Poetry Reviews by Michael Kenyon

Sharon Thesen, Oyama Pink Shale (Toronto: Anansi, 2011). Paperbound, 64 pp., $22.95.

Anne Simpson, Is (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2011). Paperbound, 93 pp., $18.99.

These two books are small, page-wise, but each opens into a larger world. The poets were born a decade apart, Thesen right after the Second World War and Simpson in the ’50s, and they have produced between them thirteen books of poetry (Thesen with nine, Simpson with four). Thesen’s sly humour leaps among memories of things and places; Simpson treats the material of today in often breathless song. Both of their new books include sequences that once accompanied visual art; Thesen’s colour and light are matched by Simpson’s sinuous commentaries on the perception of objects. Their poetry shares muscle and craft, though Thesen is a figure influenced by the 1960s and comes from a line that includes Charles Olsen and Robin Blaser (both acknowledged), and Simpson arrives from teen years in the ’70s, and their atmosphere of philosophical and political discomfort.

Oyama Pink Shale is a book of “someone wanting out” (“Oyama Pink Shale”): of the Oyama Pink Shaleindustrialization and commoditization of the natural world; of big-textbook history. It is also playful, sensual. The title words repeat, like a prayer, or mantra, throughout the book. Aloud, they are magical, a shifting invocation to the founding past. From the opening section “Five Preludes” (with hats and sandals and writers Dickenson, Yeats, Lowry, Hemmingway, Stevens) that set the stage not with furniture per se, but paths dark and light through ancient forests or Wikipedia—which will our heroines choose?— to “The Nets of Being,” a vast poem, Thesen distills personal and collective memory. We are in a land where Greek gods still shuffle about, diminished; Phoebus (an epithet of Apollo) appears in the first Prelude, as the narrator chooses, conditionally, a hat to wear, “…in agnosia, / in darkness, and descend to the town’s / winter sales past the gentle cemetery greyly / gleaming in Phoebus’ gentle rays.” The modern world is a circus. “The Big Top,” with Burt Lancaster appearing as a high-wire artist beneath God’s reach in the Sistine ceiling, is set alongside tents of domestic detail, alongside sanatoria and a sick mother. The blasting apart of Pluto’s domain pre-empts the TV show, “I Love Lucy,” (Persephone?) in “Ripple Rock”: “& sadness befell us for the hauling out / of the busted underworld into fuming light of day.”

Thesen writes beautifully and humorously of life on our planet, teeming as it does with species lost and present. From “A Sunday Drive”: “…No other lifetime could match / living in the far depths with the sharks, / having laughed at their double penis / when washed up dead on the beach.” In “Nets of Being” factory workers stitch as fast as they can to feed the ghost-market; the choice is death or exhaustion; history’s web is fraying, its interstices ragged and troublesome and too busy with dream (the surreal) and progress (the Internet) for us to catch much. We can only hope we have a brother out there, somewhere in the darkness, to catch us.

the night in Tucson Miguel Vasquez
turned over four times in mid-air

into the hands of his brother Juan
at just that moment before I really start to fall

he said, I float there for a second
and my brother caught me at just that moment

After “Nets of Being” come the final handful of poems: a gift of rosary beads from an angel against the quotidian pattern in “Lines”: “…how hard it is to change / the habits of a lifetime”; the bewitched disastrous voyage of “Queen of the North”; an ancient, new voice from Haida Gwaii in “White Hillside” recounting a mythological, synchronous history, with “Some say, 800 mph winds” to wipe the slate clean. Thesen writes from an electric eccentric place, and the reader is rewarded by fresh renderings of the tragic, heartwarming dealings of humans, not gods, but godlike.

In many poems in Simpson’s Is, verbs are kept to a minimum, often withheld. The passive is conjures the Bible and Genesis, and evokes the eternal present. This book has a big-bang title; the poems that follow are concrete maps of human stories. This collection seems in this way a bow to minimalism and the conservative T.S. Eliot. The book’s final poem “Double Helix” starts: “—with the ending poised inside the beginning.” An echo of Eliot as well as a harkening back to the first poem of the collection, “Book of Beginnings.” Looping is important.

Is is the story of how we got (to be) here, and what happens to us when, in midlife, weIs must look after our dying parents. Story is important. Anne Simpson was a fiction writer before she was a poet. After the first cell divisions we become men and women. And after personal moments of heightened consciousness within family come philosophical splits and the shocks of history: an oil spill, a monk setting himself on fire. Such moments split (remarkably in “Life Magazine,” where facing poems are titled “Photograph”and “Photographer”) into event and observer. The turning of the page is thus a participation, more than in most books, in the process and progress of the poems. The final two sections of “Life Magazine” show the witnessed death of a woman (“pilot, photographer, one of the boys”), preceded by the description of her war photograph (“this is the photograph”). Turn the page to the next poem, “Aslant,” and we are looking down, with a male protagonist, on the progress, process of his own thoughts, which include the material of our world as held by his imagining, also dying (like the woman pilot from Wisconsin) mind/brain.

Simpson builds poems on stories of spiritual and religious (reconnective) quest in rhythmic lines that suggest Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams. There’s pulse and architectural magnificence. In “Cell Division,” the circular text repeats and splits in advancing figures—tinier and tinier blocks of smaller and smaller words. We already know the story (the singularities will vanish in the mathematical future), but the visual effect is simple and powerful. Some poems sit on the page in a familiar way, but many use the space of the page; lines are visually rhythmical, yet wide apart, or isolated; flush-left text gives way to flush-right; stanzas with line breaks give way to paragraphs of repetitive flowing text about the elements; in the end (“Double Helix”) the stanzas get fat, then skinny, then fat, and wind up as (an interest of Simpson’s) a loop or perhaps a Möbius strip.

In the title poem, a dissolving sleight of hand in which the voice of a grown-up child speaks about looking after an aged mother, the verb produces the world. Here is a loving of phenomena and of the body. “Is snow as years, lightly. Is your face back then, your hands. / Is mine and not. Is the low branch, ice moon split by the blade / of the low branch. / Is kiss, cool, kiss. Is snow. Is always / inside never. / Is years. Is the pileated woodpecker, the hammer of a beak. / Is goldsmith. Is
time, shimmered.”

There is a Scottish phrase used to describe children craving the safety of the middle of the family: “She wants to be in the body of the Kirk.” Anne Simpson is such a poet.

Both of these books are wonderful; together they frame something almost untrackable: what only poetry can speak.

—Michael Kenyon

As in The Malahat Review, 176, Autumn 2011, 85-88