Reviewed by Ryan Porter
Wild Horses. University of Alberta Press 2010
Halfway through rob mclennan’s new collection of poems, wild horses, appears “After Spicer,” a poem that, as paradoxical as it seems, offers an exploration of Jack Spicer’s ideas through mclennan’s own allusive and seemingly impenetrable language. This poem, the collection’s hinge, leaves the reader tempted to view the Spicer references as dropped breadcrumbs leading to a clearing in the thick tangle of the collection’s metaphors. Flashes of potential intertexts with Spicer’s poetry or brief, possible allusions to Spicer’s biography only seem to deepen the sense of something very purposeful and directed occurring just underneath the random profusion of images and phrases. But, alas, it would take a Spicer scholar to tease out the connections and to offer a more sophisticated formal reading of mclennan’s poems than the one on offer here.
In his “Vancouver Lectures,” American poet Jack Spicer suggests that the poet is nothing more than a conduit for a poem dictated by otherworldly sources, what Spicer humorously refers to as “Martians.” Poets—good poets that is—should not impose their will on the poem, because “[l]anguage isn’t anything of itself. It’s something which is in the mind of the host that the parasite (the poem) is invading.” The poem in its earliest phase, what Spicer calls “a source of energy,” exists primarily outside of language; only the “Martian” as medium can dictate this “source of energy” into words and images that the poet can grasp: “essentially you [the poet] are something which is being transmitted into.” The more meddling by the conscious mind and language of the poet, the more the poet “fouls up” the poem.
Spicer’s theories offer a second way into mclennan’s poems for the partially initiated, since he posits an irreconcilable rift between the poet and poem. The poem is, essentially, foreign territory to the poet, and is placed into his or her comprehension only through the dictation of an intermediary. The poet is never on home-turf with the poem. Significantly, the central theme in mclennan’s collection is exile, as it is the product of his stint as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta during the 2007-2008 academic year. mclennan, a poet with a long attachment to Ottawa, introduces his collection with “a short walk into exile,” a poem questioning the disunity between poet and place, a theme that surfaces throughout the first half:
an opening up of transfer, west; a soil
or restless gone
if this my paris, new new york
what more you, skin? (1)
By questioning Edmonton as the destination of the artistic expatriate, mclennan doubts his endeavour at the moment of its inception, with a hint of irony attached to the idea of Edmonton as a creative destination.
What develops throughout the first half of the collection is a sense of the melancholy and mundanity of exile. “[A]fter having spent so much time indoors” measures the days not in Prufrockian coffee spoons, but rather in “the office / where I spend & make my, / daily […] every morning skip of soft white pages / slip” (12). mclennan’s “poem listening to my daughter at a distance of some thousand miles” offers analogies between the physical and emotional distance between the exile and his loved ones: “you would yourself pull / a word from childhood / to measure: bare miles” (34).
Following “After Spicer” a shift occurs in the collection’s second half, titled Map of Edmonton. mclennan charts this city in which the northern lights appear like “blue / shifting sands” (32), through the riddle quality of haiku-like lines. These offer personal moments of the quotidian life of the exile, the intimacies conducted within the city’s corners among the city’s inhabitants. Yet if we interpret the placement of this section, we can read it as a poet transcending a Spicerean linguistic disunity in which the poet is exiled from the source of his poems. The transcendence occurs on both a formal and thematic level; the poet resolves himself to place through inhabitation, and the poem no longer traverses a rift but emerges from an attachment to place. mclennan asks, though: “does any traveler risk / becoming foreign to those / in his own lands?” (48). As place molds the exile, is he then distanced from the source of his longing: home? While there are no answers offered here, what is clear at the end of this collection is that, over time, the once-exiled poet can now define the terms and substance of his exile: his non-home place.
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At press time: Ryan Porter lives and teaches in Ottawa. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Queen's University. His dissertation, "'You Can't Get There From Here': Small-Town Ontario, Nostalgia, and Urban Memory in the Works of Selected Ontario Writers," recently won the Queen's English Department's A.C. Hamilton Prize for Outstanding Merit, and his articles and reviews have appeared in a number of journals.