Thursday, June 28, 2007

Anne Simpson & Sonnet L'Abbe

Anne Simpson and Sonnet L'Abbe have a few things in common: they are both included in Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets, they are both published by McLelland & Stewart, they both take risks, and they both win prizes. The similarities stop there.

Quick, Simpson's third collection of poetry and follow up to Loop, which won the Griffin in 2004, begins with "Clocks of Rain:"
—are you all right are you hurt can you move how clearly men speak
through the blown-out window undo the seat belt undo the seat belt
and fall headfirst into the rain pulled from a wrecked car the side
of the road scarlet apples rolling here there each one a miniature
emergency a loop of cord a coat a scattering of glass hands shaking
water running down someone’s face dark trees behind a van
brushwork on a Chinese screen a fire truck police car glaze of rain
this is where it happened an ambulance with its doors opening
into a throat of darkness—

Stops.

It stops—
And with those quick strokes, Simpson establishes familiar themes: carnage, tragedy, momentous, fractured moments which the poet wants to know how we will deal with. Again and again as life slams us, hurtles airplanes at us, pulls the rug out from under us, how will we react? Simpson doesn't only look closely at tragedy, but it is a preoccupation. And in our world, why not? At any given moment someone is crashing, someone is being dragged across a war zone, someone is being held for questioning...not that Simpson is only concerned with our time. "Written in Ice," is a poem that developed out of a conversation about the Acadians who settled in Pomquet, Nova Scotia:
Sunday evening
9th March, 1921



How to begin--

Anselme, running from the barn, over the snow between bare black apple trees, down to the harbour, where I couldn't see him until we hauled him out, heavy, wet--he'd been trying to save the priest...
The kind of experimentalism we see with Simpson is not in the avant garde tradition to be sure. She isn't excavating geography or history in the way American poets such as Juliana Spahr and Jena Osman, Lisa Robertson (or west coast poets such as Wayde Compton, Michael Turner for that matter), so to call her an experimental poet, seems a bit of a stretch. Particularly after spending an afternoon with half a dozen belladonna chapbooks (posts on that soon) where language's electrons constantly affirm a sentence's ability to morph and reveal new meaning. Still, it is nonetheless more challenging than much of the work that receives the kind of attention Simpson's work does, and the question of "experimental accessibility" is always something that interests me. Loop had its Möbius strip, Quick has "The Visible Human," which tilts the text on an angle and presents it in borders...to what effect? Well, it's refreshing enough to see someone *not* taking the page for granted if not using it architecturally or sculpturally.

Simpson's early work seemed overly romantic, even precious. Light Falls Through You, for example, was a book this reader had trouble with--those endings "Thunder in our bodes,/fire in our air" (9), or the title poem itself:
sunlight falls through you. After all, I should have known
you would dissolve into something clear and unresolved,

like water, and that I would put my hands deep in you
and they would come up empty, wet from the touch of my own face.
There was clearly more going on there than many of the other titles referencing air, or water--and at that time every second book in Canada was referencing light or water in the title, and had a particular tone and perspective. However, by the end of that first book we arrive at the series, "Altar Piece," which signaled Simpson's desire, or willingness to stretch.

Not enough poets allow themselves that stretch. There are exceptions, Erin Moure and Anne Carson, for example. Reviewers like to compare Anne Simpson with Carson, but I can't see that. Other than perhaps in the shape of their curousity, that both fold in literary references, but Carson's field of references is much different. Her projects usually have a much larger canvas, often derive from scholarly pursuits, are often recycled essays, or in fact, essays--and Carson is often surreal and very, very witty. Simpson's work remains rooted in the quotidian, and so far, there is little humor. Perhaps a little more like Louise Gluck than Anne Carson if she needs to be compared to anyone at all, for Simpson, like Gluck is very attuned to line breaks.

But back to Quick. I want to spend a moment with "Anatomy Lessons," a series of prose poems. I'm a big fan of the prose poem, a form that is much more supple and diverse than people seem to realize, and one that lends itself to the surreal. Here we see a less formal more playful Simpson-and though I love the turns in her more traditionally composed work, the prose lines have more give, and the less formal voice, the more playful connective work, is really pleasing.
Hand

He was six feet tall, give or take. His body was wrapped in white, like cheesecloth around Christmas cake, keeping the rum from leaking away. Only his yellow hand had been unwrapped, and I took it in mine, weighing its heaviness. His fingernails, which must have grown after death, needed to be clipped. I didn't let go. I held on as if we were about to take the floor.
The more direct, the more powerful. A solid third book from Simpson. I hope she goes further still.

I first came across Sonnet L'Abbe's work in The Malahat Review where she won the much coveted long poem prize in 1999, and then the Bronwen Wallace Award in 2000. This work appeared in her first book, Strange Relief (2001), and like much of the work that wins the Bronwen Wallace Award, it was more familiarly narratively driven. It was a surprise then to discover work such as "Oh," a poem that I selected for inclusion in Open Field, and a poem which when L'Abbe read it at the launch of Open Field at McNally Robinson in Soho (following Erin Moure, Ken Babstock, Karen Solie, Diana Fitzgerald Bryden and Anne Simpson...), was a crowd favorite:
this o is my throat
this o is my oh yeah
this o is my really
this o is my credulousness
I recently read with L'Abbe in Montreal and can say that she is even more comfortable with the work, and more polished in presenting it, having now settled into the journey. That work was in progress at the time, but has since been solidified into the book that is Killarnoe, a "lyrical" "linguistic" exploration. Not quite the recombinant linguistic force that Margaret Christakos achieves in Sooner, or Rachel Zolf in Human Resources, or Laura Elrick, Latisha Diggs, or Caroline Bergvall, but again, not the same project. What is great about Killarnoe is the linguistic work, particularly the series "Instrumental." Energetic, concise, largely unsentimental: the lines snap. Bang. Very nice. Mindful of Dennis Lee's incredible UN (which I can't believe more people don't talk about! My God!).

"Ghazals for Zahra Kazemi," pushes uncomfortable notions of linguistic terror. Prefacing both Agha Shahid Ali and John Thompson, L'Abbe confronts the form (and its history):
The mountain comes. Zero sum.
Abu Ghraib. Arar.

Gaza, Zahra. Bloody gauze.
Your gaze on a military strip.
and later
In my cab, hear a-salaam alaykum.
Having had a love affair with the ghazal myself I appreciate the formal inventiveness--and wish there had been more.

Other sections, "My Inner City," and "Amniotic," are working well too. There are some great, gutsy poems here. You have to admire a poet who can spin the line "theory, my natural brown ass..." But there are also some poems--"My Sonnetina" for example--that I just couldn't get. I say yes to this direction though, and to the energy. This is a book with energy, something that is hard to come by in poetry these days.

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