Telephone: 604 444-4889
Outside Vancouver: 1 888 445-4176
Fax: 604 444-4119
Ted Byrne reviews Sharon Thesen’s News & Smoke (Talonbooks) and A Pair of Scissors (Anansi)
A continuity of practice, by ear, by dictation. Following what follows (“Dying, drying”) and what does not follow (“gala of milky breasts pouring a funnel of stars and / rain on my ornamental plums”). News & Smoke. Such a deliberate beginning, “Being Lost, As Usual.” Omitting the first few poems of that terrific book Artemis Hates Romance, the remix reaches after a larger book, a book of the whole. What is lost here, at the outset? It’s the map. “Listen, I’ve never been lost / in the geography, / only in the map . . . .” The map is not the territory (Spicer, Korzybski). The individual poems, taken as one-night stands, operate geographically, unlost in the quotidian of home, television, street, gathering, airports, rare sojourns in the country, in other cities, Prince George (the past, dystopic, possible), Montreal (feminist theory, utopic, impossible), Flint Michigan (the future, an analog), but lost, always after something missing – not gone missing but really missing ─ not just the map, the shape of the book, but the gap. As if to point us away from this perception, “Mean Drunk Poem” is omitted from News & Smoke, from the beginning, from the skeletal Artemis Hates Romance.
So what are the boundaries of this book? Although in the intro she remembers being “(heavily weighted with Jack Spicer influences . . .) ,” the book is not generally her unit of composition. But are all her books collections then? Her “latest collection” being A Pair of Scissors: Poems? Not exactly. At the very least, there are books ─ serial poems ─ within these collections. “Radio New France Radio,” although it’s integrity doesn’t survive the recompilation. “Long Distance: An Octave.” “Gala Roses.” “A Pair of Scissors.” If News & Smoke, her second “selected,” attempts to recompose the whole as a book, then the book becomes the unit of recomposition.
This book “feels like memory and prophecy,” she says in the intro. We should take this seriously, because it reflects the shape of the whole enterprise, her “city of poetry.” News and smoke, memory and prophecy, the “awful” and the “hopeful.” News, memory, is the awful, the managed world, development, traffic, “the various Stalinisms that pass for ‘thinking’ and ‘caring’” (here she displays that bitter crankiness about the present that characterized the guys at The Vancouver Review). Prophecy, hope, is found in the “odd graces of beauty, in whatever form, that makes things real again, [that] are enacted in the language of the poems.” This is the kind of framing that allows the poems to be misunderstood, as palliative, even curative, as poetry (“Poetry: I couldn’t care less” ─ “The Watermelon”). This governing misperception can only be escaped in the larger form of the book, as unit of recomposition, and in the incompossibility of the smaller units – in other words in seriality, a pulsion toward an impossible structure, made out of the unknown, the procedure, the “enactment,” the event. That’s why this writing is difficult, remains difficult. If it were not hard to grasp, if you really could say, “Yes, that’s it, that’s how it is, that’s what I feel too,” then the whole thing would fail, would fall completely back into ideology, “official verse culture.”
These poems should not make anyone happy. Her city of poetry is a “really stupid city.” You don’t want to live there, in a present, without history, only nostalgia and
memory (news), without reason, only prophecy (smoke).
She has the feeling,
all her life, that she never makes sense. There is something
else, big & dark, at the edge of what she knows, she cannot
say. She always has the feeling she is translating into
Broken english. Language all her life is a second language,
the first is mute & exists . . .
The Gap is real & there is no such thing as
female intelligence. We’re dumber than hell.
(“Mean Drunk Poem”)
It’s not her relationship to the domestic that’s repugnant, as someone said in conversation. It’s the framing of that relationship, the framing of the book. Look at A Pair of Scissors. Look at Erin Mouré’s back cover poet’s blurb ─ a beautiful example of the genre (a type of aphorism common to books of poetry and certain ads in Paris Vogue).
[Thesen’s] poetry draws an electrical connection between the landscape of the head and the fissured places of everyday. It inhabits space and provides, for a few moments, a glimmer of the seams of what we call ‘what is.’
This isn’t bad. A muffled positivity. It seems to work by regress, alienation. Not only is there a gap between thought (or feeling) and the quotidian, but the everyday itself is fissured. Poetry provides a “glimmer,” not quite a reflection, not of the world, but of the seams, not of ‘what is’ but of “what we call ‘what is.’” Are the seams those of the fissured everyday itself, or of the disconnect between the everyday and the head? And are the seams holding or coming apart?
The second blurb, more journalistic, moves these thoughts toward their most likely, or rather, likeable (saleable) conclusion. “Much of Thesen’s writing concerns the struggle . . . to make a poem that reflects the world, neither collapsing under nor retreating from its chaos.” The world is a scary place (awful, just read/watch the news all the time, as we do), poetry can help us endure (hope springs eternal, just look around, with eyes wide open).
Inside the front cover, the publisher’s blurb takes these carefully constructed observations to their fully domesticated conclusion. The poems “capture elusive, overlooked moments,” “form an incisive [!] and witty portrait collage of our daily lives” ─ “a pair of scissors ─ a double-edged sword [!] where workaday events hold transcendent magic . . . .”
The “selected,” News & Smoke, ends with “Gala Roses,” a virtuoso piece that also concluded Aurora. “Gala Roses” is a display, a summa: a book. All the modes, condensed and heightened. Those perfect lines, often first in place, lifted out of song (“If it’s not flowing I’ll not tell” “Red head of rose partitions the vase lip” “Hammering fixes looseness plunging the wayward turd” “Accorded the morning its habit and rhythm, rain clouds”), their graceful periods (“a secret fig purple orb a mouth the size fills” “Illumination marches thoughtless around in shorts”), enjambments and caesuras (“. . . covered saintlike / in arrows walking to work not screaming” “you big whatevers / going in and out like breathing” “virtue’s adventure high above nodding”); those imperfect lines, anti-lyrical and rude (“. . . unhelpful attachments of the vacuum cleaner hose uncoiling / the one with the headlamp that roars & grabs at the rug”) . The almost total lack of punctuation, pulling out the stops and giving way to ambiguities of syntax (“. . . I’ll take / too then taking took mine so entwined twinned arms and” “love’s refrain ornamented elizabethan garden / wall where stars are bright imagination hides her purple / violets such sweet sorrow striates the mind like bar codes / dragged over a dark star a price appearing . . .”). Delicate rhymes and clumsy puns, endless paronomasia. Eloquence and anomy. A rapid oscillation between the static perfections of the moment, delivered by lying appearance and perception, and the intrusions of helplessness, confrontations with the real. An eroticism of objects and conditions. Hard to know what’s prescribed, wit or wits. Sometimes its like reading Archy and Mehitabel or Dorothy Parker. Mostly, though, here, the pleasure is in the text and the “funny grammar of love,” not in observation, or mordancy, but in loosening, even if we do have to endure the structures of personality. And in the writing, always the terror of missing something, always the gap (“a gap thinking fills overflows” “. . . gap-toothed / concealed smile”), of joy beyond belief, beyond the ordinary (“I sing me he wants me”) and horror (“axes have fallen upon fair bent heads still speaking”), not the minor frisson of recognition, identification (identity), of the clever, the apt, the durable thought, but something here that reads us into the ineffable of making or finding, of dictation, which is an event, shared, immanent.
The long poem “A Pair of Scissors” is a different kind of experiment altogether. Here narration becomes an element of prosody, inside, structuring and yet as unobtrusive, or underdetermined, as the formal elements of “Gala Roses” – the near-lyric becoming near-narrative, or perhaps near-pastoral. The “story” goes something like this: the day was spent in desultory, not very vigorous preparations for the party (there were no servants / it was pot luck); the before and after of the party, the minor encounters, the walk, the intrusive but welcome memories, occasion various moments of intuition about all that surrounds it, one’s condition and that of one’s culture (history). That is, the plot of Mrs. Dalloway, except that here the time of the narrative is disturbed, distorted. The party, which takes place at the end of the novel and is not quite completed, never actually occurs at all, just its anticipation and its memory (smoke and news). The plot doesn’t map onto the poem, but the poem keeps reminding you of it, remarking on it. There are echoes of Sally Seton, but no Mr. Dalloway. And the distance between Mrs. Dalloway and Mr. Walsh (the old boyfriend) is diminished. We’re in the country, at Bourton, not in the city. Mrs. Dalloway has a kind of independence that she doesn’t have in the novel. Mr. Walsh’s penknife, although present metaphorically (as the past, as eroticism), morphs into a pair of scissors that he uses to cut her hair. But there is no story, only the struggle to find one, because it’s so implied. And there is no conscious critique working against the surface of the piece. The “real” Mrs. Dalloway draws attention to ideology because her near recognition of it is her malaise – or she is a cipher that we read through. Thesen, however, inhabits the uninterrogated voice of Mrs. Dalloway, whose ethic is announced unambiguously at the outset.
To be bold in my own way,
to pour myself into something
I can stand & would stand all day
as long as the uniform were some
Yohji Yamamoto thing that didn’t cost too much
and the city gave me something back.
I don’t think this is ironic. Because who wouldn’t want this, precisely? Then she jump cuts to “gypsies” (“Latcho Drom”), slides momentarily into disorientation (“What am I doing here”), creating a transit that then weaves us back and forth through little pleasures, little pains, dreams, gods and shadows, timelessness (“too early for red wine too late for coffee . . . ”), and the ghosts of high born or high minded ladies (Jackie Kennedy, Frances Boldereff), to our final destination, “Everyone had a wonderful time.” But the surficiality is operative, and there are frightening holes, as in Wonderland. Frances Boldereff, for example, inhabits a little moment of time, a swinging door, a mood, a life.
Frances Boldereff also makes an appearance in “Gala Roses,” a little earlier in “The Hat,” and later in “An Old Snake.” She is a figure that haunts the later work. She inhabits an age, old age, and exemplifies a persistence of the bold attitude toward the quotidian articulated in the lines quoted above. But if “A Pair of Scissors” sends you on excursions, you’ll discover a powerful exemplar of that mid-century pre-second-wave-feminism of strong women defining themselves entirely within a male universe of discourse – like a bolder Mrs. Dalloway. Even a purely textual encounter with Frances Boldereff will leave you completely amazed. The Olson-Boldereff correspondence (Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: a Modern Correspondence, edited by Thesen and Ralph Maud) is an epistolary novel on a par with Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Boldereff, a single mother and a proud, meticulous craftsperson (book designer), seduces Charles Olson by mail and then goes on to instantiate him, at least in her mind (and perhaps his), as the Great Man, the American equivalent of her Christ, her Michelangelo, her Rimbaud, her Lawrence. Thesen’s “Mrs. Dalloway” is on the other side of this, but not quite extricated from it, and weary of the struggle, unafraid, terrified.
Then (she had felt it only this morning) there was the terror; the overwhelming incapacity, one’s parents giving it into one’s hands, this life, to be lived to the end, to be walked with serenely; there was in the depths of her heart an awful fear.
– Mrs. Dalloway