Monday, July 16, 2007

Globe Review of Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant

A review of Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant appeared in the Globe this weekend. I paste it in below.

For this trio, vive la différence!


Selected Poems

By Eric Ormsby

Biblioasis, 288 pages, $28.95


By Stuart Ross

Anvil, 104 pages, $15


By Elizabeth Philips

Brick, 120 pages, $18

We live in a world of borders separating "us" from "them," and these borders grow wider and more razor-wired every day, forming narrow nations unto themselves, in which difference is treated with suspicion and paperwork. Yet, within the multinational union of poetry, there's no reason three very different books by three very different poets cannot find themselves shelved together, even on one very opinionated reader's shelf.

Montreal's Eric Ormsby is a distinguished poet and Islamic scholar whose career spans 50 years. He is internationally recognized by his peers in the United States and Britain, as well as Canada, yet is the author of only five previous full-length collections. This indicates two things: Ormsby is both unrushed and a poet of careful choices.

Time's Covenant is selected from Ormsby's earlier work. With it, he displays a vast multicultural knowledge which alludes to everything from Western mythopoetics and classics to the literatures and religions of the East and back again to contemporary culture. Most often, these changes in focus appear on the level of the individual book or poem, but they can also take place at the level of the stanza itself: The roving eye of the poet snapping like a whip back and forth between cultures and times as in Jaham and His Cat:

To drink he gave her pungent camel's milk

He bought at the Desert's Edge Convenience Store.

Jaham listened, he heard her chant Qur'an

In purr-cadenzas of complicit calm.

Ormsby's language is rich. His poems are dense and thick with allusion, owing more to Wallace Stevens than might first meet the eye, yet they also often gloss to a readable narrative the first time through. In Adages of a Grandmother, Ormsby conveniently sums up this tactic by writing:

Wisdom was talismanic and opaque;

Could be carried in a small child's fist

Like the personal pebble I fished out of the lake.

While some may find Ormsby's more ambitious sequential work (such as Araby) a little difficult, Time's Covenant represents the best of all possible worlds: a gorgeous book picking out the best of the best from his considerable oeuvre, as well as a convenient introduction for those who may have missed his work to this point.

Torontonian Stuart Ross's I Cut My Finger is his first full-length poetry collection since his brilliant book of selected poems, Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Ross has risen to national prominence over the last decade after many years of street-level activism in the Ontario small-press scene, hawking his (and others') earliest works with a sandwich board hung around his neck. Now considered to be Canada's foremost writer of the surreal, Ross is enjoying some much-deserved recognition and has taken his place as one of the cool uncles of Canadian poetry.

I Cut My Finger continues his obsession with the juxtaposition of odd images and thoughts that work in a collage-like manner to fashion narrative and meaning from apparent chaos. Absurd, surprising, topical, surreal - his new work builds on the mythic significance and brilliance of several career-long metaphors and subjects.

Besides the bizarre poodles and occasional poems to mark the New Year, Ross brings us back time and again to his most compelling narratives, around the character Razovsky, a touching composite of the poet's deceased father and the poet himself (or at least his poetic avatar). Razovsky wanders in a Dali-esque multiverse, his bafflement and glimpses of shrewd wisdom peeking from between a circus of oddities.

In Razovsky in Space, we see how Ross cooks up a poignant moment from the most unlikely ingredients. The protagonist wanders dreamlike through a dusty shop, finds himself suddenly floating in space, and then reaches the back of the shop, only to be strapped into a chair and launched back into space. In the middle of all the laughing, Ross gets us with his melancholy skewer to the heart:

In a photo album somewhere

back on earth, Razovsky stands grinning

in a field just off a single-lane road,

his black hair flickering

in a barely perceptible breeze.

His long coat, too, is black, and his arm

wraps around a woman in fur

who laughs at the camera.

We know this moment is brought to us by the poet's memory, not his imagination, and it is this oscillation that tugs us through.

Depending on taste, one could find Ross slightly aphoristic and ephemeral, but that would be due to the myopia of reading a single book. The only real risk a reader runs with Ross is not being open enough to enjoy the wild ride.

Saskatoon's Elizabeth Philips is long-time editor and teacher who has been on a roll, winning the SK Book Award for both of her last two collections of poetry. She may well be on her way to a third win with Torch River.

One might be tempted to describe Philips's style as "traditionally Canadian" or, more inventively, as "high prairie Gothic lyric narrative," but one would be missing the proverbial forest for the trees.

A book of deceptively quiet lyrics, Torch River is half love song, half funeral dirge, with a measure of travelling tune thrown in. The poems are sensuous and sexy, but painful as well. This is evident in the brilliantly executed sequence Fatherhood, the bloody, sweaty story of a difficult birth:

She speaks so

precisely now. Water,

she says, or heat, or lower.

Her eyelids flicker but do not open.

It's morning. He hears

someone switch off the lamp.

Another day. He tries to calculate

the duration which is more

like distance - twenty

hours, or twenty-five?

Torch River is not just a diary of the idyll, a pretty listing of natural details for the sake of capturing beauty, but also an examination of thought, experience and event using the natural world for perspective, the way an artist might size up a subject with a thumb held at arms length.

Some will undoubtedly decry Philips's use of what they consider to be dead or dying Canadian tropes and narratives (canoes and loons, vast swaths of harsh geography, fallen trees etc.), yet like others who are successfully re-imagining the Canadian landscape for a new century (Don McKay and Stephanie Bolster among them), Philips employs an impressive supply of fresh imagery and perspective, as well as a fine control of pacing and rhythm.

George Murray's fourth book of poems, The Rush to Here, was released in April.

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