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The Eleventh Hour: Poems for the New Millennium

by Kildare Dobbs

Counting Out the Millennium: Poems by John Oughton

by John Oughton

One of the recurring themes for public discussion in the latter years of the 1990s has been the end of the century, made particularly significant because it harbingers the end of one millennium and the beginning of another. To some, most especially to those given to apocalyptic randiness, it suggests a portentous and momentous change. To others, it amounts to little more than something resembling the rolling over of an automobile odometer. The midnight hour of Dec. 31, 1999 certainly figures large enough in the minds of certain poets to have resulted in books which take their titles, if not the concern of their content, from that singular event.

Two such poets are Canadians Kildare Dobbs and John Oughton in their respective books, The Eleventh Hour: Poems for the New Millennium, and Counting Out the Millennium. Beyond the acknowledgement of the similarities in their titles, these books have little in common. Dobbs plays the wise old bard, coming to conclusions, and Oughton is the mid-life lyricist speculating as he does in his “notes on the poems” as to whether the written-on-paper word is likely to survive the year 2000. It seems quite appropriate then that Dobbs reach into the past for his stylistic inspiration while Oughton experiments on superficially braver ground with the likes of his three phonetic translations of Rimbaud, “Rimbaud Deliberately Mistranslated I, II and III.”

It is fascinating to read these two poets and see how they deal with the millennium in poems that rise out of the concerns of vastly different sensibilities.

In his preface, Dobbs forewarns the reader that the verses in his volume are “hendecasyllables – an English version of the measure Catullus used.” And it is refreshing to read a book of poems that pays homage to the long traditions of poetry, even if the results are uneven. At his best in such poems as “Coole,” a tribute to Yeats, “Jeffrey’s place, 2,” and in the marvellous poem, “Memorial,” he achieves the resonant combination of style, form, and content as near perfect complements. At his least impressive he becomes merely rhetorical, awkwardly colloquial, quaint, quirky, silly, and accidentally bad. I fail to understand why he includes embarrassing doggerel such as, “Come hendecasyllables and do your stuff.”

Perhaps nowhere does the contrast between the good and the bad verse become more clear than where the pages kiss on “Jeffrey’s place” and “Jeffrey’s place, 2.” The former is so dense and self-consciously rhetorical so as to render it bathetic; the latter is simple, pure, clear, and charged with genuine sentiment.

Dobbs proves himself capable of the true ironic complexity of the poet/prophet who looks to the past, lives in the present, and imagines the future. This is nowhere more evident than in the poem “Massacre of the innocents,” wherein he compares Herod’s infanticide to the governments of today and their sanction of abortion. He is indirect and subtle. His judgments are implicit, his observations ironic. And he completes the poem with this wise line, even down to the artful absence of a question mark: “What other remedy is there but laughter.”

By contrast, John Oughton’s book is only incidentally related to its title. The content and concern of the poems occur only as accidental corollaries of the millennium. There is little future speculation in this clever, playful, imaginative, wonderful book. And there’s not one disappointing poem in the collection. Oughton’s intelligence shines throughout. He achieves the greatest impact with the fewest words, as in lines like, “that jog in plowing became part of the dance.” There is plenty of laugh-out-loud humour to lighten an otherwise dark load. In “Edville” he triples the pun with “bi-bi-binary code,” or speaks of the moon with “the dark side sold to insomniacs.” He achieves incredible sadness when he acknowledges that the sole remains of the Challenger explosion is “one scorched glove on a beach.” He sustains a darkly amusing metaphor throughout “I’m In Love With My Hoover.” And, unlike Dobbs, whose strengths and failures arise out of his chosen measure, Oughton’s variety of rhythms gives the book great and sustaining strength.