Not to make as much heavy weather as I did last year over the critical apparatus that I use for these reviews, I've decided to group the books according to region. I had originally been thinking of using this approach as a way of discerning whether there were unique characteristics shared among the poets of each region in Canada. I've occasionally reflected on this issue where it seemed appropriate, though I've for now postponed the idea of making such distinctions the central focus of a review, whose purpose is, after all, working as many reviews as possible into this relatively small space.
We could do worse than look to Tim Bowling's The Memory Orchard for a sense of the Prairie ethos. 'Watching the Academy Awards in the Bar of the Patricia Hotel,' as you might guess, plays nicely on the disparity between two cultures and two lifestyles (southern and northern in this case, rather than eastern and western). While in California beautiful women make acceptance speeches,
The victories here are without glossand for the self. Someone, this weekend,might win a bet on the calf-ropingat the circuit rodeo. More likely, though,the day will be got through minusall but the heart's most local hurrah.
Here, the stars are real and stone-heavy.The eyes of the world don't lookout of their high-corner static and blur,and we only look part way in.Horses to break, bones to dig,poems to write. Gentleman, raise a glassto the sweat and the ache and the aweof the work unsung, the life unglamorous.
Bowling mentions poems to write. If his perspective is not quite as aristocratic as Yeats's in 'Adam's Curse,' I can still hear a little of the Irishman's defence of the writer's labours ('a line will take us hours maybe, / but if it does not seem a moment's thought, / all our stitching and unstitching has been naught. Better to go down upon your marrow bones [End Page 39] / and scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones'), only western style. And there is no lowerin' of the poetry here (as Huck Finn might put it), but a raising of all labours that have to do with ardour, awe, and the authority of the 'unglamorous.' As for not trying to dress up what a poet does, there is a fine piece called 'Ladders' that alludes to Robert Frost's 'After Apple Picking' and the sense of how Frost (who was a rotten farmer) at last found his visionary harvest: 'Frost mounts his ladder / to the only harvest he knew was his, / and I grip the iron rungs to a wharf / where no one walks. Why lie about it? / The skin of the apple is as cold / as the scales of the salmon / no matter the warm breath / of the taker. Here's a black rung / in the long, black ladder. / Do what the poets do, beyond pretense. / Press your body to something solid / and breathe harder.'
Thinking of another Frost poem, 'Directive,' which also has to do with finding your avocation, spiritual and domestic, I like how Bowling trades 'Drink and be whole again beyond confusion' for 'Do what the poets do, beyond pretense.' The emphasis here falls not on the spiritual purchase of the poet's work - which is there nonetheless, as in the echoed Frost - but on not putting on any airs while your nose is at the grindstone. Bowling ' s poems, if somewhat more intentionally poetic, have something of Don Coles's gift for the unpretentious sublime, a spiritual language that nonetheless feels like a boot scuffed in the dirt. If you're only going to sniff inside this book at Chapters, make sure you read 'Dead Whale on the Ferry Causeway,' and 'Paris, Youth, Springtime,' two keepers that may convince you to fork up the difference.
Walter Hildebrand is a poet and historian, in which latter role he has worked with Parks Canada, and as a consultant to the Treaty 7 Tribal Council and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. The Aboriginal concern dominates his...