Monday, January 7, 2013

Review of Michael Boughn's "Great Canadian Poems for the Aged Vol.1 Illus. Ed." (BookThug)

A nominee for Canada's prestigious Governor General's Award, poet and hockey buff Michael Boughn sends the puck into the pocket with this book.

Each poem begins with a photograph, then the language riffs off its content, often hilariously. It usually begins with a kind of description and then digresses into puns, weird associations, and tangential reveries—only to come back to the photo.

The pictures and poems almost exclusively relate to Canadian nationalism and country pride. Boughn delivers a politcally-tinged irony to Empire, Canadian smugness, and patriotism. However, there is also a resignation here, a sense that poetry can laugh at such silliness, but hardly overcome it. I sense no anger, no disgust, no feeling that the cultural work of writing can undo the ridiculous ether contemporary Canadians (and the rest of us in different realms) live within.
                    the nation can claim
     no greater invention than its own
     quicksand anchorage (71)
     riparian outcomes in geographies
     of unassociated sumptuous

     norths (32)

                    Johnny Canuck and Miss
     Canada, proclaiming the virtue

     of porridge seasoned with salt, hit
     the road. (8) 
One of the photos is of a North American map, in which Canada is huge—Boughn describes it as a whale—and the USA is small. While Boughn, thankfully, displaces the USA from its centralized position, he refuses to do so in a way that celebrates the new center: he decenters and then ironizes the new center—not only funny, but a little dizzying. Boughn mentions, sometimes repeatedly, “Canadian-associated” words such as moose, grizzlies, bears, mounties, geese, flies, hypothermia. 
The playfulness also operates at the level of grammar and semantics. While Boughn renders the poems in “correct” sentences, sometimes usage becomes gnarled. Words function ambiguously— a noun? adjective? gerund?  For instance:
    Nuances of extinct species extrude

    grail vision’s perfect handful of matter,
    however fleeting imbibed opportunities
    scatter, and yielded dimensions pour forth

    in frothy offerings old time revelations

    of amber bulletins rendered perfectly
    intelligible in the light of recalled
laughter. (23)
This sentence does stand up grammatically: Subject — “nuances”— verb—“extrude” — for the first independent clause and, in the second such clause, subject — “dimensions” — and verb —“pour.” That said, given the strange semantics, the “however” clause feels as if it could be independent, making “yielded dimensions” not so much a subject of an independent clause as a continuation of the “however,” suggesting that everything coming after that word serves as a qualification for the first independent clause. The result: un-ease at the grammatical level, leading to semantic scattering, seedlings of meaning taking root in a variety of ways around and within the sentence. Witty, smart-ass, mischievous, silly, sophisticated:
                                       Once outside

     Winnipeg the seams of night came undone
     releasing secretly held fire in cascades

    of relentless revelations of nothing

    more than night. (48)
Bough also plays with the collaging of vocabularies:

     faces known to be under surveillance
     but determined to keep the exchange
     in motion as long as the joint stays open. (68)

“Re-present” is high theory, “but determined” almost sounds like self-help, and “joint” goes way down and out. The silly internal rhyme in the last line adds to the revelry. This collage throws the irony—so often aimed at Empire—into the comic sphere, where there is no bottom line, where everything is up in the air and being juggled and tossed and turned. The motion is the meaning.
In only one place did I sense Boughn getting angry:

                     Levellers and Diggers
     dangle from the wrong end of a rope looking
     bemused at the hue and cry, but the church,
     fastidiously rejecting spilled blood,

     leaves heretics to the fire as if it all comes down

     to how many world’s you want to count
     with your eyes closed in spite of auto-da-fé’s
     spreading pall over vistas of unrestrained
     generosity and native intelligence. (40)
Even here, he doesn’t get too worked up. After all, there are hockey games we need to get to.


See interview with Michael Boughn.

Michael Boughn appears in 1 and 2. He has also published on this blog. I am grateful to him for his generosity and the interest he has shown in this project.

Michael Boughn, on the occasion of being shortlisted for Canada's Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2011, was described in the Globe and Mail as “an obscure veteran poet with a history of being overlooked by the mainstream." He is the author of H.D.: A Bibliography 1905 - 1990 (University of Virginia, 1993) and co-editor (with Victor Coleman) of Robert Duncan's The H.D. Book (University of California, 2011), as well as being editor of Narthex and other stories by H.D. (BookThug, 2011). His recent book of poetry, Cosmographia - A Post-Lucretian Faux Micro-Epic (Book Thug, 2010), was shortlisted for the aforementioned Prestigious Prize at the same time his mystery novel, Business As Usual, was published by NeWest (Edmonton). 

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