Reviewed by Phil Hall
The Hatch. Talonbooks, 2015.
Photo by Gilles Ehrmann: André Breton's apartment at 42, rue Fontaine, 1968
It is time that the film-maker / poet Colin Browne from BC got celebrated for the work he has done through four books now, all published by Talonbooks: Ground Water (2002), The Shovel (2007), The Properties (2012), and this latest one, The Hatch.
I don’t mean awards. I mean that this sustained paper work is of a piece, and merits careful consideration as such. It all deserves to be sat down with and listened fully to, more than it maybe has been. Browne’s eclectic and wide-ranging ear invites company, conversations…
Subtitled “poems and conversations,” this new book continues to explore the serial poem, and (as the jacket notes say) the serial poem’s “true vocation as collage.” This is the branch of sequence writing instigated by example by Robin Blaser & Jack Spicer in the 1950s: exploratory takes that avoid the epigram, side-step wholeness, disavow singularity of vision, and use language to sustain complexity. This is collage in which diverse elements of scholarship, history, and biography pull revelations into bundles toward a furthering, a widening…
As Browne says, the sentence is a spoon (75). If so, then the task becomes how to subvert and use the syntax of the sentence so that the resulting poem is not a digging tool. These poems do just that by many strategies, but mainly by avoiding summation or codas. Although poems here are sometimes set pieces, composed for gallery events, or so strong we will pause for breath, generally there is nowhere to get off and feel satisfied. Nothing has been ultimately pronounced upon, resolved, or solved. Instead, the next song-part invites us, the next page (or footage/frame) opens us on... I find this exhilarating.
In The Hatch, Browne is attempting the impossible, and hooray for that: starting from where he is, and who he is (reaching back to Scotland)—he is trying to pan the connections between Surrealism (André Breton, Francis Picabia, etc.) and the West Coast and its Native arts and traditions. You will perhaps remember a photo of André Breton’s desk and study, where art, totems, and masks from BC are on display. One result is that Browne’s book is populated by not only historical figures but by Wolf and Raven and Fungus Man, etc.
How could we not love and be intrigued by a book of poems that celebrates the old-fashioned political savvy of many of our waning heroes? These include (hold your hat) Norman Bethune, Emily Carr, Hank Snow, Aimé Césaire, Charles Olson, Blaise Cendrars, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Antonin Artaud, D H Lawrence, and Sorley MacLean… all in evidence here.
As with Browne’s other Talonbooks titles, part of the pleasure is to be found in the thorough notes and the list of sources. These supply a deepening of historical and personal connections. But this poet is also a sound poet—see the poem “Swan” (39); a visual poet—see “imperium” (6); an artist—see his little drawings of dragonflies throughout and at the end-pages; a librettist, a film-maker (as I mentioned), a collaborator—see “Root Map” (23); and a translator—read “The poet’s room (Anna Akhmatova)” (124).
This poet can apparently do anything: long-lined narrative poems of spoof and homage (in the earlier books), very tiny poems, tender garden lyrics, defiant chants… The diversity and dexterity are dazzling, the images stick, the phrasing causes slaps or shivers. Here is a taste:
there are lost languages
i lament their passing
the human hive becomes coarser and
more stupid each time the phrases
of an intricate and beautiful language are silenced
my nation has rolled its sleeves up its powerful young arms
and taken a mattock to the poems
and melodies that are its sacred trust
its corporations, indemnified and indifferent to their occupation
strangle regional dialects to subsidize clichés
we’re a nation of bullies
once we saluted the Union Jack
now it’s the concussion,
lines of riot police
and the chill of retribution (5)
In contrast, listen to this stanza from “A shore, or Colin in Dogtown”:
Inadvertently, I became the peristaltic or was it the periphrastic tube beneath the
veranda of William James. The first soul past the porte cochère clucked.
On the Dutch door a stencilled “ROUGE” kindled a bladder-full of split figs
adjacent to the corporation’s Forged Affidavits project. (9)
The straight & the crooked share a politics, whether in the fine old traditions of curse and lament, or by the juxtaposing methods of the New Sentence.
Add to these: “the lane,” the title poem “the hatch,” and “Klee Wick”—where residential schools in Canada are called “as sorry a record of civic courage as you’ll find anywhere” (77)—and you have my favourites.
Of course there is a danger in drawing from such disparate sources; a reader may find (for instance) a bike ride at night, Blaise Cendrars’s missing arm, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Desnos, and a woman selling jewellery in a parking-lot market in Merritt BC (66)—all too much to hold in a one-page brief scattering of lines…But diverse elements brought together under pressure can ferment musically and find untold meaning. (Pound showed us this.)
It is only by a weaving of wider and wider association—surreal gleaning—that any one section of a poem can be redeemed from the randomness of its poet’s personality. If the poem in question were unto itself—it would topple; but in the context of its sequence and book—the collaged page can risk and open coheringly, and does: “the miraculous pours / out of everything” (84).
If you haven’t read Colin Browne, I urge you to.
Phil Hall’s most recent books are Guthrie Clothing, the Poetry of Phil Hall, a Selected Collage (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2015) and My Banjo and Tiny Drawings (Flat Singles Press, 2015). He is Poetry Editor at BookThug, and lives near Perth ON.
Photo Credit: Mark Goldstein
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