Thursday, September 27, 2007


By Rob Winger
Nightwood Editions, 2007
When I pulled Muybridge's Horse down off the "new books" shelf at the library I was very pleased by its weight and heft, by a quick glance through the pages, the occasional glint of metaphor, the curt lines. Then I looked at the cover again and thought who is Rob Winger? No idea. But the book had already compelled me, so I had to pick it up and sit a while.

Now clearly Winger hasn't appeared out of the blue, and a quick google will tell you that an excerpt from this book won the CBC Literary Award back in 2004, which means that the book has been a while in coming (a very good sign). Then the blurbs: all weighty. And recently a review in the Globe and Mail calling it one of the most impressive debuts in a long time, an assessment I can agree (though the language of reviewing "best since..." "best thing..." should always be suspect.)

But the work, the work, and as usual, good work recommends itself. There are many strengths, a sense of whole, a unified world, a wide canvas, largeness of vision, sustained narrative--we get the life of Muybridge, and with much detail and beauty and passion. There is also humour:
(plot, plot, plot, plot:
why do these chronologies insist so much?)
there are deft movements, tough emotional confrontations:
he ploughs through proper streets
startling horses, smashing into ribs
elbowing Jesus Christ woman corners
stomach held out..
I won't spoil the plot there--for there are real events that startle. Winger rises to the challenge of mixing biography and poetry in the sheer breadth of the narrative, in the amount of detail and fact he works in here. There are moments where he achieves something quite distinct in terms of melding form and content too. Here is an excerpt from a section called "Palo Alto," in which we see Muybridge working at his invention in studio/shed in California:
In two-thirds of a second, the shutters rattle into life,
their sights crossing in front of the lenses,
zapping plates with yellow bursts
that explode in the shed like bullets,
cart wheeling down the track
as Eadweard hears the muffled cheers of newsmen,
Stanford uncorking champagne and distributing goblets
Narrative poetry, if it is to be poetry, has to have multiple pressures on the line. To be simplistic, the tension of narrative, the fuel of it, must shift from the long gait of plot to syllabic tectonics...not just imagery, not just accounting. Of course this is arbitrary in that there are poets and prose writers who willfully and successfully navigate and decimate all such attempts at categorization, and yes, every writer finds his or her source of energy. Still, one wants to have one's little calculations and justifications even if they are fluid. And compression seems to me an essential element, at the very least a shift of emphasis from the line to the word; not just condensed or annotated.

The comparisons to Michael Ondaatje's Collected Works of Billy the Kid are inevitable, but they reveal more about the reviewer than the text itself. What makes it like Billy the Kid? The fact of its narrative force? That it contains a horse? The west? A frontier landscape? A line of photographic inquiry? Certainly the language of it achieves something like the beauty of Ondaatje's work...but in terms of the cosmology of the text it seems relatively pedantic in comparison, and certainly less structurally and theoretically complicated. I'm not sure I could see it is a text that has "moved on" from Ondaatje's, in other words.

For example, the decision to separate the narrative from the photographs--the albums which make up the sections of the book. Oddly, as a reader I found it difficult to move from one album to another, and I wanted to see or experience some shift in language that was more pronounced than there is here. In Ondaatje's text the seismic shifts that occur create moments of rupture and wonder, here they seem to simply shift. I wanted details that are added to the epilogue, to be folded into the narrative, for example, to meditate on them in more narrative/poetic imagistic ways, to see a few leaps, asides, there is so much to work with here!

But these quibbles are pleasant quibbles, and speak to the enormous potential of both author and book, and to that I say simply, bravo. This is a book one should feel proud of. It's certainly one of the strongest, most daring, original and polished debuts I've seen in some time and one that should be discussed. It serves as a reminder to young poets. Don't rush. Don't rush. Let the project build beyond what you dreamed you could achieve.

And thanks to Silas White and Nightwood for a beautiful book too.

Original draft September 10th.

No comments: