Monday, January 13, 2014

Review: Left for Right, by Glen Downie

I’ve always felt that the prose poem has a hell of a time justifying its existence. You know what I mean: leading its double life; wrestling with how much narrative to include or exclude; trying to build a sense of rhythm without the convenience of line breaks. Since discovering the form via the works of Arthur Rimbaud as an undersexed undergraduate in the 1990s, I’ve never stopped asking: how are these bloody things supposed to work?

Well, thank God for Glen Downie. I think it’s fair to say that in the very best pieces in his 2012 collection Left for Right, he puts on an absolute clinic in terms of what the prose poem can accomplish on the page. Here you will find a simplicity that resists the simple, a musicality that resists the lyric, and an emotional arc that resists the humdrums of plot. Many of these poems swept me up in the worlds they created, even if that world was, on the surface at least, a fleeting one. A perfect example of what I’m talking about is his poem “Self-loathing,” where Downie writes:

I dislike men who resemble me. To spot one crossing the street
is to mistake myself a moment, and think Oh God, there goes
that sad poet! What an unprepossessing figure, what a shabby
fat fellow he’s become! He was young once, at least passably
good-looking. Now he is no one, nothing, and worse yet, a
dime a dozen …

There are several interesting things happening in this one short passage—the self-referential imaging, the carefully placed alliteration—but they all conspire to create that recognizable moment we all have when we detest the doppelganger in front of us for what he resembles, both inside and out. (The subject matter of the doppelganger crops up later in the collection, in Downie’s poem “My Part,” albeit less successfully.)

Each of Left for Right’s five sections are organized around a singular and straightforward noun: “Domesticity,” “Fables,” “Disappearances,” etc. But the poems therein shine brightest when they keep just enough distance between their subject matter and what the reader has immediate access to. Downie is canny enough to know just how much to reveal to us to pique our interest, keep us in the moment of the poem, and then let us go without needing to give us more. I certainly felt this way about his piece “Firefly”, which is worth printing in its entirety here:

In your jar, you are my faint-hope lantern, frail guide through
the night by my bed. On a shelf in the pitch-black cottage
you circle a tiny kingdom — a miniature lighthouse sweeping
the coastline of solitude. As I drift off, you keep vigil. Your
ember fails and flares, the fiery end of a smoke as a father
watches over his sleeping son, think his dark private

There is so much intimated at here but never overly said: the sense of loss (“faint-hope lantern”), of loneliness (“coastline of solitude”) and that great mysterious ending with the inscrutable father. I would argue that only a prose poem could accommodate the various subtleties encoded in this piece, and Downie executes upon them brilliantly.

Other examples embrace these same techniques. I love the coyness of the title poem (“A hand like his might have palmed a one-eyed jack, lifted a wallet, or switched, unnoticed, a pretty assistant’s mole to her opposite cheek …”) and the extended image that plays itself out in “Buried Sky,” (about blue piping laid below the poet’s street.) Of course, not ever instance worked for me.  A couple of Downie’s poems ended on puns that left me grimacing: I’m thinking specifically of “Corner Store” and “Death of the Life of the Party”. And a few of the early pieces in the book struggle to find their legs in the way that the later poems do. Not sure what impression his poems “The Queen” or “Third and Long” were meant to leave with me, for example.

But these are minor grumbles. For the most part, Left for Right reenergizes one’s affection for the prose poem. Downie does a tremendous job showing us how to do them right.  

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