WOODCOCK, Poetry Column 1988, Issue 3




IN A RECENT BOOK OF ESSAYS AND LECTURES, The Government of the Tongue, Irish poet Seamus Heaney remarked that, "A poem floats adjacent to, parallel to, the historical moment."

I would agree, but would append a geographical caveat: place is as important as time in shaping the poetic sensibility; 'where' is as important as 'when' in creating the historical moment. This especially applies in a region like British Columbia where the environment is as overpowering as the history is recent and simple.

How to create a structure that will reflect history as a crystal might and yet remain unabsorbed by events is the problem of all poets, the everlasting problem of the autonomy of art, and experienced poets are deeply aware of it.

Robin Skelton is an example. In Openings (Sono Nis $7.95), the first volume of his sixties, Skelton shows not merely an extension of his constant honing of the craft, but the kind of wisdom which comes as one of the bonuses of a life spent not merely practicing poetry but considering the poem in relation to its creator, to the readers, to the world, and to itself.

A section called 'Localities' shows Skelton evoking, as he has often done, the land that possesses him as it has possessed so many of us who came here as strangers not only possessed us but transformed us.
Here's what we are
and all we know in ways
that earth is known.
Starve us, kill us,
bury us. We remain
this place, this heartbeat,
this ridiculous house.

Skelton has absorbed the influences of the land to the extent that there are now relatively few straight descriptive poems in his work, and where there are, the image is at once particular and universal, so that the contemplation of a special place becomes an illumination of our knowledge of the universe. In a little gem of a poem called 'Yellowpoint' he writes:

Nothing happened here but
the slow suck of the deep wave pulling the round stones free, rolling
them down out of their grey cups into the gash of the foam, moulding the round rounder. Nothing happens but, cup by cup, tides empty cups answering the hungers of the moon.

Charles Lillard has been celebrating British Columbia, in prose and poetry, for a long time now, and doing so with a good deal of commitment. His new book, Circling North (Sono Nis $6.95), continues the process:

Next morning, drinking mountain water
At the riverside, ham frying, coffee boiling
Not even the thin, cold rain made me want to change a moment of the way I reached that sloping bank
Travelling alone
Looking at the country
Loving the land.

Those lines, I think, show well the easy narrative flow of Lillard's poetry. He's a good poetic craftsman, he has a genuine and intense sense of place, and anyone who loves the landscape of British Columbia will welcome every new evidence of his power to evoke it. In a different way Michael Bullock's two recent books, Dark Water (Third Eye $9.50) and Poems on Green Paper (Third Eye $10), consist of lyrical evocations of aquatic and sylvan scenes. Bullock has been influenced by two of the great international poetic movements of the present century, Imagism and Surrealism. He has the Imagist's power to make a sharp visual construct out of words, but Bullock's poetry is never pure Imagism. At times he resorts to poeticisms no true Imagist would admit, as in 'Black River'.

Beneath the bridge
the black river halts its flow dreams
of the unattainable
stretches out its watery hands to grasp its heart's desire...

This is a prime example of the' pathetic fallacy', giving to inanimate things human feelings, but it does link up with the symbolist overtones of Bullock's poetry. The core idea of symbolism was that of the unstated and unstateable' correspondence' linking all aspects of the universe. Poems on Green Paper is a series of rather 'nimble notations on what the poet sees when he walks in woodlands or gardens, as in 'Leaf Shadows':
leaf shadows flutter
I walk softly
anxious not to crush these fragile butterflies

Bullock's poems in their own way are as evocative as the Japanese poems whose intent they often echo. It is not surprising that they have been widely translated into Chinese and Japanese, for often they seem more Asian than European.

Still Life Under the Occupation (Quadrant $9.95) by Hornby Island poet Carole Chambers is full of vitality, but the vitality is not always well directed. Chambers is at her best when she takes on the role of a kind of British Columbian Hesiod telling of life on the island where her experience lies, and at her least convincing when she moves into wordy statements of belief about art or life or limp retellings of the ancient myths.

Doug Beardsley's A Dancing Star (Thistledown $20 $9. 9~) is a collection of carefully and perhaps too cautiously crafted and often intellectually ambitious poems. There is a whole series, for example, about musicians from Schubert to Bartok.

Some of these poems are confessional, and one feels honestly so, yet with all these good qualities combined there is rarely the kind of release of emotion that deeply moves one. We are told about feelings; we are not often made to experience them.

Another locally published book that does not link up with the British Columbian geo-historical background is Paulette Giles' The Jesse James Poems (Polestar $10.95). Giles' recent collection, Celestial Navigation won three major poetry awards. She lives in Nelson but she is a native of the Deep South, of the Missouri countryside once haunted by the James brotherhood and their gang of Confederate guerrillas trying to sustain a rearguard action of their own against the American Union.

Readers of her new book will invite Readers of her new book will inevitably be reminded of Michael Ondaatje's Billy the Kid. It is the same kind of collage piece, with the same kind of subject; passages of verse alternate with documents and photographs of the time. But do not be tempted to dismiss it as an imitation.

Giles is a poet already of great accomplishment, and here, unlike Ondaatje in Billy the Kid, she is concerned with her own roots, remembering in her adopted home the country of her people, and so there is less stress than in Ondaatje's poem on the ironies of parody and pastiche, and more poignancy and true feeling.óby George Woodcock

[Autumn / BCBW 1988]