Issue 4 Editors
Jacob McArthur Mooney
Ruth Roach Pierson
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Fluency is a word lapping on the shores of influence. Moving fluidly through the output of an individual poet to narrate thematic and formal connections within a body of work is one important practice; another is becoming fluent, becoming a skilled and informed reader of many bodies of work, of connecting poet to poet, to compare and correlate the terms of diverse writing.
What does it mean to approach a limit, boundary or conclusion? Is there always a remainder after collapse? When progress or extension weaken, is there anything left of a situation before breakdown, force before failure, substance before chimera? Do collapse and constraint mean everything laid waste, absolute loss? In this issue of our magazine, these inquiries gain urgency in relation to three resonant books of contemporary Canadian poetry: Ruth Roach Pierson’s Aide-Mémoire, Susan Holbrook’s Joy is So Exhausting and Gregory Betts’s The Others Raisd in Me.
Sometimes reaching a limit provokes an accounting, explanation or statement, say of a life, as in Pierson's Aide-Mémoire, a tallying of its circumstances, occasions and experiences such that a resonant narrative assembles, even if ambiguous and unresolved. Perhaps the apprehension of some terminus motivates us to lay down a mark, our telling, our way. Nietzsche wrote, “we want to be the poets of our life.” If so, how can a writer attempt an archive of a being, with its economy of thrift and ornament, pulled through the fine mesh of recollection?
In his feature essay regarding Pierson's Aide-Mémoire John Barton writes of “time’s ceaseless one way unfurling.” Given this unidirectional operation, it does follow, as Walter Raleigh and very many after him somberly point out, “and then we die.” Our time, our life exhausted, we give it up, at best perhaps with some appreciation for the final irony, that the world will persist, replete, without us. Any version of lifelong reminiscence is bound to be shaped by this extremity. Things end.
It's that most familiar narrative arc, the story that begins with the unexpected discovery in childhood of a self, one’s own self found just where that self is supposed to be. In “Doing,” the final poem in this compendium of memory, Ruth Pierson reminds the reader that the emergent self exists insofar as it is attended to “acutely,” and thus captures in the very last stanza of the text, that first urgency of a life, the depth of demand behind the conceit of innocence valued in the infant.
So begins the relationship between the poet in Barton's words "as representative self" and all the others who inhabit the affairs and occasions of this chronicle of the mid and late past century. Aide-Mémoire is a report of what it was to be female in those times, in those places. This final poem about a beginning in the linear sense of unidirectional lived time, is, in terms of writerly strategy and textual contour and form, a closure to the project of Aide-Mémoire. Pierson's sense of irony has a melancholic stain.
Ruth's account of a life's experience advances circuitously, each poem engaged with a singularity of intense awareness and reflection, the book shaped by a certain underlying sense of elegy, of lapse regarded without much sentimentality. Is Aide-Mémoire an account of self exhausted by what John Barton describes as “the turbulent, fugitive stream of time, full of slow eddies and sudden rapids”? This book of poems may leave a reader asking if under the immutable course of lifelong effort, desire and loss, the self, any self, necessarily diffuses, gives up locality and organization, opens to yielding, becomes more labile.
It might be argued that the sustained recollection that underlies this book is ultimately a skillful manoeuvre beautifully wrought around a long accumulation of liability. If this were true how strange that vulnerability and the hollowing out of self can be so purposefully evoked by lyric reports of situations and circumstances that, although transient, are existentially abundant; states of being abundant perhaps just because they are evanescent.
Throughout Aide-Mémoire there's a refrain of anxiety around an experienced sense of inadequacy and an enforced requirement to alter identity. There's a proliferation of selves, an ongoing anxious shifting in many poems including the stark portrayal in “Railway Siding” (21) of the subject who states “I see that quiver often now / in the eyes of older women. The fear this world / would discard us if it could.”
However even in their candid and direct confrontation with failure, loss, death and ageing, with what could be called states of exhaustion, the multiple selves of Aide-Mémoire respond to circumstances of depletion with an awareness of new possibilities. The “represented self” in “Though Not Asked” (71) rails in the face of limit and desolation: “Poetry is written, / I’ve been told, out of new experience. Well, ageing / is new, goddamit.” And, in “Eine Ruhe” (82), the self takes on a project, seeking to be in a new way: “Especially not emptiness. / Instead to wake to a sudden summer rain, / almost tropical, and to lie in bed listening, / without thought, wholly immersed / in the rush of sound.” To be replenished in exhaustion.
If we consider confinement as form, restriction and constraint as strategy, Susan Holbrook’s Joy Is So Exhausting can be seen as an inventory, which under the duress of time and care, erupts into a ludic offering of sheer energy and excess. It is of course concerned with process itself in which strategies of limitation generate passages of rich invention. As Jacob Arthur Mooney says in his feature essay, Holbrook uses “her talent for re-creation in the service of recreation.” There is something here about receiving pleasure out of discipline, the joyful weariness of being fully engaged —and gently laughing at oneself for it.
What is the relationship between vulnerability, care and exhaustion? Perhaps the abandonment of self to demand, to the unconditional claim? Mooney theorizes, “the constraints and repetitions imposed on the poems by the author become their vehicles for freedom and uniqueness.” Repetition and constraint are the exact warrant and ground of Holbrook's paradoxically capacious poem “Nursery.”
As “Doing” closes Aide-Mémoire, “Nursery” closes Joy Is So Exhausting. Both poems engage with the situation of infancy, child as object of attention, as need and demand, absolute call for care uttered from the dependant's position of thoroughgoing contingency. Both poems are accounts of launch formally serving as textual closure.
There are eighty-eight turns in “Nursery” each marked in a sequence “Left” then “Right,” offering the reader an effusion, a persistent flow of language that might be, as Mooney puts it concerning many of the poems in Joy Is So Exhausting, "easily summarized via the central conceits of their construction."
In this case the crucial analogy is the ongoing business of breastfeeding, tethering agent to exchange, compelling both interruption and the repeat performance. As a literary and pragmatic trope this commitment to passivity and generosity, the simultaneous privation of instrumentality and liberal disposition of resources, results in better than ten pages of intense proliferative text, an abundant response to a circumstance of forbearance and replay.
In “Nursery” the reader is presented with burgeoning commentary, lyric pleasure in the specific and momentary, linguistic flourish, scrutiny of detail, mimesis, the politics of the fragile, and as Mooney points out “experiment, with word choice, rhythmic variation, and a few dozen other things.” The text’s swing from left to right is presented as a cycle of giving and taking so attached to insistence and immediacy that its end is indiscernible, nevertheless constituted by the spontaneity of the arrangement; one of the partners initiates and implicitly one will rescind. “Enough” might be another word for exhaustion.
In The Others Raisd in Me, Gregory Betts has led us to ponder whether dissolution and dispersion produce a scene where waste becomes the material for an ecstatic squandering. As he undoes and reforms Shakespeare’s Sonnet 150 he produces a wanton display of ingenuity and delight.
Certainly The Others Raisd in Me is a form of recollection, calling back to mind Shakespeare's sonnet again and again. Of course Sonnet 150 was once read for the first time, but the re-readings in this book are active, oscillating between the sonnet as textual paradigm for the genesis of the idea of the self and the 150 poems composed around a study of the notion of the self as it evolves through its history. Betts describes Shakespeare’s time as the commencement of “our future doom” establishing in his introduction to the text that the book is a project concerned with the uncanny tense of “it-will-have-been.”
In her feature essay on Betts’s The Others Raisd in Me, Susan Holbrook discusses Steve McCaffery’s “festive economy,” a notion more or less opposed to any consideration of loss, limit or exhaustion. Betts seizes this to promote his theoretical project concerning the excess available in text, any given text a limitless container of possibilities, where other texts await articulation.
There's a paradox here though. For any given text has its end and its beginning, its content, perhaps 150 words more or less, a certain number of letters in a given order that anyone could count, perhaps pages, say 219 or so, might even have a weight, a heft as Kenny Goldsmith might suggesti, might be a book 11 cm by 15 cm, by 2 cm like a beautiful toy or a well-made gift box, sturdy and promising, and within, a small excess, something superfluous and wasteful.
Perhaps the gift might be exhaustion after all, this take on the cultural always already an attempt to deplete it as a force. If it proves impossible to exhaust willful subversive agency, then we may be overcome by the abundance and the feast. Susan Holbrook discovers Betts’s avowal in Poem 18 that every letter in the plundered text is used in the production of another text, this other text.
In this issue of Influency Salon, the poetics of proliferation, exhaustion and memory sparkle with energy, daring us to dare you to continue a reading inquiry into the limits and possibilities of attention. We’ve assembled within each node a selection of perceptive Measures on each of these featured poetry collections, and invite you to read across the offerings to construe your own permutations on the themes we’ve lightly sketched in our introduction. More of our thoughts on this work introduce each book node and we invite you to explore all of the writings on each book, ideally in relation to reading the source text itself. Giving up, giving in to the desire for more, giving over to memory and regret, giving milk as succor, giving only as much as one gets, giving it steam, heart, hankering, haste: We invite you to contemplate exhaustion as a pleasure, as a mode of thought.
Betts, Gregory. The Others Raisd in Me. Toronto: Pedlar, 2009. Print.
Holbrook, Susan. Joy Is so Exhausting. Toronto: Coach House, 2009. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. The Gay Science; with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage, 1974. Print.
Pierson, Ruth Roach. Aide-Mémoire. Ottawa: BuschekBooks, 2007. Print.