By Brian T. W. Way
Trade Paperback: 108 pages
Publication Date: Oct 1, 2015
Suggested Retail (Paperback): $19.95
This is a book of poems. Canadian poems. Like the country, they are large. And diverse, varied as the landscape, the weather—here, February flowers bloom; there, an afternoon cup of tea against the sound of early summer sleet on the windows, songs and stories bringing the kitchen to laughter; elsewhere, muskeg and animal bones (we think) in the spring, fierce, foreboding, the bitter wind and hard-driven snow, a relentless sou-easter in late Autumn. And those breathless lights to the north. A book of poems, Canadian poems.
Turn each page—elegy, ode, found, haiku, concrete, prose, monologue and more—the forms themselves turn in your hands. Variety, redirection is all (as the title promises) … in style, theme, tone, topic, voice. Language too—agile, tough, unflinching, plastic. Language, and space. And time. Like the country, large and old, small and young. Deferential. Bilingual. An apology with both tongues in its big sky cheek. Space and time—the high plains of Abraham and the low roads of the County, Agamemnon and bin Laden and Borden and Battles of the Somme, the invincibility of glaciers, and the death of butterflies. Here modernist poetics are fused with postmodern sensibilities—audacious and absurd, intimate and blunt, simple and complex, confessional images surprise, and yet, somehow, remind you of the universal found in those grand panoptic poems you read in anthologies long ago. Each of Canada’s Prime Ministers emerges as the stuff of a sonnet, an ancient prophet of the Middle East gives voice to a new vision, the ephemeral white moth reminds us of the existential human need to keep trying and, reminiscent of wistful war poems of the past, a teenaged Canadian soldier long dead in World War I reaches up to us through the mud of France and hangs on as if life itself “depends on the dance.”
Way’s poems contain a great deal of humour—examples include a begrudging ode “of sorts” to Al Purdy who has poetically besieged the County in which Way himself grew up and the self-deprecating “asshole poem” about an intellectualized obsession with tea. Satire and irony also abound as in a meditation on his neighbours’ curious driveway decorations and a whimsical recollection of a doomed childhood trip to see Queen Elizabeth, hours of waiting climaxed when a black limo suddenly careens past the anticipating crowd outside the airport gates. Reflections on art and writing, on the imagination and the poet in contemporary times, are frequent touchstones for Way. Recall the ironic precept of marianne moore who declared that poetry, when read with a degree of contempt, offers a place where one can discover the genuine—that is an apt signpost here. Classically, redirection interrogates poetry and art, along with the perpetrators of such acts, as objects of contemporary curiosity, unwanted felons from the midway of a county fair—“verge,” “alls right with the world,” “a prayer for my students” and the imagist epic “pieces of a butterfly” being the most extended of these. Here, for Way, in the pinball gyration of one image to another, one form to another, the poetic imagination always endures, always offers a deeper, more reliable source of understanding, of salvation, than any social or intellectual perception ever can. Here is the place to discover the genuine. A redirection from I to eye. The facebook of the soul.
The poems, then, a neverending encounter of the poetic imagination with all aspects of the world as seen from a Canadian perspective—big and small, significant and trivial, personal and public, sad and funny, comic and tragic. Genuine. But ineluctable in transformation. In the end, whatever glimpse of the human condition one achieves, in wonder or contempt, turn the page; the attempt is ceaseless: “the butterfly flaps silently/out of the nightime/into the psyches shade/as much myth as human/trying.”
The variety of poetry in the first half of this collection leads to the solidarity of the second, another redirection in itself. Here a new form of sonnet is unleashed. This is the Canadian sonnet, mirroring that essential component of the Canadian psyche to be deferential, hesitant at taking sides, at making final decisions. From Sir John A. to Mr. Harper, each sonnet offers an oscillating perspective on the life and time of one of our Prime Ministers and each delivers, with wit and charm, some reflection on matters both topical and universal. The individual Prime Ministers appear, one after the other, visionaries all on their own paths driven by their own angels and demons—alcoholic, racist, messianic, megalomaniacal, sexual predator and all the rest, the portraits are lit by the lightning of Way’s adept language and fired by the quiet volatility the country’s history itself. And like the deferential nature of the Canadian spirit on which the form of these sonnets is set, resolution is teased but rarely attained. This is Canada, after all.
In the end, a galvanic collection of innovative poetry—a very good collection of poetry—unique, its aim grand and complex, minuscule and simplistic, its language sharp as a Canadian season. Matters personal and national, styles changeable, eclectic as lightning—eclectric, perhaps, like that marvellous heal-all elixir Dr. Thomas once sold across the country—different and diverse and Canadian as … well, as we Canadians.