Glorious Birds, Heidi Greco (Anvil Press)
Freedom, Sebastian Junger (Harper Collins)
Letters in a Bruised Cosmos, Liz Howard (McClelland&Stewart)
Postcolonial Love Poem, Natalie Diaz (Graywolf Press)
Conjure, Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan University Press)
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, Anne Carson (New Directions)
I am always pleased to see small presses venture out of their established playground and Vancouver’s Anvil Press’s Glorious Birds by Heidi Greco is just such a case, propelled by an appealing concision and unfussy conviviality. Subtitled A Celebratory Homage to Harold and Maude, it explores territories CanLit rarely reaches. Its author, Heidi Greco, turns out to be as fine a film critic as she is a poet and editor, and her dedication to the second golden age of American film, exemplified in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, a surreal metaphysical romance if there ever was one, is to be itself celebrated. One hopes she and Anvil will make time and space for more of the same. And having attended many showings of the innovative works of that era in various repertory cinemas around Toronto back in the day, I can be described as one of the already converted. Although the era and its output has been covered in a number of anthologies, documentaries and deep dive volumes (such as Richard LaGravanese and Ted Demme’s A Decade Under The Influence and Christopher Beaches’ The Films of Hal Ashby)), there is definitely room for a Canadian slant on what was basically a US phenomenon. We see things differently here.
Despite being of chapbook length (125pp) Greco has all the bases covered, – the inception, the editing, the soundtrack choices, interviews with principals and lashes of film buff love, I found myself celebrating her celebration and whispering More Please!
Another leap out of the box would be Sebastian Junger’s Freedom, a walking tour of rural Pennsylvania and philosophical rumination on the endless tug of war between freedom and community, again checking in at under 150pp, when others might have rattled on for volumes. In discussing the development of the continent’s railroad system in the early 1800’s he succinctly observes that the government’s seizure of land under the principle of ‘eminent domain’ is justified by being overwhelmingly in the public interest, he lays bare the irreconcilable tug of war between the state’s freedom to ‘maximize its own prosperity’ and the individual’s right to ‘own and control land’. Essentially, he posits, the central problem for human freedom is that groups who are sufficiently well organized to defend against outsiders are also well able to oppress their own. And thus democracy, whether that of Ancient Greece or more recently the Iroquois Great Law of Peace.
By excising all his historical and cultural tales and revelations to ten pages of sources and references at the end, Junger accomplishes a smart but suspiciously deceptive smooth narrative line, one that can be supped and digested almost anywhere and anytime. It is one where cooking on an open fire while hiding in nearby woods from the railway police that could easily arrest him and his rotating raft of pals is followed by blithe discussions of technological disruptions of daily life, the appalling disasters of the early railways being a major culprit; the paradoxes of warfare, where the small bands of dedicated guerillas can often outwit and trash a large standing army; what men and women will suffer to escape the predations of authority and establish footholds in the wilderness amidst the relentless slaughter of pioneers by native tribes; how athletes such as boxers anticipate the moves of their opponents from clues so subtle the rest of us would miss completely.
Such displays of chatty erudition tend to slip down like a good brandy, the pleasant inebriation of partial knowledge puffing up the reader’s pride as the body counts of the freedom-from-community struggles pass by, and the ravages of history repeat their bloody vengeance until the appalling mess has been tidied away and a new crop of desperate recruits arrives to fulfil their dreams. History is indeed a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken but the charm of Junger’s blithe multidisciplinary pronouncements serves only to divvy up our dream life into digestible morsels. The complexity of the historical process can be carved into self-explanatory slices for the benefit of nibblers but the many course banquet must be attended to digest the awesome complexity of the big picture.
Canadian poet Liz Howard’s Letters in a Bruised Cosmos takes that big picture and focuses on the familial relationships that comprise the details in any epoch. A worthy follow up to her 2016 Griffin award winner Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, the lyrics of Bruised Cosmos, by turns celebratory and melancholy, evoke the small wars of relationships with their inevitable wounds, healings and last minute dives into diplomacy. I was particularly touched by the extended meditation on absent fathers in Letter from Halifax. I was less moved by the more experimental works: poems that are intricately carved puzzle pieces tend to pass me by, chess games of language that I do not always care to play, but that’s just me, while long experience tells me that others will likely find challenge and stimulation in their construction and gradual unfolding.
The undertaker doesn’t warn you
about the consistency of the ashes.
Not like those of say, a cigarette.
Scattering them will not be like
when you used to blow into
the ashtrays at your grandparents’
house as if blowing the fluff off
of dandelions gone to seed, for
which you were gently scolded.
The human form is difficult to destroy
utterly. When fragments of your father’s
bones thud against the ground of his wishing
forgive yourself for the shock, the momentary
turn in your stomach. When you see that his ash
has caught onto your shoes and leggings and skin
come to see this as your first and only embrace.
American poet Natalie Diaz, in her Post Colonial Love Poem, while roaming the vast terrain of history and culture also shows a tender concern for family and its challenging dysfunctions. A brother, who appears to live in that land well beyond eccentricity, is repeatedly evoked:
Today my brother brought over a piece of the ark
Wrapped in a white plastic grocery bag.
He set the bag on my dining table, unknotted it,
Peeled it away, revealing a foot-long fracture of wood.
He took a step back and gestured toward it
With his arms and open palms –
It’s the ark, he said.
You mean Noah’s ark? I asked.
What other ark is there? He answered.
(“It Was the Animals”)
Also, the cultural dislocation of native Americans, in what is otherwise a love song to Manhattan:
The things I know aren’t easy:
I’m the only native American
On the 8th floor of this hotel or any,
Looking out ay window
Of a turn-of-the-century building
Manhattan is a Lenape word.
Even a watch must be wound.
How can a century or a heart turn
If nobody asked, Where have all
The natives gone?
- (“Manhattan Is a Lenape Word”)
Other poems veer into more pain and anger at the actions of authority and police towards these original inhabitants turned victims of that vast republican dream now shrunk by industry, technology and the creeping malaise of empire.
We are Americans, and we are less than I percent
Of Americans. We do a better job of dying
By police than we do existing.
At the National Museum of the American Indian,
68 percent of the collection is from the United States.
I am doing my best not to become a museum
Of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out.
- (“American Arithmetic”)
Post Colonial Love Poem is a powerful statement from what increasingly seems like an endangered species, and one that many feel we should all be paying more attention to.
Another US poet, so far unknown to me despite being the author of fifteen books, the latest being Conjure, is the wonderfully enigmatic Rae Armantrout. Her pithy utterances, part zen koan, part haiku, are as intellectually mysterious as they are mystically profound. And apparently Nick Cave’s favourite living poet. I do not normally take rock star’s literary recommendations seriously, but in this case I am persuaded. These indeed are works of a nimble brain and an elfin wit, liberated from sentiment, heartache, and that literary hospice of language as healing.
The brain causes lights
to chase one another
around a small tree
to see itself
and a sense
in the throat:
Tell us again
what we are:
foxes, stars, mice,
Finally, we come to that queen of enigma, Anne Carson, who often appears to me as some hot air balloon, shooting off to the horizon of understanding, chuckling. I have before me a very short play,
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a modern riff on Euripides’ Helen. Like most theatrical ventures in language, it will likely be more entertaining on stage than on page.
The poet supplants her actors’ invective and interactions with historical background, opinion and our Lady Marilyn’s take on it all. Some samples –
History of War: Lesson 5:-
How do you define dirt? Here is what the Ancient Greeks thought of it: dirt is matter out of place. The poached egg on your plate at breakfast is not dirt. The poached egg on page 202 of the Greek lexicon in
the library of the British Museum is dirt.
Norma Jeane takes up knitting:-
One thing I learned from psychoanalysis is how to fake it with men.
History of War Lesson 4:-
The economy ancient of Greece, like that of early modern America, depended on the institution of slavery, and warfare was a factory for the production of slaves. Anyone who survived a war on the losing side was destined for this category.
Enter Norma Jeane as Mr. Truman Capote:-
Second choral ode. We have three objectives. One: rescue this play from melodrama. Keep her away
from that wind phone. And three: get Arthur out of Hollywood alive.
A surreal post-modern confection to delight the eyes and ears? A compendium of self-congratulatory learned wit? I wish I had attended the premiere at the Kenneth C. Griffin Theater on April 9, 2019. Perhaps then I could have followed the thread back out of the maze.
Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit. Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.
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