November 19th, 2012
While I received a review copy of Jon Arno Lawson’s intriguing and addictive Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, a few weeks ago, I’ve been taking my time in reading it. These are children’s poems–I suppose, that’s their intent, anyway, and I’ve spent time with them, reading them aloud to RRBB at night, marveling at the intense way that Lawson uses language, rhyming and rhythm, and thinking about the very strong tradition we have in Canada in terms of children’s poetry (think Alligator Pie and all its descendants). RRBB didn’t really sit still while we were looking through the book the few times that I read it aloud to him–the images were perhaps a bit too advanced (he’s only 2) but he did like the language, and he was especially drawn to “The Solar Bears,” (which is accompanied by the most brilliant yellow illustration (there are paper cut illos through the entire book, which the artist, Alec Dempster, created by drawing a template onto handmade Japanese paper, and then working with a knife! [they are stunning–I would put theme up on my wall in a second]). What my son didn’t truly understand, which is English-major of a mother would, is the lovely reverberation of influences that float like a river through all of the poems–whether its familiar, like traditional fairy tales, or newish, like the mystical “Lunar wolves” of Lawson’s own creation (or not?).
What Porcupine’s Quill does, I think impressively, is package poetry in a way that’s both charming and eclectic, both in their choices in terms of what to publish, but also in the way they’ve designed the books themselves. This book is beautiful. It’s an object to be enjoyed as much as the poems themselves bend your ears to the non-stop tick-tock of Lawson’s voice. What I think is most important to remember about poetry for children is how they themselves play with language upon learning, words have fluid and flexible meanings, they are representative of big, massive imaginations, and hold all kinds of potential–all of which Lawson bottles and bursts out in various ways throughout the book. From the more whimsical in the collection, something like “The Minimum Amount of Money,” (‘What’s the minimum amount of money, Mum? / A minimal amount is a criminal sum / subliminally small — slightly more than none, / that’s the minimal amount of money, son.’), to poems that have a touch of what I hesitate to call magical realism (what we would just call ‘imagination’ in children, I would imagine), there’s a consistent dedication to not only how language presents itself on the page, but how it sounds as its spoken–and I really feel like the power in this work comes from how terrific they sound when spoken aloud, like I did with my son.
September 13th, 2012
The latest in Porcupine Quill’s ongoing series, The Essential Tom Marshall, co-edited by David Helwig and Michael Ondaatje, seeks to preserve and celebrate the work of the Kingston poet in a tidy, eclectic volume of work. Let me make a confession: I have two degrees in English and have studied Canadian writing for years. I work in publishing. I have (years ago) published some poetry of my own and, yet, throughout the travels of my literary life I have never come across Tom Marshall — I even went to school in Kingston, lived there for many years, and am ashamed to say that I had never heard of him before the package arrived on my doorstep from the publisher.
And it’s a shame because I adored these poems. As someone who slogged through winters at Queen’s, I can honestly say that there was no mysticism left in me when I finished my undergraduate degree, and yet, the ability for Marshall, in the opening poem entitled ‘The park is more like a wood,’ to bring his sensibility to an every-day park seen from a bedroom window. In a sense, this first piece uses traditional symbolism, calling back, in a way to the Romantics who did the same–heightened nature in verse with an eye to discussing human nature–especially towards the beginning of the poem where the ‘moon bends, beckoning our lips and bodies back,’ and irresistible pull. And yet, he refuses to leave it there, choosing instead to invert the symbolism in a sense, an utterly modern worldview where: “Sun blooms in our bodies / like a soft death / a warmth that is far more permanent than love.” And his park is inhabited, later, in “Fall” by “perverts of several kinds,” one must love “through” as “the bruise of life burns outward.” It’s a glorious poem, as the narrator stands both aside and within the part at various points during the year, observing life from within but knowing you must live through it, and necessarily knowing there’s a varying difference between watching and seeing.
The parks, the places, the pictures in these poems are ever-moving from heightened symbolism and back to stark realism. The poet who believes the park eternal (in “Coda: Macdonald Park) realizes that “leaf and lost desire” curves, ever-shifting, nature a part of him as we became aware in the previous poem (“Interior Monologue #666) where becoming a “slow, lethargic vegetable” (a rutabega) becomes further proof of the inability, of this narrator, to distinctively separate himself from the natural world.
It’s always hard to write about poetry because it contains such a personal experience with language. So different from the novel, where you get lost in a character, pulled out of yourself, deceptively simple works like these do the exact opposite–the simple choice of words serve to highlight your own relationships, your own experiences in a park, your own utter inability to love properly, perhaps even greatly. As Marshall says in “Strictly Personal”: “If I could / always have been so / open how different / things might have been.” In a sense, as the leafs fall off the trees, decay and melt back into the ground in so many of these works, the poet too looks back upon a life that’s melted away–where choice would have been different had he/she lived “by the dream / however strange…”
The Essential Tom Marshall does its job incredibly well, celebrating a poetic gift that’s both light and intense at the same time–the simple structure and relatively easy language open up the depth and resonance of this work almost immediately. I read the book through twice in two days and would happily again and again, I’ve ear-marked at least a half-dozen poems, and let them echo through me. I was inspired and aching on the subway in the last couple days just to be able to write a little bit on my own–truly, that’s the gift of a great poet, is it not?
December 16th, 2011
Yes, I am very behind. I have read seven different books in the last little while that need to be written about, I will be getting caught up over the next week or so because as of today at 5 PM, I am on vacation until January 3rd.
RRHB: “At least you can get some rest.”
And I laughed, what does that actually mean? Rushing around for the holidays, cooking like mad, scrambling to see loved ones of all shapes and sizes? Probably. But do you know what it also means? Naps.
I miss naps.
And then I read Akhmatova’s poetry over the last week on my commute to and from work. Her writing is simple yet powerful, serene yet complex, and utterly, completely captivating.
My favourite of all of the poems in this little volume is a fragment that goes like this:
But I warn you,
I am living for the last time.
Not as a swallow, not as a maple
Not a as a reed nor as a star,
Not as water from a spring,
Not as bells in a tower —
Shall I return to trouble you
Nor visit other people’s dreams
She lived through prison camp, through bad marriages, through hard Russian winters, through so much hardship, and she managed to still turn words into beautiful things for me to admire. It’s joyous, the wonderful, spirited, heightened magic that is the power of language, isn’t it?