Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Michael Chaulk on First Books

Damian Rogers' Paper Radio

I was once engaged in a cold war with myself. It's much quieter now, but as with any conflict, things reverberate. The battle was fought with answers to the question What does it take to make a first book of poetry? So I guess it was always pretty quiet.

But the easy answer for me to come to then (and I only came to poetry late in high school) was that it was simply a collection of good poems that you have written. Now I've seen that for emerging writers it requires more than that; it requires a general premise or something that it all coheres to so that the experience of reading a book doesn't diffuse in memory. It might be myself only and it definitely is an unfortunate thing, but alongside a few favourite moments or lines (and with some exceptions), when thinking of a book I read a while ago, I usually only receive small sparks of what something was as a whole—a catalogue of conclusions. It's sad, yeah, but that's the way it happens. At least for me.

As somebody who hopes to, at some point, publish a first book of poetry, I'm still trying to figure it out. And to be honest, Damian Rogers' Paper Radio fucks with the conclusion of the necessary “message to take home” and put to bed. This is because it creates its own internal world. There are bike rides along lake Ontario, carpets, people sitting on carpets thinking, more objects, more people, and more thoughts by and on (and mostly by) these people. There is no Hey Here You Go statement in Paper Radio unless it's that it's impossible to do that kind of thing.

With Paper Radio, it's as if you're a visitor with visitor limitations. In Biography, Rogers writes: “This is not my story./ Odds are good it's not yours either. Though you never know/ where your story will end up.” So the reader reads in the same way that a person walks through a zoo or market: silent and attentive. One feels involved with each of the poems in a passing sort of way. They come at you like fleeting case studies. And all of the gathered impressions of each poem act to construct a large and full-vibrant place.

Of course this is arguable. When one considers the title, Paper Radio, it can be taken in at least two fundamentally opposite directions. One, it can be seen as a transmission from one channel, presumably Damian Rogers and involving many of her own shows and programs, which accounts for the vignettes and the personalities. But it can also be seen as one impersonal machine transmitting the moments of so many different people and places, and that is the way I prefer to interpret it. That's most interesting to me: the negation of a certain central “message.” And in it's place, a constructed world you can only meander as it's being given to you.

Read the rest of “Biography” yourself:
This is not my story.
Odds are good it's not yours either.

Though you never know
where your story will end up;
it might as well be here,
in some stranger's book.

A girl dials a number on a phone
shaped like a high-heeled shoe,
then hangs up before it rings through.

In another room, a glass of cream sherry
sits on a velvet tablecloth, on a stage
set with noisy wallpaper. Let's pipe in
the smell of bread baking in the oven
for a woman of a certain age watching
the story of George Sand on PBS.

A cramped blue-tiled kitchen radiates heat.
In the backyard there's a birdbath, grape arbor,
tree full of apples gathered in a pale green storm.

In a child's earliest recorded image,
we see a mother's legs on a ladder
as her arms vanish into the leaves.

Rogers, Damian. Paper Radio. Toronto: ECW Press. 2009. Print/PDF.


Michael Chaulk is a licensed Canadian seaman, but also a writer living in Montreal above heavy street traffic. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Void Magazine at Concordia University and the Associate Poetry Editor for the Incongruous Quarterly on the internet. He has work forthcoming in the spring issue of PRISM international.

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