Review: Two Canadian Poets
‘The Red Element’ by Catherine Graham £4.95
‘The Debaucher’ by Jason Camlot £4.95
Insomniac Press, Toronto, Ontario, CANADA 2008
By Michael Murray
The two poets reviewed complement each other in strange ways. Both books are the author’s third collections, and both are part of the education faculties of Canadian Universities.
Insomniac Press, based in Toronto, is a glorious publishing venture. The books are wonderfully presented, lovingly made and very attractively produced. Catherine Graham has gone for a simplified design of three-quarter length illustration, an evocative painting by Caryl Williamson, in rusty reds and worn-slate blues above simple, pared-back title and name.
Jason Camlot’s cover is very rich, a highly decorative border and scroll work in gold over a black background. The central image is very striking and wryly humorous: The Deabaucher is exemplified by a clip from a painting: a hearty dose of cold water over a naked man, crouched in a sauna setting.
‘The Red Element’ is a very pared-back book; all the poems are stripped to their essentials of subject matter and structure. So much so that some poems are a mere four lines in length; and yet they all work wonderfully.
Throughout the book we discern childhood and growth into womanhood, complete with responsibilities of parenthood, and its reflections back and forth to one’s own parents and onto one’s own children.
The poems on young girlhood are intricate yet robust vignettes. What especially strikes is how the stripped-back approach allows the writer to handle unsexualised, prepubertal experience: the little girl as a little girl: ‘The pigtailed girl plays in the middle of her long front yard,/ pale legs stilt under the cotton stickiness of her dress./She turns from her asphalt shadow and pulls the red ball/ from her pocket and peels the white price tag like a scab//Drop and catch/drop and catch.//Suddenly the ball rabbits up the slope./ It rolls back like a trick to the edge of the crescent./ She runs to the edge of the neck-high hedge/that she’s been told never to pass, and stops.//I want to be good at this/I want to be good.’ (Drop and Catch)
This is a very difficult achievement, and perhaps only possible by stripping back and stripping back so that the images ring clear as a bell.
The stilt legs and dress become: ‘Spaghetti straps hook my bare white shoulders./ Crinoline lace scratches my naked thighs…’.(Vintage). A much more sexualised image; the imagery of this piece also reflects a more teenage awareness, and of one’s place in the family and world. The adult world in turn is a lived-in place: ‘I see that elf. The doodle you were doing/the summer your dad and I split up.// the eyes, the red crosses. With eyes/ like that, how could she see anything?’ (Doodle).
Some commentators find modern women’s writing lacking in abstract thought, concentrating on the body, the immediate. I would suggest they look to the implicit approach of the poems. As here, the thought goes into the approach and choice of subject matter and treatment. So that in the latter part of the book we perhaps get the impression it is the theory that is now addressing us: ‘I often dream of terrible ponds,/ frogs the size of Jack Russells……………and when my eyes//look back at me, deeper pupils pulse/like passing sails, strips of mist/ clouding the bars in the water. Mother/ I’m here, Mother. Mother, I’m here now.’ (The Terrible Pond).
The Debaucher is a device, like a spirit of misrule, for allowing the writer to shift frames of reference: ‘The debaucher is not necessarily/ a person. It can be a memory,/ or the absence of compelling/ memory, or deliberately selective/ memory. It can be fear/ because fear keeps us from choosing…….’. (The Debaucher part 3). In part 5 we are more implicitly in Debaucher territory: Maybe he’s with me, but how can I know?/ If, when you are forty years old,/ attempting to finish/ a poem about being led astray,/ and you get a call from your childhood friend/ who’s ditching work………’
What follows is very a much slacker poem. The writing is much more open-armed, explicit in its concerns, whereas the previous writing was implicit in its concerns, and to a certain extent exclusive in its range.
Jason Camlot has a wonderful way with formal structures; nearly half the book is taken up with the sonnet form: the ADIOS SONNETS. He also has a gift for ballad: ‘When my soul flies east down the Metropolitan/ Towards those of Leonard Cohen and Oscar Peterson,/ Aldo Nova and Corey Hart/ Get my corpse a seat at the back of the 80 bus/ (use the transfer attached herein for that purpose),/ Send it down L’avenue Du Parc’. (Petition to Be Entombed at St. Viatuer Bagel – to the tune of “Supplique por etre enterre sur une plage de Sete” by George Brassens.)
He has crazy takes on poems by Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Verlaine as well as The Song of Roland, and even this as a Peanuts cartoon.
Whereas Catherine Graham is a poet of the intimate voice, the treasured, internalised experience, Jason Camlot is delightfully wayward; he is an intelligent writer, and at times overly prolix, but ultimately enjoyable. A jewish background, and Francophile awareness, add an edge to the mix.
I would not choose; I’d recommend them both.
Buy these books from Insomniac Press here.