-Reviewed by Paul McMenemy–
This collection’s (commendably brief) introduction informs us that this is not a “best of” the first five years of The Centrifugal Eye, but merely a selection of the personal favourites of the editorial staff. This is rather like saying that any given edition of a poetry magazine is not a “best of” the poems submitted, but merely a selection of the editor’s own personal favourites from those poems. A statement like this in itself is not worth becoming exercised by, and not something I would even have noticed had I not been led, after reading the anthology, to question the importance the publication attaches to meaning.
I first wondered about this when reading Earl J. Wilcox’s “Garden Gerontology”, which gives us a new way of looking at a garden bench. Do we need a new way of looking at a garden bench? One may read the poem as an allegory for human aging; but even then, it has little to say – we get old; we fall apart; we get fixed up; diminishing returns. There are thousands of great poems about old age, but they are about old age; this poem is about a bench. A few pages later we come across John Terpstra’s mostly effective poem about Canada, “Morning at Fort Wellington”. Terpstra shows us over six lines that the fort never saw active service, always being out of commission when it might have been needed. He then adds the astonishingly redundant line “(thus missing its three opportunities for military action)”. The poem recovers, but again the reader wonders about TCE’s understanding of, and interest in, communicating meaning.
However I do not think meaning is TCE’s main concern – I think sound is. Many of the poets in the collection have a “voice”: The American Poetry Voice – the default intonation of all those who have spent the last hundred or so years banging their head against Whitman. The American Poetry Voice (or North American, we should say, as TCE is a Canadian publication) has gone through any number of evolutions over the years, but it has always retained a certain desiccated New England aloofness. TCE’s particular flavour also contains this base, but infused with the slacker-academic tone of the dominant American prose style of the last twenty years. Occasionally one has the suspicion that these poets are really novelists on an awayday.
I am not saying that these poems are “really” prose, but they do often resemble a specific kind of prose – the garrulous but flat prose of many American fiction writers. For instance, the extremely well-constructed poem, “Teaching an Old Bird New Tricks”, again by Wilcox, describes an old sparrow moving into a hat-shaped bird-box:
She was a Burberry brown, dusky-looking sparrow, common
as red clay in the Carolinas. Didn’t even have to check
out whether the hat was pointed in the right direction like
picky bluebirds, who require an open field and a south-
eastern view. Did not matter to Sarah Sparrow if the hat
was slap-dashed onto an ageing dogwood tree, either.
Another poet, having come up with the central conceit of the bird as a middle-aged woman moving to a new neighbourhood, the cares of child-rearing and sex behind her; and having taken the fateful step of anthropomorphising the bird to the point of giving it a name, might then have found scope for all sorts of experiments with sound and structure. Not a Centrifugal Eye poet: Wilcox gives us four hefty breezeblocks of intense yet effete commentary, which never loses its passivity even at the story’s inevitable punchline. Had I come across this poem in the midst of a more varied anthology, I would have been very pleased to see it; here it is a struggle to recognise its quality.
This sameness is exacerbated by the anthology’s chronological organisation. Poets featured more than once have their poems scattered throughout the book. In a less uniform collection, this need not be a disadvantage; but here the poets tend to run into one another. Grouping the anthology by author might have counteracted this, highlighting dissimilarities in similar voices.
There are poems, though, which stand out: Margaret A. Robertson’s, “Jubilation” delivers exactly that, rather unexpectedly. John Milbury-Steen’s “Animal Soap” is an uncomplicatedly fun poem – not simply because it is, 132 pages in, the first with a traditional rhyme-scheme and metre, but because its narrator does not appear to be recalling events through a fluoxetine fug. It’s by no means perfect but it is not dour, not distant and definitely not cool, and, in the context of this collection, can be forgiven a lot for that:
She cut loose from a bar of Lifebuoy® soap
a dog that looked like a chihuahua pup,
but had an eye of wolf and mouth of grr
like you wouldn’t mess with, so we were
(dad and I) surprised to see an attack
disposition marring a knickknack.
Each issue of TCE is themed, although we are never told in the anthology what an issue’s theme was. A reader unfamiliar with the magazine, who missed or misconstrued the editor’s glancing mention of “themes” in the introduction (the context does not specify these as themes dictated, rather than detected, by the editor), would be bemused by the gardening-heavy nature of the first twenty pages. Some themes produce stronger poems than others. Donna M. Marbach and Ellaraine Lockie write movingly about meals. “Oh, Canada!” produces some of the most effective poetry in the collection, being recognisably about something. E.g. William Doreski’s “Howling with the Wolf Pack” on being Canadian in America:
Wolves have come down from Canada
to howl on my stoop. Their eyes
burn like incense, their teeth gleam
Many of the problems I have with this collection are due to the nature of how a reviewer reads an anthology – from front to back, in a small number of sittings – which is not how most readers read such collections. On the other hand, although this anthology is available to buy in hard copy, most readers are likely to read it, like me, in its electronic form, which is not really adapted for flicking through until something catches one’s eye, as one might with a paper copy. If treated like any other anthology, this collection will produce rewards – it is often hard, dry stuff, but we could all do with a pumicing of this sort from time to time – but it does not encourage the reader, once alit, to read another, and another poem, as the best anthologies do.