Guest Review: Wood on Howell and Auerbach

James W. Wood reviews
Ghost Test Flights by Bill Howell
Radius of Light by Joshua Auerbach

Canadian writers face an unwelcome task in trying to create a recognisably Canadian literature. Living under the hulking shadow of the world’s most powerful and, to some, culturally imposing nation, Canadian writers are too used to being subsumed into their neighbour’s traditions by foreign commentators to find the phenomenon worthy of comment most of the time.

Added to this, Canada’s writers have at their disposal a smorgasbord of traditions that generations of immigrants have brought to their country, imparting French, Irish, Scots, English, Welsh, Portuguese and, more recently, Chinese and Korean influences. And native Canadian stories and poetry have their own compelling power that clearly influences the nation’s output, as best seen in Michael Crumey’s recent and brilliant novel River Thieves. Given all of these factors, it’s easy to see why writers such as Atwood and Robertson Davies have more often been described as “the novelist Margaret Atwood”, rather than “the Canadian novelist…” – in literary terms, Canada’s independent identity is an unstable, shifting presence, ghosting it between the financial power of the American cultural machine and the much-cursed blessing of the European tradition.

As poets, Bill Howell and Joshua Auerbach evince this sense of a culture still trying to find its own voice between the shadows of other, more established literatures. For instance, Joshua Auerbach leans heavily on the American confessional tradition whilst translating Eluard, and references both Robert Frost’s work and that of Rilke as having inspired some of the pieces in his volume. Similarly, Bill Howell’s poems are often confessional in the style of a more humorous Robert Lowell, say – but again, the European tradition of the prose poem, Scots words such as “fusty” and the rhyming quatrains of the romantic balladeers all point to another set of influences from the other side of the Atlantic.

Optimistically, one might hope to say that the direct address and compelling voyeuristic thrill of reading the best kind of confessional poetry is mixed with the deft handling of form commonly found in the European tradition to deliver unforgettable verse from these poets – though sadly, this is too often not the case.

Bill Howell is a long-time and well-respected CBC radio dramatist, as well as being a poet. His Ghost Test Flights comes as thirty pages of verse wrapped into an A5 chapbook format. The poems are sometimes self-referential to the point of being hermetically sealed off to anyone who does not know the poet, as seen in the long poem “Metaphysical Weather Report”, which occasionally uses italics for no obvious reason, slips into quatrains (in italics) and launches into an extraordinary if breathless attack on God, Fate and Nature: “ Fuck God for making Nature so lovely-looking/After the fact.”

Things improve a good deal later in the volume, when the self-conscious need to say “something” is subsumed into a raw desire to express feeling, the driver at the core of any successful writing. Poems such as “Big Stars, Off Halifax” and especially “Grief”, come closer to succeeding by throwing away the unwelcome formal tics of a poem like “About The Dog”, and just say what they mean. Again, though, there are unwelcome, unexplainable intrusions from literary references – stars are described as being as “big/As Lorca’s fists” – not an analogy that immediately suggests anything obvious, given the Spanish poet’s notoriously passive nature when it came to physical confrontation.

“Late Light” is the most successful poem in this volume, combining Howell’s understated tone with lovely descriptions of the natural world, “those thoughtful clouds/misty quilts, smoky blankets, dusted pillows; the rusty/industry of distance, the instant since of dusk”. Whilst the loading of sibilants in the last line of this stanza might be too much for some, it does at least achieve a hypnotic, incantatory rhythm that sets up the poem’s central argument about the “imaginary angel-moths circling/their own questions” – in other words, the limits of what we, as people, can hope to achieve both in our lives and in loving others, “the wonder of our wondering”. If one of the poems from this chapbook were to be anthologised in some fashion, this would have to be it. Indeed, Howell’s strengths seem to lie in his understated tone, his modest, self-deprecating humour and his keen eye for nature.

Joshua Auerbach is another Canadian poet who shows a strong feeling for nature and a knack for descriptions of the physical world. Here he is in “Boreal”, describing a scene by the side of a lake: “We look out on to lakes/thrushes, bulrushes and small perch/that glide on mirrored light” – the scene springs into vivid life in Auerbach’s hands. Whether what Auerbach is seeking to achieve is always necessarily welcome, however, is a different matter: the powerful message of impending environmental catastrophe in “Night Train”— “Come, cries the crow: the dark is now” shows him at his best, whilst “Herniated Disc”, and, “Concinnity” are guilty of the worst excesses of the confessional school, displaying the concern with self that delivered the confessional movement’s unwelcome reputation in the seventies and eighties.

There is no doubt that Joshua Auerbach is a poet of potential power and, at times, strong delivery. Poems such as “Gatineau Hills”, or, “Reading Frost in a Clearing” are of an international standard of achievement, along with perhaps ten or twelve other pieces in this book. It’s worthy of note that the most accomplished poems in Auerbach’s book come from an awareness of the possibilities of form coupled with an emotional urgency, the desire to express mentioned above in the reading of Howell’s shorter volume.

Too often, though, Auerbach’s book is content to revert to the vertical pronoun (“I”) as a means of asserting the truth of any situation, rather than creating an internal logic in his poems which will persuade the reader.

Perhaps, like their Scottish counterparts, Canadian poets should learn the gift of grabbing what luck hasn’t given them in the shape of a cultural identity, and then forge something new, different and compelling from the experience of being Canadian.

James W. Wood is a poet and critic based in Scotland.

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