Remember Your Ephemera
My review of Moez Surani’s excellent first collection, Reticent Bodies (Wolsak & Wynn, 2009) is now up at The Mansfield Revue. Read the review, if you like. But mostly, read the book. Here are some selections from the former:
Returning to the dusty traditions of love and loss, of abstractions made real by the force of his descriptions, Surani stands out amid the microscope-wielding fetishists of the quantifiable world that have dominated his generation of Canadian poets. This uniqueness of worldview is carried on a talent robust enough to move, in the course of a single line, from the specific to the global, and from the personal to the political, without ever losing sight of his target or forgetting to employ his ferocious and adaptable wit.
To return to the text, there are three kinds of poems in Reticent Bodies. These are the Great Canadian Anecdotal Riff (see “Yardsaling with Robin”), the intertextual call-out to a classic of fiction or poetry (“The Missing Exchange”) and the metapoetic experiment (“Several Idiomatic Demonstrations of ‘Carbunkle’”). These cycling concerns (life, literature and language) are shared, to varying degrees, by most of our young lyricists. What sets Surani apart is that he is willing to affix each of these three concerns to any level of emotionality or subjectivity. This creates surprises when his expected unemotive poems like “Carbunkle” find themselves suddenly charged with both a great wit and a great passion, as in “you get angry for no particular reason and shut everybody out—‘Carbunkle,’ he muttered, leaving the room.”
If this formula sounds familiar, it should. It is poetic home base to both Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen, the two great romantic obituarists of mid-century Canada, whose love songs impacted future generations of young male poets in a paradoxical way. Venerating them both as the grand old masters of the nation’s lovelorn youth, decades of young men promptly wrote away from them, turning to the woods, to low culture, to popular ephemera and the full shit and plastic of corporeal life, unconcerned with notions like reticence or love. In Reticent Bodies, there’s a real invitation to turn back and approach the brief glimmering spark of Canadian neo-Romanticism directly.
Not wanting co-opt Mansfield’s generosity in letting me do the review, I’ll end the pullquoting for now. If you want to read the whole thing, you’ll have to read it on their website.
My only qualm with Reticent Bodies (the review is an absolute rave) is the lack of a Notes section that details the many and various allusions, quotations, and borrowed sources in the book. Surani names his sources and everything, he’s in no danger of plagiarism, but I expected a lovingly collected list of original sources, archived with all the care and efficiency of a museum curator. The book is notable for the long and diverse list of heroes (and antiheroes) that make appearances in its pages. To borrow from the review, this includes “Austen, Steinbeck, Othello, Quixote. But coupled with this is a second set of allusions to the heroes of the literary iconoclast, to the shadow cabinet of contemporary book learning; they include Neruda, W. C. Williams, Cohen (more on him later), Hikmet and Maupassant.”
Am I being paranoid, or has something happened to the Notes sections of poetry collections? I feel like I’m seeing them less and less, and I’m worried that dominant early theme in my generation’s contribution to Canadian poetry (let’s call it “removing embellishments”) has taken out as many wonderful elements as unnecessary ones. In our denials, both private and public, of things like the epigraph, the 100+ page collection, and the tangential personal narrative, we’re losing some of the beautiful ephemera of the poetry book. I’m not saying Notes sections are on that list of victims (lots of people use them), but the “anti-ephemera” meme in poetic discourse could just as easily line up against this decoration as it has on any others.
And that would make me kinda sad. As I’m a big fan of detailed Notes sections. By “detailed”, I mean more than a list of source texts and publication dates, but instead a whole string of loosely connected micronarratives that speak to the lives of the quoted authors, the historical context of a given poem’s setting, or that admits that the poet kidnapped the intentions of a given passage by quoting it out of context. At their best, Notes sections hint at a sort of pre-creative map, a list of interests, icons, and starting points from which the author first jumped off. Maybe this is the root of the young artist’s fear, that such a concentrated list of borrowed (or at least bordered) ideas suggests a lack of creativity, a breach of authorial uniqueness. Whereas authorial uniqueness, as expressed in un-ideas like “the singular voice”, is something of a lie anyway, I don’t worry about it much. But we don’t always know this when we start out, do we?
One of the many joys in Damian Rogers’ new first collection Paper Radio is a Notes section that is both gloriously long (3 pages!) and written in a tone that is at once formal and coyly playful, and that speaks to the poet’s real excitement when recounting the various musicians, poets, and thinkers that informed the poems. There’s even a sort of boozy eloquence to the text, as if each paragraph began with an unwritten, “Oh, and that reminds me. The thing about ___ is….” It’s so nice to see poets get excited over things that aren’t just themselves. The poems, at least, in Reticent Bodies carry the same sort of intellectual joyfulness and unashamed ownership of one’s predecessors. I would have loved to have them all written out in one place.
I know there’s a lot of readers out there who just stop reading when they get to the Notes section of a book, and I know why. But my advice to my fellow poets is this: own your interests, own your heroes, and own the stuffing out of your quotations and allusions. Those who don’t care won’t read it. But those who do will read it, Google the unfamiliar elements, kill a couple hours on Wikipedia, and love you all the more.