Sunday, October 27, 2013
The listless, monolithic hulk of Lake Ontario looms large in this stellar collection of interconnected poems by Tanis Rideout. Arguments with the Lake takes as its basis the lives of two teenage swimmers from the 1950s, Marilyn Bell and Shirley Campbell, the former of which was the first person ever to swim across Lake Ontario. By plunging into the aquatic depths of these two characters’ fictionalized emotional lives, Rideout pulls off a poetic rendering of two historical figures that is as consuming as it is invigorating.
Indeed, much of the success of Arguments with the Lake stems from Rideout’s use of what we might call a double metaphor. On one level, this collection likens the act of marathon swimming with an argument—the pull and drag, the fear of losing oneself to drowning, the overwhelming sense of needing to conquer a nemesis through persistent repetition. This idea plays itself out in an number of pieces, including the poem that lends the book its title, “Shirley, Midlake”:
The lake tries to soothe and slow, creeps cold into core, slips
into the sheltered bay of lungs, the hidden rivers around the heart.
It’s a fair exchange – beats per pleasure. For pain. Each of us is allotted
the strikes of the heart. I’m using mine, arguing with the Lake.
But Rideout places a second level of comparison over this metaphoric structure. Arguments with the lake extend to arguments with the self, with expectations of womanhood, with negotiating the competitive spirit, and what lay ahead when that spirit is extinguished. Here Rideout is in “Motherhood,” exploring a kind of parental malaise that is akin to sinking:
the baby she thought of drowning, of sinking to prehistoric muck –
all doubt and congealed evolution, as unchanged as those lampreys.
She found comfort in the rot and discard, swept away, blinded.
Waiting for something else to emerge from the muck.
As lugubrious as this passage sounds, it’s not indicative of the book’s tone in general. Arguments with the Lake strikes a hopeful, generous tone in so many passages as Rideout unleashes a precision and quiet beauty that takes one’s breath away in unexpected places. Optimism ultimately wins out in this collection. As she writes in “Shirley as Drowned Ophelia”: “O, the Lake. The only thing that kept me afloat/ was what I thought was on the other side.”
Friday, October 25, 2013
There was a celebratory air at the Sampsenblum household yesterday (despite the fact that I was laid up with a cold) as RR and I received our contributors' copies of The New Quarterly no. 128. We both have short stories published therein: a piece called "The Man Room" from me and a piece called "Marriage" from her. This issue also has works from various literary luminaries including Miranda Hill, Helen Humphreys, Alice Major and Karen Solie. Anyway, go check it out when you get a chance, then come back here and let me know what you think.
Thursday, October 10, 2013
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Raging counterculture versemeister Jim Smith has returned with a new collection of poetry, Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra—a book at once frothing with quirks and puns and all manner of Smith’s trademark zaniness as well as a serious deference to the Spanish-speaking political and poetic traditions to which it owes a debt. Indeed, the Nicanor Parra of the title refers to the famed Chilean poet (now 99 years old) who won the Cervantes Prize in 2011. Both Chile and Spain loom large over Smith’s book as he mixes his bizarre cocktail of random absurdity and pointed activism.
Take, for example, the piece “Things I’ve Died from Recently,” a list poem that—like the best Smith’s work—deliberately destabilizes its own centre, acting as a real-time palinode to the rapid-fire lines it lays upon the page. He writes:
Running away from bears.
Running toward bears.
Failing to look at a diabetic’s feet
carefully when they are my own.
Getting angry & holding
my breath while swallowing my tongue.
Reading too much
reading not enough
While we as readers can only glimpse at the motivating factors behind this poem, we can still abandon ourselves to the cadence of its contradictions. Compare that to Smith’s poem “The Fate of Chile,” which makes no attempt to mask its driving force. This piece plays with the phenomenon of those who were “disappeared” during the brutal reign of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet—and paradoxically credits his actions for bringing so much of that country’s poetry to Smith’s consciousness:
I know what happened to Jara,
but where is Luis Navarro now?
I know what happened to Allende,
but the fate of Sam Rojas is unclear to me.
Friends I never would have had
but for Pinochet
Never would have read Parra
but for Pinochet
Another poet haunting this collection is Lorca, who was murdered during the Spanish Civil War. It was interesting for me to read Smith’s musings on this writer after reading Patrick Friesen’s recent collection A Dark Boat, which also taps into the Lorca mystique. Whereas Friesen relies heavily on reverence when referencing the various legends that surround Lorca, Smith works in his tributes by weaving them into his book’s broader panoply of cheekiness. Indeed, whether writing about Lorca, Neruda, or Milton Acorn, Smith acknowledges the sacred by reminding us that nothing is really sacred.
In my review of Smith’s previous collection Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems, I referred to his arrangement of poems as “a rat’s nest”—which shouldn’t in any way be taken as an insult. The same description fits Nicanor Parra: this book is wild mix of list poems, counting poems, fragments, long poems, minimalist poems, experimental poems and lyrics. They’re all over the map, and this can prove to be a disconcerting or invigorating ride, depending on how open-minded you are. That said, Smith’s influences can occasionally overwhelm his verse—shadows of bp nichol, Stuart Ross, Acorn, and David McFadden weigh a bit too heavily here. But it’s a minor grumble about a book that is, for the most part, tremulous with its own originality and verve. These are poems that practically vibrate in your hand as you read them.
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
And speaking of The Marquess of Queensberry, you can hop over to The New Quarterly and see me talk about it briefly in the magazine's Who's Reading What section of the website. This is a neat little thing that TNQ does, where they ask authors published in the journal what they're currently reading. I'm there, of course, because my short story "The Man Room" will appear in the latest issue, no. 128, on newsstands and in the mail to subscribers very soon. I'll keep you all posted when that happens.