BOOK REVIEWS by TAMAR RUBIN
VEGETABLE, ANIMAL AND MUSICAL
FREDERICTON, CALGARY, & HALIFAX
These are not the potatoes of my youth
[Fredericton: icehouse poetry – Goose Lane Editions, 2019. $19.95]
Rooster, Dog, Crow
[Calgary: Frontenac House Poetry, 2018. $19.95]
GEORGE ELLIOTT CLARKE’S
Portia White: A Portrait in Words
[Halifax: Nimbus Publishing House Poetry, 2019. $21.95]
Mathew Walsh begins their debut book of poems with an epigram that clues the reader in: “Poets, like potatoes, ripen in the dirt.” There will be digging in dark fertile soil. And potatoes, like poets, have roots and eyes.
Walsh’s are poems about private mythologies. Private mythologies of childhood, as in “Blue potato”:
Dad told me blue potatoes were magic
and now I can blame him for my overactive imagination
and wow were we ever rich
in the potato department.
private mythologies of youth, as in “Individual cats”:
I recommend the Superstore parking lot, deep December,
for coming out. Your mother will look like she is smoking
but not smoking, just doing her best
bull impression. Two bags in each hand like a scale
of justice or a Libra emoji.
and private mythologies of adulthood, as in “Catholic and church”:
Church no longer means man
and woman under God to me.
No, it does not – it is a street in Toronto
where you find out having the best time of your life that Mariah Carey
is now considered retro and you stand there
in the middle of the dance floor, ghost of your former baby-gay self
in Bluenotes jeans and your Bluenotes Motion T-shirt with brown leaves
and your neck covered in blueberry hickeys, that you are middle-aged.
Walsh’s voice is grounded by (and through) these deeply-rooted mythologies, and the physical and metaphysical spaces where these mythologies originated. Wherever Walsh travels, roots and dirt follow them, in every mundane thing they say or do, even “just saying hello, wow, taking my ear-/buds out, interacting.”
Walsh sees the world through a lens coloured by the potatoes of their youth:
When I landed my life in Vancouver I got told the mountain range
was called Sleeping Beauty by the descendent of a Russian oligarch
but all I saw was my own perspectives: the ears of a very mad dog,
the molars, more earth, head of a canine.
Walsh slows down to find nature, growth and the pastoral wherever they go. Keenly observant, they pause to smell the “meadows of graffiti” in downtown Vancouver, to taste the “giant blueberry” of science world, and marvel at the “orange cranes on the waterfront like little horses or giraffes.”
The outer landscapes become conduits for Walsh to parse a complex and multitudinous inner landscape. For them, sand is “little minerals, microscopic rocks, who used to be parts / of a larger, bigger, more important life of parts.”
And even in the revelatory final poem of the collection, “For my future wilderness,” Walsh is still striving to achieve this harmonious outer/inner landscape balance:
…where animals will eat out of my hands, I love
how it tickles and it’s, like, two kinds of nourishment.
It is like receiving counsel and peace. Google Earth and see things
connected like veins, the blue highways, the light
blue lake, where I can totally get down
and hold my head over its brim, drinking and drinking in
Digging roots and dirt, these poems are not just self-portraits, but portraits of self-discovery. Walsh says,
I had parts
of myself I did not know were
parts of myself
Throughout this poetry collection, there is also self-conscious art making, “where plants reveal their oldest art”:
I feel like airplanes are where memories are stored –
no, that’s wrong – I don’t; I’m just trying to begin this process
of a poem.
Or in “The poem says”, that begins, “Start the poem with a failing metaphor.” Though rooted in metaphor, the open verse is kinetic, powering ahead, compelling both writer and reader forward. One technique of this breathlessness is the sudden movement from one thought to another, sometimes with the run-on enabling word “and”:
in your own atmosphere, and we have different brains
and yesterday I saw a whole school
of cyclists like little neon fish
Another potato digging technique that relies on the kinetic forward energy of the language is the curious reversal of meaning in the straddling of two stanzas, which Walsh does frequently:
I’m guilty thinking of poetry as not being a life
preserver – sometimes it makes me feel good just for a while.
“Agricola street” is a particularly beautiful poem, capturing a private mythological place in the landscape painting of single house, and sketched portraiture of its inhabitants – “other people’s ghosts” – in deft short brushstrokes: Amanda, who “left music on all night, for comfort I think”; Margie, who “brought nothing with them except sage and a bag of salt for sprinkling”; Margie and her friend Doug, both “dressed as Klingons at the Halifax Comic Con.”
With their casual, conversational style, Walsh has a wonderful talent for creating vivid landscape and portraiture art, Polaroid lines that capture succinctly in words – a remembrance, as in “Maurice”:
…and oh, looking back, how your hair caught
the wind and swam like a school of minnows.”
“Queer life”, as in “Live-in boyfriend”:
Wow, this brand-new landscape and gay officially
in the soil of your bedroom.
A relationship, as in “George”:
I would peel any number of potatoes
to please him.
But in this private mythology, it is the poet’s brother, their gay uncle Bryan, and especially mom and dad, who must be brought to the surface:
…My mom loves
to keep clementines in the closet to ripen up which is so good
in a poem I am making over. We came out together
from the Superstore and I turned and said I am gay
which was scary comical ‘cause she had so much fruit
on her hands, now, literally, for real.
And digging from the dark soil potatoes of a roots-and-blind-eyes dad:
I think my dad liked me because he didn’t know me
as the boy who chased boys with my mother’s lipstick.
In understanding the manifold ways their father does not understand them, the poet comes to understand themselves.
And digging this understanding from the dark soil of the family home, as in “More details forthcoming”, (about dad’s reaction to when gay uncle Bryan came out to dad over the phone from Northern Alberta):
how hard it is to admit when you aren’t to question a claustrophobic place
a house with several closets
your parents expect you to leave
Walsh comes to terms with personal mythology, self-portraiture and a different kind of landscape at the conclusion of their book via an imagined interior geography. “For my future wilderness”begins”:
I am forgetting what is seen in the bathroom mirror,
what is on my passport, my license for the Land
Rover. I’m over being real and maybe I’ll love me.
and which ends:
and I am all fours, asking not to be or not be. But –
I can be this poem. I can be wilderness.
In these final lines, as in the rest of the collection, Walsh continues to interrogate and contradict themselves, juxtaposing the banal with the profound, using kinetic syntax, and phrasing that is simultaneously illuminating and obfuscating. As the collection ends, the reader is left with a sense of ongoing movement, compelled, like the writer, to keep digging.
Jim Nason’s sixth poetry collection is a fantastic, visionary, almost mythical creation, peopled by anthropomorphic animals, of which the central characters are Dog, Crow and the poet Rooster. Their stories, told in vividly crafted language, present a rainbow portrait of a life in all its colours, tales of love and loss, rivals and jealousy, love triangles and the squaring of circles.
The collection bursts open from the very first stanza of the first poem, “Rooster Wears Stilts to the Pride Parade”:
Rooster looms over marchers’ heads, spits fire
and thumbtacks, tars party dogs and feral cats
with bright feathers plucked from his hairy ass. He bends
to bare-breasted women and tweaks their nipples
with his talons. He pokes the gold-sparkled backs
of shirtless men in tall black boots with his torch, kicks
over a trash can, drips testosterone and struts
down Yonge Street in steepled steps. You don’t know song
from cough, Rooster cries through his cracked corn breath.
Nason proceeds with the same energy and abandon, the same bold brush strokes, through the prism of “Fourteen ways of looking at Rooster”; posing “Crow’s Question”, granting “Dog’s Grace”, letting us hear “Dog’s Voice” and “Crow’s Stutter”. Each poem refracts the rainbow in a funhouse technicolour land of Oz, but not with lions, tigers and bears – oh, no!; with Rooster, Dog and Crow. We land at the end of this whirlwind carnival satire, back in black and white Kansas, to a time “When Rooster Could Talk,” “When Dog Could Talk” and “When Crow Could Talk.”
Nason has crafted a collection of perceptive portraits that yields self-understanding, which he hints at in the opening epigraph: “…and when you finally understand yourself, you no longer understand the world.” Indeed, Nason’s work is all about understanding the self, primarily in relation to other animals, whose characters are incised with language as sharp and blood-red as Rooster’s comb. Their full throated poetry uses the bright-plumed words as character development:
On top of his stilt-legs draped in pink fringe, wearing
green-gold head feathers and red tail extensions, Rooster
juggled a ballet, a coin and his new torch.
But it is also about the plumage of society at large, including the circus of the political world in which Rooster, Dog and Crow live, whether it be the “sun-fried tips of Justin Trudeau’s curly hair” or the United States president “Orangutan King gold-nest hair.” In “Bitter Attack”
All the women stomp
in pink pussy hats made of pink wool.
And later, in “Grub and Text” there is:
a Mississippi rush and flood
of pink-knit pussy-caps,
The personal is political, and the political is personal. The whole menagerie weave in and out of relationship in a complex choreography of love and loss. Blending the erotic and the analytic, rapid-fire creatures emerge as full-blown bodies and souls bound together in an untamed cockfight.
In engaging eight-beat rhymed couplets, Clarke paints a portrait in words of “the first African-Canadian star of song and stage,” Portia White, who also happens to be Clarke’s great aunt. Over some fifty pages and six sections, and with whimsical colour illustrations interspersed, Clarke’s epic poem spans from White’s birth in 1911, to her performance before Queen Elizabeth II in 1964, shortly before her death in 1968.
Clarke chronicles White’s childhood and early musical experiences singing in the choir of her father’s Baptist church, and her musical education and training of her mezzo-soprano voice at the Halifax conservatory (funded in part by her teaching at a black-only school in Africville). The Second World War had a powerful impact on White’s career. First, it brought Dr. Ernesto Vinci, a Jewish-Italian doctor and classically trained operatic baritone to Halifax. Vinci, unable to practice medicine, taught music at the conservatory where White became his star pupil. At the same time, new opportunities arose for White, including the need to entertain the troops gathering in Halifax Harbour. This in turn led to public concerts in Toronto in 1941, a Manhattan debut in 1944, and a series of tours, including across Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Sadly, her promising performance career was waylaid by medical and other troubles. After the war, she became a voice and music teacher in Toronto, until her last hurrah, performing for Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to Prince Edward Island in 1964. But the poem is much more than a biography, as Clarke himself explains in his rhyming preface:
Although Art is vero, never
Falso, my Portia is ever
A portrait, only partially
Accurate depiction. I take
License to relate her version
In her voice, to tell History
Who she was—as I hear her say
Or sing. I confirm facts, but say
Also what I think she’d’ve said.
And so, his poem delves into the political and social context of White’s life and career, with Clarke imagining what “she’d’ve said.”
Much of the pleasure in reading is enjoying the skill, inventiveness and panache Clarke brings to make the lines rhyme:
As down-to-earth the idolized
Miss White, not so “italicized,”
Nor haughty, but spectacular
With earthy Mirth; vernacular
Delivery of spirituals
Blazed me a starlet. The burials
Of hurts in honeyed versicle—
The mix of gravel and treacle—
My patent style—growling, trilling—
Proved theatrical—and thrilling.
The rhymes lend the written text voice, and provide a singing quality that seems appropriate for the subject matter. One can almost imagine hearing these lines recited out loud. Similar pleasure is derived from clever constrictions, contractions and word choices he uses to make the meter work:
My “resonant, God’s avatar
Voice,” now craved a brio
photo— Publicity (autobio)….
At times, however, the wit and cleverness can make the story difficult to follow, and so it is helpful that Clarke includes a narrative biographical sketch as a postscript to the poem.
Using these techniques of witty rhyming couplets and clever word play, most of the poem brings out the key episodes and sociopolitical aspects of one particular life. For example, we learn that White is the granddaughter – through her Virginia-born father – of an American slave. And so, when she sings before the Queen, Clarke has her say,
I shan’t schmooze; soothe with serenades!
I see slaves shackled in parades
When The Queen’s ancestors—enthroned—
Numbered my ancestors as “owned”
As “Africans” judged good as cash;
Who toiled neath smack and crack of lash.
Beyond a noteworthy life story, Clark also uses the poem to reflect on larger, more universal themes of life in general: what remains of a life remembered, art and its pursuit, and one’s dedication to art as a career and as a calling.
Poesy ain’t flimflam: It’s flame!
The errant apprentice? My name:
I, me! I’m what Memory sings.
With inventive and nimble wordcraft, and the discipline of metered rhyme, Clarke does indeed paint a portrait in words. His long-form verse tells an important story of a woman with Africadian roots whose dedication leads to success in mid-century North America, and the trials and glories of the pursuit of an artistic career. In doing so, Clarke has also created a poetic meditation on the role of art and language in bringing a voice back to life, and the power of poetry to transform history into art.
Tamar Rubin is a Winnipeg physician and poet. She has published her work in both literary and medical journals, including Vallum, Prairie Fire, CV2, The New Quarterly, Journal of the American Medical Association, The Hippocrates Medical Poetry Anthology and others. Raised in Ontario, Tamar currently lives with her husband and children in Winnipeg, the original lands of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Metis nation. Her first full-length poetry collection, Tablet Fragments, was published by Signature Editions in 2020.