Adam Getty’s first book of poems, Reconciliation, has lately been the victim of critical manhandling. First in the Danforth Review, in a review by Tom Henihan, so shrill in its tone, so sweeping in its statements and so poorly written that it hardly merits a response (although respond one did), and more recently in Books in Canada, in a piece by Susan Briscoe. Generally speaking, I find Briscoe’s articles to be well-informed, lively and perceptive, her judgements often tough, but justified. But reading her glib assessment of Reconciliation, I get the impression that she couldn’t have gotten much beyond Getty’s bio in her reading of the book.
by Adam Getty
Nightwood Editions, March 2003
First off, Briscoe states, “Reconciliation demonstrates that the People’s Poetry tradition … lives on.” It’s quite obvious that Getty’s poetics are informed in part by the same concerns that motivate adherents of the People’s Poetry movement. Considering he works in a slaughterhouse, that’s hardly surprising. However, it’s equally clear that he (like Livesay and Acorn, the mother and father figures of Canadian PP) cannot be neatly slotted into that tradition of easily accessible, plainspoken, politically unambiguous verse that displays little to no concern for matters of poetic form. Well, it’s clear if one has done more than a selective and superficial reading of his poems.
To be sure, Getty is on occasion prone to prosaic lapses and he can’t always resist the didactic impulse. However, the examples that Briscoe chooses to illustrate the “uninteresting” diction, “colloquial tone” and lack of “formal constraints” are not only shaky buttresses for her assertions, but seem surgically sliced from poems that would outright disprove her thesis if quoted more fully. Most egregious is her exploitation of the following quotation from “Tikkun”:
I must have done this a thousand times:
bolted the casings in, supported them
with chunks of steel—made sure
they don’t shake when they’re cut. The rust
has to come off, or they won’t work.
Granted, not an exceptional passage in and of itself—although I do admire the subtle play of soft u-sounds introduced by Getty (must, done, supported, chunks, cut, rust, come), creating a sonic mimicry of the tedium described—but what Briscoe conveniently doesn’t tell us is that these are the first five lines of an intricately rhymed glosa variant, incorporating refrain lines from a twelfth-century Indian mystic, and that these five lines are just the lead-in to a profound meditation on the utility—and futility—of work (in its broadest sense) and art. She doesn’t even tell us the title of the poem or explain that it signifies the complex cabbalistic notion of repair or “fixing the world”—a notion made even more ambivalent by Getty’s use of train motifs (the commercial efficiency of trains having been exploited for all manner of wrongdoing since their invention). All this information, you see, wouldn’t fit with her thesis; it would present a far more complicated picture of Adam Getty and his writing than her simplified account would allow. Consider the lines that follow those quoted by Briscoe:
Too mechanical for me, too picky, and I’m tired [aha! a repudiation of the dullness of the preceding lines]
of looking for nine the same size. The choir—
noise made by welding and grinding and the radio
and this damned milling machine—
gets on my nerves. There it is, another hole bored [a double-entendre, in case you missed it]
and the shine against dark copper, mired:
the light of moon, stars and fire.
The light of moon, stars and fire
wakes me at four in the morning, gleaming
outside my window. The rain is falling,
a slow baseline, soft at first, growing louder.
And this is when it matters: when I should,
more than any other time, ignore the tightening
fret of muscles to risk the wet sting,
rain in the eyes—so my soft tattoo
can be heard against the dark drumbeat, ever louder,
as I cycle toward work. I am almost unnerved
by the sudden crash of a bigger drumbeat: it sings
of lightnings and all things.
Though it is by no means inaccessible, there is nothing “plebeian” about this sort of writing, muscular not merely in its stance, but in its rhythms and in its intelligence. This poem is a showcase for a young poet in full command of the music and metaphoric grandeur of language.
Briscoe attempts to joke away the range of Getty’s allusion: “Clearly, manual labour does get boring after a while, so the poet’s mind wanders to places like Dostoevsky’s Russia or Shakespeare’s Naples. Getty starts to drop lots of Greek names—Solon, Pericles, and Sophocles (all in one line!).” A lot of Canadian poetry does indeed traffic in superficial literary tourism. In Getty’s case, however, his poems in the voices of Dostoevsky’s Svidrigailov and Shakespeare’s Alonso (a virtuoso blank verse monologue) demonstrate that, far from being stuck in the ultra-earnest-first-person-singular-free-verse-anecdote, this is a poet capable of a deep engagement not only with the everyday world of work, but with the work of literary giants, a poet capable of subsuming his own identity within that of a character. His ventriloquist acts necessarily complicate any simple assessment of his more obviously autobiographical poems, but Briscoe seems blithely unaware of this. Likewise, Briscoe elides Getty’s impressive apprehension of history and myth by quoting the final lines of two poems and using them as evidence to back up a tedious Freudian theory—to which there might be some amount of justice, but which ultimately trivializes Getty’s grand themes—about the poet’s masculine grapple with “the feared feminine.”
Highlighting “a prologue of five unrhymed sonnets” as “the best part of this collection,” she complains that “formal constraints are few” in Getty’s oeuvre. She has missed more than one thing in this assessment. For one, the fifth sonnet in the prologue is rhymed, in a hybrid English and Italian fashion. Besides that, Getty employs formal constraints in a number of other poems: the aforementioned rhymes and refrains of “Tikkun”; the sonnet, again, in “Creeping Things”; the pentameter line of “A Passage Rejected by Shakespeare.” Just as the range of literary allusion complicates his first-person lyrics, so too does his technical skill inform his vers libre, which is, as Briscoe concedes, very rarely slack.
In Adam Getty there is to be found a rare combination of seriousness of intent and adequacy of means and intelligence. Reconciliation contains a few hiccups of prosody, sentimentality and political harangue (all of which are common enough flaws in the work of poets who are both technically skilled and socially committed, such as Acorn, Layton, Neruda and the Puerto Rican American Martín Espada—the result of being, as Acorn put it, “big-hearted”), but given the rhythmic authority and thoughtful engagement of his best work, it seems clear to me that Adam Getty is one of a very small handful of emerging Canadian poets who deserve serious attention. That some critics seem to want to go out of their way to discredit his work is perhaps only further proof of that fact.
Halifax-based Zachariah Wells is the author of Unsettled, a book of Arctic poems forthcoming from Insomniac Press. Contrary to popular opinion, he does not think he’s always right. The Zed Factor appears every second Monday.