Robert Finley, Patrick Friesen, Aislinn Hunter, Anne Simpson, and Jan Zwicky. A Ragged Pen: Essays on Poetry and Memory. Gaspereau Press, 2006
Adam Dickinson. Kingdom, Phylum. Brick Books, 2006
Susan Sontag’s claim that “all writing is a species of remembering” is the point of departure for A Ragged Pen, a curious book about the relations between poetry and memory. I mean “curious” in both ways. A Ragged Pen is an unusual book. Its hundred pages include five short essays (one each by Robert Finley, Patrick Friesen, Aislinn Hunter, Anne Simpson, and Jan Zwicky), a selection of poems (by Friesen, Hunter, Simpson, and, in translation, Pablo Neruda and Par Lagerkvist), and an elegiac account of historical photographs of Halifax. It is short enough to be read easily in a single sitting and it has the quality of a series of sketches or notes. Finley explains in his introduction that the book has its origins in a writers’ conference panel, where these essays were first read, and it retains some sense of these beginnings: the book is more provocative than conclusive, relying on juxtaposition and surprising resonance for its effect rather than on logical progression. As a result, it seems slight, a collection of too many beginnings and not enough endings. But A Ragged Pen is also curious in the other sense: it evinces a palpable desire to discover what poetry can know.
The five contributors variously suggest ways of describing poetry’s obligation to remember and the character of its remembrance. Finley’s essay, “readingwritinglistening,” describes the “complex and compelling” relation of photographs to time. Finley writes that photographs “elegize and vitalize simultaneously” and that they “mark, by their presence, an absence, a loss which cannot be recovered.” The lyric and the essay, he then contends, function similarly to “stop time” and to hold “something up to the light.” The poet’s responsibility, he concludes, is “to find a way of speaking which is also and essentially a way of listening.” Friesen lets the paradox stand; similar tensions hover over the rest of the book. In “Memory River,” for instance, Friesen writes about imperfect memory and the presence of loss in life. “As I grow older, I value the physical world more,” he observes, noting that “So much of the writing, the poems, that occupied me when I was a young man in love with ideas lose their resonance.” This essay, more personal than the others, is engaging, but I was left wishing that Friesen had considered in greater detail why his values so changed. He might have written, too, about the different but complementary roles that “things” and “ideas” play in poetry. In “The Truth Goes On Solving Nothing – A Conceit,” Hunter discusses the “cognitive reality” of poetry, using a section of Seamus Heaney’s “Lightenings” to illustrate her contention that poetic images can become “real in memory” even though they do not exist outside language in the physical world. And in “Orpheus Recalling Eurydice,” Simpson explicates the myth to which her title alludes as a way of introducing three of her own poems, variations on the same theme; she draws on Paul Celan and Anna Akhmatova to contextualize her assertion that Orpheus “tries to assuage torment through art.” Art, Simpson writes, “opens things up” and metaphor, in particular, creates openings by yoking things “together in weirdly plausible combinations.” Although Hunter and Simpson advance sympathetic claims for the emotional and philosophical importance of poetry, they do not go far beyond familiar conceptions of metaphor, notably I.A. Richards’s explanation in The Philosophy of Rhetoric of the ground and tension of metaphors. However, they do offer some insight into the poets’ understandings of how poems function.
The last essay in the collection, Zwicky’s “Lyric, Narrative, Memory,” is the most unusual, surprising, and interesting. It consists of thirty-six linked propositions about the character of “lyric,” which she distinguishes from “narrative.” Like Finley, Zwicky suggests that lyric is fundamentally a selfless mode that attends to the world: “From lyric’s perspective, the self does not exist – what exists are moments of emptied, utterly open attention and address.” As with her other statements about lyric – most importantly in Lyric Philosophy (1992) and Wisdom and Metaphor (2003) – her spare phrasing conceals the complexity of her ideas. Her writing is at once easy reading and slow going; each of her brief propositions leaves the reader to mull over the truth it contains and the implications thereof. Lyric and narrative, Zwicky contends, are fundamentally different: “Lyric attempts to listen – to remember – without constructing, without imposing a logical or temporal order on experience. This, it says. This. And this. And this.” But Zwicky understands that lyric and narrative are both important: “the point of the story, after all, is to comfort us, to help us make sense of what we think we were, or imagine we have become.” The two modes, distinct as they may be, co-exist in the world of literature and of memory: each remembers differently. But one of lyric’s most important functions, Zwicky suggests, is to afford the chance to remember grace – “a moment when the scales fall from our eyes, ears, every sense, and we know the world as a resonant whole.”
A Ragged Pen is perhaps most rewarding if it is thought of as a companion to two collections of essays edited by Tim Lilburn, Poetry and Knowing: Speculative Essays and Interviews (1995) and Thinking and Singing: Poetry and the Practice of Philosophy (2002); Zwicky is a contributor to both volumes, which cover terrain similar to that travelled by A Ragged Pen. Together these books form an intriguing conversation among Canadian poets about poetics and philosophy.
Kingdom, Phylum, Adam Dickinson’s second collection of poems, is principally concerned with various species of order. As its title suggests, the book’s principal theme is the attempt to find order in the world (or to impose order on it). Dickinson’s poems know that the natural world can be classified in many ways. Living things are grouped and identified by kingdom, phylum, order, family, genus, and species; geological science describes the prehistoric past as a sequence of ages, including the Precambrian, Cambrian, Palaeozoic, Carboniferous, and Upper Pleistocene (all titles of poems in the book); weather maps show what can be predicted of phenomena that we can’t do anything about but dress appropriately. The poems know that some systems of ordering have become historical curiosities, ripe for metaphorical plundering: the four humours, the Great Chain of Being, the seven (or eight) deadly sins. And they know, too, that the world can evade categorization, that lives, as “Contributions to Geometry: The Snake” has it, unwind “in scrawled arcs … like the coiled spring of a clock.”
Kingdom, Phylum is a fascinating book that contains many fine poems. The sources listed in the notes to the poems provide some indication of the ideas with which Dickinson is concerned: Stephen Jay Gould, Emmanuel Levinas, Michel Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. But Dickinson’s voice is distinctively his own; he has a good sense of humour that prevents the poems from being weighted down by their influences. There are sections of poems that are reminiscent of poems by Zwicky, whose Wisdom and Metaphor provides the epigraph to the first of Kingdom, Phylum’s three sections, but on the whole the poems sound like themselves. The tone and style are consistent throughout the book, which is very much a book, not just a gathering of poems. For example, Dickinson makes frequent use of the simply stated proposition that requires considerable puzzling out. Rifling through Kingdom, Phylum turns up a number of metaphors in which the equation of one thing with another is explicit:
“Sadness is a cold frost in the lungs” (“Density”)
“Ecstasy is a thermal vent” (“Density”)
“climbing is syllogism,” while “Downhill is memory” (“Philosophy Is Going Uphill”)
“Listening is crystallography” (“Cryo”)
“Density is that moment / when touch wears clothes in the lakes” (“Precambrian”)
“To live is to stick to things” (“Father Demetrius’s Bees”)
“Breathlessness is a trap / sprung in the throat” (“Vespers”)
“Night is suffocation / by the planet’s / weight and width” (“Eclipse”)
“The mouth is the symbol for a corner” (“Great Chain of Being”)
Because they are so obviously literally untrue, these metaphors test the reader’s willingness to follow the poet’s line of thought. “I have not been able to say what machinery erects a staircase on a contradiction,” William Empson wrote in Some Versions of Pastoral, “but then the only essential for the poet is to give the reader a chance to build an interesting one.” Dickinson does just that, giving his readers ample opportunity to construct meaning out of the poetic material.
The best poems in the book, I think, are those that are most densely structured, chockablock with images, as in “Upper Pleistocene”:
In the beginning, heaven was divided from earth,
night from day, sea from dry land.
I watch dark birds fly south
like collapsed roofs, like wide-open mouths.
I watch them leave like the city of split streets,
the poplar branches leaning away from each other.
Maybe in the beginning He saw that it was good,
but it wasn’t.
You are born, limbs grow away from you,
All the king’s horses, all the king’s men.
The Upper Pleistocene, 1.6 million years ago, saw the appearance of the earliest humans. In the poem, Dickinson fuses one explanation of the origin of things – the biblical story of creation – with the vocabulary of evolution. But he contrasts these accounts of change with an affirmation of the human desire for security:
It’s not flight you want,
but to come home,
lie down, be together.
The poem’s belief in the importance of human company and community reflects the premise of the opening lines of the book’s first poem, “Density”: “All things desire / to be as close as possible. / So planets form as spheres. / So the lost walk in circles.” Passages like these make Kingdom, Phylum an especially appealing collection. It is a rewarding book that I recommend highly.