by BRIAN PALMU
[McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018. $17.95]
Short Histories of Light
[McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018. $16.95]
The line “Is the eternal / world a city or wood? I ask myself / that often” appears in “Cinematheque”, a poem from Daniel Cowper’s first trade collection, Grotesque Tenderness. Cowper returns, many times, to that same kind of ontological questioning throughout the book. What enlivens this philosophizing is Cowper’s attention to detailed image and a method I’ll coin as “conflicted resolution.’ For example, here’s the end of “Cinematheque”: “the bag-scraped streets / at night where dead leaves bristle / on municipal trees.” City is embedded in wood, wood in city; not for Cowper is Les Murray’s civic/rural division (rural winning out) or any number of city poets who treat the rural with abstract tropes or ignore it altogether. Even when dead, leaves are animated in Cowper’s poetic: they “bristle”, a wonderful (and rare) instance of a Ruskinian fallacy that works, not least because of its exquisite connotation. Cowper takes great pains throughout the volume to name beast and flower, bird and bush, but in the city (and with city poets), those dead leaves fill generic trees. The easy out would have been to point the finger at trendy ecopoetical electromagnetic pulses, pollution, and / or human malevolence, but that would leave out natural predation and life cycles. Said another way, is the city destructive, or is the natural world itself bound up with, even generative of, corruption?
Many poems complicate the answer to Cowper’s perpetual question. “We spooked a late-season fawn / from his den: born / scrawny, born to starve”, from “Secret Water”, puts the lie to benevolent Gaia. In “Crowsnest Pass”, there’s not even a chance:
will awl her gut and find
the furred limbs and sealed face
of the fawn she held five months and failed
Enter humans’ sinister play. The brutal natural world finds amplification when, in “Rat Patrol”, “they chatter, smacking the bare turf, / crushing mice until the prairie air // whiffs sour with offal and mashed grass.” An even more startling example, in reverse generation, appears in “Time Delay” where “cicadas buzz over back streets / like faulty transformers.”
But if the natural world and the city compete and coalesce, it’s clear where Cowper plants his flag. (Hint: turf yields better than concrete.) The bulk of the aforementioned “Time Delay” is nostalgic:
I miss the western spring
that’s opening back home –
the eucalypt wind, rain playing
its quick carillon on the sea.
Note the quick-stressed gathering rhythm, the kissing repetition in the last line, and the similarly engineered dual vowels in the quote’s penultimate line. Several stanzas of lyrical reverie later, seasonal adjustments are already conjured:
But I’m not home. I won’t be home
till paired swallowtails helix
between the broadleafs, and hummingbirds
gem on the hemlocks’ tassels.
But spring-to-early-summer, in Toronto, doesn’t develop, it devolves: “students / dump their semester’s furniture on sidewalks”. The expertly drawn, cold-eyed “Vagrants” does more than implicate “a forest//of power lines tendriled above the alleys” as one of many factors in “binners / … Muttering through fogs of hostile threats, or mute.” One gets the sense that, as in Antonioni’s movie Red Desert, city landscape, if not primal cause, is coeternal with its residents’ entropy. Even here, though, the natural world, again, can’t help but intrude: “I walked home beneath my own street’s oaks / watching dropworms blown in orbits on their threads.” The components are exact and sharp, and the last three words are stunning for the poem’s organically analogous closure.
Condemnation becomes praise when Cowper shifts from the city to the neritic circumambience of his home on Bowen Island. Instead of haranguing the reader with the evils of overfishing or clearcutting, his attention to, and love for, unspoiled habitats reveals the beauty, power, and worth of those surroundings in striking images and mellifluous sonic play so that any implied advocacy has an honest and effective emotional base. At times, and beyond description, Cowper pursues his desired element like a lover for his beloved. In “Thirst”, that element is a remembered creek bed: “I heard you clatter down this thin ravine, / came, filled my dirty palms with you and drank.” “Easter Sunday” isn’t the expected born-again exercise, but a paean to tidal force: “tide-rows of burning debris play their flames / on standing water like candles / on volcanic glass.” Jesus may or may not be here, but deiform waves and their aftermath are everywhere.
Cowper’s celebrations frequently lack human exchange, though relationships – familial or erotic – score a number of poems, whether conflicted or loving. Yet again, though, revelation often appears through nature metaphor. “Goodnight, September” concludes with petals that “finish unfolding and vanish / before driving the dark roads home”.
The first subsection in Grotesque Tenderness, The Life & Crimes of Sextus Tarquinius, is out of place with the following four divisions – Regrets, A Little History, Windfishing, The Salt Worlds. Noticeably absent, except for the book’s exceptional opener, “Transubstantiation”, where
lakeshore herons tong
snakes from the reeds. Scaled tails whip,
rewrap beaks in coral loops
until their heads asphixiate
in the birds’ patient throats
is natural world as elemental force. Human malevolence, in the form of the titular Roman figure, dominates. Cowper displays an acutely perceptive psychological dexterity throughout these thirteen poems, creating contemporary fictional analogues to the infamous rapist. Rather than the lyrical motion and deep image which predominate in the volume’s post-Tarquinias content, Cowper creates desired effects through compressed dialogue (“Have you tried my favourite flavour?” from “The Camera”), shock (“The x-wound / incised on Eve’s stomach // swapped for a soppy orifice” from “News”), and ingenious narrative metaphor (“Sextus swaps his masquerade to meet / his fiancée’s white dress, a tower // of cake” from “Failure to Appear”). Moralistic insertion irritates, but fortunately only on occasion. “Psychiatric Evaluation”, by way of a correctional facility “shrink” condemning Sextus in a series of unimaginative rhetorical questions, at least gets out of this problem with a modestly successful analogy:
Remember the little creatures morph
through several instars before they rise
on summer wings
to ovulate and die.
Moving this section to part five would have improved the sequencing of the collection, though that’s an editing issue. As to the author, Cowper’s work in Grotesque Tenderness is accomplished, sensitive to nuance in nature, unafraid of darkness and corruption in both natural and human realms, sonically thrilling, and full of heart.
If Daniel Cowper draws his poems with complementary and contrasting colours, Aidan Chafe, in his inaugural poetry collection, Short Histories of Light, prefers the drill bit over the paint brush. It’s an equally effective strategy (or predilection), but only when nickel or copper, if not a diamond or two, turn up. Like Cowper’s collection, Chafe’s is divided into five parts: Breathing Lessons (troubled father and grandmother); Psych Ward Hymnal (troubled author); Calculations For Catholics (troubled religious imprint); Unsettlement (troubled others); and Sharpest Tooth (troubled world). The content might seem varied enough, even from this microscopic synopsis, yet the subject matter gives into, and is engulfed by, the emotions linked by that first bracketed word.
Here’s the opening to the book’s opener, “Thetis”:
My father, greatest swimmer,
swam in the ocean of grandma’s
womb for nine months before opening
his eyes to the sun. Nurses ran water
over him, a baptism, so he could teach
grandpa to search for more than a bottle.
There’s a lot to tease out in these lines. I’m not sure what’s to be gained by the first enjambment’s repetition. Ironically, it serves to halt progress, especially after “greatest”. And “opening / his eyes to the sun” rings false. A newborn is extremely light sensitive, and will close eyes to semi-brightness, never mind the sun. Of course, since the birth is in a hospital, the first light would come from (probably pre-1960s) incandescents, anyway. These aren’t trivial concerns. Chafe isn’t writing in a surrealistic or mythic modality, at least not primarily. However, the nurses’ “baptism” is a lovely touch, and shows to exciting revelation Chafe’s ability to fashion air-tight symbols out of basic elements.
Those elements get an extended run in the three-part titular poem. Or rather, element: light. Its part three is the best poem (or part-poem sequence) in the volume. The many variations of fire-as-decomposition are handled adroitly, and are narratively interesting: “steered it away / from the lighthouse in his chest”; “I water my lightbulbs to sleep”; and candles which “bent away / from my lips, slipping into smoke”. The next poem, “Mute Swan”, is less inventive yet just as powerful. “[T]eachers pulled / as if my tongue were frayed rope” is good enough, but is upped by “the last thread / stitched me a straightjacket”. Mother, though, “sang”, while his own “caged song // lay in the pocket of/a white coat”. This is good, all of it – concise, exact in its displacements, implicative without jarring condemnation, simple without sentimentality. The preceding two poems are from “Psych Ward Hymnal”, and there are other notable poems within this subsection, as well.
Problems ensue the further Chafe ventures from self and personal relations. Here’s the opening to “Minding the Gap”:
On the crowded SkyTrain
a woman sitting across from me
is wearing a baseball cap
with the acronym GAP.
(God. Answers. Prayers.)
It takes a pedestrian, prosy stanza to reach the received punch line which in turn sets up the narrator’s secret entreaty. His prayer is interrupted during a choppy passage, and finally collapses, in adverbial clamour, with the penultimate lines, “The hat sits scoffingly on her head. /I stare dejectedly another five stops.” The choppiness increases in several poems that feature parades of phrasal sentences. “Unsettlement” includes “Cocaine field. Diamond trench. / Sugarcane knife. Corporate vulture. / Crop circle. Church pew. Drug den.” One could easily string these pairs along, or shorten them. In either case, the idea is threadbare.
And when the focus shifts from non-relations to the world at large, Chafe’s poems are at sea. The simple yet striking elemental symbols that serve him so well in the personal poems become inflated and all over the map when pressed into a more general metaphysic. The reader encounters, in different poems, “a condescension of clouds”, “a calamity of clouds”, and “the language / of clouds”. All act to cloud any emotional colours in needless abstraction. The most egregious overshoot is the third and last sequence of “Firestarters”, subtitled “Justifying Ashes”. The opening is baffling: “On the subject of flesh / in the case of marrow // consider the flume”. A flume is a narrow gap in a mountain or trough for water transport. Nothing that follows makes sense of this “consideration”, but, worse, gerundial grandiosity abounds: “trumpeting ashes, // effervescent wings / beckoning a victimized sky”; “trembling smoulder, / pleading tongue”; “seething shadows”.
With only a few pages of back matter, Short Histories of Light weighs in at an unfit one-hundred-one clicks. An almost wholesale scrubbing of the largest subsection, Sharpest Tooth, along with several poems from Unsettlement, would have tightened the volume’s girth, giving the reader a strong and surprising show in most every round.
Brian Palmu is a poet, fiction writer, and literary reviewer on the Sunshine Coast, BC. Previous work has appeared in Canadian Notes & Queries, Maisonneuve, subTerrain, Quills, and The Steel Chisel. His debut poetry chapbook, Sunset Mathematics, was published by Frog Hollow Press in 2017. Extensive informal reviews can be found at brianpalmu.blogspot.com.