Reviewed by Melissa Dalgleish
Wedding in Fire Country. Nightwood, 2012.
A Brief History of the Short-lived. Nightwood, 2012.
Two collections released this spring by Nightwood Editions, Wedding in Fire Country by Darren Bifford and A Brief History of the Short-lived by Chris Hutchinson, share similarities both superficial—publisher, trim size, page count, price—and substantial. Both collections attempt, with varying degrees of success, to present a poet’s-eye view of the world that is slightly askew—just off-centre enough to force the eye to refocus, to see differently, to glimpse the world that exists underneath and behind the world that we see because we expect it to be there. As Bifford notes, “There is no true world, wrote Nietzsche, / unhappily. What you believe to be true / is just what is true” (37). However, both Bifford and Hutchinson hold out the possibility that there is more to the world than that, that we “might go on to dream in the early hours / of a new and divine way of thinking” (37). But where Wedding in Fire Country too frequently gets mired in the mundane, exchanges the unexamined every day for the extremities of the imagined, A Brief History of the Short-lived is immersed in this early-morning dream, and models, with more precision and grace, this new and divine way of thinking.
Wedding in Fire Country is Bifford’s first full-length collection; his first publication, the chapbook Wolf Hunter, was released in 2010 by Cactus Press. The title poem of that collection, which is reprinted along with others in Wedding in Fire Country, won The Malahat Review’s 2010 Far Horizons Award. At his best, Bifford taps into the sense of uneasiness that underpins seemingly bucolic, innocent moments, the subconscious knowledge that there is a world of terror and the potential for shocking swerves just beyond what our everyday eyes are willing to see. This shadow world becomes the image of the crow in “Crow Killer,” the bird that “sometimes claws / at the grass just beyond my reach,” which “doubles its shadows on shadows” (21). The shocking irruption of that shadow world happens violently in “Cut Grass,” where a small child watches as his friend, entranced by the spinning lawn-mower blades, “reaches into the thing and pulls out his hand, most / of his fingers gone” (22). Those same spinning blades become the propellers of the plane from which the “Wolf Hunted” is being tracked; here, the wolf laments that the hunter does not have the vision to see what lies beyond the obvious—to the hunter he is “now mere moving meat, a pieced-together // trunk of parts: roughly coloured fur, head, eyes” (65). In “There is No True World,” Bifford laments along with Nietzsche that the structure of our reality is limited by what we allow ourselves to believe, but in two poems about childhood, he suggests that in moments of illness or psychological distress exists the potential for a different, skewed vision. In “Fever,” “sickness and sunlight spread like a stain,” tinting with strange heat what the young speaker sees so that “window blinds flop like elephant ears” and “shadows scurry the rug like mice feet” (32). In “Nightmare,” the same young boy asks his mother to explain away that which frightens him; she succeeds until he asks “who are the men crouching at the door, mother?” (50), and her response—“They are my friends, my son. And they’re coming” (50)—is one of Bifford’s finest evocations of unease at the seemingly ordinary. But more often than necessary the poet captures not the beauty or the horror of the mundane, but the banality of the mundane—poems on the collecting of possessions to be burnt before starting over (54), a blurred summer spent playing tennis and barbecuing (46), or the failure to identify species of trees (46) fail to reveal anything new or surprising about these moments, or to clothe the ordinary in the extraordinariness of imaginatively-wrought language.
In his third collection, A Brief History of the Short-lived, Chris Hutchinson similarly encourages his readers to revisit that which they are immersed in until it becomes unfamiliar enough to warrant scrutiny—much as repeating a word like “fork” over and over eventually makes it taste strange to the tongue and sound odd to the ear. Hutchinson suggests that it is the artist who most fully possesses the skewed vision that can reveal the many worlds around and beside and beyond the one we take for granted; in “The Poet in Middle America,” he invites us to “recall the artist” whose “sunburned eyes unreel/ To chase hieratic scripts blazed in neon across/ Embankments, culverts” (53), eyes that transform graffiti into something rich and strange. But, as he warns in “Committee Report” (tellingly dedicated not to, but “~after Adrienne Rich,” whose active advocacy for the importance of the arts ended with her death in March of this year), that vision is in peril: “the keys a pianist’s / Hand stumbles down in a drunken attempt at bravura” are “the only /art forms we will finance or publicly / Support” (59) and tomorrow the artist will be replaced by “Scores of artistes” who “will line up and beg /to decorate…/our dinner table with fashionable trinkets” (59).
The feverish child of Hutchinson’s collection, the time-travelling son of a historiographer, stands in (as he does for Bifford) for the potential to see, or at least imagine, beyond the limited vision the superficial world encourages: he sees the seemingly level “horizon / Sloping, gently rolling / The moon across a frost- / Blighted field towards a fissure / In the cosmos” (13), and the possibility of the line of time, which appears to march forward into the future, folding and bending to allow him to go back and become “Precambrian/ Stone, or…a sparrow/ In preternatural flight” (13). But this childhood potential is brief and short-lived: Hutchinson’s image for the verdant energy of nature and creativity is a tree that grows like “a leafy bulb screwed into the ground” that “no one notices” (30), and in its middle “There’s a sanctuary no one can see: / A self-enclosed poetics: a twofold dream” (30), the doubled dream of the visionary—the artist, the poet, the child whose vision has not yet narrowed—that is hidden from the world. Hutchinson, like Bifford, seeks to reveal that which lies beneath and beyond that which we take for granted, but his search extends beyond just what we see and into how we express it. While Bifford occasionally gets mired in the mundane—of life, and of language—Hutchinson’s turns of phrase sweetly swerve and startle, rarely succumbing to the lure of the common or the easy: the eyes of a stock trader are “the half-closed eyes of a nursing infant /…twin stars gone / Milky, nebular” (9); childhood wears a “crayon-scrawled grin” (75); words are “figures to be cast from the white-hearted lead” (51).
Both Hutchinson and Bifford seek to shake the world from its complacency, to give readers access to moments where we might pursue a “new and divine way of thinking” (37) that has the potential to transform reality even as it creates it. In the end, what each poet seems to truly want is for readers to become artists, to attain the double-sighted poet’s-eye vision that can see more and see differently. Chris Hutchinson has the truer gift of sight, but with his first collection, Darren Bifford provides enough glimpses into that other world to suggest that his own vision is developing apace.
At press time: Melissa Dalgleish is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in English at York University. Her primary areas of research and publication are mid-century Canadian modernism, new modernist studies, Canadian ‘‘pataphysics,” editorial theory, and digital humanities in a literary context. She is a founding editor of Pivot: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies and Thought, and is currently preparing for publication a digital edition of Anne Wilkinson’s 1951 collection Counterpoint to Sleep, funded by Editing Modernism in Canada.
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