Fugue in Green by Brenda Clews

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Fiction, 208 pages, Quattro Books.  $20 paperback. Cover painting by the author. Available from Quattro Books,  Chapters Indigo, or Amazon (when they have it in stock).

First of all, a conflict of interest statement:  Brenda Clews is a good friend of mine, and I have collaborated on performances and dinners with her.

So, about her novell(a), depending on where you draw the dividing line… It has the complexity of a full-length work of fiction, and at 208 pages, the length, although Brenda described it to me as a novella. It is, like the author herself, impossible to pigeonhole.  Brenda, depending on the context in which you meet her or her work, is a poet, fiction writer, videographer, painter, photographer, dancer, and presiding spirit over poetry and music salons. Fugue in Green is equally mutable — a “gothic fairy tale,” as the back-cover blurb states, but also a story of intuition,  of a sadly dysfunctional family and a mentally ill, abusive mother, an evocation of the power of creative thought, a ghost story and a voyage of recovery. It’s worth recalling the double meaning of “fugue”  as a style of imaginative musical composition, and a psychiatric term denoting a state that is a “flight” from reality.

The protagonist is Steig, a teenaged girl whose identity is formed by her intense bond with nature, especially trees; her younger brother Curtis; their experimental film-maker father Reb; his muse-like camera operator Clare; and his estranged wife Leica (perhaps not accidentally the name of a highly-regarded line of cameras). As for the plot, expect a journey,  suspense and surprise.  But it’s probably better to let the the reader follow the threads than to draw them out here.  The real energy of the book is its rich language, its portrayal of of a highly-intuitive creative process, and the permeable boundaries which Clews skilfully manipulates between characters, and between them and their environment. Long-dead family members sometimes reappear, in disconcerting form, to give Steig advice, or get her into trouble.  Steig inhabits her mother’s world through dreams and visions, and, like a dryad, needs a forest to sustain her. The film-making team shares the inner life of aquarium inhabitants, and records leaves swirling into the image of a woman’s face.  Colour permeates everything, especially the title’s green,

The overall effect is a hallucinatory, highly poetic kind of fiction that, without imitation, recalls some interesting literary ancestors to me — Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, Virginia Woolf’s experimental work The Waves, Kenneth Patchen’s The Journal of Albion Moonlight.  I recommend you read it, because I’m sure, while you will recognize some of the strengths I have identified, your experience will be unique.  It’s that kind of book.

 

 

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About John Oughton

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Photo by Brenda Clews.

Who is this guy anyway?

I studied literature at York University, where I earned a BA and MA in English, learning with Irving Layton, Eli Mandel, Miriam Waddington, and Frank Davey. I did non-credit studies at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.  I was Allen Ginsberg’s research assistant one summer and Anne Waldman’s the next. Two of the interviews Anne and I did have been published, one with William Burroughs titled You Can’t Win and one with Robert Duncan titled A Little Endarkenment and You Shall Find Me. I am a member of the Long Dash Writing Group, and we do during National Poetry Month an annual reading and exhibition in collaboration with the studio artists at The Women’s Art Association of Canada, which is probably the longest-running and largest-scale ekphrastic event anywhere. My writing website is at joughton.wixsite.com/author.

I have published five books of poetry:

Taking Tree Trains (Coach House Press, 1973)

Gearing of Love (Mosaic Editions, 1984)

Mata Hari’s Lost Words (first ed., Ragweed Press, 1988; second ed. Neopoiesis Press, 2017)

Counting Out the Millennium (Pecan Grove Press, 1997)

Time Slip (Guernica Editions, 2010).

As you can see, I’m not the most prolific poet, due in part to my having worked full-time as a college teacher up to the end of 2016 and my other creative pursuits, which include playing guitar, writing literary journalism (over 400 publications), and so far one mystery novel, Death by Triangulation (NeoPoiesis, 2016) and well as photography (my photo website is at joughton.wixsite.com/imagenery),

I used toe be a regular reviewer/interviewer for NOW Magazine and Books in Canada and have also published reviews and articles in Quill & Quire, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and other periodicals.

Catharine Owen: The Day of the Dead review by John Oughton

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The Day of the Dead: Sliver Fictions, Short Stories & an Homage.Caitlin Press: 160 pages. Paperback. $20, ISBN 978-1987915204.

The subtitle of this collection is “Sliver Fictions, Short Stories & an Homage”. “Sliver fiction” is a term invented by the author, for a mini-story fitting somewhere between postcard fiction and flash fiction, but with  a sharper  edge. It also serves a metaphorical role, because many of these pieces about the relationships between men and women concern experiences and emotions — grief, lust, loss, confusion, obsession — that work their way under the skin and produce a certain pleasure/pain when you worry at them.

Owen will be familiar to most who follow Canadian literature.  She’s been, for someone around 40, prolific as a poet — her ten volumes doubling the output of yr humble scribe, much her senior.  But she also’s produced Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse, a book of memoirs and essays; and 23 1/2 Hours, a study of of how Canadian poets combine their lyrical habits with actually making a living. If that weren’t enough, given her full-time job as a TV production props mistress, she writes an active review blog — I’m exchanging this review for one she did of my last poetry collection —  is an occasional photographer’s model, plays bass and writes songs in the death-metal fashion. I’m tired already…

This book takes a shot-gun approach to fiction, blasting out everything from one-page stories to those of more conventional length, and an ambitious suite: A Girl, a Guy, a Ghost: An Homage to Marie Claire Blais’s Three Travellers, structured in three sections titled “Moments” which are also musical “Movements” in a larger work. Typically, with this many choices, most readers are going to like some more than others, whether because of their length, subject matter, or tone. And that’s fine — it’s no different than reading a collection of poems, in which I rarely feel drawn to all of them, but usually find some I want to re-read and savour.

What sets Owen’s fiction apart?  Her prose is serviceable when dealing with the nuts and bolts of fiction — where characters are going, what they’re doing — and lyrical, almost prose-poetry when conveying atmosphere, emotion and obsession.  At times, even though Owen’s fixations are different, it reminded me of Kenneth Patchen’s classic (probably unfamiliar to most readers) poetic novel The Journal of Albion Moonlight. But some of Owen’s scenes and imagery are more reminiscent of Kathy Acker or maybe Hubert Selby Jr. From “Hole”:

“Seeing Johnny bleed was about the hottest thing Megan had ever watched.  The gang in the living room playing Rock Band till 4 am, noodling for  bright plastic fame  — “Hella hell hella. Fuck!” all juiced up on Jager and popsicles and he suddenly wanting another hole…”

In particular, Owen is unusually frank about sexual desire and activity for a woman writer, which I find refreshing.  It’s a double standard to assume that only men can write prose about horniness and orgasms.  Owen’s dark sense of humour, and command of style, keep these passages from venturing into the fearful literary desert of 50 Shades of Gaahh.

“He seemed to derive the most pleasure from this tiny act of vengeance and lust, stroking her hair with a sweeping hand, saying he loved her as she opened her mouth over and over gain to his frighteningly tumescent cock.  After he came however, he would retract everything he’d said to her, tossing the transfer back as he tucked himself into his jeans, laughing, “Just said I loved you then.  You know that’s not true, right?”

My favourites are this excerpt’s story, “Bite,” the quirky and playful “Breeders,” the set-in-Turkey “Sips,” the experimental “Food I Ate with Frank,” and “The Resurrection.”  Some of the short pieces are rather slight: “Fruits” with its overdone running metaphor, and “The Mouth” which begins with a promising image, kissing an inflatable man on the lawn, but doesn’t go much further with it. Although the book is generally well-edited, there is the odd surface-level error — like the missing comma after “however” in the passage quoted above.  While I like the cover image, a pile of candy skulls from Mexico’s The Day of the Dead, there’s too much text layered on top of it.  I might have put the subtitle only on the inside page, but then I’m not a designer.

This is a promising collection for someone not known for fiction, and one that’s sure to elicit a response from most readers.  I suspect if it is sometimes horror or omigod-how-could-she-do-that?, Owen would be happy with the effect.

Maureen Hynes: The Poison Colour reviewed by Sharon Berg

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The Poison Colour. Maureen Hynes. (poetry) Pedlar Press. 95 pages.

The mind is like a richly woven tapestry in which the colors

are distilled from the experiences of the senses, and the

design drawn from the convolutions of the intellect.

Carson McCullers

I used to run a reading series in Sarnia, Ontario, and I invited Maureen Hynes to be a reader in October 2016. During that visit, she told me a story about the way this book was titled, saying her manuscript had suggested something else but the press editor chose this one. I only wish the editor had suggested a shift in order for the poems, as well, placing The Poison Colour closer to the beginning of the book. I believe this title poem sets the tone for reading the book, giving the reader a clue for the context of most of these pieces.

As a person, Maureen Hynes is a kind and astute woman, who is generous with her knowledge, as all of her poems attest. Reading her book is like taking a journey around the globe with her, seeing exotic and humble places through her eyes (Plaza de Puerto de Moros, Kindly Stops, Quipu). Yet, the idea that the use of a certain colour in Mexican or French tapestries…

makes the rest of the group brighten[.]

The colour so drab it intensifies

the merriment in all the others,

their alacrity and charm.

…is spelled out in the title poem to reveal Hynes as a poet who is so intense and so vulnerable that she feels compelled to ask:

 

Is it me?

Take five pretty colours,

like five slender sisters, and add a sixth,

the less prickly one who makes the others

sweet and tractable,

who forces their brilliance and grace.

(The Poison Colour)

This poem explains the poison colour is one that strikes up high contrasts because it is not harmonious with the others.

In this way, Hynes parallels her personal vulnerabilities, and her persistent self-reflection, to the role of the poison colour in those tapestries. This poem highlights a collection that offers strong insights into the human efforts, globally, to find purpose and meaning, as Hynes also looks for deeper meaning in the artifacts she observes, the paintings and museum objects she sees, and the relationship they have to their makers.

Hynes is both a traveller and an author who likes to write about the various places she has visited (Cueva De Pileta, Prey). Her poems are often like a portal to a different time and place.

Many chambers, steep passageways, drapes of calcium carbonate dyed

green

with copper, purple with magnesium oxide, five storeys high. Chimineas,

hearths with ventilation upward to the open air, black with

millennial fires.

Everywhere, drip of stalactites, slow accretion of stalagmites, some

broken by terremotos.

Five thousand bats: the single ring of a cell phone will wing them outside.

Their guano drew the olive farmer inside – his grandson guides us.

(Cueva de Pileta)

She is also someone who delights in visiting art galleries and museums, frequently sharing her reflections about what she has witnessed (Jewel Beetle Dress, Redhead, Tarpaulin, Scorched Dress). In fact, she often examines the oddity of what is preserved in museums or in books that the original owners would (or did) put in the trash.

Like X-ray prints of bodies on pavement,

the charred silhouettes on the gallery wall.

A Veronica’s veil lifted away, portrait

of clothes’ endurance, the lightness of all.

The white glove ceremony – unwrapping

and rewrapping in acid-free paper,

immaculate boxes.

(Scorched Dress)

More unusual for a book of poems, perhaps, she also records a response to the work of other authors she has read (Poem Called ‘Grateful’, après vous, On Reading Lorca’s ‘Poet in New York’, Rain-Soaked Poem). The result is that one gains a clear idea of Hynes the poet thinking, responding, and loving.

Hynes is a highly relatable poet and she knows just what to say to introduce each poem at a live reading, as if she is cracking a nut and offering it to her audience. She uses language beautifully and portrays what I can only call her reverie for nature (Listening to the Grass, Rattle, Silver Leaf).

Now you hear the argument

among water, soil, chepica grass:

commotion of pale shoots as they dip

their new quills into Neruda’s green ink,

deepen their hue and swarm ahead

(Listening to the Grass)

Yet, while she is drawn to old architecture, she suggests the renaming and repurposing of buildings and places where one has been is like memory’s intrusion on the present or the past’s insertion into us (These Persons, Stone Sonnet).

Broad boulevards now tawdry and commercial

stretch back two hundred years,

homes to doctors and merchants

and clergymen. The same cathedral bells

chime the hours, quarter, half and full.

How long does it take a city

to form us, fill us

with longings shaped before we were born?

(Small Containers)

Indeed, she connects so deeply with the inner being of her readers that she seems to have a psychic ability to portray the past.

… when I pass the

Church whose Depression era faithful occupied

homes in defence of those evicted, when I search

for old names carved into stonework

or when the peepshow of the past reveals a woman

in high heels dashing into a bank that was once

the Victory Burlesque, all these sites

the city has buried or bricked over or overlooked,

then I am thinking Olsen’s thought,

My problem is to make you believe these persons existed

(These Persons)

For the most part, the entities in her poems live where we can see them, or imagine them, yet, for myself several poems were too privately referenced and, despite the power in her imagery, her message was lost. This should not keep anyone from enjoying the richness in this book, however.

Hynes poetic reflections on eras gone past sparks them to life for moments, within the shelter of her poems, making them seem a portal to distant times and places (These Persons, Valparaiso, Stone Sonnet). She can paint an eerie and suggestive word picture of a cormorant nesting in the hallway disguised as a telephone (Cormorant Elegy) or create a “basket of sound” using words to illustrate the sound of a Redhead Duck (Redhead). She can draw you close enough to sense the power of the drug used during her recovery from surgery:

The middle of the night.

I can bear it, you tell the nurse.

but I just can’t stop crying. Push

 

The pain pump’s middle button.

The apparatus clicks and clacks –

someone inside, very old and expert, is preparing

your dose, cutting slivers from a ball

of black opium. The sound of his scalpel

slicing against a porcelain plate.

In the middle of the night

you count: 66 slices.

(Surgery Suite)

Always, Hynes touches on the colour of things as if the emotions were a box of watercolours, one colour for humour, another for vulnerabilities, another for the test of patience as she deals with her mother’s decline.

My mother had waded well out into dementia,

let’s say up to her hips, maybe even to her waist.

her sister similarly afflicted, though maybe just

ankle deep. They were both heading for the island

(Further and Further West)

Hynes comments – over and over again, on her trips to museums and artist exhibitions and the homes where famous people once lived – that she wishes she could touch what she sees but it is not allowed. Ironically, in the beautiful lines of her poetry, Hynes makes you feel that you are almost present with her at those sites, that you could also touch what she is referencing – if you were allowed.

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About the Reviewer

Sharon Berg writes poetry, story, reviews, and non-fiction that relates to Indigenous history and education in Canada. Her work has been published in periodicals across Canada, in the USA, the UK, The Netherlands, and Australia. She is the editor for Big Pond Rumours International Literary E-Zine http://www.big-pond-rumours.com/ and her blog collects links to her book reviews: https://sharonbergblog.wordpress.com/

Tidal Fury by Brenda Clews

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“Tidal Fury”, Brenda Clews. Guernica Editions: Essential Poets ISBN 978-1-77183-099-7 Reviewed by Kate Rogers ___________________________________________________________________________

“Writing practice brings us back to the uniqueness of our own minds and an acceptance of it. We all have wild dreams, fantasies, and ordinary thoughts. Let us feel the texture of them and not be afraid of them. Writing is still the wildest thing I know.” ― Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life

Brenda Clews’ “Tidal Fury” takes us on a wild sea journey where we encounter many bodies of water. To fully engage with Brenda Clews’ passionate poetic conversation with muse and creative process in this book, the reader should be prepared to let the current of ideas take her or him wherever it yearns to go. In order for the reader to get the most from  “Tidal Fury” it also helps to know the story of Medusa, the narrator’s muse. Medusa’s father was Oceanus (the sea) and her mother was Gaea (the earth). Medusa was their only mortal daughter and a temple virgin devoted to the goddess Athena.

In Clews’ narrative there are frequent journal-like prose reflections and poems connected to water and the dividing line between Oceanus (the sea) and Gaea (the earth). On page 25 the narrator stands on the beach and ponders her identity: “The coast is empty./ I am not sure who I am./” She addresses her lover, “Monsieur” (perhaps also the alter ego of her creative process): “You are the edge of the waves that tip over. When the peak cannot hold/ itself aloft and falls like a dancer letting go of taut tension and plunging. Or/ perhaps it is words that fall into froth”. (p.25) The references to water—the “tidal fury” of the creative impulse—are as frequent—and regular as the tide in this book. The images in those sections are amongst the most passionate and lyrical.

In “Waves of Words” (p.5), words “float under [the] rib cage” of the narrator. In “Spaces” (p.77) there are “Whitecaps of/hidden writing.” Water condenses as “Mist” on page 71 and in “Tide-line” on the same page, the men who love the narrator, may disappear, but, she observes, “They always return…” “Sometimes I feel like the woman in the sea cottage who holds the tide-line/ tight in her hands. Then I don’t drift in and out like the moon-pulled sea;/ then I remain, present.”(p.71) In “Sea-breaker” (p.81) creativity surges just enough: “It was a small sea-breaker, Monsieur. But love flowed over it.” In “Tides” (p.89) “Monsieur, you are a flux/…” the narrator chides. Love and the creative impulse are conflated again. In “Target”, (p.98), the tide rises like a storm surge: “Surf pounds in my ears. Air hits me under her closed fists”. In “Sea-break” (p.61), Medusa shrieks with elemental fury.

The poem “The Medusa”, where the narrator addresses “Monsieur” about the power of her muse is as compelling as the many poems and reflections on the bodies of water: “A work is at once order/ and its ruin. And/ these weep for one/ another.” (p. 23). As the narrator struggles with her “anguish” about creativity and love the snakes around the head of her muse unwrap, “…in the mirror/ like a ribbon,/ or writhing/ snake” (p.23) Medusa is, “She who turns life into art/ With her gaze./ flesh become stone,/ pigment, pixel, celluloid./” (p.24) In the myth about the origin of Medusa, Athena was furious with what she saw as Medusa’s betrayal of her. Her punishment destroyed Medusa’s beauty and replaced her hair with a nest of snakes. Clews’ performance of the poem “The Medusa” powerfully dramatizes the poem on pages 23-24. A CD of the book would complement Clews’ many ink drawings within well.

Clews’ narrator’s power struggle with the creative impulse parallels the creation of any art: Medusa turned people she met into stone with her gaze. Looked at another way, Medusa’s gaze turned her pain at the exile imposed by the goddess Athena into art. According to one source, after being cursed by Athena, Medusa walked the earth in torment. She dropped snakes everywhere on her walks, especially through Africa. Clews’ writer’s biography states that she grew up in Africa. It would be interesting to know where she first met Medusa and adopted her as her muse. The god Poseidon violated Medusa, and her vow of celibacy to Athena. In some versions of the myth, Medusa forgot her vow of celibacy to marry Poseidon.

In “Tidal Fury” Clews’ narrator struggles with internal and external elemental forces. She yearns both for fulfilment and obliteration of the self (p.26). The gorgon (Medusa) laughs at the narrator’s drained creativity (p.19). The struggle between losing herself to the creative impulse and survival is told in the tale of raven which flings sand in an old woman’s eyes. (p.28). In “Ouroboros” (p.32), the narrator is in dialogue with her on again off again lover, “Monsieur” (the creative impulse?). She addresses him while standing in the shower (water again, but as symbol of the unconscious—“Freud, maybe “Jung’s better”). This journal-style reflection and others like it triggered my only real criticism of this book. Frequent references to iconic thinkers such as Freud, Jung, Nietzsche and Derrida and footnotes in the middle of the page (p. 69): Michael Sims, “The Summer You Learned to Swim” from The Happiness of Animals—detract from the mystical, lyrical journey of “Tidal Fury”.

In places, those references subdue the storm surge. I wish that Clews’ had not anchored her musings with academic-style citations, that instead she had truly released her wonderful “wild mind” and allowed it to roam free and unexplained. “Let yourself live in something that is already rightfully yours—your own wild mind.” ― Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life

 

About the Reviewer:

Kate Rogers’ new poetry collection, Out of Place, debuted with Aeolus House (Quattro Books) in Toronto in July,2017. It launches in Hong Kong October 11th 2017, in Bali at the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators’ Conference October 22nd and at the Singapore Writers Festival November 6th. Kate was shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize in July 2017. She has poetry forthcoming in the anthologies Catherines, the Great (Oolichan), and Twin Cities Cinema (Hong Kong-Singapore). Her poems have appeared in: Juniper; Quixotica: Poems East of La Mancha; OfZoos; The Guardian; Eastlit; Asia Literary Review; Cha: an Asian Literary Journal; Morel; The Goose: a journal of Arts, Environment and Culture (Wilfred Laurier University); Kyoto Journal; ASIATIC: the Journal of the International Islamic University of Malaysia; Many Mountains Moving; Orbis International, among others. She lectures in literature and media studies at the Community College of City University in Hong Kong.

Biography in Poetry

A CanLit Sub-genre

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Lying here, I decide that now
the world can have me any way it pleases.
I will celebrate my perfect death here…

“Notes from the Dead Land”, Gwendolyn MacEwen

If you’re a graduate student looking for a research/thesis topic in Canadian literature, here’s a suggestion: the canon contains a small but intriguing set of works in which poets attempt biography of a historical person.  Unlike conventional life studies, which focus on the factual and evidence-supported aspects, poetic ones try to imagine their way inside the consciousness of the character, conveying dreams, fears and sensations. The image above shows the covers of two such works, Michael Ondaatje’s early classic, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Anansi, 1970), and much more recent, Kath MacLean’s Kat Among the Tigers (University of Alberta Press, 2011), a verbal seance with Katharine Mansfield.

MacLean’s book, in particular, reminds us that even a poetic biography must be grounded in research about not only the subject but also the cultural and historical context in which she/he lived.  Few readers would be interested in a wildly inaccurate imagining of a historical figure that purports to be connected to reality — that’s fiction, not biography.

The fact that there is a coherent group of works like this struck me as I was planning the launch for the second edition of my Mata Hari’s Lost Words (first published by Ragweed Press in 1988).  This book really stretched me, making me extend beyond my usual interests and pre-conceptions and try, among other things, to find a voice that seemed fitting for a character from 100 years ago; to shift my viewpoint from wholly masculine; and to understand what life was like for someone with a past as varied as Mata Hari’s — growing up in Holland, marrying a career military office and moving to Java; giving birth, losing a child; and then becoming a character entirely of her own invention, and one of the most notorious women ever.

What I’m considering are poetic works that try to get inside the character, writing in the first person, and not merely describing but sensing, and recreating, a possible person.The same year that Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid appeared, Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susannah Moodie  (Oxford University Press) was published, which many critics call her best and most focused poetry collection. Another influential and highly successful effort came from Gwendolyn MacEwen: The T. E. Lawrence Poems (Mosaic Press, 1982, 2001). When a reviewer of my original Mata Hari book suggested that it could reasonably be compared to MacEwen’s Lawrence poems, I was overjoyed. That’s high enough praise for one lifetime.

Poetry and Time

Poetry and Time

April 27, 2017

by John Oughton

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I’m listening to 50 years ago, and my hand holds 200 million years ago. The half-a-century-old artifact is Love’s great album Forever Changes, recorded around the time of the Summer of Love on analogue tape, transferred to vinyl, and now blasting from a disk whose tiny pits respond to the probing of an invisible laser. Two hundred million years is the approximate age of a fossil on my shelf: a hand-sized hunk of ancient horsetail, which back then grew to the size of a tree. What is now Prince Edward Island detached from a part of Africa with the same iron-reddened earth and gradually moved west, and it brought this trace of the ancient plant. That giant horsetail was alive long before humans were a probability.

The giant horsetail is considered an example of devolution—the tendency of long-surviving species to gradually downsize. Consider that birds, warm-blooded beings who lay eggs, may be the last descendants of flying dinosaurs. That wren out your window? A long-lost cousin of a pterodactyl. Maybe.

Do I have a point about poetry and time? I hope so. Humans deal with the here and now, always keeping a weather eye for chances of danger or advantage. We can change the here, travelling around the world, and for a very few, to the moon. But how do we change the when, other than journeying back through the hallways of our own memories? Was the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus right to say “You could not step twice into the same river”? If we understand time to be a relentless onward flow, yes.

This thought, I noticed earlier today, is echoed by an inscription on the Queen Street bridge over the Don River, installed as part of a renovation completed in 1996: “This river I step in is not the river I stand in”. Part of Eldon Garnet’s public art piece for the bridge, the text is accompanied by a nice irony: the clock beside it stopped working, and the face and hands were removed in 2010. Certainly we can bond with things from the past, or recreations of them in movies, but we cannot easily move back to fully experience it – although quantum physicists say this may be possible. I wrote a long poem, “Time Slip”, which explores this possibility that the past can suddenly recur in the midst of the present. This suggests more the clock without hands than that with; time is more variable than it seems to our everyday perceptions. Science, whose vision continues to extend with new technologies, tells us that our experience of existence is a point in a vast sea of space and time. The universe, as far as we can tell, is larger than we can understand. More precisely, according to relativity, the universe is finite but curved. The further we can see, with radio telescopes and equations, the further there is to see. After all, if the universe ended at a wall somewhere, what would be behind the wall? I hope not President Trump.

Time, it appears, is a little more finite. Our earth is thought to be about 4.5 billion years old, the universe somewhere around 13.8 billion. These expanses of time are impossible to wrap our heads around. Presented with the discoveries of cosmologists, many of us would rather contemplate grocery shopping, or whether Kanye and Kim will stay together. We read the words and numbers of astrophysicists describing space and time, but cannot experience them in our bodies or memories. By comparison, a human life span is a flicker in endless darkness. This can be depressing, just as contemplating the billions of galaxies (and, possibly, universes) can be depressing. We feel infinitesimal. But we do feel.

One of the values of poetry is that it allows us to navigate, at least emotionally and in images, these long expanses. It is a way to commune, through intuition and imagination, with forces much larger than we are. Other galaxies don’t notice you or me, but we can speak to them. By connecting big thoughts with the details in everyday consciousness, poetry jumps the gaps. Poetry also can leapfrog us across time, into the head and life of someone who is long dead. Because of its emotive and musical power, it is “news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound said of literature. Long after the battles and scandals of the day are relegated to the dustbins of history, a good poem is still working, opening a window into another’s feelings, perceptions, and intuitions. This is true whether we are reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer, Sappho, or Keats and Emily Dickinson. Sometimes, when I have tried to teach others the value of poetry, I ask them to do a little exercise: go silent for a couple of minutes, and try to monitor everything that fleets through their mind: physical sensations, memories, bits of music, fantasies, hopes, fears. What do they smell? What do they hear? What would they rather be doing right now? Often, what a poet does is sample some of that flow, and craft it into a text that is worth reading and reciting long after the poet has gone the way of all flesh.

That is news that stays news, a bridge, however slender, across time. We are beside Odysseus as he surveys the wine-dark sea, walking with Emily when Death kindly stops for her. Ever notice, when you’re doing a crossword puzzle, how the puzzle creator often labels bygone words and expressions like “the gloaming” as “poetic”? It suggests poets often archaic words. In fact, at the time of writing, the poet who included this term was simply reflecting a usage of his or her time. Language evolves, and words atrophy. But the power of the poem means that the language attracts us strongly enough to do a little research, or read the notes, to find out what the no-longer-current term means. When Hamlet fantasized committing suicide with a bare bodkin, it was a commonplace word for a small dagger. Now, like my long-dead horsetail, it is preserved by the energy field of poetry. Poetry is also inherently relational. It makes metaphors and similes, works with echoes, allusions, and juxtapositions. By bumping together previously unconnected parts of our experience, it creates a new whole. We are used to understanding velocity as relational… one thing moves faster than another. But we are not so used to seeing time the same way. According to relativity and quantum physics, space and time are no longer separate.

It’s nice to think that by moving downhill we might actually age a little more slowly. In Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, Carlo Rovelli tells us: “Place a watch on the floor and another on the table: the one on the floor registers less passing of time than the one on the table. Why? Because time is not universal and fixed: it is something that expands and shrinks, according to the vicinity of masses. Earth, like all masses, distorts spacetime, slowing down time in its vicinity.” Another sense in which poetry and time are intertwined is that of music. Many poetic forms have a rhyme scheme and a metrical (time-keeping) scheme. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, are written in iambic pentameter, a fancy name for five units each consisting of a weak beat followed by a strong one – an iamb. To BE or NOT to BE – that IS the QUESTion.

But wait, I hear the accountants and musicians among you saying. He cheated on that that line; there’s an extra weak stress at the end! True. A metrical scheme, like a musical rhythm, loses something if it is followed too slavishly, and Shakespeare often varied the iambs in lines. Consider the difference in music between hearing a good human drummer, who subtly shifts the beats and stresses to support the lyrics and the other players, and a drum machine, mindlessly cranking out accurate and cost-effective but lifeless booms and clicks. Most contemporary poets no longer observe fixed metre in their writing, preferring the flexibility and conversational effect of free verse. But sounds, and music, are still part of the craft. You just have to listen a little harder.

Consider these lines from the American poet Lew Welch: “My finger on the throttle and my foot upon the pedal of the clutch”. That is a very rhythmical sequence of sounds, even though it’s not in a rhyming poem. Other sound effects like alliteration, rhyme, half- or slant-rhyme, onomatopoeia, and assonance still play a major role in poetry. A poem is a text that modulates meaning, but is also a construct of sounds set in the time it takes for it to be read or spoken. Its music makes it stick in our memories too, which is why many of us can recall poems we memorized for school. I can still recite most of Jabberwocky: “Twas brillig, and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe… All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.”

That verse, incidentally, was written a century and a half ago by a mathematician and photographer. Photographers also are students of time, as they confront the paradox of choosing and manipulating an image of something that may last less than a second, but will endure long after the people in it. Despite Lewis Carroll’s wild imagination, he probably didn’t imagine that another poet in Canada would be quoting his lines to throw light on how poetry and time interweave. As Love’s main man Arthur Lee wrote in “You Set the Scene” from that album Forever Changes I mentioned so long ago at the start of this:

“This is the time and life that I am living

and I’ll face each day with a smile

for the time I’ve been given’s such a little while…”

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