by GARY BARWIN
FOLKTALES, TREES AND EMPTY BOWLS:
HAMILTON REVIEWS NEW BRUNSWICK
Our Latest in Folktales
[Brick Books, 2019, $20.00]
Identified in Trees
[Marram Press, 2015, $14.99]
M. TRAVIS LANE’S
A Tent, A Lantern, An Empty Bowl
[Palimpsest Press, 2019, SALE: $15.16]
Matthew Gwathmey’s first book, Our Latest in Folktales, has a long memory and an ability to divine the present with the acute sensitivity of a modern dowser searching for Thorium. Or old VCRs. In ye olde tyme™ folktales, we often bump into shepherds, rolling hills, other folktales, sheep, and a kind of generalized Arcadia. But in Gwathmey’s more contemporary folktales, we discover a different kind of shepherd in a different kind of Arcadia – maybe also on land outside the city, such as a dump. For example, in “At Arcadia Dump, Later On,” “We meet a shepherd amid a trail of discarded electronics, his staff assembled out of PVC pipe,” and “Country folk dressed in hazmat suits.”
In these Folktales it is apparent that our world, and thus our sense of context, of self, of culture, is made of things—many of them manufactured, many of them carrying stories—and language. Language seems as real as these things. Language in perpetual Brownian motion, acting as if it were the real world.
You’re in the city & the bomb threat will call in with a tattered voice & the bomb threat will spread word of mouth by infected mouth & the bomb threat will overtake the top story about plans for a new boardwalk (“The Bomb Threat.”)
Gwathmey’s poems suggest that language and our experiences have a tactile, tangible, reified presence. The bomb threat becomes a character that can use a telephone, but it is also a subject spread by word of mouth. Its reality shifts. But of course: in the modern world, everything is shifty, especially language, yet we still must negotiate our place in it, its strangeness, humour and wonder—“Fish the Fish, like all other fish, had forgotten long division—the dividend, divisor, and quotient.” (“Fish the Fish”). Consider also Gwathmey’s presentation of its bewildering taxonomies and marvelous specificities, taken from the same poem:
It’s an if on some solid function and by sheer strength exert Q up towards the N going under the lower D bringing both encased returns in front of end end. That’s how Houdini did it. (“Fish the Fish”)
One of the signature poetic techniques of Folktales comes when a poem’s last line, including “Fish the fish,” makes a surprising and poetic leap. “That’s how Houdini did it.” Such a line constitutes a broadening, an opening of signification, a poesis out beyond the poem. The prose poem, “At Arcadia Dump, Later On,” after exploring the eponymous dump, ends with, “The siren signals the next level of hide ye mouse and seek ye cat. Soon, the falling sky will be so close at hand.” See how another sedimentary layer of language is plumbed: “hide ye mouse and seek ye cat.” Of course, it’s funny in its tonal mismatch, but it reminds us how we live on top of the many historical and registral strata of language. We are the midden class.
This collection of both lineated and prose poems buzzes with energy. It plays with form with dexterity and invention, for example, with rhyme or with culling material from source texts:
Farley Fleeter leads us, dayglo spectrum of ne’er-do-wells, towards a savings bank
The time: 2:30 p.m. The place: Hub City Trust. The action: firing blanks. (“The Madmen versus the Blue Beetle”)
Sometimes it dekes in and around meaning, all the time with a lively attention to rhythm and an ear to the music of language. For example, what does “Drink a cat-noose to the mooncalf” mean, exactly? But the beautiful reversing sound relations between “cat-noose” and “mooncalf” and the music of the “k” (and “c”) sounds and the sound of the “n” throughout, is beguiling. What is a folktale? It tells us a story through music and allusion that helps us know where we are, that helps centre us.
What is the latest from our folktales? The splendid, gaudy, excessive world of modern mass culture and, even as it rightly troubles us, the surprising richness of our experience of it.
The second edition of Identified in Trees, by ex-ex-pat Burnt Church, New Brunswick-based Canadian poet Sandra Bunting is a sonorous and lyric collection focused on the human experience, often proximate to the natural world, of lives richly aware of children, relationship, the life cycle and the simple yet complex pleasures of living.
I like fumbling for a pen,
tearing off a piece of paper
from an empty cigarette box,
or a cardboard coaster,
name and number scribbled
and it doesn’t matter
it will eventually be lost.
It’s that exchange of words
an accidental brush of hands.
(from “In Touch”)
Life is contingency but there are the satisfactions of communication, (“that exchange of words”), of observation (“I like fumbling for a pen, / tearing off a piece of paper”) and of savouring experience (“an accidental brush of hands”). And here, the sonorous language is not only something to relish, but there’s a sense that it is part of the beauty and meaning by which we reckon our lives. We notice and express with nuance and sensitivity, and perhaps with wry wit:
I went to another country
to hear the song of birds
then home to trees so full
I wanted to cover my ears.
Instead, I cocked my head
to the side and listened
while my little one said, oh look
the pigeons are staring again.
(from “Cuckoo Spit”)
As the excerpt illustrates, Bunting writes with delicate rhythm and an attention to details of sound. Notice the rhyme between “hear” and “ear,” the sibilance after the birds are introduced in the second line, and the subtle three-footed rhythm of each stanza. The following stanza is about looking differently and so the sound and rhythm becomes somewhat different.
You have to look differently
to see fish
squint at ripples
as rays of light bend in water.
Here there is a preponderance of “i” sounds which ripple through the lines about light and squinted-at fish. The number of metric feet contrast with the previous stanzas. The poem ends:
The cuckoo calls.
An egg falls
from an unguarded nest.
Again, further variety in both rhythm and rhyme. This is a satisfying ending: the poem closes with an event/image that is vivid yet suggestive, one that doesn’t direct the meaning of the poem or close off further engagement, but instead asks for further consideration of the entire poem.
However, there are some poems which can’t resist a clever final line or an ending which tends to close off the richness of possible interpretation. Bunting is at her best when trusting her knack for subtle observation and sonorous line, when she trusts the images and sound to do the work. “Nothing Here,” begins:
I showed them Galway city,
my home laced with water
soft strains of fiddle music
I took them to the Burren,
rock fields touching the sky,
fairies in every day speech.
The first stanza susurrates with the sounds of the c/sh—showed/city/laced/soft/strains/music—and o’s—showed/home/soft and Galway (“Gollway”). The musicality of the fiddle-like water and water-like fiddle is lovely. The second stanza is also tuneful—rhotic with r’s and whispering with s’s. The poem continues, the present of the landscape and the presence of the narrator made clear through sound and image. The final stanza ends:
The West of Ireland;
but my Canadian cousins
said Scotland was much better.
There was more to buy.
Sure, the banality of the ending reflects the banality of the Canadian cousins, however, in my reading, this “punch-line ending” reduces the poem to only this, rather than causing the reader to reflect further. Not to edit an already-published poem (an obnoxious thing to do, and here I am doing it) but I think there are ways to avoid closing off the meaning; even ending on the second-last line would be less of a full stop and might make the ending more active. There are several places where Bunting opts for this kind of ending. For me, these endings were a disappointment. In every case, the rest of the poem was vital, keenly observed and musical. I wish they would trust themselves and not be bullied by their need for full cadence, for definitive closure.
But let’s not end on that note, for these are poems of charm and nuanced observation, of life lived in the richness of the everyday, reported to us with a light and lyric melodiousness. Let’s instead listen to the bright music of the open lines of the book:
You were born blue and naked.
Clear air turned you into a pink bundle
that kicked and gurgled in mountain streams of sun.
(from “Finding Home”)
Yes. The best of these poems kick and gurgle, pink bundles in streams of sun.
The allusive musicality, innate energy and immanence of revelation imbuing the title of A Tent, A Lantern, An Empty Bowl—a small list of ordinary things—is indicative of the entire collection. And the painting on the cover, possibly an image of the three items in the title also reflects the process. It appears to represent the words, but on closer inspection, it’s unclear if there is really a tent there. And of course, a painting is, after all, only paint. It makes us believe it. Almost. The image of “an empty bowl,” in the title is redolent of many possible meanings. And we’ll talk more about the lantern below. In both the title and its connection to the cover image—actually many of the poems in the collection are ekphrastic— there’s a twist as to what is represented and about what and how language can represent. What may appear as more traditional or conventional lyrics slip and slide away, and offer key surprises and subversions which in themselves delight and pack their own punch of insight, connection or understanding. This is a remarkable collection.
The opening poem, “Imagine a Quilt of Water,” is a marvelous exploration of the image of water and of how language forms and represents. It begins:
Imagine a quilt of water, every square
stitched on the page of afternoon:
There is a lot of metaphorical work being done in these two lines. The images are liquid—one way of imagining water flows into another: A quilt is made of water. Each square is stitched (by what? how?) Afternoon is a page. Water is stitched onto this page. The next stanzas of the poem are all more concrete representation of iterations of water (“ice-lensed, the blue-brown water/fussing below a bridge—“a bathtub, filled; on its edge a cat / leans down to drink—“). However, the poem ends with another series of images:
and in my hand a square of light—
a single fly
Now the quilt of water is a square of light embroidered by a fly. But the fly isn’t literarily embroidering, its tiny legs manoeuvering a needle, this is “embroider” in the sense of embellishing. Is the fly on the hand or is the fly in the square frame of light being reflected onto the poet’s hand? Oh language, you’re such an alluring mystery. Here M. Travis Lane offers us a numinous and luminous moment of experience and observation on which to ripple and reflect.
The entire book is replete such beautiful and energizing images but in these nuanced observations, there is often a subtle note of bathos and humour present which serves to further energize the perception, guard against preciousness and keep the reader awake and alive to their (and the poet’s) experience and subjectivity. For example, in “bird song the promissory note / we can’t yet cash,” the song of a bird is compared to a financial instrument, a sound compared to a culturally coded piece of paper. What does it mean that we can’t cash “bird song”? What kind of transactions do bird song and representations of that song in poems perform? What does it say about the poet/reader/observer and the kind of language we use? It’s witty but it’s also thought provoking. Another example: In a poem considering the poet as two people—she is both poet and her own wife—“Three monks /…picnicking / below a huge vagina falls.” There are also irreverence and perspectives that we don’t expect, but all are seen through a filter of empathy. “Rich Autumn” asks, “And you, impatient sufferer,/ why should you carry so much pain /under the harness Necessity?” The final stanza begins, surprisingly with “Really, your illness is a bore / mostly to you.” The wit and insight in that “mostly”!
“Lantern,” is a powerful poem about the events of Tiananmen Square, a compassionate engagement with witness, agency, and ethical action (or inaction) and considering the role soldiers in the story, people who are not often addressed.
We pray for the soldiers who could not shoot,
for men, knife-handed, who
threw down their orders when truth spoke out
in a great wave of children
ready to fast, to suffocate.
Notice that amazing “knife-handed.” The poem addresses the principled silence, the moral soldiers who, instead of violence, “stand their ground” and refuse to extinguish “[s]ome truths that were not abstract / but had names, imaginations, love.” Toward the end of the poem there is an image of a lantern knocked over and “the silence of the soldiers is part of it.” This leads to the powerful and paradoxical image of fortitude, resistance, and hope: “The lantern is tipped over, but not out.”
Many of the poems in A Tent, A Lantern, An Empty Bowl engage with the Christian spiritual tradition in both explicit and implicit ways, poems inhabited by faith, prayer and a sense of spiritual presence, but, as in “Tiananmen,” in an ethical (but not doctrinaire) manner: “Some saints, too ready, will thrust out, / like Peter, whose sword is always wrong”; or as in “Ephemeral,” “Perhaps the artist is like God / and values impermanence.”
Lane writes subtle poems of moral conviction, intelligence, wit, nuanced observation, and quiet optimism, or at least, hope. They are lyrics that engage with the classic modernism of the last century but rather than being sleepy followers of tradition, bring an awake freshness, a vitality, relevance and incision to the craft.
Gary Barwin is a writer and multidisciplinary artist and the author of twenty-four books of poetry and fiction. His latest books include A Cemetery for Holes, with Tom Prime (Gordon Hill) and For It is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe: New and Selected Poems, ed. Alessandro Porco (Wolsak and Wynn.) His national bestselling novel Yiddish for Pirates (Random House Canada) won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, the Canadian Jewish Literary Award (Fiction) and the Hamilton Book Award (Fiction) and was a finalist for both the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.