Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Chap book round up part one: Millar and Hall


Jay Millar is quickly becoming one of Canada's most ambitious publishers of poetry, with an impressive and diverse line-up including Elizabeth Bachinsky, Lisa Robertson, Nathalie Stephens and most recently, Steve McCaffery and Gertrude Stein. He is also the author of the small blue (2007), False Maps for Other Creatures (2005), Mycological Studies (2002), The Ghosts of Jay MillAr (2000), and this chapbook from Greenboathouse (see interview). Millar offers us a slender affair concerned with looking and nature:
How to desire that crackle trees half
empty of leaves crackle? A mind that
will run their minimalist instincts
through an environment only to
build nests in the whole of the sky...
These poems feel organic in an unsettlingly contemporary way, crafted from ideas of leaf and wood. They are couplet and free formed, they have "lingual tics," long for names, for sound, "the foliage scoots/a leaf scream." This is familiar poetic territory. Particularly here in Canada where despite our communal dissatisfaction with the likes of Atwood and her Survival tome, we are still very much face-to-face with weather, temperature, a constant reminder of our tentative clinging to the earth, the temperatures about to dive into the well-below zero zones.

But "eco" is everywhere at the moment, and with good reason. The escalating climate crisis demands we rethink our relationship not only to technology and culture, but to nature. So yes, the "rotten tree-falls" the "toe nudge," the "trajectories mammals/insects and birds weave" we are here. How do we think about it? How does all of this embodiment play out in LANGUAGE?
Patient for lines, impatient language asks of trees
who has spoken lately? Who has shed their leaves in

this long tradition of the best of the worst to
become the long arm the world casts out: great shadows

deliberately tedious, meticulously
limitless? I must ask who draws which attention

from who. Who owns the woods when the owls start to call
themselves a play on words: that first hoot a hollow

the second fills in for the third's sheer panic. The
wind dies away. Warm softness. Imagine the sound.
These poems are not offering a kind of transformation of these things it lists (See Gary Barwin, below), rather, more like the lyric nature poetry it seems to echo, it is a kind of marking, or witnessing. The language is not innovative, not flarfing, not googling, it insists on a language one might describe as romantic and yet there is a twinge in the perspective, no? Something slightly outside of that familiar kind of seeing. A movement toward this avant-lyric, a subject of much rumination, notes on which should appear some time soon.

Tracking a package can be so easy.
It can be traced backward from any point to
the source. Other times, my watch
falls off my wrist and I don't notice
until I reach and it's gone.
You are like an old cotton sweater--
your bones clasped together by ligaments
slowly losing shape and deteriorating...
Kate Hall, Greenboathouse, 2007

Jay Millar's chapbook was the last to come out of Greenboathouse, Hall's the second last. Like Woods/Pages, Suspended is a testament not only to Jason Dewinitz' technical skill, but his (and Aaron Peck's) ability to choose intriguing texts. Printed on "Rising Bristol Vellum," with a handmade "Tibetan wrapper, cover & flyleaf," the book feels good in hand. And the text doesn't disappoint--at least not the first time through. Suspended is a short thesis in seven parts, both surreal and lyrically grounded, echoing, at its best, Lydia Davis and Anne Carson (Short Talks). "Bats basically scream/until they hear their voices..." the sequence begins. There is much to chew on here, strange mail, "epistemic hunger," many suggested statements of fact: "we'll begin in a vacuum with/artificial tools," statements of the absurd: "nothing will be/ a substance to suspend years of facts..."

Hall has been called a powerful poet, and I think that is partly due to the assured investigations and weavings-in of thinkings and poetries while maintaining a kind of accessible "lyric" base. There is something very welcoming about this particular pitch, and at first read it caught me as well. But there is something jagged too--which became a jumping off point for a set of larger questions that arose for this reader, not only about Hall's poems, but a strand of "new lyric" or "avant lyric" poetry that is becoming more and more common (what does this look like in Canada? Is it different from the neo-liberal poetry described below?). One needs to take a serious look at that strand of poetry alongside other contemporary lyric modes as well as the much disdained flarf, Langpo and all the rest...but I'm going to take that conversation and set it aside for the moment because it is probably not fair to pin it on a first chapbook which in many ways is completely satisfying and rife with promise.

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