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This article is taken from PN Review 211, Volume 39 Number 5, May - June 2013.

We Need to Talk About Canada Evan Jones
KEN BABSTOCK, Methodist Hatchet (House of Anansi) CDN $22.95
STEPHANIE BOLSTER, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth (Brick Books) CDN $19.00
AMANDA JERNIGAN, Groundwork (Biblioasis) CDN $17.95
TROY JOLLIMORE, At Lake Scugog (Princeton University Press) US $16.95
DONATO MANCINI, Buffet World (New Star Books) CDN $21.00

In the 90s in Toronto, there were only two poets any young buck with his tail in the air talked about: Al Purdy and bpNichol. I remember because I was reading George Seferis at the time. Purdy and Nichol were opposites, sort of, in a way, signs of kids hanging out in different kinds of crowds. The one a poet of the nation and the land, of horse-piss beer and backbreaking days, the other zany, inventive, in cahoots with St. Ein and St. Anza. Purdy had shit on his boots, Nichol was barefoot. Both had lived in Toronto, at least for a spell. Neither was very good. But at least we knew where people stood, on one side of the fence or the other. Or, as in my case, wondering why all these people were standing round a stupid fence.

These were the starting points, the gateway drugs, for many of the Canadian poets of my generation, following either Purdy into the country or Nichol into conceptualism. That such a small country - there are more Texans than Canadians - locks onto certain figures, invests in them, holds them up and hopes for more than the best, shouldn't surprise. The problem has always been what gets left out when there is only room for the select few.

What gets left out is variety. And there is always variety. Looking back at the past few decades of Canadian poetry, some rough divisions can be drawn: there were the mythopoets (Macpherson, Hine, Outram), free-versifiers of the land (Lane, MacKay, Purdy), metaphysicals (Avison, Bringhurst, Carson, Sanger), wannabe Americans (Bowering, Wah), could've-been Americans (Moritz, Ormsby, Sibum), wannabe Brits (Coles, Kociejowski, Wevill), dead Maritime lyricists (Acorn, Nowlan, Thompson), lonely Montrealers (Cohen, Layton, Sarah, Solway), linguistic formologists (bissett, Kroetsch, McCaffery, Nichol), the voices from beyond (MacEwen, Page, Wilkinson), and a glut of confessional feminists (Crozier, Musgrave, Thesen). I'm generalising: the wannabe Britishness of Coles, Kociejowski and Wevill couldn't be more different, the former going to Larkin, the latter two to the more volatile ground of Hill and Middleton. But that's my point. All three looked elsewhere, looked to Englishness and beyond the island limits to Europeanness.

But then this is old news, even if no one has bothered to report it. We can trace the current generation to these trends, or we can start to think of new ones. The five poets I'm going to talk about all published books in 2011, and they provide a glimpse of what is happening in Canadian poetry right now. Let's name those trends (as awkwardly as possible): the cultural investment, the free-verse tourist, the last mythopoet, the traitor, and the inventor.

Ken Babstock's significance has been overemphasised since his first collection.Mean (1999) received two prestigious Eastern Canadian poetry prizes and Time (the Canadian edition of Time) declared it 'one of the best things to happen to poetry in Canada in this decade'. And with that, whether harder or easier to say in the last year of a decade, Babstock hit the ground running, leading the pack, canonical and under fifty. To suggest he isn't the poet Canada has been waiting for is tantamount to heresy: critics, arts councils, and prize juries have already invested in him, as they did in Purdy before. Babstock is a good poet, I'm not going to argue otherwise. There are poems to admire in every one of his four collections so far, maybe even great poems. But each successive book has been overstuffed, and it's time to differentiate between Babstock the strong and Babstock the bloated.

His early poems are grounded in human lives, visceral and literary, drawing on family, friends, work experiences, and landscapes, yet bloody and bloody-minded. This is Purdy's influence, but also that of Simon Armitage, whom Babstock has published in Canada in his role as poetry editor at the House of Anansi. And that was early Babstock's ace in the hole, drawing on the generation of British poets around Armitage as influence and extending his arms out to those poets. Anansi even published a Canadian edition of Paterson and Simic's New British Poetry with an additional foreward by Babstock.

Early Babstock's ear is closer to Armitage's than to Purdy's, cocked for the slightest sound or reverberation. But early Babstock also had a tendency to overwrite, to flower his language with adjectives and go for verbs that while accurate are also awkward. The result is the colour of Armitage with little of the craft. Here is a sample from his second book, Days Into Flatspin (2001):

Summer gnats colonised her molasses black eyes, her flicking,
conical ears. She moaned, a badly tuned
tuba, and tassels of ick dripped
from her black-

on-pink nostrils like strings of weed sap. Waking from a rhythmic
nap in my arm, you wobbled your head upright
and stared at the great hanging skin-
bag, teats, dry-docked

hull of her ribs, anvil head, and the chocolate calm of her eyes...

'There is no slack in Babstock's writing', wrote Robyn Sarah, citing this poem. I'd agree: Babstock is always flexing. He's the Mr Universe of Canadian poetry. All that flexing is show - and in his weaker poems trying to show. The poem above, 'Carrying someone else's infant past a cow in a field near Marmora, Ont.', does what it says on the tin, carries on in a field somewhere. There is no epiphany for the poet, who is a just a 'prop' in the scene, only a consideration of what the baby might retain of the moment. This isn't very interesting stuff, but for the telling. And what is all this overwrought language telling us other than it's poetry? How can we miss the energy of his language, the activity of the syntax?

There is no economy in early Babstock: few nouns escape without an adjective, his syntax meanders even as it tugs and pulls, music is more important than meaning. And he relies too heavily on quatrains, a narrative, ballad-like form. His third book, Airstream Land Yacht (2006), marks a thematic break, if not a formal one. It is also much of an improvement. The poems are still about the world around the poet, but that world is more thoughtful, more abstract, less linear, even as it maintains its locality. The music of Babstock's lines is still more important than their meaning (or else he wouldn't try to get away with lines like 'We can't know what things mean / in the place / where they're meant'), but the music is subtler. Still there are poems that jar. William Toye, in The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (2011), draws out this little number, the title poem, as an example of the way in which 'the "free play" of Babstock's mind seems to rebuff the ordinary reader':

Where in the world to go, to go?
        O where in the world to go?
This big old wagon's slow, it's slow.
        My beautiful wagon's

It's a poem about a caravan. At least he's broken the quatrain. Sort of.

With Airstream Land Yacht, Babstock's poetry moved into new, more American territory. Gone are the tight little scenarios and in their place are stretched out, thoughtful poems which resemble the American poets namechecked in- and outside of his fourth collection, Methodist Hatchet - Ange Mlinko and Peter Gizzi. Yet a curious thing has happened: both of Babstock's most recent collections have blurbs from Simon Armitage, and each uses the word 'accuracy' with a qualifier: Airstream Land Yacht is written with 'disarming accuracy', while Methodist Hatchet swaggers with a 'pinioning accuracy'. The two work against each other, but point to the difference between early and now middle Babstock. His lip is still curled, not to worry. The poems are vibrant, snarky, toothy, etc, etc. But gone is the over-writing, the senseless and oversensitive adjectives. The writing is less strained and more provocative.

'The Decor', the opening poem in Methodist Hatchet, is full of charm and intelligence. It is sub-Ashbery, formally, somewhere amid his descendants in its syntax and thought (Timothy Donnelly?). The purchasing of furniture is at its core, but the poem ponders over capitalistic desires for the latest fashions and the sad truth in affordability: 'Someone / wearing a Tag Heuer watch / swivelling behind a desk / in New York, or London, / wants very badly to trigger in me a visual / of earned leisure in idealised / surroundings'. It's a poem of despair, of frustration, and the syntax amplifies these emotions. It is perhaps one of his best poems to date, because there is a genuine, if predictable, politics at its core. Further along, 'Coney Burns', a re-telling of a prison inmate's letters to a 'late-period Auden', is another fine, smart piece, not unlike a work by Gizzi in form, or perhaps a less focused Kay Ryan. And 'Russian Doctor', dedicated to David Foster Wallace, and despite its return to quatrains, is the finest poem in the book, the piece where Babstock's music and disjunctive sentiment come together most wholly.

Yet the book, like his earlier collections, is consistently uneven. There is also this:

With the glove on, her pixellated breast every
demonstrably offensive line about young plums
and buds budding. With the glove and helmet on, "her"
is a proposition...

These are the opening lines of a poem called 'Which Helmet?' The poem is about the symbolism of the helmet, its varied meanings. But it's also about a metaphorical helmet, the protection from some unknown that such a helmet offers: 'With the helmet on she likes it when I / read to her from the book of desires I wrote / with the helmet on'. The 'she' is another unknown, an anonymous figure, the 'proposition' of line four, so that the poem always comes back to the title and its question. Get it? As ever with Babstock's weaker poems, though, the title is all there is. Open and shut. If Toye is right and the poems rebuff some mythical 'ordinary reader', it's because they are trampolines: bouncy but thin. The book is what it says it is on the cover. That the title is curious is the poet's trick.

Stephanie Bolster is a Montrealer, but doesn't fit in with that city's poetics of loneliness and separation - a doggedly masculine perception (with a rare and important exception in Robyn Sarah). Nor does she take to the formal verse many of that city's best poets have written. Her personal free verse is a distant cousin of the feminist confessional poets who rule over Canada's west coast, yet instead of dogma and sexual politics, Bolster draws on cultural history in her poems. So there are connections to and breaks from the Canadian tradition in her writing.

Her first collection, White Stone: The Alice Poems (1998), published the year before Babstock's debut, riffs on Lewis Carroll's most famous works, and won the Governor-General's Literary Award for Poetry. Two subsequent collections were published by McClelland & Stewart, the Canadian publisher if we are to believe their tagline (even though their poetry list has for years lacked any editorial identity). A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, Bolster's fourth collection, is published by the independent-minded Brick Books of London, Ontario.

Bolster's unpeopled travels through Europe and North America are the book's focus, the museums, gardens, zoos and wildlife rather than geography and history - which is not to say there is no geography and history in those things, but that Bolster's concerns lie elsewhere: 'How much better / if there were no one here. Then / I could feel how they suffered' ('Beyond Saint Petersburg'). It's not clear who that 'they' refers to (the fields a few lines before maybe?), but the impression is straightforward enough. Another poem, 'Amsterdam', is about a caged owl and makes no connection to the city beyond the title. It's an intriguing and attractive way to think of the tourist, not as nuisance or capitalistic scrounger, but as observer of the unobserved, cut off from the local - and even other tourists.

Bolster's method is the mind at work, a sense of curiosity wielded while wandering mental and physical attractions. To take this further, her poems are more enthralled with her own process of thinking than they are with their subjects, her 'I' internal, the lines long, revelling in sampling the world. At her best, in a poem such as 'The Garden of Augustus the Strong', she blends history, tourism, and criticism, as the poem comes to a barbed point. Augustus the Strong of Poland sired 365 children, apparently, all of whom he shipped off, imprisoned or worse. The poem begins with his biography, but moves towards Bolster's interests in the garden by the end, a place where 'The stone cherubim, wreathed in laurel, / remain, and were never, children'. There is a poignancy in the metaphor in this case, a human moment amid the inhuman.

But her sampling can also be superficial: 'There is beauty everywhere in this city, history everywhere, a pit that / held a bear before the war', she writes in one poem, juxtaposing the sentiment with 'Most cut through on their way from the Gare d'Austerlitz to work'. All the irony and strength in what she notices and others don't is wasted in some abstract, vague 'beauty' which is 'everywhere'. And this isn't just one poem. A page later in the next, 'This is the city that says you are never / good enough and we call the City of Love' (the 'we' here I suppose being Bolster's fellow Canadians). At their worst, the poems in the book read more as flat diary entries or maybe tweets rather than the works of depth and understanding that Bolster has shown elsewhere she is capable of achieveing.

The major difference between Amanda Jernigan's poetry and that of Babstock and Bolster is this: the latter win Canadian prizes, wander out, and bring their travels back to Canada, but aren't well known beyond the country's borders.Groundwork, Jernigan's debut, hasn't made any of the big prize lists, but her poems travel out into the world nonetheless, reaching an audience beyond Canada. She is that rare thing: an exporter of her poetry, with publications in important American and British journals alongside Canadian ones.

She is also the only heir to a tradition that was once central and has now died out: the mythopoets. That tradition owes much to Northrop Frye, to his groundbreaking work on myth and as a teacher to the generation of Canadian poets who passed through or even got close to his lecture theatre: Daryl Hine, Jay Macpherson, and Richard Outram the major proponents. Hence, here, Jernigan's groundwork, her excavations, her firsts, openings, beginnings. Groundwork is a book that's aware it is a debut, setting the poles that the tent may rise. That irony in place, Jernigan builds on her influences.

So what is a mythopoet? Here is Jernigan's 'Exodus':

All the names ran out of my mouth like animals.
I couldn't find them when I looked for them. I called -
they wouldn't answer to themselves. I was reduced
to laying traps, to setting snares. And even
when a quick brown fox had kicked its last in my clever
knots, even then, especially then, the words escaped me.

We arrive at a simple meaning right away: the speaker has lost the names for things, like Little Bo Peep and her sheep, maybe, or more seriously, like someone afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. She tries to trap the words, the traps work, but it turns out that's not enough. What is enough? We never get there. She never gets there. That's one level, however, with a mythopoem. Another is in the title: the ancient Greek word 'Exodus', meaning 'a going out', is the title of the second book of the Bible. This is the Greek translation, however, of the Hebrew, which is Shemot, 'Names'. So the 'names' of the first line has a biblical resonance, as does the title. Jernigan is not just describing some personal difficulty with her 'I', but speaking of a deeper, foundational experience. But then there's that 'quick brown fox', part of a pangram, a sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet. She's caught it, or half of it, half of the pangram anyway, but still hasn't done enough. Where is the lazy dog the fox jumps over? It's been left out. And without it the poet will never capture what has escaped her. Clever snares are not enough. But further, the pangram works only in English, the language in which Jernigan writes. Yet her 'Exodus' requires a knowledge that English goes back to Greek goes back to Hebrew.

No other young poet is writing this kind of verse in Canada.Groundwork opens in 'Excavations', poems about the workers of archaeology, their wheelbarrows, research and dealings with customs agents. Its 'First Principles' are biblical, its 'Journeywork' is an odyssey. Jernigan is a poet with a plan.

Few Canadian poets have left Canada and been allowed to retain their Canadianness. The most famous example is likely Bliss Carman, the man Pound referred to as being 'about the only living American poet who would not improve by drowning'. Carman left Canada, lived in the US, and returned late in life to give readings as a hero, the first, unofficial 'poet laureate'. Pound softened later in life, mentioning Carman in the same breath as Yeats in a letter to Zukofsky. Did it matter to Pound that Carman was Canadian? Does it matter to the world? In a review of Tom Thomson in Purgatory (2006), Troy Jollimore's debut, James Longenbach wrote that 'Troy Jollimore writes a different kind of American poem'. Let's bet he does.

A product of what used to be called the brain-drain, Jollimore lives in Chico, California, where he is a professor of philosophy. He was born in Canada, educated there at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but travelled south to study for a postgraduate degree at Princeton. He is heir to Berryman, friends with Muldoon, James Richardson, D.A. Powell. He has their humour and wit, reaches for turns of phrase that entertain, and is always looking for new ways of exploring the self. He is part of no Canadian pack, yet he wouldn't exist without Canada. In 2006, when Jollimore's Tom Thomson in Purgatory won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, there was little discussion of who Tom Thomson might be beyond a persona through which the poet channelled his ideas. Yet Tom Thomson (1877-1917), was a real person, a Canadian post-impressionist painter who drowned in mysterious circumstances. Jollimore makes much in his first book of his own, Henry-ish Thomson, who appears again here in his second, though the persona seems to share less and less in common with the historical person. Gone are the canoes and the drowning. Here Thomson is all thinking - paranoia, lust, fear, and the like, onboard aeroplanes, in his modern house, and mostly his modern mind. The best of these poems is 'Tom Thomson Indoors':

The installation man didn't understand:
"You want your doorbell on the inside, sir?"
Well, yes - didn't he grasp it? Only fair
that prior to intruding on't, he give
the world some sort of warning...

One of Jollimore's strengths is the creation of scenarios like this, a sort of looking at the world in reverse.

But At Lake Scugog is the difficult second book. There is development, but it feels like Jollimore is somewhere between his early, reliable footwork and what steps he might take next. So, more Tom Thomson, and then some variations, some more successful than others. Jollimore needs to build up steam to really get going, so the best poems are longer and include the wonderful 'Summer Remembered', a sort of anti-nostalgia piece about the break of summer and the sound of the world droning nonetheless around that break; how in the break there is always knowledge that the break is artificial, a game, 'And what the rest of life promised, / we simply would not speak of'. But there are weaker poems, too. The four-line 'Love Poem' goes straight to the punchline and doesn't offer much in return: 'I ache for you / with all of the teeth / that fell out of my mouth / when I was a child'. What's for the reader in this but the joke? It's not enough. There are too many throwaway and discardable moments in what should be more hits than misses if Jollimore weren't varying his recipe so, trying to decide on ground.

Donato Mancini has latched on to the pursuit of the 'new', a hunt in which Canada has excelled - even if it has rarely run down any quarry. This is part of the postcolonial syndrome: we can't do Milton or Wordsworth or even Traherne as well, so we make up our own brand new thing, based as it is on some old things. Mancini is the descendant of bpNichol in this grouping, the unspoken, theory-ridden poetics of what might be called the experimental or avant-garde but really shouldn't be if those words have any meaning.

So, dropping the usual lingo, let's call this poetry 'inventive', a term of Charles Bernstein's, and Mancini himself an 'inventor': terms awkward enough that they might spare us questions beyond what an inventor is and what Mancini invents.

Buffet World is a nice little minor book, handsomely designed. Drawing on the manner in which pop culture pervades our lives, the opening poems are a sort of mixed-up grand song. Or maybe a bunch of songs. Maybe a song a fried, retired disc-jockey with a Swiss-cheese memory lets bits and pieces of tumble out of his mouth at random. Punishment for a life of absorbing the inconsequential. Here are some lines from 'If Violence (Hey You)':

hey you hey you replicate
naked by the modem. alone.
head on the phone.
stop looking like a crumpled hat.
dragon testicle. crumpled
java jacket after euphoria.

can you feel me
xx xxx x rate.
$4.99 for

Apollinaire is present in this, his early ingenuity an important starting place. But how far has Mancini travelled from him? Unlike Apollinaire, Mancini is more about noise criticism than the joys of café life. Buffet World is critique and critique and critique, ad nauseum. Throw in the colourful cut-out illustrations of hamburgers, pork products, desserts and fruit placed on felt-tip marker rainbows, and a reader comes away sick to his stomach, thinking there is nothing right with the world, our culture is garish and unforgivable. The nihilism is hard to take. Mancini offers no relief, suggests no way out. Were this the book's only idea, it would exhaust itself quickly.

But there are little mysteries. Mancini pulls in 'Fun Facts', mixtures of truth and farce drawn from the ol' interweb: a short piece for Alan Turing, which makes a punchline of his suicide, set in a reversed font, white on black; and a joke about the Dutch shouting 'Heil Rembrandt' during the Nazi occupation, saluting a painter as the Germans did. And then there is 'TDCJ Reel'. That's the 'Texas Department of Criminal Justice'. (See above < span class="text67">fun fact about Texans and Canadians.) The piece is about the last meals of inmates on death row:

of 305 persons executed 1982-2003
by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice 79
ate 1 or more hamburgers
w/ mayo bacon cheese "all the way"
as part of their final meal

The list is a mixture of data and details of specific criminals, such as 'Gerald Lee Mitchell whose final / meal was a bag of Jolly Ranchers', but then closes in perhaps a too-clever way - Mancini notes that no one asked for Campbell's soup, drawing the poem to Warhol, to the connection between art and life, to neo-dada and a critique that in retrospect did not go far enough. Formally, line breaks barely matter; language is factual and journalistic. 'The only book possible from today is the newspaper', wrote Lamartine in 1831, and Mancini's better poems adhere to this truth. But what a truth. There is precision, but no music: the mode is anti-lyrical. Some might say that this is the stuff as smarts are made of, it's new (if an idea from 1831 is new). This is Mancini at his most inventive. And were there another dozen poems like it - not the same as, but as intelligent - I'd be out buying the collected works of Donato Mancini. But there aren't. The longer poem 'Hot Peace' comes closest, but too little of Buffet World reaches the level that 'TDCJ Reel' does. There's too much game-playing, too much repetition, drawing attention to what many are already sick of and don't need to see again. The great avant-gardes offered alternatives, ways out of the world as it saw itself. Sure, they failed, but at least they made the effort. Because he doesn't offer any such thing, Mancini just isn't that inventive. The bright colours of his Buffet World are like illuminated menus - they attract the eye, even as the contents turn the stomach.

This article is taken from PN Review 211, Volume 39 Number 5, May - June 2013.

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