Poets as proseurs

By Di Brandt
NeWest, 244 pages, $24.95

A Decade's Thoughts on Poetry
By Robyn Sarah
Biblioasis, 268 pages, $24.95


George Grant in conversation with Dennis Lee uses the phrase, "loving one's own." Love what belongs to you, by family or kin, or what is close to you, by heart or proximity. Love your heritage and tradition, what comes down to you by ancestral blood and experience. Grant's phrase contextually enriches a comprehensive reading of poets Di Brandt's and Robyn Sarah's new collections of literary essays.

Brandt, with all her ambivalence and qualification and rebellion, loves the Mennonite tradition. She honours her peasant farming and Anabaptist roots, her Plautdietsch mother tongue. She also quarrels with certain patriarchal tendencies in her tribe. Hers is not an easy love, not a requited love, but it's love nevertheless. You can't write a sentence like the following without love: "... like Leonard Cohen, who threw away his noble rabbinic lineage for bohemian excess only to recapture its grandeur in his poetry and contemplative practice, I put myself, precipitously, in [his]company to claim that I've been faithful, are you listening, daddy, grandma ... I've been true, trying as hard as I can to understand what that idealistic, crazy, stubborn, ecstatic, beautiful, terrible heritage was about."

Brandt's Mennonite heritage bookends So This Is the World & Here I Am In It, the 10th publication in NeWest Press's Writer as Critic Series, and forms a midway investigation called Je jelieda, je vechied: [roughly: the more educated you are, the more corrupt] Canadian Mennonite (Alter)Identifications.

For the most part, she keeps the reader on Manitoba soil with reflections on Manitobans Adele Wiseman, Dorothy Livesay and David Arnason, and James Reaney's Winnipeg. Along the way, she meditates wonderfully on bees and makes fascinating notes on Berlin. Her other excursion beyond local soil is her rather academic-sounding response to Mavis Gallant's German-centred The Pegnitz Junction. As insightful as her critical thoughts are, especially the ones on Wiseman and Gallant, they don't rise to the level of poetry in prose. The result is that Brandt's is a two-voiced book, the voice of critical prose and the voice of poetry-in-prose.

When she loves her own, when she cleaves to blood and bone, she writes some of the most ecstatic prose in Canadian letters. Long Faulknerian sentences, such as the one quoted above, defy the straitjacket of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, which shaped a generation's prose. Keep the writing plain and simple, the manual says. That's fine when your reality is plain and simple, but what if it's convoluted and contradictory, where there are more collisions than coherences? What then?

At her best, Brandt writes with the intensity of Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Her prose lifts, it gallops - picture wild horses let out of a barn - and it accumulates phrases and verbs and modifiers like ivy gone mad on a wall. It comes close to those holy moments in writing where critic Alfred Kazin says that the word and the object are one. Fecundity and luxuriance energize her style.

Robyn Sarah's style is quiet, measured, thoughtful. She is open to the mesmerizing and incantatory, but tends to favour smaller celebrations. Little Eurekas showcases the full range of her personal poetry lab. She writes poetry, reviews it, teaches it and edits it. She collaborates with fellow poets; she interviews and is interviewed by fellow poets. Divided into Essays, Review Essays, Appreciations, Short Reviews and Collaborations, all pertaining to poets and the nature of poetry, her book closes with three of her finest poems: Riveted, Grace and Fugue.

What Sarah loves is clear: She loves poetry and words, and draws strength from the Jewish tradition. The best of her writing sometimes brings the three together in a single utterance. When asked about the spiritual in her work, she replies, "The expression that translates as 'Pay attention' is Sim Lev. It means, literally, 'Apply Your Heart.' " She does that in her own poetry with "closely observed concrete particulars," and in her observations on Margaret Avison, Don Coles, Ken Babstock and others.

In her poem Grace, for instance, she has the aging poet O make the connection between poets and sparrows, "hopping around at the foot of café tables, waiting for crumbs. Waiting for God to drop something, by accident or on purpose - as today, these sparrows." In an interview, Sarah says: "If God is dead, I must have missed the obit." She begins to study Hebrew in order to read Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

In contrast to Brandt's full-voiced exuberance on her Mennonite tradition, Montrealer Sarah speaks less explicitly of her spirituality. But she adds, "that doesn't mean I don't think it's central." The reader hungers to listen: "Remember and keep, the twin commandments regarding the Sabbath, express an essential Judaic imperative." Sarah explains that when the Temple was destroyed, its rituals were abandoned in practice but turn up as minutiae in supplementary passages inserted into the prayer book, often "mumbled at breakneck speed in synagogue."

She remembers Elizabeth Brewster's lines concerning her conversion to Judaism in her 80th year as not coming from Sinai or heaven, but "only human voices in an old shul/ singing Adom Olam/ ordinary daylight,/ bread, fruit, wine ..." She notes that Amichai "may have ceased to believe and practice, but he remembers."

Sarah says that you know a good poem if you remember it "as one remembers an individual face from a crowd," and if you want to say it out loud, savour it, share it, be puzzled by it. You also know a good poem if, when you've read it, you immediately want to write a poem of your own. She gives an example of a good poem: George Johnston's Cathleen Sweeping, about his three-year old daughter sweeping her room against dust, wind and gloom. She applies loving attention to the poem reminiscent of Molly Peacock's charm and intelligence in How to Read a Poem. When she later broadens her discussion of Johnston, she loses the intimacy.

Sarah says that what makes one a reader of poetry is the habit of, maybe the cumulative addiction to, "moments of electric response to a particular poem." Certainly one is grateful for the homeward lunges and electric moments in both Robyn Sarah's and Di Brandt's well-sculpted prose.

J. S. Porter is the author of Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry Into Literature and Spirituality and the forthcoming Thomas Merton: Hermit at the Heart of Things.

(Originally published in the Globe and Mail, August 18, 2007)

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