With the momentous recent political and economic news, it may be all too easy to overlook what Ezra Pound called the “news that stays news.” Poetry has never pretended to be breaking news, but well executed, it can revive old verities with an immediacy that surpasses any reportage à la CNN.
Consider Vancouver poet Shannon Stewart’s second collection, Penny Dreadful. “Penny Dreadfuls” were popular, cheaply-produced 19th century tabloids filled with brutal, sensationalist tales, featuring largely mythologized figures like Spring-Heeled Jack and Sweeney Todd. Flash forward to 21st century Vancouver, where notorious serial killer Robert Pickton provides our contemporary shudder material. This time, however, the grisly evidence is all too real:
Featuring skillful short lines and perspicacious rhyme, many of these poems have a mordant, singsong quality; though penny-sized, they pack a powerful punch. The titles run like a series of legal exhibits, labelled with name and address, or constitute bizarre headlines in themselves: “Roofers Find Bucket Full of Teeth,” “Woman Gives Birth to a Frog,” “Man Jailed after Sucking the Toes of Three Unsuspecting Women.” Sly humour aside, a number of disturbing dream-like poems – “63 Missing from the Low Track” is a standout – express how the tragedy in her neighbourhood has invaded the author’s psyche in a most poignant, heartbreaking way. Particularly brilliant is “A Rose by Any Other Name,” a series of brief riffs on common terms of abuse for women – cow, slut, cunt, bitch, whore. Stewart’s relentless questioning of the hazy line between sensation-seeking and responsible reportage makes for most revelatory news.
Phil Hall’s White Porcupine opens with the inscription,
“Incomprehensibility is confession – Theodor Adorno”.
Phil Hall’s elliptical work represents an ambitious project of exploring language as a way of experiencing the world. Between slats of musical, purely evocative phrases, the reader can perceive the clear daylight of an implied narrative and definite setting: the austere quietude and suppressed anger of living in the “back townships,” presumably somewhere near Ottawa. The white porcupine is a snowstorm into which the narrator and his father, who apparently had an abusive relationship, drive in the family car. The pelting snow is transformed by speed into “quills that are broken passing lines in sharp bouquet,” a shared experience that brings them together even though, “our silences clenched in full bristle” they “hate each other.” Taken in a larger sense, the white porcupine could be seen as the wiry bristle of language itself, with which Phil Hall plays with astute humour:
I begged for this fresh day
to run as I have others — a day that is already a day
to bend out of its spelling into yada yada
the landscape is lined up around the block
to get in to see The Landscape: A Wire Circus
It is a common meme in language poetry to stand back and comment on the writing itself:
out of all this legendary salvaged junk
help me construct some show to warn us awake
which, of course, brings us back to what this “news that stays news” is about: a dredging up of near-forgotten memories, a reportage on consciousness.
Brian Campbell’s second collection, Passenger Flight (Signature Editions), will be launched in Montreal this spring.