Sunday, February 01, 2009

If not winter, snow, thinking, and slight of hand, notes toward an essay

There is a narrow endless place
where the earth has frozen. On this
they live at unbelievable speeds.
-Don Coles
Under the snow, more snow. Shaved and shaped, smelling strangely enough of snow, not grass, which I try to imagine somewhere under there, yellow and flat.

Grey sky hardens, sun surprisingly, does not always soften.

Still, all joy, flaneuring in it piled up, hollowed, wind swept, crusted.

Is it snow that shapes us hard as porcelain? That slows us so?

I have been reading Canadian poetry. Here's a few lines from David O'Meara's "This Age," after Ahkmatova:
Why are things worse than they've ever been?
Sometimes, distracted by the mind's great grief,
we'd lop our own hand off to stop the pain,
then fidget with the stump so there's never relief.
And here's the beginning of Czarna Polweka:
When he crossed the valley
and frozen creek bed, he could hear
a curt squeal of shifting ice,
and the chop of wet-packed snow.
One can be a good sport about winter, but eventually one realizes that as cheerful as they've been they are still not even half way through the season. One turns inward. And no matter how great the power grid, the hardened look of everything wears. One couldn't last without heat. And then there are the sick days. By now you'll notice we've slipped right into David O'Meara's third book, Noble Gas, Penny Black which is quiet in this way, even quieter than his first two. It's a catalog of observances really, "a buttery pad of sun/slides below the slanted roofs" of his town, which is winter and he lives under "goose down, and humidifier steam," a muffled world of heaviness shot through with yearning and great attention to detail:
There's a click of lozenge
against your teeth, a coughed, lemon pause
until your voice creaks

like a breathy hinge...
ah, yes, winter.
I'll stay home too, make soup
against your temperature's flux,
putter through

the hours, our see-saw evening
of crosswords, photographs, question
marks on next year's calendar
as the ploughs scrape skeins

of snow toward the buried curb.
We talk past midnight. Quilt-folds
pocket a splay of warmth, hold
the fever before it breaks...
Canadian quiet. Aching with precision. Somber, as we see in the first stanza quoted, that lopped off hand, the nub we go back to. Like winter. Forced attention to sound. Forced because that is what one does when seasons lay hard upon the body. There is a slight of hand afoot, Mr. Don Coles points out about O'Meara's poetry "something quietly blooms before your reading eye...and spreads itself back into the lines behind it and over the lines that are still to come, and the poem moves from its previous mode into the kind of place which good poets intuit must be reachable but nevertheless often miss out on, just don't get the syllables right..."

Blurbishness aside, and the fact of the "good poets" line which always means "poets I like," Mr. Coles, whom I wrote about here, is referring to O'Meara, but I think--and this is also the danger in reviews and blurbs, he is also referring to himself. Here's Coles from "Photos in an Album"
They are like pools. The surface
of these prints shimmers,
while just below
he and his friends, intermittent swimmers,
hide in gliding time, or rise
showing changing faces as years pass.
It's perhaps not fair to move from a young poet to a senior poet in so few steps, but one hopes for more of this energy in our verse. For while O'Meara gets the syllables right, there is something missing here for me. One thing that Coles proves is that poetry, whether it is formal, innovative, avant garde, avant lyric, or whatever one might label it, is really about the idea, about the thinking behind the lines. Conceptual poetry, Kenny Goldsmith says, is only as good as the idea. It's the thinking that makes a poem compel, that gives it an engine. All the noticing, all the rhyme, the structural integrity of a piece, all the verbal play in the world--no matter how clever--means nothing if there is no thought behind it.

Of course O'Meara is thinking. And feeling. And of course this is one note in the grand scheme of things, but it's a fairly entrenched note, and the problem is a big one. Without that engine this kind of poetry becomes a kind of mock sublime. I say mock because we all know that under Heaney's pen, under his great ability to create such syllabics, to catalog items in sound, there is always the scrim of something darker looming, or having just gotten through. One weakness of quiet poetry is it forgets that to whisper is often at great peril. At great risk. There is no sense of that here. Or less perhaps than I felt in the earlier books.

Still, given the range of quiet and what a poet might do with it, O'Meara is still a poet that I'll gladly read, not just for his skill with the line, with syllables, and with that sleight of imagistic hand, but for the bigheartedness of the work, and how he lays that heart, as I've said above, over very real things, lovingly and precisely rendered.


jason christie said...

i'm kind of obsessed with snow.

Lemon Hound said...

You have to be if you live in Montreal, I think.

Lemon Hound said...

You on the other hand? Vancouver snow is a entirely different beast. I love it, wet, brief--although I hear this year you're having more than the usual.

jason christie said...

Too true. Having lived in Southern Ontario and Calgary before ending up in Van, I'm entirely used to massive amounts of snow. The wet, brief and intense snowfalls we've had this year seem to catch everyone off guard. I think the surprise is worthwhile. It interrupts the drudgery of an otherwise overcast and nondescript blankness.

vintin said...

"... poetry, whether it is formal, innovative, avant garde, avant lyric, or whatever one might label it, is really about the idea, about the thinking behind the lines."

But sometimes my experience has been that a poem starts with some nameless feeling, so the poem itself is the thought that arises from the feeling.

Lemon Hound said...

Well, yes, poetry comes from feeling, and thinking is a way of describing feeling and so on. What I love about O'Meara is when the two are humming full force together--the last book was full stunning in that way, it just vibrated with a sense of engagement with language, the heart, the idea, a big conversation.