Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove

As I approach this thoughtful and well-organized overview of the 40-year poetry career of John Newlove, I feel at once uniquely equipped and wholly underqualified to assess its merits. This is because, with the exception of a few anthologies and lit mag reprints, my experience with Newlove’s work has been fairly sparse. I remember his name still being bandied about in the English department hallways at the University of Manitoba when I was there in 2000-2002, but I had few occasions to read anything by him. So perhaps I’m coming to these collected poems with little baggage. Or, perhaps, little context.

No matter. Editor Robert McTavish has done a stellar job in his chronological selecting from and organizing of Newlove’s oeuvre, providing us with a thorough and overarching view into the man’s poetry. Mind you, I could have done without Jeff Derksen’s illiterate and turgidly academic afterword—shocking, that this kind of “scholarly” dross still gets published—but I didn’t allow his convoluted and suffocating pleonasms to spoil my enjoyment of the poems. McTavish, in his work, has stuck to organizing the pieces in the order of their original collections’ publication, rather than trying to group them by theme. The book is stronger for it.

It goes without saying that you get a real window into the development of a poet’s voice when his selected works are laid out in this manner. Newlove’s first collection, Grave Sirs, was published in 1961, when he was just 23; his second, Elephants, Mothers & Others, was released two years later. There is evidence in both of an earnest young man still trying to nail down his craft. You can see this in the arresting misogyny of “My Daddy Drowned” or the stunted framing of "Birds, Dear." Naturally, as the collections progress, the poems get better. I was left stunned by the final line of “Kamsack,” a poem from his 1965 collection Moving in Alone, in the way that it reveals a self awareness so uncommon in a man not yet thirty. Here the poem is in its entirety:

Plump eastern saskatchewan river town,
where even in the depression it’s said the wheat
went thirty bushels and was full-bodied,
the river laying good black dirt each year:
but I found it arid, as young men will

By the time Newlove won the Governor General’s Award for his 1972 collection Lies, his poetry had become ensconced in the rhythms of prairie regionalism and the nationalistic agenda of CanLit as a whole. I don’t mean that entirely as a dig. There is something in Newlove’s voice that transcends the pack with which he ran; one gets the sense reading, say, “Every Muddy Road” or “My Dreams” (with its delightfully disturbing first stanza) that Newlove was unafraid to reach for the universal, to write sly, occasionally crass poems alongside the nationalistic observations that would help earn him Canada Council grants.

Still, the prairies loom large in Newlove’s corpus of work, and this is no more evident than in his long poem The Green Plain, published in 1981. (Or is it 1979? There is a discrepancy in A Long Continual Argument.) The cadence here is a tour de force of crafty line breaks and rhythmic descriptions, unleashing images of plains, forests, stars and farmland alongside ruminations on the larger world. Reading it, I couldn’t help but hear the voice of another great prairie poet, Dennis Cooley. And I mean that literally. Go online and find a clip of Cooley reciting his work, then come back and read this excerpt from The Green Plain. See what I mean? It’s amazing how Newlove is able to replicate a thick prairie accent almost entirely through enjambment. I wager this work played a key role in inspiring the entire genre of the prairie long poem that flourished in the 1980s.

As Newlove got older, his poetry grew increasingly meta. I suppose this was inevitable. Still, there are numerous gems to encounter as you get deeper and deeper into A Long Continual Argument. “The Permanent Tourist Comes Home” teems with sharp observations about middle age—the death of parents, the visits home, the horror of starting over (it closes with the chilling line: “Awkwardly, I am in love again”). “Big Mirror”, by contrast, is a fun, playful take on a visit to the dentist, using battered grammar to represent a temporarily disabled mouth. Indeed, Newlove grew interested in writing about the limitations and inconveniences of an aging body as he entered his final years. His poem “The Examination” shows how our fate can be sealed within the larger genetic tapestry of our families.

A Long Continual Argument wisely ends with “The Death of the Hired Man” (“He collapsed like a sack of wet shit,/ which is what we all are, if you think of it”), a fitting swan song to cap off a life, a career, at its summit. Newlove left us with an impressive body of work, a rawness and honesty about the world he came from as well the world of the self. He was unafraid to put even his harshest observations through the musicality of his art. As he puts it so sagely in his long poem “White Philharmonic Novels”: “What good is a witness/ who will not tell his tale?”

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