Lengthening the Short Street
There is a whole generation of Canadian poets who don’t know of Michael Schmidt’s famous pre-2K verdict on Canadian poetry. In Lives of the Poets (1998), Schmidt called Canadian poetry a “short street” so as to move to more fertile highways of the Commonwealth. A generation ago, Canadian poets shook their fists at that statement without taking self-inventory: after the vigorous products of Canadian literary nationalism of the sixties and seventies (Al Purdy, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, etc), we had precious little to show the world stage. We weren’t dead, exactly — not terminal, but not thriving either. Happily, the healthiest of outcomes now meets the Canadian poet: the short street has become like Yonge, one of the longest streets in the world. Schmidt’s assessment is forgotten by the generation that has made it irrelevant in its present. When I tell the tale of Lives of the Poets to Canadian millennial poets in the bars and coffeehouses of Toronto, they’re not angry — they’re baffled. Like Canadian poetry of the eighties and nineties, Schmidt’s comment is dated by subsequent growth in the field, with some of that growth coming from poets like Jordan Abel and Sylvia Legris, who weren’t dreamed of by Schmidt when he schlumped past the short street; other growth comes from figures like Molly Peacock, who straddles the Canadian-American divide and who serves as poetic inspiration and helpmeet for poets of both nations.
The Hideous Hidden, by Sylvia Legris.
New Directions. $15.95.
Sylvia Legris is a Saskatoon-based poet who won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2006 for her third book, Nerve Squall. In the Globe and Mail, veteran reviewer Fraser Sutherland channeled his inner Schmidt and referred to Nerve Squall’s dominant “baleful mood and malign atmosphere. Everything seems to set off a hyperactive inner barometer, meteorological hysteria and a sick headache.” He also commented on her “stylistic tics: lists, parentheses and pedantry.” Eleven years since the publication of that review, such a statement also reads as dated — poets like Lisa Robertson and Sina Queyras firmly prove that Canadian poetry has gone on beyond lyric.
With the publication of The Hideous Hidden (2016), Legris became one of the very few Canadian poets to publish with New Directions. This cross-border exchange might signal the necessity of a big prize win for Canadian poets hoping to crack the American market. In a recent interview with Legris, Sonnet L’Abbé asks:
So, recently, another poet said to me, “Hey, like, Sylvia Legris is in the New Yorker. Doesn’t she live in Saskatoon? Do you know how she did that?” I speculated that after you won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2006, you made US connections fairly easily; and that working with New Directions and getting a poem in the New Yorker flowed quite naturally from there. Is that even remotely true?
Legris’s answer, involving her between-gig description of working as a cleaner, and perhaps already foreshadowed by receptions like Sutherland’s, is a perfect deflation of po-biz careerism:
It’s true that sometimes when I’m craning my neck behind someone’s toilet, trying to clean the congealed splash-spatter off the wall, I marvel at my international profile. How did I get here? This is not my beautiful house ...
That metaphorical house is, actually, a very old story in Canada: one of finding acceptance in the United States first.
I had started getting poems accepted by US journals prior to winning the Griffin (in such places as Mid-American Review and Hayden’s Ferry Review). Since winning that prize, almost without exception every poem I’ve had published in the States had been previously rejected several times by Canadian publications.
There is a lesson here for poets who prefer their tales of accolades to be simple and incestuous. But rather than dig deeper into Michael J. Fox-esque formulae for the secrets of Legris’s success, I return instead to the sentence of Legris’s interview that mentions the “congealed splash-spatter” of human excreta. Legris’s latest book, in words taken from her interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (and conducted by Shelagh Rogers), tries to “draw out the beauty that’s embedded in what’s hidden, not just in the human body but in the language that surrounds it.”
To achieve this, Legris immersed herself in antiquated medical texts, excavating a discourse that is not only scientific in anatomico-physiological terms but which also insists on poetic integrity. Legris thinks of the human body poetically, using her found, fused, and lexically-influenced poems to demonstrate the beauty that exists in language used to render human parts and functions into precise quanta. Legris’s text is part of a wave of Canadian poetry-and-science hybrids that arrived in the late aughts and teens of the twenty-first century (Matthew Tierney, Gillian Savigny, Madhur Anand, and Jim Johnstone come front of mind here). These poets rendered into poems what was beautiful about physics, evolutionary biology, theoretical ecology, and thermodynamics respectively — but what distinguishes Legris’s efforts is poetic historicization of medical discourse, as well as a hard-won thick interdisciplinarity: her reading covers the major periods of development of anatomical inquiry from Egypt of 1600 BC to Hippocrates, Galen, Vesalius, da Vinci, and Bartholin.
Naturally, Legris’s use of her materials is incidental to the reader inclined to simply read good poetry, though an appreciation of her sources enriches the reading experience. As Eleanor Chandler writes in Prac Crit,
Her poetry stumped me in the best kind of way: I read it aloud and had no idea what it meant, but it sounded fantastic. I then opened five different kinds of dictionaries in my browser. I circled words and parts of words to note their etymologies and connotations, until the margins were full of scribbles.
The result? “I felt the sensation of having been shrunk and then shown around inside something or someone.” This is, perhaps, akin to Dickinson’s definition of poetry as a physical sensation, as if “the top of [her] head were taken off.”
Legris, however, is interested mainly in bodily sensations outside of the brainpan. “Fleshes,” one of the organizing poems in the book, suggests that:
Lungsthe destination of all things in multiples of two pilgrimage. Kidneyby kidney; a dextra, a sinistra ... Ham-footed the danceto the unholy body. Within or withouta complicated riddle of meat.
Legris isn’t interested in solving the “riddle of meat,” preferring instead a jangling, sound-dense poetry that ruminates on the substance of the human body (while chewing the language used to render that body). In this fragment, the biblical (“multiples of two pilgrimage”) journey is conducted by the fraught, sinful, mortal vehicle whose organs try to comfort themselves with their anatomical redundancy.
Signaling the sheer concreteness and physical fact of the body is often the poet’s object, as in “On the General Nature of the Glands”:
Mention the mesenteric, the renal, the axillary.The inguinal, then the pectoral affections.Not the glands like copious clouds.Fluctuating tufts. The sickly flux.The suffering glands. The friable, the phlegmy.The vanity-secreting. The smug-veined, the viscid.
Although there is an affective dimension and purpose invested in the glands mentioned, the poem seems to want to render the physical fact of bodily structure more than to narrativize it. Yet the sonic properties of her language create their own suprasensible effects, making for a bodily whole represented as more than its parts. For example, in “Opera Somnia”:
Rage-filled the sloshing spleen.Kidneys weep and weep a sea of pee.Awake awash with pissy expletives.Shit dreams and fits.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The unstable dreamersails through fugueand ague, purpuraand plague.
Here the combinatorial properties of dreams, excreta, and human organs make for a discomfiting song that, curiously, comes closer to connecting with human experience than medicine, with its insistence on narrative, knowledge, and intelligibility, usually can.
The de-narrativizing power of poetry as a paradoxical communicant has been remarked upon by Katie L. Price, an American poet who has published two chapbooks in Canada with above/ground press. Price feels that her
medical records read like a serial poem — both going somewhere and going nowhere at all; the same refrains repeating, repeating, repeating; it is a cosmos that once entered into, one can never escape. To me, this is a much more realistic way of reading about the body.
For Price and Legris, the sum of life is not necessarily sense, story, or quanta but is also a strange summation of unknowing.
The Analyst, by Molly Peacock.
W. W. Norton. $15.95.
Molly Peacock is an American poet who came to Canada in the nineties to be with her husband, Michael Groden, a professor in the Department of English at Western University in London, Ontario. Nowadays, Peacock splits time in both countries. Peacock has functioned in Canada as a rainmaker for poets, largely through her founding and ongoing shepherding of Tightrope Books’s Best Canadian Poetry series that is now in its tenth year (and is publishing a “best-of-best” volume this year). Obviously inspired by its American forerunner, Peacock launched the series in New York and facilitates other cross-border encounters between American and Canadian poets. A fixture in Toronto, she often appears at book launches and readings. Yet a millennial poet in Canada — the same one, perhaps, who doesn’t know the score about short streets — might see Peacock as impresario, a presence only, because of her tireless organizing work on their behalf. But as readers of Poetry understand, Peacock roared to life in the eighties and nineties (the same period when Canadian poetry took a nap) with formal verse that explained human pain and loss in monumental terms (see her “Commands of Love” from Take Heart to see exactly what I mean). And she made it new back in the day: in Molly Peacock: A Critical Introduction from Story Line Press, Canadian critic Jason Guriel astutely points out, “Today, we celebrate Frederick Seidel and forget that Peacock ... was doing taboo in traditional verse decades ago.” He then transcribes “On the Street,” a Peacock poem about a dilation and curettage (“A curette has the shape of a grapefruit spoon / They dilate the cervix, then clean out the womb / with the jagged prow”) that serves a genealogical function for latter-day Peacock readers unfamiliar with her early work.
In The Analyst, her new volume from W.W. Norton and Biblioasis, a (rare) product co-released on both sides of the border, Peacock writes poems with thematic material her fans have come to expect, like “Stirrups in the Emergency Room”:
The power goes out. A fog comes in.We’re trying to identify a painthat sharpens and fades. A blunt knife, a pin?stuck between the clitoris and its hood?The power is out. A grey fog is in.The number of sexual partners you have?Just one, for eighteen years. You atrophyas you age, she tells me. Pain is a trophythat sharpens and fades. A blunt knife, a pin!
A poem about a medical encounter where the mature speaker suffers pain at the introitus due to atrophic vaginitis, this impeccable double villanelle represents fear and pain with the formal bar set high in order to correspondingly raise the stakes of mimesis. As Peacock says in an interview with The Puritan, a Toronto-based online literary magazine,
I am a diehard representationalist. I love figurative art and the figures of formal poetry. That doesn’t mean I don’t respond to abstraction — of course I do. But representation is hard. You have to make a real commitment to technique in order to replicate the world that you see. Not, of course, that abstraction doesn’t require a commitment, but there’s a kind of commitment to a skill set, to expertise that attracts me.
What’s new in The Analyst is Peacock’s poetic documentation of a decades-long relationship with her psychoanalyst and how it changed after the latter’s language-disabling stroke. In varying ways, Peacock metaphorizes her therapist’s “blast hole” in memory, trading her oeuvre’s familiar capture of stark emotional states for the exploration of an enduring relationship. This relationship is not just described and honored but is also used as a metaphor for poetry itself. In the Puritan interview, Peacock repeatedly refers to “the mental play of analysis” and in The Analyst she writes of therapeutic encounter as a mutual, collaborative mode of creativity, usually through “we” and “our” pronoun use, but also using more complex ideas. For example, in “Mandala in the Making,” Peacock relates an anecdote in which her analyst attends a Tibetan sand painting show with her. The poet provides necessary physical detail of scene and dialogue, but then concludes the collection with this capping metaphor:
When they’re done,they’ll brush it all away. You can’t believe it.Nothing stays (including the memory you’ve lost).What lasts? The pattern the monks havememorized. Their burnt-down temple re-turns as this circular core.Only whensomething’s over can its shape materialize.
Pattern is one of the basic functions of art, of course, but in this instance the pattern — and the process of completing and erasing it, and holding the pattern in mind — is the metaphor for the relationship between Peacock and poetry and also Peacock and therapist. What’s curious is the influence of Canada upon the recognition of this
pattern. (In the “Notes” section, Peacock writes “In some ways it was moving to Canada that allowed the perspective of these lyrics.”) Legris’s process is to write poetry consisting of antiquated medical language, whereas Peacock’s process is to write poems that consider
“whether psychoanalysis releases or defeats a poet’s muse.” Like Legris, with Peacock the human body heals two by two.
Injun, by Jordan Abel.
Taken in a radically different context, two by two connotes the soldierly march of colonialism on Indigenous land. One of the most evil and effective colonial strategies was the implementation of the residential school system in Canada, a system that most Canadians fail to realize was operative as recently as 1996. Indigenous children were removed and relocated far from their birth homes to be institutionalized and educated as a perceived “good” under the rationale of superior pedagogy provided by a Christian infrastructure. The idea was — and I quote from the formal apology former Prime Minister Steve Harper made to the victims of residential schools — “to kill the Indian in the child.” The damage done to Indigenous languages and communities is incalculable and persists in the present due to the wholesale attempt to de-Indigenize Indigenous peoples. In 2008, a Truth and Reconciliation Committee was created to try to ventilate truth and encourage reconciliation between settler and Indigenous peoples. That process ended in 2015, but upon its closure, a major criticism was that truth was in surplus but reconciliation was at a deficit. To reconcile the settler-colonial system’s massive appropriation of land and resources with original Indigenous title and claim, not to mention both systems’ differing ways of knowing and being, will take much time, but also large-scale redistribution of resources. It is the latter truth that is disbursed in small allotments in Canada, reflecting the fact that reconciliation always requires willing partners. Two must meet in the short street.
At least in the arts and humanities, there is evidence of increasing visibility for Indigenous poets in Canada. Two major anthologies of scholarly writing have appeared in the past few years, including Heather MacFarlane and Armand Garnet Ruffo’s Introduction to Indigenous Literary Criticism in Canada (Broadview Press, 2015) and Neal McLeod’s Indigenous Poetics in Canada (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014). Indigenous studies programs are one of the few growth fields in the humanities in Canada and jobs for what once used to be generally speciated as “Canadian Literature” have significantly pivoted to jobs teaching Indigenous literatures of the Americas. But, really, are settlers and Indigenous persons equal partners?
That word, “partner,” has a different connotation in the Indigenous context. Jordan Abel, a Nisga’a poet currently living in Vancouver, is part of a rise of Indigenous writers in Canada. He won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2016 with his third book, Injun, a conceptual work that is the poetic result of searching through a particular archive for the word “injun.” Including Rex Beach’s Pardners, the archive primarily consists of American Western novels in the public domain composed in the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Abel included the prose surrounding “injun” in his source document. Through a relatively loose methodology, including an aleatory technique in which he would “cut up a page without looking,” he fashioned a varying long poem organized by serialized alphabet.
The resultant constructed lyric is formed only to be stressed and, finally, broken. The first few fragments are comprised of unrhymed couplets, but by section “g,” the columnar and regularized appearance transitions into couplets with large caesuras. By section “p,” the words are broken into phonetic components and individual letters are dispersed widely across the page. Toward the end of the alphabet, at “s,” the text is flipped upside down, yet it reverts to an easier legibility — suggesting that to change relations between Indigenous people and settlers, poetry needs to be sundered first. Only then can lyric be sutured back together with a changed polarity of power. Along the way, an exploded typography could represent the dispersal and deliberate destabilization of Indigenous communities. The rest of the book consists of a “notes” section that functions not as a place where inspiration is referenced but rather as another grouping of poems created with subsidiary searches in the archive, such as with the words warpath and whitest.
Abel’s long poem is an effective uncovering or exposure of language operating as it was designed to do in the period it was originally written, only cleverly and affectingly redeployed to demonstrate that racism was the means by which Indigenous lands were stolen not only in the so-called “wild west” but also all of the Americas. (Abel dedicates the book to “the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.”) Often laying bare certain clichés — the “dirty” Indian, for example, and the “paleface” — the point of view switches from that of an ironized settler to a pastiche of settler conversation, to a single Indigenous person, and also to that of a community of Indigenous people. Thematized throughout the section is skin — white skin that is ironically presented as “peaceful” and “injun” skin that is repetitively and ritually washed and cleaned. Yet it is never clear exactly who is speaking, or for whom the poetry speaks — showing the genius of Abel’s method. In Injun, poetry becomes a process of defamiliarization, overwriting, and underwriting. For all the relative straightforwardness of
and the angry raceof bl ue eyed prospect struckfair taints
— settler-colonialism represented as destructive, check, and white skin not white at all but rather an imperfection, check — there are disorienting sections like this:
You can see it for yourselflet’s play injunand clean ourselvesoff the land
The sense here being, perhaps, ironic: that white children pretending to be Indians means to purify the land with the fantasy-play of Indigenous extermination. But it’s also possible that the speaker here is an Indigenous person who is narrating his race’s subjugation. Like most conceptual projects, what is meant in Injun at the level of sense is less important than the meaningfulness of process, and Abel’s process insists on the necessity of a full apprehension of racism-enabling theft before reconciliation can occur. The text discomfits because it shifts on a ground made perilous by swindling settler land politics. For non-Indigenous readers, the effect is a healthy dose of truth and beauty, avoiding a discourse of healing altogether. Injun says: Process must be reckoned with first before reconciliation can occur.
Shane Neilson is a poet, physician, and critic from New Brunswick. He published Dysphoria, the final installment in his trilogy on affect, in the spring with The Porcupine’s Quill.