterized for her by antithesis – not by “answering” in the Old English sense of and-swerian or rebuttal – so much as by a flexible and porous mode of address, not merely talking to but talking with. This coexistence, which is not passive but interested, seems to me to open up a means to talk about gender that doesn’t immediately lapse into antithetical binaries (and so to offer me some sense of why I want to participate in work such as that being done by CWILA, which seeks practically to redress gender inequity in literary reviewing). Gender tends by us all to be understood antithetically, femininity as the negation or contrary of the masculine. But the sort of strength, the virility, that Zwicky wants to offer poetically against narrow negations – to offer as truth – refuses that binary in favour of outward gesture, of the act of opening as constitutive of another, better sense of what gender might be, might become. Like many readers, one of my favourite and much-revisited Zwicky poems is “Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115” from Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, a meditation on musical meaning, on rural Saskatchewan farmland, and on Johannes Brahms’s passion for Clara Schumann. It confronts the erotics of absence, and frames the vital inclinations of one human being for another as the stuff of gender. What I mean is, with its inherently relational declaratives – “That we shall not forget to honour brown / its reedy clarities” – the poem constitutes a mutuality of difference (reductively put, woman to writing man writing to woman) both as honorific and as corresponsive. The promissory syntax – this poem is highly illocutionary, a largely self-constituting speech act – opens into a layered verbal ecology, which I have noted thematically but which can also be seen here acoustically, in the network of phonemic echoes (listen to the rs in the lines I’ve just cited) and structurally, as a form of hailing or prayer. Tellingly, the poem provisionally ends with a beginning, with a gesture outward from the verbal to the intentional: “That a letter might honestly / begin, Dear beloved.” If the poem itself can be understood as a (Brahms-like?) love-letter, still held in abeyance, still virtual and absent, it also prays for, and effectively derives, strength – honesty, clarity, truth – from the relational work of saying itself into existence. Gender, constituted in the beloved, is an opening to mutuality, a beginning.
That’s all a bit abstract, I suppose, but it does suggest something about why Zwicky, in her discussion of reviewing, tends to separate the aesthetic and the political: hers is an aesthetics of engendering rather than a gender-politics. But I also think that a case can be made for a politicizing of that aesthetic, insofar as the thoroughly lyric language pushes, I’d say, toward a form of community: not an anodyne, flattened out gathering of allegiances, but community in difference, community as difference, as a sharing of what we don’t exactly hold in common, a set of convergences and of divergences. I seem to be tarrying with negatives here, a hazard no doubt of trying to write about alterities. It might be best to understand this promise of community, this community-to-come, as shared listening: listening not as deference or as passive reception but as co-participation in the human. Which, it turns out, is how Zwicky seems to understand the art of the review:
The discipline of the appreciative review is, I believe, among the great unsung arts of our culture. I suspect it remains unsung because, appearances to the contrary, it is not actually a species of speaking, but a species of listening; and our culture tends to regard listening as a passive activity. But listening — real listening — requires that we give over our attention fully to the other, that we stop worrying about who’s noticing us, that we let the ego go.
I don’t agree completely; I don’t accept that the ego disappears in listening, so much as that it collaborates with its others, that it remakes itself amid their echoes. But Zwicky’s gesture, at responsive and responsible sharing, sets that conversation in motion.