Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

"Meeting the tormentors in Safeway" by Alexandra Oliver (Biblioasis, 2013)

Sonnet (Shakes)3
Sonnet (other)6
terza rima1
blank verse1
The back cover describes her as "Canada's new formalist sensation". So what's the trendy formalist wearing this season? The table on the right gives an idea of her range, though there's more variation than this table indicates - for example, "The Ghosts of the Space Dogs" has 11-syllabled lines with the beat pattern "X.X..X.X.X."; "Voted Best Place to Live" has lines like "The bend of the lake is deceptively perfect" - ".X..X..X..X."

Though in interviews she points out - with justification - that her poems don't have many of the features traditionally associated with forms, there's still a sense of the poems not knowing when to stop, and of a wider vocabulary than the voice entails. In the title poem, for example (online in The Toronto Quarterly) there's a none-too-original list of acts of school bullying ("they pulled your chair from underneath you" - 'underneath' is used rather than 'under' only because of the rhythm), then at the end an encounter with at least one of the bullies in a shop - "It's been so long! They say. Amen". Is there really a sonnet's worth of content here? For me, the title, a line or two about school bullying, then the final line would have done the job just as well. Several of the poems leave me with the same impression - "Final request" for example (about the clothes someone wants to be buried in) has insufficiently interesting detail to justify extending the template to sonnet length. And is the following worth a quarter of a poem?

They're gentrifying Sherbet Lake.
They've built a Centre on the slopes
near waters which stretch out for miles
and weakly beat the promenade.
Despite the modern glass facade
and cheery bleached ceramic tiles,
despite the mayor's greatest hopes,
perhaps the effort was half-baked.

The flow's not compromised by the metre and rhyme-scheme. Indeed it's almost too accomplished, almost "prose-cut-up", the sin that free-formers allegedly commit. I'm currently reading "How to talk to a widower", a novel by Jonathan Tropper. Chapter 21 begins by introducing the town - "Long after the coming ice age has buried this civilisation, when archaeologists dig up downtown New Radford, the first thing their shovels will hit is the giant fiberglass Starbucks coffee cup suspended over the strip mall on Broadway like a Thanksgiving Day parade balloon. ... they might deduce that Starbucks was our temple, and coffee our God, And, much like God, I don't believe in coffee". Of course, it's only prose from the book I happen to be reading, and isn't 25% of a work, but I don't think it unfair to contrast it with the stanza above. "The hand of Scheveningen" also feels like an interesting premise not fully exploited.

Generally there's little padding to fill the lines, and no inversion. However, forms are like aeroplane rides - once you start, you have to fill in the time until you reach your intended destination. You can't just stop at an interesting cafe that you happen to pass. "Template for a conversation with a single friend" seems no more than a template. "Curriculum Vitae" has 4 10-lined stanzas -

  • Stanza 1 lists bad things the narrator did as a kid in 1975 ("yelled 'poo' in church") though "If dragged upon the stand,/ I'd pledge myself to do it all again".
  • Stanza 2 lists bad things in 1986 ("peeled my own split ends", etc) and ends "If I could be remade,/ I'd hit the switch that said, in red, REPEAT".
  • In stanza 3 it's 1998, the pattern repeated - "drank all night and jumped the subway stile" but "asked if I would overwrite my file, I'd walk away with cotton in my ears".
  • Finally in stanza 4, she wonders whether it's time to "scale down the height of all my shoes,/ lash my weary person to the mast ... I wonder if respectable means right;/ I'm waiting to be rescued by my doubt"

The 4 8-lined stanzas of "The promise we made to the earthquake" begin "I'm going to turn my back on death", "I'm going to turn the world back by a day", "I'm turning over fifty-two new leaves", "I swear to you that, when the ground stops shaking,/ I'll put this day behind me like a dream.". It feels like a pint is being put in a quart mug.

There are harder poems too, some quite dense that might be beyond me. For other reasons I'm not sure that I get "Test cape". The narrator asks someone to go shopping for them wearing nothing but a cape that's bound to be blown about. At the end of the 20-line poem - "If you are not arrested as a freak,/ I'll know you are no ordinary man". There's verbal wit in that final phrase - if you're not a freak, you're special. It's a dare, a test of love, but again, do the details sufficiently flesh out the plot? And are the final 2 lines too tricksy? Suppose he's arrested, but not because he's a freak? Was the choice of the word "freak" rhyme-driven?

I like to think I'm neutral in the free/formalist debate, but I think this book brings out the worst in me. I suppose a text that self-defines itself as poetry raises more expectations in me than prose does, and Formalist poetry moreso. These poems show a mastery of form, several have elegant turns of phrase, many address issues (being a young mother, being amongst drunk fans on a train, etc) that merit attention, but the forms and arguments reach their expected conclusions drawing on unsurprising data. I've read several books by Lorrie Moore. In Oliver's book I miss the kind of aha/haha detail that Tropper's and Moore's prose has. I like "The ghosts of the space dogs", and much of "Modern camera".

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