Tuesday, July 11, 2017

11th Canadian Challenge - 1st review - Peacock Blue

This volume, Peacock Blue, contains all the poems that Phyllis Webb decided were worthy of being collected.  It contains 6 previously published books (including Naked Poems, Wilson’s Bowl, Water and Light, and Hanging Fire) and a generous selection of unpublished poems.  Webb is somewhat unusual in that she abandoned poetry in the mid-90s (more or less at the same time as her mother died) and turned to painting.  Two reviews of Peacock Blue can be found here and here.  I must admit that despite Webb winning a Governor General's Literary Award, she doesn't seem particularly central to Canadian poetry.  My own biases certainly make it difficult for me to take her seriously, since most of the poems in her earlier books are formal (with only passable rhyme schemes) and largely deal with questions about the nature of religion (I would include Even Your Right Eye and The Sea is Also a Garden in this category though some might disagree).  The only unapologetically Christian poet (past 1900) that I have ever really been able to stomach is Fanny Howe, and Webb just isn't in her league.  I'm sure some critics would say that she is often inverting or undermining a traditional understanding of religious faith or indeed searching for a new one (she was interested in Buddhism), but I still find many of these poems steeped in a fairly traditional belief system (or search for spirituality) that the poet isn't able to escape (at least in these earlier collections).  Along the same lines, Webb viewed herself as broadly feminist in her work, and yet acknowledged that almost all her early literary influences were male (and she had to be prompted to write a poem to Margaret Atwood as it didn't come of its own accord).

Curiously enough, I only came across Webb through Timothy Findley who was a close friend of Webb's.  Findley praised the poem "Leaning" from Water and Light and said that it inspired him to completely rethink Not Wanted on the Voyage and complete the novel.  Indeed, while the cues are subtle, Naked Poems (from 1965) is one of the first series of lesbian love poems, certainly in Canadian literature.  Adrienne Rich became a major influence on Webb, perhaps as early as the mid 1970s, as Webb became more consciously feminist in her writing.  Rich is also one of the key figures that drew Webb to the ghazal format that dominates Water and Light.  Many critics feel that Water and Light is Webb's finest work, though personally I prefer Naked Poems, which seem far more compact and concise and seem reminiscent of Charles Reznikoff's best work (not that he appears to have been a specific influence on Webb).

Here is one particularly concise poem I liked from Suite I of Naked Poems:
"Tonight / quietness.  In me / and the room. // I am enclosed / by a thought // and some walls."

I was a little surprised at "A Model of the Universe," the opening poem of Hanging Fire, since it seems to aim its ire at scientists who are trying to understand the world (or rather the nature of the universe): "The arrogance. The above it all. / ... /  For instance, superstrings, / immense smallness of, tangled / spaghetti ..."  Then she moves from the arrogant cosmologists to the medical researchers who ingest cancerous toxins into mice.  I don't think one has to force people to side with science versus humility? or wonderment at the universe? or even an appreciation of arts.  (I'm honestly not quite sure what point she is trying to make.)  But if one does draw the line this way, then I would definitely be on the side of the scientists.  I have to say Webb really lost me with this poem, and she relegated herself to being only a minor curiosity in my literary universe.

I'll close this review on "Edmonton Centre, Sept. 23/ 80" one of the uncollected poems that has just a bit in common with Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems.  She is in the mall, listening to a concert being given by some members of the Edmonton Symphony.  The music ends.  "Man in cowboy hat wanders off. Chinese gentleman / moves urgently towards Exit. Maureen takes / the escalator, strolls into Mappins. / ... / Thirty / years later, almost, I am here / carrying nonbiodegradable plastic shopping bags / back / to the scary carpark / jangling my keys."  I thought the casualness of this poem (slightly offset by the repetition of keys throughout the poem) served it well.  I would have liked to see more poems in this vein (or in the very compressed, Reznikoff-like observations of Naked Poems) and far fewer rhymed poems about spirituality.  But I can only review the Peacock Blue that exists (which didn't do a lot for me) -- and not some alternate universe collection I would have much preferred to read...


  1. Hmmm, some of this sounds intriguing but I think I'd have the same problems with it as you did. I haven't really read any of her poetry though, so may have to dip into it some time.

    1. Most people consider Water and Light her best work, though personally I preferred Naked Poems. I would start with those two collections.