Thursday, October 13, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 7th Review - One Muddy Hand

In an sense, this is actually a review of two poetry collections: One Muddy Hand by Earle Birney (from 2006) and The Essential Earle Birney (2014).  In my view, The Essential Earle Birney is actually completely disposable: there are only two poems in the newer (and much, much shorter) collection not also in One Muddy Hand -- and neither are memorable.  If you are interested in learning about Earle Birney, you really ought to turn to One Muddy Hand.  One Muddy Hand itself draws heavily on Ghost in the Wheels, a selected poetry collection from 1977 that Birney had a hand in crafting.  However, One Muddy Hand then adds a few poems from Fall by Fury & Other Makings (1979) and a generous selection from Last Makings (1991).  Thus, the final poems by Birney are represented here.  I have to admit that I feel a bit of uneasiness around these last poems, since they are mostly love poems to his companion, who is 45 years younger than Birney.  (Woody Allen, eat your heart out...)

Anyway, I do think Birney is worth reading, but he is fairly far down my list of Canadian poets.  I'd put him behind Al Purdy, George Bowering, Robert Kroetsch and Margaret Atwood.  Perhaps it is because he jumped around stylistically so much, with several of the earlier poems drawing heavily on Old English tropes: both War Winters and the more successful Anglosaxon Street borrow liberally from Beowulf's poetic form.  Then he had quite a few poems that were more visual and experimental (sometimes called concrete poems).  I didn't like any of the concrete poems, however.  His mid-career poems are probably the most conventional and are generally the ones I liked best.  Finally, he ended his poetic journey with quite a number of love poems to Wailan Low, his last companion (the one 45 years younger than him).

There are a few poems I thought suffered by indulging too much in broad (and cheap) stereotypes such as the anti-corporate (or at least anti-Fat Cat) "Toronto Board of Trade Goes Abroad" ("Krooshef had no guts") and the anti-Americanism on display in "Billboards Build Freedom of Choice."

Perhaps my favorite poem is "On the Night Jet," where Birney describes looking down over Saskatchewan and seeing "small waffle-irons glowing / on a huge farmhouse stove..."

However, I was quite amused by "Sixth Grade Biology Quiz" once I realized that a rat was answering the quiz: "How are their {rats'} children born? / From hydrocarbon chains like yours / but harder. / What do they eat? / Your world's unguarded larder..."  It's actually a fairly creepy poem if you think hard enough about it.

I thought "Ulysses," "A Walk in Kyoto" and "Three for Allison" were also effective.  Given that the last section of "Three for Allison" involves Birney playing footsie with her, presumably Allison was a bit of a love interest before he encountered Wailan.

Which brings me to the last poems in the collection.  Al Purdy had commented that these were particularly moving love poems.  I really can't quiet my inner scold enough to fully enjoy these poems, although the very last are somewhat interesting.  I actually am put in mind of Yeats' The Scholars where the elderly scholars have no vim and vigor left and are "forgetful of their sins." Yeats would almost certainly have approved of Birney latching onto youth, but I am and will remain more ambivalent.

I suppose I do find it fitting that Birney is somewhat pained about leaving behind his young lover, though he puts on a good face and does not act jealous of her future flings.  In "My Love is Young" he writes, "my love is young & i am old / she'll need a new man soon / but still we wake to clip and talk / to laugh as one / to eat and walk / beneath our thirteen-year-old moon".

"End" is even more forward-looking and elegiac: "in your spring / you took my arm / to walk with me / into my snowscape / ... / a fireplace shared / to warm another / with the same love / you shone steadfast on me".  This was written in 1987, which was the same year he had a massive, debilitating heart attack, after which he was no longer able to write anything and had to go into a chronic care facility.  He never recovered and died in 1995.  This page contains a fairly detailed (and surprisingly critical) overview of Birney's life.  As I said at the top, it is worth reading these selected poems, but the impact Birney had on Canadian poetry seems fairly slight, all things considered.

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