Reviewed by Carl Watts
Dreamland Theatre. Caitlin Press, 2014.
A travelling theatre – mimesis itself situated in representable space – is in many ways a fitting conceit for a book by Rob Budde. Aside from acknowledging the impositions and artificiality on which written descriptions depend, the image evokes the career of a poet and editor whose work has both sprung from and actively promoted poetry communities in Winnipeg and, more recently, Prince George, British Columbia, where Budde teaches at the University of Northern British Columbia. Dreamland Theatre, a finalist for the 2015 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, is, in itself, both a refreshing departure from Budde’s cerebral, ‘90s-style experiments such as 2009’s Declining America and a more unified collection of the kind of shorter, place-based poems that made up Finding Ft. George (2007). But here Budde also infuses his poems with the appealingly self-reflexive personality of a writer who has in his critical prose and interviews made a habit of sharing his dual optimism and skepticism about his role as an academic and about poetry itself.
“1912 theatre” describes its subject’s movement “on skids in the rain, in / the mud, pulled by a team of horses,” asking what narrative is “sunk / in mud and propped / by wooden planks” and “where am I / looking from and on what / land am I standing?” (14). The faint echo of the first description succeeds in casting poetry as an inherently self-reflexive form that is uniquely able to acknowledge the contradictions of any construction of place. In “the ungrammaticality of the cameron street bridge,” Budde describes the incongruence of language and landscape using images of urban infrastructure. The titular bridge doesn’t quite work as a symbol, however, as by the end of the poem the structure itself isn’t doing any signifying. What resonates instead is the multiplicity and discordance within descriptions of even the most mundane of landmarks:
the land stolen sounds off-
rhythm, haunting language
you hear it now, the street,
(1st ave. for one) that isn't one (56)
This subtle play with the specificities of expression may not seem like anything new, but in a way it too reflects Budde’s penchant for candidly acknowledging the inescapable contradictions of being a career academic. Well aware of his role as someone who is part of the system and expected to challenge it in appropriate ways, Budde infuses his poetics with this same paradigm, both invoking expected Language Poetry tropes and rejecting outright fragmentation in favour of lightly pressing on the walls of (earlier) traditions.
Take, for example, “poetry at unbc,” which continues the collection’s gentle formal subversion via the personification of poetry (another instance of representation being employed as a literary element). Here “hobo poem” is at a poetry reading, “matching his tone to the sounds of / heating ducts and plumbing”; synecdoche edges into metonymy in the lines “the building / applauded and his grades never made it / through the mail” (66). This attention to the bunching or overlapping of literary devices that is inherent to everyday utterance at other points reflects the complexity of naming, claiming, and the often suppressed multiplicities of place. Poems such as “ashes across the pass” augment such formal twists with First Nations vocabulary, shedding light on the inescapably settler-colonial nature of even the most well-intentioned deconstructions of place in Canadian writing. Budde’s engagement with such subject matter is of a piece with the book’s larger poetics and acknowledgement of the impositions inherent to academic study, and for this reason it never offends by coming across as self-interested or merely fashionable.
Elsewhere, Budde combines academic subject matter with too-real talk about struggling post-industrial economies. “prince george chamber of commerce” declares frantically,
but jobs are created, review
publications, chapters propped
up thriving on poetry's product,
that shining bin, that exasperating cargo (80)
It goes on to unify in a single speaker the city, chamber of commerce, local economy, grad student, and processes of gentrification, the entire ungodly mixture protesting,
wait, wait I can do other things -
look, this waste can become
something else useful or
I can be a call centre or, or
I can - I can sing! (80)
In an economy where countless perpetual students fancy themselves writers and artists while carrying out precarious labour on laptops in cafés, surrounded by décor that invokes the rough-and-tumble blue-collar occupations of yesteryear, lines like Budde’s are needed desperately. Still, rather than making a front-and-centre (and perhaps necessarily gauche) intervention in the quagmire of institutionalized transgression – where writers are applauded for crossing boundaries that have been reified for the purpose of being crossed – Budde acknowledges these paradoxes by nudging them slightly downstage, all the while nodding to the Western Canadian experimental milieu he’s been involved with for decades.
It’s fitting that, late in the collection, “google sculpting on the prince george public library computers” consists of found text while also, via its title, acknowledging the poem’s construction by the poet, in a particular place, and, implicitly, during our fashionably conceptual moment. Budde’s not jumping on any bandwagons; “google sculpting” is one more instance of his gesturing outside his own poetics and yet being content to work within a set of preferred traditions, both experimental and less so. If that’s not a worthwhile instance of honing one’s craft, I don’t know what is.
Carl Watts is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University. His dissertation is on ethnic and national identities in contemporary Canadian literature; his more recent research interests include the rhetorical constructions of avant-garde and mainstream poetry. His critical writing has appeared most recently in The Winnipeg Review, Partisan, and American Review of Canadian Studies; his poetry has been published in CV2, Grain, The Mackinac, The Best Canadian Poetry 2014, and elsewhere.
Click here to return to the current issue