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Monthly Archives: March 2014

I was at a poetry reading in Toronto the other night. There was some suspicious looking sushi.

Complimentary Food at a Poetry Reading

“I’m uncomfortable with anonymous
sushi,” I said. “It’s like uncondomed sex,”
he agreed, “with strangers. Might be good,
but you’re never sure if it’s worth the risk.”

The poets all read their lines in a row.

“And I’m suspicious of anonymous
poetry,” I said, but he was too stoned
to hear. “I don’t just want a signature.
I want to know the hands that fashioned it.”

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I don’t often like war poems. Though most of them are probably good therapy, and some of them are undoubtedly good propaganda, too few of them are actually good poetry. Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, however, is something more than mere therapy or propaganda, and in its finer moments it achieves a poetry of real strength and complexity.

Powers’ poems are characterized by disjunction, sometimes between a lived present and a remembered past, sometimes between the body’s experience and the mind’s perception, sometimes between the physicality of an object and its apparent meaning, but almost always a disjunction between the concrete and the abstract, creating the sense, as he says himself in the first poem of the collection, that

the world has been replaced
by our ideas of the world.

It is in this way that Powers is able to take up even the cliches of war — the soldier enduring mortar fire, the veteran suffering from tremors, the men in black suits delivering bad news to waiting mothers — and make them meaningful again. He dissociates them from themselves, makes them strangers to themselves, so that they can be new for us once more.

There are times when this approach feels too detached and intellectual, as if Powers is unable to enter into the events and emotions that he is describing. When the technique is effective, however, he is able to represent the experience of war as infiltrating everything that follows after it, dissociating and unhinging the world, replacing events with ideas that no longer seem proper to themselves.

The effect is often quite powerful, and the whole comes together to embody the lines that stand out for me as the theme of the collection:

What one
must always answer for
is not what has been done, but
for what remains
as residue.

The fire had almost burned itself out, and the forest sounds were emerging where there had been song and talk through most of the night. Only Sully remained. He laid his head back in his deck chair and closed his eyes, the last beer of the night still half full in his hand.

Jill came almost half way down the hill behind him before she was betrayed by the forest litter. He turned to her, and she stopped, her arms folded across her chest against the night cool.

“Sorry,” she said. “I thought you’d all gone to bed.”

“I’m on my way,” he said, raising his beer, “in three sips and a swallow.” He took the first of those sips. “What are you doing out so late?”

She scrambled down the last steepness of the path and sat in the chair opposite him, pulling her legs up under the skirt of her dress for warmth. “I like it down here at night.”

There was a long quiet filled with nothing much but the night breeze in the canopy and the gurgle of small waves under the dock. Sully added a couple of logs to the fire. “You could come down earlier, you know. Have a beer. Talk to other human beings.”

She shrugged. “I’d rather not.”

“You used to hang out with us when we were kids. Me and Todd and Rowland, and what was their little sister’s name?”

“Janice.”

“Yeah, Janice. We’d sneak sips from the adults’ drinks, then play tag in the bush or go night swimming.”

“I remember.” Jill half stood, pulling her chair closer to the fire, then sat again.

“Do you remember when Janice wanted to play spin the bottle in the boathouse? I was the only guy there who wasn’t her brother, so she had to kiss me every time.”

“And Todd and Rowland had to kiss me.”

“Yeah. But we kept playing anyway. A pretty long time.”

There was quiet again.

“Did I ever get to kiss you?” he asked. “I don’t remember.”

“No,” she said. “You didn’t.”

“Funny. We must have spun that thing like five times each.”

She shivered, looked out across the lake, almost still. “I’m going to bed,” she said, and she stood, began climbing the path to her cottage.

“Me too,” he replied, though too quietly for her to hear him.” He kicked the fire apart, unzipped his fly, began pissing on the coals.

How Loveta Got Her Baby is a collection of short fiction from Guelph author Nicholas Ruddock. The book contains stories of a traditional length interspersed by very short pieces, often less than a page, usually lyric, something like prose poems. All of the stories, long or short, are loosely connected through common setting and characters, and though none of them depend on the others to be understood, they interrelate in ways that deepen each in relation to the whole.

This interrelation creates a strong sense of unity in the collection, which is one of its beauties. The stories belong to each other in the way that the stories of any small town belong to each other, one reminding the hearer of another, coming together to produce the unique mythology of a mutually remembered time and place.

This unity does slip on occasion, particularly in two of the stories, “the house-painters” and “rick-shaw”, which consist largely of dialogue between two characters who remain unnamed but who are recognizable from other pieces in the collection. These stories feel stylistically out of place in the book, and the dialogue does not quite ring true to what we know of the characters.

Another piece, “rigor mortis”, feels similarly out of phase with the book as a whole. The story is not tied as closely into the others through plot or character, and it has a farcical quality in parts, especially the brief section told from the perspective of a cougar, that sits poorly in relation to the other stories.

Most of the pieces, however, inform each other in compelling ways, especially through their characters, which Ruddock portrays with a tenderness and simplicity that makes them immediately sympathetic. As their names recur throughout the collection, we begin to recognize them, not as friends, because we rarely get that close to them, but as people from back home perhaps, and Ruddock becomes the old friend, met by accident, telling tales of the people we both once knew.

The shorter pieces (particularly “the alchemists”, which is a really beautiful bit of writing) add a lyrical tone to the storytelling, and they also recognize structurally that the memory of a place is formed not only through the stories that we make about it, but also through the briefest moments that we experience of it, the moments too short and unformed to make a story, but still somehow integral to the whole.

The stories, both long and short together, seem to invite readers to treat them as their own memories, partially forgotten for many years but now returned to them: an intimate and disarming literary pleasure.

This is a poem from a larger project I am working on called These, My Streets, a series of poems about the streets of my neighbourhood. I recently submitted this one to a poetry group for feedback, so I might as well post it here for more general feedback as well. It’s about Dublin Street, which is where I live, a street that runs up behind Church of Our Lady, the building that characterizes Guelph’s skyline.

Dublin

I see you creeping up the hill
behind Our Sacred Lady’s church,
where you peer through her skirt of trees,
like a child beneath a table
to spy the colour of her panties,
not white, I’d wager, not cotton
or high-waisted or matronly,
not after two millennia
of perpetual virginity,
more likely something scandalous,
that says, in no uncertain terms,
I wouldn’t mind a bit of fun
before the rapture takes us.