ANTIPHONIES: ESSAYS ON WOMEN'S EXPERIMENTAL POETRIES IN CANADA, Ed. Nate Dorward
(The Gig, Ontario, 2008)
The subtitle of this book supplies a can of worms to open. Quickly shifting our metaphor, inside the can one finds a Venn diagram. One must first understand the diagram’s three circles ranged within a larger one called Poetry before inspecting where the circles intersect. In other words, what is women’s poetry? Experimental poetry? Canadian poetry? To answer those questions requires a serious look at the boundaries of each Venn circle. Can of worms, as I said.
But not without interest. Each of those circles stands—to the degree that circles stand—as subset of Poetry. Definitions of Poetry are fluid enough, but then to define these subsets as well: it’s a large, cramping job.
I guess there would be no can of worms except for the existence of an almost explicit fourth circle, Scholarly Critique. Scholarly Critique skews the diagram’s balance. It draws each circle into Academia’s private discussion gravity where clique becomes claque.
I do not want to refer to Academia as a class. Such a simplification offers no help. I mean here that Academic concerns prevail a little too much for us ordinary citizens. Gentle Reader simply may not be so focused. The three initial circles that I presented interest me (as a reader and writer), but less so as refracted thru the Academic prism. Perhaps citing some chapter and verse might help.
The first essay, by Edward Byrne, looks at the career of Susan Clark, and of the Kootenay School of Writing. Clark represents perhaps the central figure in this book, for her writing and for her editorship of Raddle Moon. I will admit my ignorance of her work, but that’s why a reader would come to a book like this.
Byrne’s essay teased my ignorance because it assumed that I know more than I do about the subject. Which makes the Canada of the subtitle more a boundary than some sort of cultural conviction (which is how I take the necessity of specifying Canada in the title). A word of caution here, Byrne uses terms like Pongean and Levinasian. Names becoming keywords like that suggest to me a lazy shorthand that harbours exclusion. Just saying that I’m wary of such usage.
Anyway, referring to a work by Susan Clark, Byrne performs this act of momentum:
[Clark’s] encyclopedia is at once a dream—on the cusp of modernity—of containment, of an interwoven, bound whole, a totality, which reaches its apex in Hegel, and an utter impossibility, the fulfillment of which would embrace infinity. This is what the “structure” of Clark’s work tells us. These are “apparatuses of impossibility”.
Makes you want to take a deep breath just to read that. No good reason exists for cramming so much into sentences, even if the sentences parse. The Hegel reference just dangles there, free of further explication. I’m ready to read Clark’s work, but I won’t be taking Byrne’s path to it.
A selection from Clark’s Bad Infinity follows, helpfully providing some grounding for ignorant me. Along with poetry, the book includes interviews, a talk, an exchange, and epistolary collaborations. To give you some idea of the area of survey. I’m fine with that.
Peter O’Leary’s essay on Lissa Wolsak dares a religious reading of her work. It is a close reading, and valuable therefore. Sentences like the following seem so lifeless, however, as to belie that valuable intent:
The iconic beyondsense [Lissa Wolsak’s] poetry emerges from is perhaps best thought of as made up of quantum particles, surrounded by the qualia of perceptions that makes a nimbus around the actual.
Oh, I don’t know. The word quantum nowadays lacks rigour, as does relying on neologism for weight-bearing import. I picture professors muttering in dusty classrooms. You are just not helping, Peter.
Briefly, some of the other offerings:
• Edward Byrne’s survey of Raddle Moon’s run of issues gives a useful and of course partial sense of the Canadian scene in the 80s and 90s.
• Collaborations between Erin Mouré and Caroline Bergvall and between Mouré and Chris Daniel both show an odd impedence of self-consciousness. I mean flowery, personal statements that seem to overwhelm the collaborative intent. Both pieces were almost smarmy.
• a rawlings offers a sort of diary of collaborative performances in which she participated. She calls it “tracking an obsession”, and it shows the resolved clarity of such focus.
• Tom Beckett interviews Lissa Wolsak and Stephen Cain interviews Karen Mac Cormack, both interviews showing clear thinking.
• Peter Larkin does a study of Lisa Robertson’s work, including the fabulously titled Debbie: An Epic.
And plenty other pieces worth reading. Editor Dorward sensibly admits that this or any anthology cannot be said to cover the ground adequately. He writes that he toyed with adding further qualifications in the subtitle but that that became unwieldy. You bet! As it is, the subtitle marks some points on the map, rather than boils down the mass to some sensible concentration.
I think the anthology makes good and valuable reading, but not for satisfying its subtitled aims. It is no survey, and does not really address the Venn circles with proper expanse. It shows enough landmarks to invite people to go explore. The academic bent is forbidding sometimes, however. Enthusiasm seems bound by MLA citation. Let’s let the bird out of its cage.
The provenance of these pieces remains unclear. Presumably some if not all were published in the journal version of The Gig. Dorward mentions rejecting one piece, so maybe he put out a call, as well.
I glean from this book—perhaps I err—two substantial poetry capitals in Canada, Toronto and Vancouver, tho I gather Dorward himself hails from Halifax. I infer tension between these capitals but that’s a guess. Such Canadian issues are left to allusion if noted at all. The book pretty much misses the question of how Canadian poetry distinguishes itself as Canadian, different from the poetry from other English-speaking lands. Similarly, the idea of women’s poetry really bows to the specifics of individual writers. Both questions could easily turn into muggins, especially if dealt with from the cloisters, but the intent bannered on the cover drives expectations of fulfillment.
I would recommend this book as a taste of what’s out there, but don’t file it under Women’s Poetry, Canadian Poetry, or Experimental Poetry. Antiphonies is not definitive, which is perhaps just as well.
Allen Bramhall is the author of DAYS POEM (Meritage Press), among other things...