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Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Guest Review: Saunders on Begnal and DuMars

Craig Saunders reviews
Ancestor Worship by Michael S. Begnal
and
Big Pink Umbrella by Susan Millar DuMars

Michael S. Begnal and Susan Millar DuMars are both poets, both hail from the United States, and both have set down roots in Ireland. They share a publisher, Salmon, and were born in 1966.

Both collections are relatively concrete in their approach. DuMars’ book, Big Pink Umbrella, paints very clear emotional pictures. Begnal’s Ancestor Worship creates a more challenging set of psychogeographic explorations. All too often, modern poetry fights too hard to be abstract, often for the sake of intellectual posturing. The strength of both of these collections lies in their accessibility.

DuMars has a curious style, particularly in the first part of her collection. Her poems tend to be setups for an emotional punchline at the end. She does this with evident skill, often leading the reader through a discourse on the familiar, wondering what the point is, only to blindside them in the last line or two. It’s a technique she uses well, but after a while, it becomes more or less predictable. It becomes tempting to just skip to the end and see how she’ll hook you.

At times, these punchlines deliver a wallop. The best, perhaps, is in a simple poem called “Honey.” Its narrator is a child watching her mother in the kitchen. The images are simple and familiar, but at the end, she delivers two lines, “Mom, keep singing./ I am your daughter,” which come with surprising power. The poem brings out fear of loss and separation, and for a single parent, they’re almost chilling.

The poems in her book do not explore grand ideals. This is not Dorothy Livesay crying out for the fate of humankind. It is emotional and direct. At least, that’s when it’s at its best, as in poems such as “Morning Kisses.”

My hands, stained with coffee grounds,
look like a gardener’s hands.
The early air is soft and damp on my face,
and I thank the sky

for morning kisses.

But then comes the other Susan Millar DuMars. While the first half is lovely, if not earth shaking (except for "Silk Scarf", which may offend some feminist sensibilities ), the second half of the collection seems weaker, and even, at times, self-indulgent.

Perhaps that’s what one should expect when confronted by poems with titles including “On Not Getting Nominated,” or “To a Writer I Used to Know.” The former is a brief cry of despair at, well, not getting nominated, something that all writers face. And some anguish over. And, apparently, some feel compelled to publish that moment of rejection. As for the latter, it’s an attack on an unnamed writer. The Irish have a long history of masterfully poetic insults, but this one doesn’t manage to muster the artful vitriol of J.M. Synge.

Big Pink Umbrella starts out well. There’s an uncomplicated charm to it, and there are several lovely poems that show the writer’s evident skill. Unfortunately, near the end, it descends into the work of a writer writing about being a writer.

Ancestor Worship, by Michael S. Begnal, is an entirely different creature. His poems are often more complex. They frequently build on a sense of place, often blurring geographic lines and creating a sense of displacement, perhaps most obviously in “Walled City,” where dream blurs Galway and childhood memories of Prague. At other times, the lines blur, uniting disparate cultural landscapes in the way a traveler or expatriate will look for the familiar within the foreign. He does this with varying degrees of success in the longer poem, “Madrilenos.”

For the most part, Begnal’s poems bring together an obvious love of travel and cultural exploration, and a superb ability to convey the mood of a place. It’s hard to imagine Ireland, or the UK., for that matter, without the pub where old men gather and have done so from the beginning of their memories. This he captures masterfully in “Old Men’s Bar.”

Salmon-pink walls, this fishy room,
these stuffy cushioned booths
(I’m tolerated),
old men pouring the water jug,
whiskeying their innate suspicion of writers,
fellas in caps just shooting the shit,
“Can you read without the glasses?”

No book of poetry completely comprises gems of literature, and this is no exception. There are weaker works in it, and at times some needlessly coarse language (at other times, clearly justified coarseness). But Ancestor Worship has more than its share of gems and is, simply, a pleasure to read and to explore.

Poetry of this sort is at its best when it takes you into the heart of the scene, and Begnal frequently manages this magical transportation. It’s a book to read and to re-read. And given that the poet is still relatively young, it’s a book that leaves hope for even better works to come.

Craig Saunders is a Toronto-based writer.
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