The two latest offerings from McGill-Queen’s University Press’s Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series are both formalist musings about love.
Bruce Whiteman is a full-time author, rare book specialist, and book reviewer (including for Q&Q). His latest collection, Tablature, distinguishes itself through its use of traditional lined form. The poems are musical and expansive, promising the best of what poetry offers: new ways of expressing old emotions, impeccable attention to detail, a fine ear for language, and elegant simplicity. Whiteman engages subject and readers with the phenomenology of existence – specifically, with landscape, music, and love. In “The Rock That Looks Like a Bear,” for instance, the poet writes, “The water encroaches on it, / sculpting the form from a // blank stone slate: a nacreous / animal with a kerchief behind its ear.” Arresting moments arrive frequently via imagery, then follow with insight.
The book offers much of what Jan Zwicky refers to as the gestalt connection – that between poem and reader. These connections are imperative to ensuring that poetry is not self-indulgent. Whiteman carefully constructs observances and allows space for the reader to enter the poem. Not only to enter into an experience, but to do so by way of impeccable detail and masterful craftsmanship. Whiteman is aware that the very nature of art is to elicit a reaction, and more importantly to have that reaction be expansive rather than diminishing.
Tablature’s attention to syntax, diction, and rhythm are writ by the hand of an artist; even the mundane pulses with vigour. “Their colour brightens even as they daggle / and sag towards the greening grass. / Two cats, listlessly staring out a / grubby window, barely give the pinks a / glance.” These moments are elegant, yet it is also clear that the world cares not a bit about death or something as meaningless as existence. “Outside the trance of every day’s magic spell –
/ the insect sting of knowing death’s / around the corner – there’s nothing / tragic in a bird’s grey wing, / not even in its certain disappearance.” There were several moments of halting appreciation as I moved through the book; certainly, it will be one I return to for its depth of expression and feeling, as well as its allowance for the reader as perceptive partner.
Sarah Tolmie’s Trio contains 120 sonnets that comprise a narrative about a love triangle. The choices are, no doubt, a function of the poet’s day job as a professor: she quotes and dances with the Romance poets, and pays a high degree of attention to self-expression. She combines that with the current fashion in Canadian poetry: mingling traditional forms with contemporary issues. Tolmie creates a series of interwoven portraits in circumstantial tension: “Man, woman, man, the two of you – and me.”
Trio is an old story retold. Yet the tragedy doesn’t elevate to anything resembling Shakespearian proportions. The stakes aren’t high enough for either narrator or reader to fully engage. And at times the diction is questionable. For example, Tolmie’s flirtation with bathos is downright dangerous in this particular passage: “If I am cruel to you, this is the venue. / Not to your face. I can’t. You’re such a tender beast. / It would be like stepping on a hamster: / I’d be forever haunted by the squeak.”
The best of Trio comes through its attentiveness to tradition, argument, observation, and question as methods of proclamation and portrayal: “We’re standing at the bar and I’m buying / you a drink; you are rubbing my back. Anyone standing behind us will think, / you are my man, so sure your hand.” Here is the woman with her desires and foibles on display for all. Tolmie is conscious of the energy arc of her narrative; a sense of movement exists from start to finish. The book obtains its objective – to talk about a love triangle in the context of a lyric narrative.
Yet, the whole thing feels insular. The issue is mainly one of expansiveness: I wanted the book to exist as much for the reader as the author, but I felt as though I were peering into someone’s personal writing about a private feeling that was never really meant for external eyes or perceptions. Good poetry – such as that on display in Tablature – maintains a gap, or a space to let the reader in. But I, the reader, was always the outsider among Tolmie’s trio.