literary magazine review

Vol. 21, No. 3
Fall 2002

Philip Miller

The magazine from Montreal I’m reviewing is called Vallum: Contemporary Poetry, which is exactly what it is, a poetry magazine of the present with poetry written in English (one translated from the French) by Canadians as well as British, Irish, and American Poets.

The poems - along with critical theory and ideas discussed in a thoughtful essay by Todd Swift, an interview with poet Stephanie Bolster, and a few reviews - represent and discuss the work of our time, of the beginning of a new century, but not particularly of a new poetic landscape. These poems, almost indescribably various, require a familiarity with organic form and compressed language, with what Marianne Moore meant by the "genuine." What Vallum does not represent is postmodernist clichés: stale imitations of turn of the 19th century-old experiments, which, like automatic writing, often make no sense, or, like puzzles, are fun to solve - once or maybe twice. Nor do Vallum poems take archaeological expeditions into the formalism of the past, rescuing worn styles of poets like Houseman or Millay.

The poems do have a diversity of tones, styles, and subjects. They offer dramatic focus and development - not discursive wanderlust. Their fresh and lively language derives from words chosen to fit the poem’s needs, not the requirements of fashion, subtext, or agenda. And because the words that make the poems cannot be separated from their subjects, the poems choose subjects as various as their styles, always free to employ or more often to mix free verse and formal prosodies.

Vallum’s poems range from the minimal to the six-page satiric "King Vitale." Virgil Suarez, a poet omnipresent in literary journals, provides three poems, including the peeled-to-the-bone "Cuban Angst," the title serving as the first line:

Embodied
in the insistence
of a single gnat

to remind us
that all exile
is permanent....

Suarez turns the poem with expected, but keen brevity:

like this itching
of skin
the old anger

of no return.

In contrast, Saurez’s other two poems are in that favorite convention of late century poems, the unrhymed couplet, making use of enjambment and more or less regular iambic pentameter:

Who remembers the pregnant mother who, sleepless
one night, peered at the crimson moon? She violated

the moon’s own edict: do not look directly at me....
[from "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon"]

Bob Elmendorf uses Icarus as his narrator - in a sonnet variation - and has him fly, not "in myth" or to "the sun’s squint," but over the whole 20th century ("the world’s worse"), over "the lamp shades and almost fecund / boxcars switched to a siding and undone." In Shawna Lemay’s "Detail of Hendrick Avercamp’s A Winter’s Scene with Skaters Near a Castle," a reader can hear the finely turned bit of timing in a poem about the difficulty of arriving at aesthetic meaning:

Still I have small hope of arriving, disappearing
I have similar hopes for the monkey trying for a
            Petrarchan sonnet
or a Cole Porter song
they can’t take that away from me.

Experimental poems allude to postmodern conventions, or in the words of Bryan Sentes’ review of George Slobodzian’s Clinical Studies in the issue, they "toy with the intentional obfuscations of our latter-day avant-gardistes." Eleni Zisimatos Auerbach’s three-page "Cutting Through" first turns metaphysical: "it could be worse, we could / believe that we live starless, in / a void. / we could believe that we are / the only ones, waiting and never found." Then in part V, Auerbach shifts to the playful and lets the poem reduce itself to three lines of multiple m’s, i’s, n’s, and so on to spell the word "minute" while allowing the repetition of the letters to mimic nights sounds anticipating the next two lines: "time is night / we, nightless." Paul Hardcore’s "the beetling rocks" is a collage of images beginning with an allusion to Homer - "the end-days with their black ships / & splinters of fatted goats & sun’s cattle in a trench." The poem continues to pour forth images, defying the poem’s gravity, ending with "bougainvillea & rose quartz & her hands to touch" without ever stopping the poem’s continuity in a parody of the contemporary poet’s lust to list and catalogue. I might add that the photo/collages by Tingis, "Four Images for Re:use" (including the cover) complement this poem and other work in the magazine.

Poems in Vallum nudge more often than they startle the reader who may be only accustomed to poems sometimes called mainstream. Kevin Higgin’s "December," at a glance, looks like a quite ordinary fifteen line poem in three even stanzas. The first line seems predictable: "Something ending" - the year’s over, the cold’s down, etc., etc. But Higgins pulls the rug out from under us:

Something ending.
And not, as expected with a string quartet,
but a ceremony desperate
as a Spam sandwich trapped
In an old man’s mouth.

Norm Sibum’s six page "King Vitale" creates a kind of pop music method while telling the story of the narrator’s life, in an anti-heroic narrative mostly in non-sequiturs: "To him I retorted, spat non-sequiturs: / ‘Empire, sir, dereliction. Flat-chested girls in candy-striped leggings. / Apollinaires. Rockstars.’" Decoding the sometimes censorious computer and e-mail codes Rick Taylor uses in his rather grisly "robot’s: view source" about men as robots (or is it robots as men?) takes a little work, but it rewards and satisfies: "the man went rigid over cheerleaders / none of whom iso-8859-1"> him off, let him in their ‘GENERATOR’ / despite the pixel perfect.gif."

What rewards and satisfies the most about the poems in Vallum is their use of language. I don’t know how often I’ve read a journal containing poems of the same style that might have been written by the same poet. This is not true of Vallum where language is witty, startling, sardonic, obscene, often (and I can’t believe I’m using this word) - lovely. Listen to these lines from Nicole Brossard (and in translation from the French!):

because of the body the present
every day
landscapes at that place in my eyes
where women and other women touch
memory and pleasure

because of hands
of the time that runs through our hair
["The Present Is Not a Book"]

or to "What Was Said on the River" by Lorne Power: "Twisters whistle sharp tones back up and full / throttle, disappear like tiny portals in waiting," or to Patience Wheatley’s "Deer April," which, by using the right words, transforms the trite, romantic subject, to something new

Four deer
scruffy like old fleece slippers
the male’s antlers
tangling the tallest dwarf cedar
snuffle the conifers on our mound.

Notice the careful Audubon detail, particularizing the subject beyond the sentimentality; then as the poem’s turn begins, the narrator runs "for the camera":

When the flash
rips the dawn garden
they jump into focus
and stare right back at me
with wet brown eyes

Thus the poem denies the Western passion to possess the natural and beautiful, to connect with it directly. The narrator’s camera has no film. The "colour print record for me, / only the memory...." Along with "Deer April," Vallum includes a poem called "Cunt" by Joanne Merriam. This title, like "Deer April," sounds like a cliche (one can only imagine how many poems with this title read at how many slams, included in how many zines). Yet Merriam uses language to shift the reader’s attention from the title to the surprising and ironic, yes, to something lovely, letting the poem deliver a fresh shock: "A word for the sound plants must make at the moment they break the soil. See / how your fingers curl tight as fiddleheads and your whole body smells / green. The glaze from breaking."

Merriam’s long lines are typical of other poems in the issue with their often six (and sometimes seven and eight) stress meters, lines that can convey not only imagery, but dramatic movement, and ironic emphasis simultaneously as in Matt Santatersa’s "Frank Sinatra, Drunk, Turns His Gunsights on a Dolphin Off Corsica" or Su Croll’s "Arrow of Flesh" or Eamon Grennan’s "Still Life with Tennis Rackets, Postcard, Egret," the long title (and lines that follow) parodying the painter Chardin’s elaborate titles: "The light of late afternoon this minute is traveling / Through the postcard by Chardin pinned at the window-corner, giving a momentary / umber glow to a dish of plums, a bottle, two cucumbers, a glass half full of water: / the plums / Are a smoky navy blue...."

In his moving "Logic Language," Grennan’s long lines carefully divulge the secret logic of a daughter’s language and how (at the poem’s end): "She’ll send back bulletins - those coded mysteries that may find me, and find me out."

Both Vallum’s interview, "Looking Inwards: An Interview with Stephanie Bolster" by Joshua Auerbach and Todd Swift’s essay, "The Place of the Poet in the 21st Century," mention a "UK based editor," Michael Schmidt, whose anthology, The Harvill Book of Twentieth-century Poetry in English, "did not publish one single Canadian poet." Obviously Schmidt (who also called "Canadian poetry a short street") had not read Vallum or could not read it. The magazine, with its many Canadian poets and its selections by Canadians, is a very long street indeed.

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