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Only Excite: Babstock, Ball and a few last notes

By Sina Queyras

All the way through my earlier post about poetry that was not somehow far enough out, I was thinking, examples, examples, this post could use more precise examples. A few names, I gave. Alice Notley, Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place (whose work is more about making one extremely uncomfortable than “weeping” admittedly, though I know for a fact that this has happened). After several years of attempting to read much of the poetry field, particularly Canadian (because it is a point of contention to me that I do not limit myself to one or another aesthetic position, but rather, try to take in the whole as much as possible), I have have arrived at a moment where I want to scale back. I give up trying to read it all. I can’t. From now on I want to allow myself only to read and think and write only about that which compels. Again, it’s not a matter of upholding one vision of poetry, but rather, finding work that compels me. I have less time in my life. If a book doesn’t compel, I have to put it aside and move on. Even if the volume has won prizes, or garnered much praise, or comes with the right pedigree: if it fails to compel I have given myself leave to turn it aside.

Rather than talk about what I have passed over, I’ll talk about what stuck. To carry on from my last post, I’ll mention Alice Notley again. Her work so consistently pleases me that along with Lisa Robertson, Anne Carson, Erin Moure, and a handful of other poets, I can say I would buy whatever she publishes without hesitation… Culture of One has not left my side since I purchased it. It’s a collection that follows the life of a character, Marie, who “resided in the dump outside Notley’s hometown…”

I’ve been flinching for years, Marie says to another word—
A bald naked figure crouching, with teeth and breasts and a navel:
Lines of eyebrows in frown, of teeth clenched, fingertips to cheeks—
Bones and vees of elbows and knees—it’s a tense brown word:

As I I were born to flinch. And others to make sure I do.

I love how clear and confident Notley’s poetic voice is, how the characters address the reader so vividly, whether it is in the syntactic stutter of Alette (Descent of Alette), or here, in a more conventional line. I find her texts disturbingly inhabitable. The language highly charged and deceptively plain, the line breaks understated, fluid.

Similarly, very recently Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet landed on my desk, and without reservation, I am recommending it. Not because it is, “Le Babstock”, a force to be reckoned with here in the wilds of Canadian poetry (and surely, for the poet, a bit of a weight to have to carry), no, I don’t recommend this on his profile, but because the book is, from start to finish, a knock out. It’s a pleasure to read, and I suspect (and have confirmed from Babstock just now) that it was a pleasure to write.

If you want to be a lyric poet, Babstock offers an exciting role model. Beautiful isn’t enough. Mournful isn’t enough. There can be no platitudes. Interiority is prismed. His work, in the past, has been criticized for something that I feel is all too common in contemporary lyric poetry—the beautiful nothing. Or, that he doesn’t show up in the poem, but rather lets the sound and craft carry him. There might have been some truth in that, but not here. In fact, he handles his penchant for sound to great effect, rattling around in a Muldoonish line while always plumbing a slant and insightful line of inquiry. He’s not a man of fragment, nor is he about to move too squarely into the Ashbery or Moure mode of imaging, or taking the grand leap, but he moves in those directions, favoring a more graspable but no less complicated, journey:

As Marginalia in John Clare’s The Rural Muse

I wasn’t finished. From as far back
as I can recall having heard a voice in my skull

I’ve wanted to die, or change, or die
changing. Hexagonal window, the moon

penned in it, and a segmented swarm sucking
up peonies. Heat off tar shingles

in June as the blood in one arm
blackened, thickened, went blearily toxic,

I exited earth up an IV tube.
The wall-mounted paper dispenser

narrating nightmares of scale, sores fell
from fingers — get well petals — and grew

back puce. Slug of little light, the bedrail
gleamed. Warmed yoghurt, a summons

button and visual aphasia. Now I’ve no spit,
no hospice and admit nothing, or,

for long stretches, only what happened
was all that ever could have happened.

Reeds curtain where land abuts lake,
if such limit exists, if ducks aren’t taken

by pike mid-thought.

This is easily, if not his most exciting work (it’s all pretty exciting), then his most mature work. It has a certain viscosity of idea to craft, of engagement and solo contemplation, that I was attempting to get at in my last post. It’s refreshingly light on the polish. Not to suggest it isn’t polished, but Babstock has veered toward what I might call the Can Lit School of excessive polish. This is a particular strand of Canadian poetry that is so refined, so polished, it has not a whiff of grit left in it. Not a shred of soul. Like the Englishwoman in Stevie Smith’s fabulous little poem, these poems are so refined “they have no bosom and no behind…”

Happily that is not the case here. Babstock hasn’t strayed far from what he does best, which is sound, as we see in “Bathynaut”:

Plumb-bobbing gradations of lightlessness,
super super-pressurized other-
super super worlds of Antarctic
coldcurrent and silence. Gauge needles
sweat, dither. It’s all clown fish

at x leagues, near-nerveless bioluminescent
super tubes, their eyes on stalks,
super super jaws afflicted with
cartoonish mandibular gigantism.
Bladders of bluey glow…

He is further out this time, more and more his own. I interviewed Babstock for Harriet last year, and he provided us with a poem then. You can read both here.

Here’s a completely different voice:

Alone

When you enter the theatre, you find yourself alone. You take your seat, but the rest remain empty. The curtain does not rise. The play will not begin unless you leave.

I consider Jonathan Ball’s Clockfire to be in the top handful of poetry titles last year in this country. No prize for him, alas, but lots of buzz and engagement and, for this reader in any case, the sense of a poet settling into the saddle for a while. Ball is a confident, smart poet. Very smart. His book is a compendium of un-performable plays, each more bizarre and surreal than the last, and each offering an intelligent and often chillingly precise investigation into the notion of theatre, of audience, expectation and participation.

Into the Theatre

A single audience member (a woman, for the purposes of illustration) enters the theatre. The usher directs her toher seat.

Onstage, her entire life is re-enacted, replayed from birth, before her eyes.

At the proper moment, the usher approaches the actress playing the woman in the audience. He leads her down from the stage into the theatre, and seats her beside the original audience member, who by this point has been deadfor many years.

The actress watches as her life is played out, from birth,before her eyes. A copy of the previous life, in most respects.This play continues in a similar manner, and does not end until every seat in the theatre is full.

It’s difficult to limit the examples from Ball, but I must. This book, along with Darren Wershler’s Update and Derek bealieu’s How to Write, have been by my bedside for months, and continue to pull me back for more. These latter two might be classics of the conceptual writing genre, certainly up in the top for me and among the best of 2010.

In particular, two young poets, whom, to make my bias plane, have written for Lemon Hound in the past year, have also published exciting books. Nikkie Reimer’s Sic, and Nick Thran’s Earworm, are both smart and compelling in very different ways. Other books on my desk that are compelling, but I have not yet formulated responses to include Ken Belford ,who recently knocked my socks off with Decompositions. Just to leave you with a few titles well worth reading.

Here’s a poem from Sic:

on spec

so much depends so much depends so much depends
so much depends so much depends an orange wheelbarrow
sidle up reeking of dried menstrual blood, lilac wine, feet
and where the fuck have you been?
i’ve been to pussy to visit the queen

so much depends so much depends so much depends so much dep cat naps on concrete

so much cured, as in skinned, as in kneed, as in crotch

no news is good stay golden, stay avant-garde
so in touch with the cutting edge he broke new ground each time
he looked in the mirror
art & politics don’t mix but the cement pour lasted till noon
memory + loss

so much depends so much depends shut the fuck up re: yr polemic
so much depends so much depends all these have claws

and from Nick Thran:

Thought Bubbles Hovering over the Canadian Taxidermists Association’s Annual General Meeting

*

Does the killdeer’s head ache when a winter storm lashes the side of the house?

*

These sandwiches are the white sails sent out by bread ovens that have buoyed up my body since birth.

*

My pastor, O pastor, how are we going to save this child?

*

Best is a line drive into the right field corner.

*

Best is a slow morning between Genevieve’s legs, at her chest.

*

The Bow Falls as still as a water glass.

*

A cloud in the act of changing from one likeness to the next.

and finally, from Ken Belford

I carried a swan and a leg of a bear on
my back. I had a beard, and cut my hand.
My hair fell to my shoulders. Bony, with
indigo eyes, I spoke no French, and
ventured into town, after a kiss, followed
by a fever. Hunters are the interface there,
and their families, who eat bushmeat,
are suspicious of outsiders. But when
hunters carry home the dead for dinner,
the contact of blood spreads to the next.
Hunters want to get their hands in the blood.
Eventually someone will collect the bloodlines
from the hunters and their kills, but it will be
too late. When a virus tries, and fails,
the unborn live on in the mud at the end
of the lake. Not unlike poets, most of
the undiscovered are harmless, but some
are dangerous, or some are known, some not.
The blood on the backs of the men spreads
through family into words, where they elude
surveillance until packaged and shipped.


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, May 1st, 2011 by Sina Queyras.