The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Killdeer by Phil Hall

Reviewed by Kait Pinder and J.A. Weingarten

Phil Hall

Killdeer. BookThug, 2011.

117 pp.

$18.00

 

Kait Pinder: In Another Time, Eli Mandel lists a group of books (including A.M. Klein's The Second Scroll, James Reaney's poetry, and Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie) that "comment on and construct – or at least rewrite – a literary tradition." I would describe Phil Hall's Governor-General-Award-winning book of poetry, Killdeer, in similar terms: a commentary on and reconstruction of a tradition of lyric poetry in Canada in the twentieth century. Would you agree? Do you see part of Hall’s project as a commentary that at least partially rewrites the Canadian lyric tradition?

Jeff Weingarten: I think that's a good way of describing this collection, because Hall simultaneously occupies all three of the positions Mandel describes. He comments on influences and literary friendships, constructs a poetics, then dismantles and rewrites it. I like that Mandel's note helps us describe the ways in which Hall saunters and fruitfully stumbles over a very personal literary landscape.

KP: Yes, Hall’s is a very personal literary landscape. For me, the particular literary tradition that Hall appropriates, reworks, and works to reconcile is that of lyric poetry in the twentieth century, especially since Layton. Of course, Hall's lyricism is related to his own familiar, the killdeer, which hides its vulnerabilities by pointing to its (feigned) pain.

JW: The killdeer seems an unlikely anchor for the collection. It is such an enigmatic marker.

KP: I think that this anchor applies not just to Hall's analysis of his own poetry, but also to his reading of the tradition that he inherits.

JW: So you see "tradition" as a killdeer, too?

KP: I see Hall describing lyric poetry itself as assuming the pose of the killdeer. For example, in "A Thin Plea," the poem in which Hall gives the most detailed articulation of the killdeer as a poetic familiar, the poet eventually claims: "cut the first person pronoun adrift - & the lyric will give up its addiction to pain" (102). This poem begins with Hall writing "(Falteringly)" (97), a deliberate and, as the poem will show, obviously false modesty. The next line, however, invokes "[o]ur national bird" (97), which suggests that Hall's killdeer is more than his private familiar; the image describes the persona of lyric poets in general. I suppose then, that Hall both emphasizes and calls into question the authenticity of the lyric poet’s persona. He implies that lyric poets inevitably lie.

JW: The idea of lying is interesting to me, because it often seems that another emblem of our national poetry is the figure of "the liar." We see this in Irving Layton, John Newlove, Michael Ondaatje, and so many others. Hall sometimes seems to position himself as a poet against this idea of "the liar." He criticizes Layton's "truth-mask," his insincere and "mood-drenched" poetry (80). He also proclaims at one point that "invented lives are insults to our life stories" (72). But then we have this image of the killdeer, a singing and lying bird, and that's what he is, too. That duality, the singer and liar, that's exactly what allows the lyric poet to be both celebrated and excoriated. So what does Hall think about liars? And who are the liars in Canadian literature?

KP: Hall also suggests that lying is productive, so we can’t really say that he disdains liars. I think we can add Leonard Cohen to such a list of liars. Remember Cohen begins Flowers for Hitler with the lines "I don't know if the world has lied / I have lied." It's the Liar Paradox, which also applies to Hall’s position: I am lying; believe me. It's hard to tell then where Hall's "puppetry" begins and ends. But Hall extends this difficulty in another direction when he begins to talk about health: "What if all I know how to write is a cry - what if health has no poem" (101). And the poem ends with the image of Hall in A.M. Klein's rocking chair: "Safer - healthier - silent - I sit in our rocking chair" (104). Again, we should note that Hall is concerned with the nation – “our rocking chair” – but, I wonder how healthy we imagine the silent poet taking Klein's place might be.

JW: "Health" in poetry is a fascinating idea, too. It seems that most authors have a hard time accepting the life of a poet as a "healthy" life. Hall even says that "language" hasn't "healed" him, but "therapy" has (101). I think he is continually coming back to this double-vision, that "rhythm [or poetry] is knowledge" (59), but knowledge has the potential to make us sick, to make us "see" too much. There is never a moment in Hall's collection when he isn't pulling us in two directions at once, making us see a divided perspective. It makes this collection such a wonderfully provocative experience, because he is constantly reminding us with his poems that "[c]larity is not pure - it's intricate" (59). That's why we have this sustained sense of movement in the collection, a lyric wandering.

KP: And for Hall movement is connected to both words and pain. The collection begins with "Adios Polka" in which he writes: "Whenever I get lost / Ontario does not wound me" (11) even though in "Verulam," my personal favourite because Hall is from the small rural area where I grew up, he explains that he was driven to leave the wounds of his township: "The furthest I ever ran away - was from what my childhood & region seemed to insist on // Silence - ignorance - bitterness - crudity - xenophobia - contempt for all that is fanciful (books etc) - addiction - violence - misogyny" (115). But just as when he was a boy he finds solace in his fanciful books, so at the beginning of his collection he promises to move "wordward" (11).

JW: Yes, definitely. There it is again, that duality in Hall’s collection: attention to and escape from the local. "Local," he says, "is my most shameful pride - local is what threatened me with silence" (112). The line is decidedly against the William Carlos Williams craze in Canada during the 1960s and 1970s; the idea of what Williams called in Paterson a "local pride" appealed to many authors experimenting with the long poem. Hall, though, just wants to move, to "leave" or "go away"; that kind of language recurs throughout the collection. What perplexes me about that feature of his writing, though, is that Hall seems so attentive to rhythm, prosody, and structure, but then seems equally eager to reveal the process of writing, to include "distractions" in the poem (90). The poems establish an incredible tension between the well-wrought urn and the Olsonian postmodernist poetry of process.

KP: I wonder if Hall comes full circle in his "most shameful pride." If the local –Verulam, Fenelon Falls, Bobcaygeon, the ethos of which Hall captures brilliantly – "threatened [him] with silence" how do we reconcile that with the image at the end of "A Thin Plea" of the healthy poet silently rocking "our" chair? Perhaps the answer is somewhere in the last poem; in "Envoi" Hall writes: "going is what I trust / in a way" (117). And maybe that's why the rocking chair remains a potent image, for in it, the poet moves in one place.

JW: I think that's a fair assessment. Hall's poetry is laden with such logical paradoxes. And that last line is emblematic of that feature in his writing. You can’t help but hear "a way" and "away" at the same time. And I can’t say why, but I also thought of Margaret Laurence's Hagar, "it was [a lie] spoken at least and at last with what may perhaps be a kind of love." You can hear a similar uncertainty, a similar reticence, in Hall’s last lines. The early sections of Killdeer show that Laurence was a major influence on Hall’s writing, and I think that wonderfully mysterious last line proves he's inherited her ability to inspire distrust in the reader. At the same time,  I think the frequent mention of Laurence just reminds us how intensely allusive Hall can be. It seems like every Canadian author makes it into this book.

KP: Hall certainly invokes the spirits of most of the mid-century Canadian authors of note: Margaret Laurence, Dorothy Livesay, Irving Layton, James Reaney, Al Purdy, just to name a few. In the end, I think it is extremely fitting that this collection of poetry – which calls up the tradition in which it participates by name, gives us a kind of history of the Canadian lyric, and powerfully asks us to start trying to imagine a kind of healthy lyricism – should have won a national award for poetry.  

JW: Absolutely. Hall deserves every ounce of recognition he received for this book. Killdeer isn’t just a history of Canadian lyricism, it’s a rich collection that considers various trajectories in Canadian writing and in individual careers: we find Hall meditating on lying, tradition, influence, aging, writing, and so much more. I think a lot of poets feel their best poems were written early in their careers; look, for instance, at someone like Layton, whose post-1960 writing never regained the vigour of his early work. But Hall shows just how much a poet can achieve after decades of writing. He proves that writers and writing can get better as time goes on.

 

 

At press time: Kait Pinder holds a CGS scholarship at McGill University where she studies Canadian modernism. In her spare time she enjoys watching soap operas and playing Bejeweled. 

 

At press time: J. A. Weingarten is a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University. He is also the recipient of a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship. His thesis, "Postwar Canadian Modernism and Historiographic Poetry," explores trends in later Canadian modernist writing. His recent publications include an article on the poetry of Al Purdy and George Bowering in Open Letter (Fall 2010), as well as reviews in English Studies in Canada and Canadian Literature. 

 

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