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Airstream Land Yacht

by Ken Babstock

Ken Babstock’s third collection might disappoint those hoping for another clutch of tough-luck chronicles along the lines of Mean and its follow-up, Days into Flatspin. While those first two books seemed rooted in the same soil, Airstream Land Yacht hovers a little above the ground, often eschewing concrete narrative in favour of a more impressionistic aesthetic. The result is a book as much about thinking as doing, process as product, and sound as sense – a book that challenges elitist distinctions between traditionalism and the avant-garde.

Babstock’s ear remains finely attuned. Always adept at capturing speech cadences, in these new poems he plumbs as much from the jumpy rhythms of thought, and what gets sacrificed in accessibility is more than made up for in surprise. Unafraid of abstraction, Babstock blends the concrete and the conceptual in almost equal measure, and his sense of joy in language and ideas calls to mind both Wallace Stevens and Paul Muldoon at their most playful and elusive.

In “Materialist,” the speaker rips the rug out from under us after 50 lines of inspired meandering: “I was warming to the show, when/the puppeteer removed his hands, stepped out/and clapped along. Then he left, and it went on.” Such an ending is typical of this eclectic collection, as again and again Babstock puppets us off in unexpected directions. The eight-line ditty “The Lie Concerning the Work” might be a toss-off in another book, but followed by “The Brave” – a bizarre condemnation of who-knows-what (“It wasn’t quite right. Lacked focus./Might have tickled the kids, the simple/or those others on that other coast,/but not us.”) – and the extended riff on Sartrean angst, “The Minds of Higher Animals,” it fits very nicely.

Critics with more rigid notions of craft may deem Airstream Land Yacht uneven, wishing Babstock had stuck more to the densely assonant yarns that established his reputation. But this seeming unevenness – and the illuminating juxtapositions it produces – is the book’s greatest strength. Babstock’s courageous lack of complacency in deviating so drastically from his excellent past work confirms him as one of the country’s finest poets.