In a previous column, I lamented the misprision of the Griffin Prize judges in selecting only one meritorious book for this year’s short list. I suggested that this miscarriage occurred not for want of worthy candidates, but--to extend the benefit of the doubt to the beleaguered panel--because of the sheer volume of verbiage the judges had to vet before unveiling the anointed.
Now, I have read only a fraction (maybe a third, but I can’t tell for sure, as the promotional folks at the Griffin Trust seem to be averse to providing any information not available on their website) of the Canadian titles eligible for this year’s award, but it’s a safe bet that I was able to read what books I did at a less frenzied pace than the Justices of Griffin could manage (and I try to avoid reading bad books, a luxury not officially permitted the judiciary). In fact, many of those books I had the leisure to read at least twice in the process of writing reviews on them. So now I’d like to play Senate to the judges’ House of Commons. The following is a short list of sober second thought, a selection of six books that I found to embody unadulterated Excellence in Poetry in 2003. I present them in alphabetical order, with no intention of crowning any one of them as Grand Prize winner. Anyone with a grain of sense knows that the bestowal of laurels will never be the final objective word on the Best Book. One simply hopes that honours aren’t accorded to bad or mediocre books, as far too often happens.
Drum roll, please.
1) Tim Bowling, The Witness Ghost (Nightwood Editions)
Tim Bowling is a prolific poet of enormous talent. His work, however, has been uneven in the past, as is the case with almost any poet who publishes as much as he does. His book Darkness and Silence I would go so far as to call an outright stinker. But The Witness Ghost is his most mature and profound work to date. He rises to the occasion of his father’s death (an immensely difficult subject for any poet to handle successfully, the material being so emotionally fraught) with a moving sequence of elegies that succeed not only in grieving over a good man’s death, but in celebrating his life and the continuation of that life in successive generations.
2) Mary Dalton, Merrybegot (Signal Editions)
This tight sequence of terse dramatic monologues in Newfoundland dialect is a remarkable piece of poetic compression. Besides being meditations on the idioms of Mary Dalton’s home province, these minimalist poems manage, with a few brushstrokes, to paint a complex picture of an outport community, with all its heavy weather, tightly knit cooperation, vicious gossip, love, misery, lust and bigotry. This is poetry that, in its unsentimental fidelity to local linguistic and social details, fashions a world readily apprehended by any mainlander.
3) George Murray, The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart)* The Hunter is a searing dystopian meditation on the state of the world as it is. Though he doesn’t shy from the big abstractions like history and morality, George Murray sidesteps the pitfalls of a prosaic jeremiad with a knack for the extended metaphor, inspired turns of phrase and deadpan gallows humour. His voice is simultaneously detached and timeless, here and now. Nothing is simplified in this book; in fact, its obliquity and difficulty may account for its complete absence thus far on the various prizes’ short lists. Murray makes his reader work--but it’s work well worth doing.
4) David O’Meara, The Vicinity (Brick Books)
A flâneur engagée, David O’Meara investigates, interrogates and invigorates his urban surroundings--from bricks and mortar to individual citizens to the polis as a whole--in The Vicinity. Like all the other poets on this list (and like almost all significant artists of any age), he displays a firm and balanced commitment to both art and society. With colloquial charm and sharp wit offsetting complex structures and serious themes, O’Meara is quickly establishing himself as one of the most readable, engaging and formally accomplished poets in the country. It’s high time he got more official recognition for it.
5) Stuart Ross, Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems Poodles New & Selected (ECW Press)
As the whimsical title of this mid-life selection suggests, Stuart Ross is a goofball, and this book contains some of the funnest and funniest poetry I’ve read in a long time. But it is hardly negligible light verse that Ross writes. His poetry makes the sort of surreal leaps of image and metaphor that are relatively normal in Spanish, French, Latin American and some American poetry, but are quite rare in Canada; there’s a real élan vital to his line that makes most “serious” poetry seem wan and joyless in comparison. And the counterpoint to his slapstick play is a seriousness that encompasses both personal loss and a deep political engagement. He often deploys these two approaches in the same poem, so that just as you’re doubled over in mirth, he nails you with a vicious uppercut.
6) Goran Simic, Immigrant Blues, trans. Amela Simic (Brick Books)
Goran Simic’s first book published in Canada is an ample demonstration of why he is a highly regarded poet in his former home country of Bosnia and widely translated internationally. His free verse is lucid, straightforward and stark, and he handles subjects of war and dislocation with a deft mix of passion and irony that is equally capable of subtlety and bluntness. Though most of the poems are translations from the original Serbian, seven of them are the author’s first poems written in English. It speaks well for both translator and author that there is no marked discrepancy in quality between original and translation. In a comfortable country built largely on immigration, this book is an important reminder that we need to be wary of the insidious pall of complacency.
Honourable Mention: Peter Van Toorn, Mountain Tea (Signal Editions)
Since it’s a reprint, this 1984 book isn’t eligible for the Griffin Prize, but I had to mention it because I think it’s quite simply the best book of poetry I read last year. Van Toorn is a master of technique and his verse has all the verve, flair and derring-do that poetry should have. At once highly formal and colloquial, he translates and updates a pile of antique poems into his own distinctive idiom, as well as writing perfectly original poetry of his own. Mountain Tea is a virtuoso tour de force, a sheer joy to read and a must for the library of any serious lover of poetry.
So there you have it, my list of worthy books from 2003, any two of which it would have pleased me to see honoured alongside Di Brandt’s scintillating Now You Care. A common excuse for lousy short lists is that the judges were trying to recognize and reflect the breadth of our country’s geography and society in their selection. My list shows that such breadth can be approximated without a commensurate sacrifice of artistic depth. There are poets from both coasts and the middle; male and female poets; rural and urban poets; a landed immigrant and children of immigrants; a Manitoba Mennonite, a Toronto Jew and a Newfoundland Catholic--not to mention what is most important, a stunning variety of styles and formal approaches to poetry. And I readily concede that I may well have missed a couple of good books last year! You’d almost think, looking at a list like this, that our country has a bona fide literature on the go, from Bonavista to Vancouver Island--no matter what the poets are saying.
*At the risk of disqualifying myself for jury duty, I must here confess something. Though we’ve never met in person, George Murray is a pen pal and colleague of mine; not only that, he is the editor of this column. For these reasons, I almost decided not to include his book in this roundup. But after much deliberation, I decided I would be remiss in omitting The Hunter for such personal reasons. I couldn’t say the same of his first two books, both of which are good, especially Carousel, but neither of which hits the top notch that a Big Prize winner should. The Hunter, however, is an exceptionally strong book and it has been the recipient of too much neglect already this year without me subtracting further from its fame. If you feel this confession disbars me as an impartial judge, fair enough, but you do so at the risk of missing out on one of the best Canadian poetry collections of 2003.