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Poetry Auspices (Literally, Looking At Birds)

Like a flock of birds, a poem is often anti-narrative, obscuring its sense of beginning, middle or end, reflecting its own internal momentum and evolving emergent contours and forms. A poem seeks simultaneous order and disorder in its structures and aesthetic mix, filtering through its diction and syntax both the simple and complex, seeing both what belongs as well as that which appears not to belong.

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The Snare of Poetry (A Trap for Catching Birds or Animals)

Poetry can be thought of as a snare for thinking. Offering neither clear answers nor resolutions, its puzzle/riddle-like quality has the form or force of a question where the answer is contained within the question. It doesn’t provide directions, but rather presents predicaments the reader must alone encounter and interpret.

What a poem does is find itself from the inside out; its centres of thought draw together its periphery, giving birth to the force of reciprocal influences. The complex of words and syntax of a poem rearranges fixed ways of understanding what is happening by actively undermining and then re-building relationship and presence, time and perspective. You can’t understand or think about just one thing for long; your mind must wander endlessly in search of a way out.

Something Out of Nothing

One of the great joys of poetry is that much of the time it is made up of nothing at all. Like physics or good conversation, that which is most elegant, intelligent and entertaining in a poem depends as much on what is missing as what is actually there. The ambiguity of empty space defines what must occupy that space, while the silences embracing our words create questions and teach us the luxury and balance of knowing little while assuming much more.

Inside a poem, the illusion of space is created in the arrangement of the words. That syntactical arrangement is as important as the words, always bringing us either closer or further away from the satisfaction or disappointment of understanding.

Poetry emerges as a kind of practical optical illusion. Its words are laced with unintended interpretations, and, as a result, produce unintended consequences and directions for the poem as a whole.

At its heart, any poem is a reflection of the inherent structures and disruptive patterns of language, as well as the emergent nature and exploratory processes of thought itself.

The persuasive structural process of thinking in poetry involves variously, and in no particular order: proposal, description, contention, illumination, projection – with “projection” being defined not in terms of a simple conclusion, solution or resolution, but rather a complex emergence into a philosophic place beyond the poem’s limits, a departure as well as suspension invoking meditation, intuition, or belief. All parts of this process function as intricate, intimate and multifaceted sequences of sometimes unintended but integrated linkages.

Thinking like this, poetry is a conversation or explanation that gives a lot for a little, sometimes from nothing at all.

Review of “Sharawadji” by Brian Henderson (Brick Books 2011)

Brian Henderson and I have been friends since the 1960s, so in a way I have both a unique advantage as well as disadvantage when it comes to his poetry. But I have to say that with each of his ten books of poetry, he has always surprised me in ways I couldn’t have imagined or anticipated. From Paracelcus to The Alphamiricon, from The Expanding Room to Year Zero to The Viridical Book of the Silent Planet, he has consistently searched out new boundaries, combining an uncommon sense of innovation and invention with a surgeon’s or anatomist’s love of language.

In Henderson’s last book, Nerve Language, which also was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, he writes:

It occurs to me that I myself / am the writing-down-system / that wants to capture everything. . . the endless / limitation of words I am writing / on the other side of writing. (“The Writing-Down-System”)

His writing reaches out for what happens after writing, after reading . . . to an other-world, or the other side of writing to discover what he describes as “the landscape below landscape, the breath below the breath, time beneath time”.

It would appear that the word sharawadji is a corruption of the Japanese, filtered through Dutch, probably misheard by the C17 visitors to the Japanese gardens at Kyoto. It is both a word and a simulacrum of itself, a representation of representation whose parts are at once haphazard, irregular, disordered, and asymmetrical in structure, but also graceful and agreeable, revealing new forms of life beyond the disorder.

With Sharawadji the book, we arrive in a kind of perfect array of divergence, a series of conversations, narratives, word-paintings and memories that bridge the gaps between past and future. The visual and aural relationship between the parts and the whole is ingeniously uncovered as the presentation of one medium trying to realize itself through another.

There’s no doubt that “Twelve Imaginary Landscapes” and “Previews”, the opening and closing sections of the book, are at once the most difficult and intellectually the most rewarding; like the book’s title, they are not for the faint of heart. Their compact, dense format, as well as the word-stacking through these short narratives push at the boundaries of landscape and time. They are inspired by paintings that quickly become the skins we dive beneath, finding layers of cell and history, memory and DNA.

Those sometimes complicated, exotic words he plants like huge linguistic boulders in the middle of phrases are impossible to quickly walk around, verbally or intellectually, and nicely push against the “flow” of the poems.

The section “Night Music” comes as something of a relief to the reader. The poems have a kind of exquisite longing from which it’s hard to separate oneself, an intimacy of feeling compared to the sharp scalpel of “Landscapes”. The water and garden imagery, the flying birds and clouds sing throughout, but more than anything we can feel the presence of his mother, Ruth, helping even in death shake off the sense of anger/loss/pain and replacing it with a calmness and serenity. These are the known unknowns that we capture only momentarily, and always seem to be in the middle of.

Sharawadji is a brilliant achievement, tirelessly inventive, and a pleasure to read.

What You Won’t Read in The Globe and Mail #3

True value in government can only be created at the interface between those who serve and those to whom they serve. Given the increased size of the recently appointed Harper cabinet, as well as Mr. Harper’s well established habit of driving all decisions through the PMO, it’s unlikely Canadian will see much improvement or recognition of their needs.

The values needed most in the coming years are those more closely associated with a digital, web-and-cloud-based world in which we find openness, flexibility, collaboration, innovation, and ease of group or individual communication. The opportunity for meaningful change seems to have slipped by the Conservative this time around. Change has changed, but our governments seem not to have noticed at all.

Getting people more involved in our democracy certainly would be a good beginning toward improving both representation as well as the value we receive from government itself. This would requires (1) increasing the number of people participating by giving them a reason to vote, and (2) better access to party/policy information. Mandatory voting only punishes the “unwilling”; it addresses the symptoms rather than the cause. For most, the symptoms come down to apathy based on “my vote is meaningless in my riding where one of the other parties always wins,” or a lack of interest based on the notion “it doesn’t affect my life.”

A more positive mandatory approach would be to: (1) change the voting structure for those willing to vote to a benchmark 50+1% majority which would include a mandatory first and second choice at the local riding level; and (2) offer an attractive tax incentive to everyone who votes. This approach could result in a greater volume of incentive-based voter participation as well as a broader base of voter (near) satisfaction since a greater number of people will have either their first or second choices recognized. This wouldn’t play well with the “one party or none” crowd, but for them it really is only about the power of imposing an ideological will . . . rather than about what could truly represents the country and can add true value to the decisions our governments take.

What You Won’t Read in The Globe and Mail #2

What it a surprise it must be to Canadian voters to suddenly learn the much promised budget surplus won’t arrive after all (see The Globe and Mail: “Tories back off pledge to show surplus by 2014-15”). The reality is a surplus won’t arrive for at least ten years. Mr. Flaherty hasn’t got a budget or economic forecast right since his billion-dollar deficit days in the Ontario legislature or since his most recent pre-recession predictions when he was six months late even noticing the economy was heading south, and then repeatedly got wrong the size of the coming defit as well. I guess all those slick Harper-Land promises to Canadians of income splitting due when a surplus finally appears will just have to wait, though we all should notice the corporations will get their tax cut on time, as promised.

Let’s realistically review a Conservative economic stewardship that:

1) After inheriting a huge Liberal surplus, the Harper Conservatives almost immediately created a deficit prior to the recent recession by awarding a large corporate tax cut as well as cutting the GST (a populist policy driven by ideology rather than sound economics).

2) For the first eight months of the recession the Harper Conservatives repeatedly denied Canada was in a recession, insisting there was no recession, no deficit and that the budget would balance.

3) Suddenly realizing there was, indeed, a recession, Jim Flaherty tried unsuccessful on multiple occasions to accurately estimate the coming deficit, arriving finally after months of incorrect guesses at a final figure of $56 billion.

4) The $56 billion deficit figure is twice what it should have been given the loss of the Liberal surplus, the GST reductions, and the corporate tax cuts.

5) The $56 billion is the largest deficit in Canadian history, second only to a previous record deficit established by the Mulroney Conservatives.

6) The Conservative economic action plan for the $56 Billion wasted much of it disproportionately on Tory riding projects.

In spite of the deficit, the Harper Conservative regime continues to spend:

Further adding to the deficit by having to borrow another $1 billion to fund photo ops, a fake lake and an over-the-top, often illegal and repressive police presence at the G8/G20.

Adding yet more to the deficit by borrowing another $8-10 billion for prisons we don’t need.

Topping up that deficit by another $30 Billion ($16 billion by the voodo math of the Conservatives) for single engine, F35 jets.

Rewarding corporate Canada once again by giving them an additional $6 billion in unfunded corporate tax cuts.

With that kind of economic leadership, the country hasn’t a chance of recovery.

What You Won’t Read in The Globe and Mail #1

With the election of a majority Conservative government, Canadians have opted for what must have seemed to many of them to be the promise of political and economic stability. Much of this will turn out to be an illusion. We are challenged to ask what the next several years are likely to bring as Harper extends his command and control approach to governing this country. To begin, the deficit will take at least a decade or more to be eliminated, as opposed to the four years being put forward. Harper also will appoint four of the nine members of a progressively more conservative Supreme Court. All the opposition parties will be ignored since a majority gives Harper a completely free hand to do as he pleases. The politics of fear and loathing has won the day in this country, and its masters will continue to attack the reputations of those who show the strength of their convictions. People who otherwise might have disagreed with the Conservatives are now even less likely to speak out. Intimidation and public humiliation are now understood to be the reward for those to dare to speak the truth. This parliament will no longer have to worry about what people think as right-wing ideology and manufactured census data will routinely become the measure for funding. None of this is new to the Conservative party which for the past several years has systematically undermined many of our democratic freedoms, or has attacked or vilified those brave enough to oppose them. One day, perhaps a year or two from now, Canadians will wake up and recognize just how repressive their government has become, just how much it has hidden from sight or the things it has done in secret. Our democracy has entered a very dark period in its history, one likely to be affected for a generation or more.

The Selection of Truth: Where Everything is Possible

Keith Maillard and I recently were discussing the process of editing and somehow we arrived at a point in the conversation where we talked about the notion of truth, and just how much is too much or two little to say. In the middle of that tributary he said, “If the truth I told in a manuscript included “everything”, you wouldn’t want to read it”. I quite liked that statement, and later we exchanged the following emails.

I began by saying, “It says something about the notion of too much truth being too much to absorb, bear, or to be of interest. Maybe we instinctively know ‘everything’ is no longer the truth, or rather is a truth that has no meaning or relevance in our lives. In a sense a truth that has become ‘everything’ is no longer the kind of truth we’re looking for or that satisfies us. It seems the whole truth isn’t whole at all, but is made up of a selection of parts from the whole where together their sum has become greater than the whole. The truth we humans are interested in is always the one that has been focussed and interpreted, which brings me to the act of selecting/editing from ‘everything’.

“I don’t think the notion of making selections (the absolute tyranny of choice) makes something less true; what it does change is the perspective we have of the truth. Selection doesn’t diminish truth, but gives it a stronger face and focus. It doesn’t take us further from the truth, but closer. Think of it like the sculptor’s block of granite that gradually is chiselled into the truth of its particular being. In this sense, the silence of saying/writing nothing is an extreme at the opposite end of ‘everything’, both of which convey nothing of themselves, or of truth, being too little or too much of a truth we struggle so hard to apprehend.”

In response, Keith wrote, “If I told you ‘everything’, you wouldn’t want to read that story because it would be thousands of pages long and you would be drowned in the details of mundane life. In order to tell you something you might want to read, I have to select a smaller amount of what to tell you. Each time I make a selection, it becomes more readable and less true–although it’s still all ‘the truth’. By the time I have it boiled down to something that resembles a publishable book, it’s far far from the original ‘truth’ – even though it is all still true. I don’t see any way to avoid this. It just seem to be a simple fact of the writing process.

“The selection is exactly that–a selection. The selection process has to try for a kind of truth too, but all the untold stories hang around afterward, like ghostly presences in the background, saying, ‘Hey, buddy, don’t forget us. We’re just as true as the stuff you told’. Making the selection is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. That shorter pattern has to make its own truth, and it has to feel true enough that you’re willing to live with it. We do this all the time whether we write it down or not. We all continually narrate the stories of our own lives. The truth is the pattern that we make on any given day just to stay alive.”

Edward Carson & Keith Maillard