By Lori Cayer

I recently culled my massive collection of poetry books. I mean no offense to all the famous and not-so-famous poets whose books are now back out in the world for others to enjoy, but I had to make hard choices. I keep them in the little slanted sun-room/office, at the back of our old house. It may have been an optical illusion of the cant of the ceiling but it seemed they were threatening to topple the house.

Hundreds of poetry books have passed through my house and hands in the last number of years—I sought them out as donations for fundraisers, I’ve been sent review copies and juror copies, and freebies from a variety of sources. I’ve donated back boxes of them to other people’s fundraisers and foisted other boxes full on friends. And still the haystack of them on my floor seemed make nary a dent in the bookshelf.

I like to think I am making an effort to lighten my load of possessions in all areas in my life. I let things go daily and weekly. I ruthlessly relieve myself of the burden of attachment. But flip the coin and I am also a natural born western consumer. I buy new things daily and weekly with which I form an instant bond in stores. I bring home books I may never read. I buy things that when I get home I find I already have something similar. That’s a slight exaggeration, but I really do have a lot of white bowls. But books of poetry are a special vice and I wanted to make room for a fresh start with still warm-off-the-press 2012 releases.

After reading a few in earnest and dipping into each of the score of them, I decided to focus on the three Griffin nominees. Now that we know who has won I guess it’s OK to say I really thought Killdeer would take it because of the whole Golden Globes/Oscars  phenomenon (Killdeer has already won the GG). I thought Methodist Hatchet might not win, not because it is unworthy, but because of the other flavours it’s up against. If Forge is a latte and Killdeer is a rye and coke that would  make Methodist Hatchet a certain kind of  Kool-Aid, with tequila, poured into a hollowed out watermelon and let to sit till the weekend.

I love Forge as a meditation and guide and desert island kind of book, the way I like Mary Oliver. It has all the things I need from poetry in the morning with my coffee. It is precise and clean and breathtaking in its pendulum swings from depth to surface and back. She thinks deeply about simply being and tells me to notice it too, and find some peace there.

ceaselessly: there is
one art: wind
in the open spaces
grieving, laughing
with us, saying

A book very worthy of the prize in general and at this point in Zwicky’s career.

A certain poet I know will be most pleased that Methodist Hatchet has won. He likes his poetry arcane and stitched loosely from multiple sources. I don’t dislike difficult or clever poetry but I confess that I just couldn’t read the whole thing. Every word in the back copy is accurate: exhilarating, original, bewilderment, bracing, fearless, trajectories, strangeness. It is full of names of philosophers, poets, writers, singers and in general made me feel like I just haven’t read enough. But it is epic work without a doubt, heroic and huge; a kind of work that Phil Hall in his book might call Blurt poetry, for example the opening line of the title poem:

I read it somewhere—the derisive

tag the antecedents half-earned scowling at naked wallboards
when yet they clustered

on their dehiscent jut of oily granite.

Dehiscent: the release of materials by the splitting open of an organ or tissue. I am grateful for the addition of this word to my vocabulary, but I don’t mind saying I liked better the poems with more straightforward language. “Ledger” in particular is a poem that will stick in my mind with its two descriptions of an immigrant’s luggage.

“her bloated luggage stonehenged on my verge

of charred lawn.”

And further on:

“…Their minor city

of luggage, wrapped in clear plastic

like some mariner’s kit or evidence of quarantine.”

Then there’s Killdeer. That Phil Hall just kills me. He writes a fairly prosaic line and I found myself hungering for what I would call a poetic ‘image’ but they are few in his unadorned, sharp-tongued style. I was stopped, however, by his line describing frost as “carving its Urdu into the asphalt.” The various weights of this book hung off me long after I finished reading. If Babstock dropped a lot of names, Hall is out to suffocate with writers, poets in particular. He knew Everybody who was Anybody it seems, and the whole first part of the book is a gorgeous treatise on writing, poetry, poets, letters and legend-making. Poor George Amabile; I must ask him how he feels about what Phil Hall said about him in his Award Winning Book for everyone to read. Funny stuff. It’s too long to quote easily but suffice it to say Hall sent his (in retrospect bad) first book to Amabile who wrote back using the work puke and then the two met at a party many years later. You have to read it to appreciate it.

There was much about the killdeer and Hall’s personal life, and every bit of it is towering writing about writing. But what really kills me is the piece called “The Bad Sequence”. It should be required reading for anyone who does write poetry, who thinks they want to write poetry, or who might never write poetry again after reading it. He knows me. He knows everything I do and think when I write, when I read, and everything my cohorts do too. The first line I quote here really stung because I really love my subtitles:

The bad sequence is overly subtitle proud

The bad sequence knows that the self-sufficient line does not a
book make

When the bad sequence swears—its blasphemies sound virginal—
as if chosen with tweezers

The bad sequence is a cut & paste job…

He is even guilty himself of (some) of the very things he excoriates in the poem, for example he can be a bit Blurty and obscure at times and his acknowledgments do thank Everyone—but there are conventions with end pages and he would know that. This book, this work at once can put everyone to shame but without ever aggrandizing himself. A more humble tower of power I have not often read.

But back to my coping by culling. I decide what to keep by what I might realistically revisit again, the way the organizing experts say you should approach your clothes closet. I make myself be realistic because the house tilts, but also because the poetry simply keeps on coming, good efforts and bad. The only thing I have to be careful of is to not to let my own poetry be stalled in place by immersion in so much good writing I would like to emulate. I measured and I had nearly three linear feet of poetry books, more than a hundred books of around a hundred pages each, like so, so many kittens in need of their ‘forever’ home. It’s a good deal for everyone I think. I cull, I begin again, but I will hold on to that Killdeer and read “The Bad Sequence” once a year to keep me humble.

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The Downlow on Parnassus


Lori Cayer is the author of two volumes of poetry: Stealing Mercury (Muses’ Company, 2004), and Attenuations of Force (Frontanac House, 2010). She also reads poetry for CV2 magazine.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty

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