Articles & Reviews

Review of five poetry books

Getting the Housework Done for the Dance
Libby Oughton
Stratford: Williams-Wallace, 1988
64 pages, $9.95

Decisive Moments
Ronnie Brown
Perth: Anthos Books, 1988
53 pages, $7.95

Quartz and Mica
Yolande Villemaire
Trans. Judith Cowan
Montreal: Guernica, 1987
51 pages, n.p.

Points of White
Edith Van Beck
Toronto: Aya Press, 1988
64 pages, $8.00

Penny Kemp
Gooderich: Moonstone Press, 1988
95 pages, n.p

Review By Stephen Morrissey
Poetry Canada CHRONICLES
Vol. 10, no. 3, fall 1989

Poetry is not a democratic art: publishing a lot of poetry books, as happens in Canada, doesn't improve the quality of the poetry being written here; it dilutes it as more and more people who aren't poets get published. It would be nice if we were all equal as poets, but we're not; many people who write poetry will never be poets. This is evident in some of the poetry books I receive to review; the authors are well-meaning people, and it's good that they're expressing their emotions, but they aren't poets. For most of them, poetry comes second after their primary interest or profession; they have evidently not read much poetry, and there is no adventure in their writing, no going beyond the limitations of their craft. Their writing just doesn't inspire us to feel life more deeply, or to question our own existence.

There is no formula for producing poets or great poetry, but what is essential in any creative act is the ability to take risks. Too many poets are not going deeply enough into the psyche from which all great poetry comes. Poetry's ability to illuminate and reveal meaning in life is being lost because so many poets have decided in favour of what is safe and doesn't require too much thinking.

Libby Oughton's Getting the Housework Done For the Dance is the most accessible of the five books reviewed below. Her work is personal and the result of a lifetime of thinking, living, and being involved in relationships with other people; the content of her poetry is her life, and we can either accept it for what it is, or close her book and forget it.

In "a university education" she writes:

one night walking back to the dorm my date said it
again i could easily prove that i loved him by
going all the way i replied cast down no i
couldn't he said you don't really mean it i did
i said dearly i... close to home he gripped my shoulder
whirled me around pushed me up against a stony
limestone wall pinned my arms behind my back tore
down my panties and def / lowered me in thirty seconds
splitting me apart forever screaming...

This brutal honesty can be found in Oughton's other poems. The date tape leads to marriage, children, and an awakening to what she has _ suffered and the high price she has paid in S terms of her inner being.

I don't like everything Oughton has written in this book, but I admire her honesty and forthright approach to writing. I am disappointed with Oughton's humour, which is scathing and sarcastic, and I am uncomfortable with some of her personal revelations that are of a sexual nature. Oughton approaches her poetry as a feminist and unfortunately, too often, the reader can anticipate where Oughton's poetry is leading before it gets there. On the whole it's a good book and deserves a wider readership than most poetry books get in Canada.

Ronnie R. Brown's Decisive Moments is an ambitious book. What Brown is attempting in some of her poetry is difficult: to communicate the most profound experience known to most people which is the experience of having and raising children. The result, however, is too often anecdotal poetry that is saccharine and superficial. There are few surprises and little magic in this poetry. For instance, "Growing Pains" ends with the following lines:

He strides over manfully,
his voice affects a grown-up boom
(more self-assured by far
than the look that's on his face).
"Aw, come on, Mom," he says, his hand
brushing at my tears, "It's alright,
really, it'll be o.k.
I gotta do this growing up,
but I swear I'll never grow away."

For any parent this would be a moving and endearing experience, but in poetry it just doesn't work. It is the poetic equivalent of contemporary paintings of a sunset and a log cabin with smoke coming from its chimney.

It would be unfair to Brown to dismiss her poetry at this point. She writes on other subjects, memories of her mother who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, her childhood, friends, visiting the dentist, and so on. Most of these poems don't need more than one reading, the fate of all poets who don't take risks in their work.

Yolande Villemaire's Quartz and Mica, translated by Judith Cowan, is an intriguing volume of prose-poetry that quickly casts its spell on the reader. The poems are a blend of surrealistic images, New Age interests, and science fiction, all combined to explore and describe the author's months lived in New York City.

The book moves through Villemaire's relationship with the "metropolis," from being a tourist, attending a Fte Nationale party at the office of the Quebec government in New York City, details of her romantic involvement with an Israeli also living in New York, to descriptions of paintings

Throughout the book Villemaire is the innocent who sees New York unencumbered with the values and ambitions that might colour a native New Yorker's perceptions of their own city. She writes:

The air is heavy with meaning
the city unfolds me in its humid breath
and odours of frying rise from the street
along with scraps of conversation laughter the sound of car horns

Villemaire's book, as with all of Guernica Editions books, is visually attractive; Tony D'Alfonso brings a European style to Canadian book publishing that is unique and distinctive. This English translation of Villemaire's book might help English speaking readers better appreciate French Canadian writing.

Edith Van Beek's Points of White is very simply written; she uses few similes resulting, in some poems, in an extreme economy of words. Van Beek has some interesting things to say but she resists going too deeply into them. The result is a book that suggests a greater depth than is actually achieved. Her most successful poems are those in the first section of the book. These poems give insight into the poet's consciousness. She writes:

I make of space a home
so lost in this skin
I may never find myself.

The second section, "The Group of Seven," is less successful. These poems are mainly descriptive but they aren't original or insightful. While the Group of Seven, along with Tom Thomson, and Emily Carr, helped define our vision of the Canadian landscape, Van Beek's poems in this section really add nothing new to either our perception of Canada or these Canadian painters.

In Throo Penn(y) Kemp presents the best of her poetry written since 1972; the book shows her involvement in performance poetry as well as straight linear poetry. Each of the nine sections that comprise Throo is dedicated to a different goddess; each section contains poetry from different periods of Kemp's life.

Kemp's interest in mythology gives the work a feeling of being detached from "real life," subsequently her work may be too "abstract" for some readers. Other readers may find in her work a greater depth and sophistication not found in more narrative or anecdotal poetry.

Kemp's poetry sounds, at times, as though it were translated from Old English or some other ancient language; reading her poetry is to slip from the confines of our present age and time. The poems from "Toad Tales" are a good example of this:

How would a Toad dare marry a Crane?
she has found her bodily form)

Had she lived in the upper air and did she play
ball at the edge of a well? This much
she recalls: sitting on the cool stone rim
of the well, looking down at the dappled water
and daring to wonder.

Throo is an ambitious book. Kemp might, however, have chosen to separate her performance poems from the more obviously linear work. I suspect that those who have heard Kemp in performance will be most able to fully appreciate her performance poems. In addition, Kemp's poetry is curiously unemotional. In her preoccupation with ritual, mythology, and performance the reader is left emotionally unmoved. Too often the reader isn't invited to go beneath the surface layer of words to a deeper, more satisfying poetic experience. This is a serious failing in an otherwise interesting book.

Copyright © 2007 The author