Saturday, June 30, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 23rd post

So I thought I would close out this year's challenge with an update on the Brick Books poetry books I won back in April (thanks again!).

I have read all of them now. Alien, Correspondent by Antony Di Nardo is largely set in Beirut, Lebanon.  It had some interesting moments, but wasn't quite to my taste.  I passed it on to a co-worker who is originally from Lebanon.

I reviewed Noble Gas, Penny Black by David O'Meara just a few posts ago (book challenge post #19).  I really liked one poem "Night Train" and thought a few others were interesting, but ultimately decided I could pass this book on to another co-worker.

This is also the fate of Spirit Engine by John Donlan, which I will review just a bit later in this post.

The real sleeper for me was Mortal Arguments by Sue Sinclair.  I was kind of skimming through the poems, and thinking that I was picking up some echoes of Mary Oliver (though not as overtly religious).  The best way I can describe it is that the poet is imagining some kind of unspeakable force (which I conceive as a kind of luminosity) that they try to describe in order to get a picture to emerge behind and between the words.  But words are fairly limited and this is itself part of the frustration.  I should point out that this set up is more reflective of Oliver than Sinclair, but as I said, I was picking up some echoes, but with the substitution of time (and esp. the passage of time), clocks and dreams as things that are hard to capture and put into words. About halfway through, I realized that I was starting to really get into the book at a deeper level (certainly more than Oliver's work normally resonates with me, though I think she can be a very good poet).  Then Sinclair threw in a pretty good poem about the Toronto streetcar and a quite funny poem about taxis, and I was hooked (my real world job is transportation planning).  So I'll hold onto Mortal Arguments and add it to the groaning shelves.  I think I should go ahead and let the poems sink in and then reread the book and review it later for the next challenge (along with Headhunter and The Engineer of Human Souls).

On to the real review of Spirit Engine, which is John Donlan's most recent poetry collection. I found this a prime example of how totally extraneous things can influence readers.  The back cover blurbs don't do Donlan any favours.  One of the reviewers comes uncomfortably close to saying he is the best poet (or best metaphysical poet) since John Donne.  Donlan's poems are nothing like Donne's, and I don't even understand the comparison, and it took me a while to get past that.  There is also this bit in Donlan's bio where it says he works half the year as a reference librarian at the Vancouver Public Library (and who knows I might even have encountered him) and takes half the year off for his writing.  Now I am generally in favour of flexible scheduling, and indeed have gone to 80% a few times in my career.  But it is very hard for me to understand how he could have found someone who wanted to do a 50% time share (6 months on and 6 months off).  Of course there might be other arrangements...  As I said, this doesn't have anything to do with the book, but I found it awfully distracting and probably publishing this info was a disservice to the poems themselves (given how judgmental, not to say jealous, readers are today, particularly if those readers are also poets and particularly if they are failed poets...).
I guess I'd say there were two or three poems I thought were quite good all the way through and several more where I liked a stanza or some of the thoughts/imagery/wordplay.

My favourites were towards the end of the book -- "Galactic Dynamics" and "Garter Lake Gazette."

"Garter Lake Gazette" jumps from the subatomic level to the more prosaic:
"Now we've found how fast electrons
hop from atom to atom -- something, quintillionths ...
In our '86 Olds
we amble the rocky lane, frog juggernaut,

soaring any road like bird or angel."

Donlan then goes into a tangent about how the "car life" can't last (or "survive") as the price of gas goes into the stratosphere, which then segues into a description of a sudden rainstorm and then he cycles back to thinking of the far future and what the weather might be like after global warming.  (At least I thought that was where he was going with this poem.)

"Galactic Dynamics" has some of the same underlying dynamics (at least I think so), but the poet calls on our future selves to be slightly more accepting or sanguine about the weather than in "Garter Lake Gazette":

"So long as inertia's great flywheel holds all in place
why complain about the weather?  Let it teach us
to vary, repeat ourselves, defy prediction.
At least we're here.  'Cheer,' calls the red-winged blackbird."

The wordplay in both poems in the middle stanzas is enjoyable, though I'd have to reprint whole poems for it to really come across.

"Nostalgia" is probably my next favourite poem (and might have some metaphysical aspects, but it is hardly Donne-like):
"All the old signs are gone, their flaking paint --
everything's new now."

The poet returns to his youth:
"We used to spend the whole day doing nothing
We'd poke around under the bridge
before anyone was up."

He recalls with some regret how he didn't try to talk to an older man walking with two Huskies (couldn't talk to strangers even then, of course).  As the poem closes, he starts bringing himself back to the present:
"That must have been fifty years ago.
The old man is dead,
and the dogs are dead."

Other bits and pieces that struck me:

I liked the first stanza of "Solstice Song":
"You can sing about the rain
but it won't do a damn bit of good.
You might as well talk to the wall.
You might as well talk to the cat"

I liked the shout-out to the SkyTrain Millenium Line in "Scavenger."  Quite possibly the only time that the SkyTrain has made its way into a poem, even if it isn't the most positive depiction.

I liked the opening of "Fountain," which was clearly inspired by Rilke:
"How can you change your life? Like a wavering fountain's
column, it is continuously refreshed
from a reservoir deeper than sleep..."

I also liked that he did acknowledge the debt to Rilke at the comments on the poems at the end, and of course that I had spotted this without being told...

There is definitely some good stuff going on in these poems, which overcame my initial resistance to them.  It does appear that I can check out all 3 of his previous poetry books from the Vancouver Public Library, so I'll give them a try a bit later.

This is review 25 and my final review for the 5th Canadian book challenge!

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