George Murray and Christopher Patton, other strands of American influences

Ox, Christopher Patton
The Rush to Here, George Murray

I missed Christopher Patton in the New Canon. Perhaps because the poems chosen for that anthology had such tonal similarities that after a while it seemed they were all varieties of the same poem (and at points that Canada was populated only by one kind of poet and no diversity whatsoever). In any case, the poems in Ox leap off the page with their ecstatic longing for communion with nature. They seem divined to view the most minute details and report back with verbal acumen. Not, as the book cover suggests, a whole new scale of Canadian nature poetry, but rooted in it, and in Gerald Manley Hopkins, and in the American school of quietude as well (and the Columbia/Paris Review tradition too).

The problem with this variety of poetry is that it is often beautiful, but emotionally vacant, or as some have suggested, “about nothing.” Funny that “about nothing,” is seen as such a terrible aspect of language poetry, or the avant garde, but if a verbally innovative poet can keep a sense of realism, suddenly it’s fine to just be about nothing, or about sound… (Is Hopkins about nothing? Of course not. Is Heaney about nothing, of course not, but many of those working under their influence certainly are.) But okay, fair enough, the book is described as being a “new scale” of nature poetry, so what is it about? What moves here below the surface of the ear? What depths does the poet, and therefore we plumb? “A seed is a sound,” the poem “Seed,” begins, and we get beautiful alliteration, a whisper over ice, over seed pod, rattle of fall, a few flashes of wind, but nothing transforms. Nothing surprises after the first line: a seed is a sound. Yes, it is a sound, wonderful, and then?? A carafe is a blind glass. That’s a new scale. I also kept thinking of Stevie Wonder’s Secret Life of Plants, circa 1979 which knocked me out, but more practically, I thought of Lilburn who does this while taking us inside the sound, inside the smell of earth…

Still, about something, new in scale or not, this is lush poetry and a absolute pleasure to read. One of my favorite sections is “Weed Flower Mind,” a further venturing,

of viscious, noisome feelings, unprofitable graine
encombring good corne: darnel, onion grass,
crabgrass; surging useless.
Untangle me.–Lost in the fallow,
you swing a rusted sickle and it takes you down.
But look, self-heal, heal-all. You are your own

Beautiful syllables rolling on the tongue, very fresh. But, remember the first time you saw Microcosmos and wondered how a filmmaker could create such drama out of a ladybug, such erotics from a snail? Remember hearing Un for the first time? Well, this doesn’t give us that kind of wonder, doesn’t leave us shaking in newness. It it is beautiful. I’m making much of this because I think presses should be held accountable for their blurbs, particularly when they seem intended to diss what has come before. Why? To what end is that a good move?

But also because it’s simply an interesting question. Here is a poet furiously at work and it isn’t his fault that his work is being spun a particular way. His work is doing this–this sound, this line, this beauty. Fair enough. Line after line of it, a delight to the ear: “breeds and breathes; scythe and seethe,” just gorgeous. Not leaping off into a new way of thinking about anything to do with seed pods, “Weed-leaves hiding leaf-faces…”, no, not quite new–as we might find with someone like Dennis Lee, for example, or as many-stranded, as we find in Steven Price, but lovely. Another impressive debut. One you must check out.

George Murray’s Rush to Here (which I keep reading as Rush to Hear, an equally apt title) is a collection of sonnets. The sonnet is one of my favorite forms, and perhaps the received form most often attempted. There is sonnet as in Marilyn Hacker sonnet, and there is sonnet as in Ted Berrigan, or Bernadette Mayer, or bp Nichol. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Hacker talk about the sonnet, and for her the thing barely contains the emotional and lyrical force of her buckling against and into the world. Hearing her read can be like time traveling because she really is writing out of the 16th and 17th century, she really is speaking to Donne as much as Gwendolyn Brooks. There are those who question the relevance of the form for our time, but I’m not one of them. In the right hands any form is exciting. The sonnet can transform, can take the quotidian and give it a graceful vessel, particularly when met with equal force in terms of voice and content. It can also clunk like nobody’s business. George Murray, in his latest book, just out with Nightwood, and a much more emotionally engaging and present book than his earlier two with M&S, soars.

Perhaps this is a poet coming into his own, a poet back in Canada, a poet settling into poetry, but there is more lightness here, more range, and a directness of voice–clear the speaker, clear the audience, that line, very direct. These are companionable poems. Mind, they aren’t a perfect companion for this poet, but I can certainly recognize their companionability and further, can imagine them being carried around and dogeared. For this poet, that is the ultimate compliment. There’s a reason why smart bookstores don’t shelve Bukowski: he’s companionable, irresistible to the poor young penniless poet, irresistible to the 5 am fop in the all night bookstore.

What makes this poetry interesting to me, aside from its formal concerns, is its willingness to wonder about the human condition, not simply to describe, or tell (more on this as I work on an essay on lyric, Jan Zwicky and Anne Simpson). I can (or will) go far with any voice that creates a space for me in a poem, a poet that invites me into their world (a world that rings true). I grow so weary of the faux revelations in poetry, the earnest tone that mocks sincerity. There’s none of that here. Take the poems “Collusion” and “The Corner,” for example:

The crushed grass evidence of collusion:
the animals fuck themselves to bleeding.

Ouch! But there is a real attempt to see the angularity, the rawness, and not just that Mary Oliver pirouette of wonder (at what? at what?), but pushing it further. In “The Corner:”

The child’s conception like a struck match,
an axe ringing off knots in trunk wood,
cloudy brains forming in the sky. The twin
of today is yesterday, or willbe tomorrow, yet each continues/follows,
different from the last/next. Like obstinate
math problems we line up, waiting, in effect,
for a dark age to pass; to be made public, fixed.

The poem is about many things, and none of them simple. In fact they are knotty, stubborn, surprising, not wholly knowable, beyond the glint of recognition: “I’ve met my match in my son, the mirror/image of his face constantly separating/from mine…” Very nice. There are wonderful surprises here. Even the line breaks are a pleasure–and so much contemporary poetry either abandons or forces line breaks these days.

Recently I wrote an essay on contemporary Canadian poetry for Gulf Coast Review (should be out any day…), and this sense of unhinging the word is one of the things I was looking at. It’s an aspect of Canadian poetry that seems very strong, very original to me. Not that American poetry doesn’t do this, but perhaps not in such a visceral way. I think this is evident in Open Field, and these new books would be at home in that field as well.

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