by DANIEL COWPER
BOWEN ISLAND REVIEWS CALGARY
Chance Encounters with Wild Animals
[Kentville: Gaspereau Press, 2019. $21.95]
I Know Something You Don’t Know
[Guelph: Gordon Hill Press, 2020. $20.00]
STUART IAN MCKAY’S
even the idea of maya is maya
[Victoria: Frog Hollow Press, 2019. $15.00]
In addition to being a novelist and poet, Monica Kidd is a family physician, publisher, and letterpress craftswoman. Judging from her poetry, Kidd has an active social and family life and travels widely. Monica Kidd is apparently inexhaustible.’
Chance Encounters with Wild Animals is her sixth book, and third book of poetry. A conspicuously elegant volume (as one expects a Gaspereau Press title to be), the book is divided into four parts: “Curious,” “Meeting the Eyes of the World,” “Chance Encounters with Wild Animals”, and “Westerlies.”
Three of these sections are governed by a single line: “If poetry is witness, let this be that.” Fittingly, observation is the dominant mode of Kidd’s writing in these three sections — fond, keen observation:
The black dog, watching the wharf,
still but for the breath in her belly.
A twig, fallen from the spruce,
covered in taffeta liverwort.
The boy, sloshing over the tidemark in wet boots,
oblivious to the rain, discussing something with himself.
This is poetry as a kind of universal witness: not poetry as witness to a crime, or any notable event of general interest, but poetry as witness to being. In evaluating work like this, the principal criterion is one of style’s effect. Can Kidd’s style take topics as divergent as a cephalopod sighting or a curry birthday dinner and imbue each with significance?
Overall, Kidd’s style is more than equal to the challenge, offering the pleasure of fresh vocabulary, revelatory descriptions, and a generous heart. In lesser hands, a poem like “Cabo de Hornos” would be no more than a tourist’s memento but Kidd delivers an imagistic triumph worthy of Basho (who also wrote a fair amount of travel poetry):
Grinding through the Southern Ocean,
I saw cliffs. The mind works that way,
plotting maps, clinging to shore,
Within sight of the headlands,
air turns soft as blush on a berry.
Poem after poem rewards the reader with an arresting thought or image. Consider how Kidd describes the shy cephalopod I mentioned above:
The blink of its camera eye,
each tiny sucker grasping, arms unfurling.
It blushed – orange to umber to plum –
gentle as a sunset until a bulb flashed
and it fled, white as a corpse.
Although Kidd’s composition is generally assured and polished, a reader might still stumble in the occasional pothole. Like many contemporary poets, Kidd’s use or omission of punctuation and prepositions can feel unnatural to my ear, as in lines like these:
Ten years more and this moment will be gone.
Scuttled in fault lines of memory,
sticks and stones turned bricolage.
One might wonder about some repetition of phrases or motifs. For example, “Hammer fist,” is a phrase Kidd uses twice in five pages; she twice describes herself as “unearthed” by an interesting sight; three different poems in “Westerlies” end with the subject of the poem breaking into song.
But one of her four sections is not like the others. This first section stands apart in its personal and dramatic nature, as a poem sequence recording what Kidd describes as her state of “strangeness and confusion” following the death of her father:
There are times when all I need is a piece of this:
a stone in my pocket, a creek bottom. You can
see for miles up here, a line of geese stitching
southward. Now you are the pause before
the sun goes down, the night sky full of us.
Grief is a small child at my side.
The dumb advance of days.
This passage, which concludes the section “Curious,” exhibits most the strengths and weaknesses of the poem sequence. Kidd’s subtle and striking accuracy of description is on display in the phrase “a line of geese stitching / southward,” a phrase which captures both the sight of geese, in its linear contrast and simplicity, and the rhythm of their flight in the repetition of the stitches. There is Kidd’s clarity of diction and metaphor in the brief but bold sentence “Grief is a small child at my side.” But there is also an allusion to Seamus Heaney (to no purpose I can see) in “the night sky full of us” and, in the last line, diffidence and a dying fall.
At first glance, it seems as if Kidd was unsure how to end the poem. But a similar anticlimax occurs at the close of several of the section’s poems, and I am inclined to think that the awkward quality of those endings – a lack of conviction, a disorientation – is the very effect Kidd is aiming at. Whether or not that awkwardness resonates or alienates will depend on the reader, but it is part of a theme that runs throughout the sequence, announced in the epigraph, a Joseph Conrad quote about remaining silent in order to conceal one’s emotion.
In their living tissues, Kidd’s poems offer the pleasures of experience, of the exquisite moment. Kidd makes the reader see things in a fresh and revelatory light. I often found myself responding with delighted assent, saying: “Yes, you are right. I’ve never thought of it like that, but that’s just how it is.” In that regard, Kidd offers not only a witness, but an exposition of the world.
Amy LeBlanc’s debut full-length poetry collection I Know Something You Don’t Know is a wild, unsettling collection of poetry. Hieroglyphic images and ideas proliferate, mutate, and animate in rapid succession. Nothing feels fixed in either appearance or meaning, but LeBlanc can be as direct and forceful as any other poet when she chooses:
You and I could be crocodiles or crows
with no young to feed,
only scarlet mouths for one another.
LeBlanc draws on feminine imagery with references to women’s apparel and ornament as well as pregnancy and childbirth. She relies also on elements of children’s culture and childhood, referencing Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, the “hundred-acre wood,” and the idea of wishing on a loose eyelash. Femininity, ecology and fairy tale are repeatedly blended, as in Apidae, a poem about bees in winter:
The cold spans caul and saliva
Thin messages cross
honey and wire
to bless an abdominal alter.
The queen pricks her thumb
with raveling spools
and calls to her workers,
count your spines with barbs—
insulate the hive.
For the colony to survive
they must cluster around her
and shiver until spring.
The effect of LeBlanc’s more narrative poems create a domestic phantasmagoria, reminiscent of the Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio:
She buttoned a scarf to her throat
and picked bloodroot and ate carrots,
nine almonds a day with a glass of water.
She expected to wander and to find an altar
in the trees, in the wasps, in moist roots
and the mud that caught her heels.
She freed insects from jars that never held water
and heard a rattling sound
in her bone marrow,
in her ears eyes hands and teeth.
While di Giorgio’s work is marked by the motif of supernatural visitation, the most obvious motif in LeBlanc’s poems is metamorphosis — a motif that has been traditionally connected with feminine vulnerability and feminine power since Circe, Lot’s wife, selkies, and Melusina:
When the bleeding ends,
she turns to the boy
with his wooden limbs
and transforms him
into fruit, crisp and tart,
for the birds
and the boys
to peck in the sun.
LeBlanc offers transformation from human to plant and animal, like Ovid, but also from human to the products of craft:
her rib bones are lined
with nectar and fastened
with an ivory button.
In the past, the idea of feminine shape-shifting has been used by men to express masculine opinions of women; in LeBlanc’s hands, this traditional motif is used for another purpose: to express the experience of female biology, with its unintended transformations — healthy transformations like puberty and pregnancy, and unhealthy transformations that suggest a woman’s experience of chronic illness. “My skin splits like a plum / the second I am out of place,” LeBlanc writes:
I brushed my hair with the prongs
of a fork, not antlers or teeth
but they bit and they tore
the hair from my skin.
The candles were lit
with the flames in my ribs.
The dichotomy of bodily health and illness is present in many poems, and is addressed explicitly in the title poem, “I know something you don’t know:”
Dress disease in a shift,
keep the chest compressed
in a corset made of bone.
You can welcome disease
with balloons in your lungs
and invite it into your home.
LeBlanc’s diction feels influenced by the sound of her vocabulary as much as her choice of subject or train of thought. Words seem to spawn sonically related words, rhyming and chiming off each other. In that just-quoted passage, you can see that process at work from ‘dress,’ ‘chest,’ and ‘compressed’ to ‘corset,’ and ‘bone,’ ‘welcome,’ and ‘balloon’ to ‘home.’ The effect created here is of an incantation, in perhaps a slightly sinister tone.
In places, shifts in tone and texture suggest that LeBlanc’s stylistic instincts have yet to be fully harnessed, and that her technical maturation will be interesting to observe in future work. In other places, LeBlanc’s words organically form delicate tissues of sonic connection that are striking in their firmness and finality:
The waxwings were hidden
in honeycomb holes,
frozen by the hum
of an unannounced storm.
I Know Something You Don’t Know contains poetry charged with a rare energy: not the force of exhibitionism or argument, but the urgency of creation. With LeBlanc, you encounter a poet who demands you attend, not to herself or a pet issue, but to what she is inventing.
Stuart Ian McKay’s even the idea of maya is maya is the eighth entry in Frog Hollow Press’ Dis/Ability Series. The slim volume consists of nineteen unnumbered pages of carefully architectural and intelligent poetry — a total of four poems.
Although poetry can delight the ear and imagination with sound and feeling, poetry also has the potential to delight the intellect as well. In even the idea of maya is maya, McKay has dared to offer us not only words worth reading, but thoughts worth thinking.
Images of representation and deception echo and re-echo throughout the five pages of the title poem even the idea of maya is maya. McKay describes the black and white moving images of actors in an old film; the permanent shadow of a woman blasted by the atomic bomb; the colour combinations evoked in Ezra Pound’s poem “L’Art;” the unreliable sights produced by visual disability; the kiss of a lover and the sensation received by the one being kissed; the gap between language and its referent; the letter press and the impression on paper. This motif is summed up in the titular line: “even the idea of maya is maya” — a reference, as I understand it, to the Sanskrit concept of ‘maya.’ That word originally meant ‘power’ but came to mean illusion or deception, and specifically, the deception which presents the divine to our minds in mortal or physical guise.
Even the idea of deceit is deceit? The philosophical position that our minds cannot capture or represent that which is beyond our minds is both irrefutable and self-refuting, a philosophical revelation or dead-end, depending on who you ask.
McKay is not merely playing with sophomore skepticism: persistent illusion or deception characterize his personal experience of visual disability:
crowds push-pull against my
better, more insular vision.
they see the limb of my red and white cane,
but stand still.
a man who has learned to not trust his eyes
can feel as if it were an equivalent
to any presumptive doctrine.
McKay sets up, against this world of deception and illusion, the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when he was hailed by the crowds as the long-awaited messiah.
This meditation is introduced by one of his most beautiful passages, which describes, as a symbol of internal logic, the breaking up of winter ice on the Bow beside Calgary’s Chinatown. For McKay this event reveals a joyful order underlying the world:
watch these remnants groan. crack hull to hull.
silt up the bed beneath.
the old inevitable action,
this competition of dissonance. proposals
difficult to understand.
their cast-off light etched upon the eye.
yes, what pleasure this is.
yes, what pleasure.
Within the gospel story, Palm Sunday is both a revelation and a capitulation. It signals Jesus’ public acknowledgement that he was the “Holy One of God,” and triggers his arrest and execution for blasphemy. Here is a part of the account from the gospel of Luke:
And when he was come nigh, even now at the descent of the mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen: “Saying, Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord: peace in heaven, and glory in the highest.
And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples.
And he answered and said unto them, “I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.”
After the break-up of ice reveals the logic of the world, McKay meditates on Palm Sunday, and, through that subject, introduces the theme of noise; a medium of experience that can be relied on:
during lunch, consider christ’s provocation. no longer kept
vulnerability arrives at fullness on the back of a donkey and
then is gone again until memory and spirit make him real.
in the first creation
when did he witness how life’s noise
might act as a clue for seclusion
as soon as the seasons changes?
leaves were like a clarion.
was a furnace,
an alarm of activity.
What is the word omitted from the end of the first line? Hidden? Undeclared? The word itself is unseen and unspoken, a cunning use of inarticulacy.
McKay alternates abstract Latinate with concrete Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, mirroring the thematic contrast between reality and representation. Early in the poem, Latinate abstractions are used to frame analysis, while Anglo-Saxon is used for description::
become an identical gesture when he sweeps away
sand from the small of her back.
In the final synthesis which concludes the poem, McKay weaves these opposed textures more tightly, eliminating any easy distinction between their functions and purposes:
ink black. fern-like ornamental curl.
pressed. implacable over its
This is poetry whose intricacies reward attention. Like the poetry of T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, the beauties of McKay’s work rely to an unusual degree on apprehension of the overall structure of his poems. There is a good deal of Canadian poetry worth reading; only a small fraction of it is worth thinking about, and McKay’s work is clearly part of that interesting minority.
If there is a downside to McKay’s approach, it is that the poems, while consistently interesting, do not consistently impel the reader to read on. These are meditative poems, and meditative poetry does not often make for a page turner. However, I think that difficulty is justified. The thoughts and feelings McKay expresses in even the idea of maya is maya are intrinsically difficult to communicate, and the demands he makes of the reader are reasonable.
For the purposes of this review, I have focused on the title poem of the collection, but I do not mean to denigrate the others. The second poem, ease of the arbutus, is a more anecdotal poem, recounting a period of exile spent in Vancouver. The third, Long Poem and Early Morning, is, like even the idea of maya is maya, a meditative, analytical poem a ceramic cup experienced as a “ceramic bell,” and recollecting the culture from which it comes. The last poem, as far as cho-fu-sa, is based on The River-merchant’s Wife: A Letter, Ezra Pound’s poem about a wife missing her husband: a poem that is based in its turn on a poem by Li Bai on the same theme.
Daniel Cowper is a poet and writer from Bowen Island, BC. His work has appeared in literary reviews in Canada, the U.S., and Ireland, including Arc, Southword, and Barren, and was long-listed in 2017 for the CBC Poetry Prize. His first book of poetry, Grotesque Tenderness, was published in 2019 by McGill-Queen’s University Press, and his chapbook, The God of Doors, was published in 2017 by Frog Hollow Press as co-winner of its chapbook contest.
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