“What shall we make of Leviathan?” asked D.G. Jones in Butterfly on Rock, his 1970 volume of critical essays. In the book, Jones argued against a “garrisoned,” colonial impulse he saw at the centre of Canadian literature, which favoured the masculine over the feminine, the rational over the natural, the intellect over the body. “The puritanical ethic which starves the body to feed the mind has no place for love,” he wrote, “for it demands that man love perfection, and no man is perfect.”
The only solution was for artists to go beyond the walls of the garrison, face the terrifying wilderness, and embrace the darkness within nature and our own beings. What to do with Leviathan? Jones would go on to answer his own question: “Swallow him.”
During his half-century career, D.G. Jones has authored almost a dozen poetry collections. Now his collected poems, The Stream Exposed with All its Stones, traces the artist’s struggle to reconcile the sensual and the reasoned, sound and sense. Like any volume of collected works, the book is more box set than greatest hits album, but if a few poems fail to dazzle, the whole delivers a nuanced picture of the poet’s development. Beginning as a young modernist, who asked in his first collection, “Do poems too have backbones?” Jones has gone on to test the flexibility of form and to grow the bolder voice of a mature poet who has swallowed Leviathan, and digested him, too.
A long-time resident of the Eastern Townships, Jones often turns to weather, seasons, and the natural world to build his metaphors, but his poetry is not a simple celebration of nature. While the man-made world is violent and chaotic, the world of nature, although gentler, is indifferent to the human drama, as he hints in this passage from the poem “What Is Interesting,” from his 1995 collection, The Floating Garden:
the waves, says Pierre, after passing the graveyard
in squalls—what did he say (we’d moved
to ashes as a conversation piece), the waves
suggest heroic acts (we are driving
through a pastoral landscape, still
the virtue of ABS brakes is that they compensate
for unequal resistance, like the tao
or the free market, I mean
this is a lake in a blizzard in december
in canada, metaphor is in the shape and lick of the waves
and their pompe et funèbre hue, whew! the rest
is metonymy, hanging in there
in difference) the picturesque
becomes sublime, you could die in this
preparation for a white Christmas, this
what is interesting is skidding from snow
to ashes to blossoms, greetings
of dark jubilation, the waves, the waves now clapping
of an excellent tragedy
The poem dances between the mind’s chaos and its order, the interior and exterior worlds. The voice is neither naïve nor knowing, but searching, which lends vivid ambiguity and tension to Jones’ work.
The dance between convention and invention is another source of tension. Jones’ work begins with form and evolves toward freedom, but a freedom defined by his own formal conventions and affinities. Sparse capitalization and punctuation, unpredictable diction, and far-flung allusions are used so systematically that they become formal rules of their own, yet contribute such looseness that language becomes slippery, and meaning, hard to hold onto. The result is a controlled stream-of-consciousness that recalls Berryman and Ashbery (as Jones seems aware in his “Imperfect Ghazals” and “Picking Up a Little Ashbery”), but with a clearly Canadian inflection.
In his brief introduction to The Stream Exposed with All its Stones, W.J. Keith observes that, in part because of his prolific background as a translator, “Jones draws freely on what for many, alas, will be an unshared background.” Bilingual readers are less likely to be flummoxed when Jones jumps between languages and images, but others are just as likely to appreciate that Jones is ever interested in a third way, rather than a binary choice between man and nature, form and free verse, English and French, lyrical evocation and flat telling. When he founded the bilingual literary journal, Ellipse, in 1969, Jones expressed the hope that the review would “generate a more intimate commerce between the two languages.” That commerce is alive and well in his own work, and not merely because he detours into French now and then. If Jones is a major lyric poet on the Canadian scene, his influence promises to be even more enduring in Quebec for this reason. He invites us outside the garrison into sometimes difficult territory — the wilderness of intimacy rather than that of solitude.
Abby Paige is a poet, playwright, and performer. She lives in Montreal.