Tuesday, March 07, 2006

P.E.I. Poet Packs a Punch

Reviewed by Nicholas Lea

shauna mccabe’s first trade collection offers up spiritually heavy, often gritty, sometimes sweet poems of Tennessee road trips, maritime love affairs, God in streams, and geomorphology. ancient motel landscape is a dense, stylistic and thematically ambitious collection that deals primarily in the “experimental” or “avant-garde” (dangerous terms, I know) ; relying heavily on syntactical, grammatical, and linguistic experimentation for effect, rather than overt imagism or linear-style, narrative tropes. To say her poems are challenging would not be an understatement.

However, mccabe does a good job of straddling experimentation with readability. Her meanings, though sometimes enigmatic, are not lost in self-indulgent poetic showboating à la Post-Modern. mccabe may make you work for it, but once you’ve got it, you won’t be disappointed. Poems like “the stream trinity”, a compelling sequence, balances floaty, abstract language with vivid concrete images: “i the valley for this stream … in these/fields that roll/gently/to/wood”. In the same poem, mccabe incorporates an almost metaphysical conceit (sustained metaphor) of the stream as a spiritual place of origin, in a clearly free-verse stylized poem, displaying her alertness to poetry’s traditions as well as its tradition of innovation.

mccabe isn’t always so lofty though, and actually begins her collection with a section that might be more akin to a Johnny Cash aesthetic than a Donnian one. “how we know hearts”, reads almost like a country tune, with thick dialectic hues and a muscular-but-tender tone, typical of a Hank Williams Sr. song: “cryin’ lovin’ leavin’/uneven cowboy bearings/so far from happy/as clams”. Here, mccabe is more playful with the language, while still keeping true to her poetic.

By far, her strongest poems are in the section “land over time”. mccabe uses the motif of geology and geologic time in this section as well as drives home the theme of landscape that pervades the collection as a whole. “physical geography” is a wonderfully executed piece that uses the metaphor of landscape erosion for human erosion. The poem itself almost exhibits the same type of vulnerability as that of the subject matter: “it is almost a rule … land once weakened/fails/then falls/i am this right through”.

A major flaw in the collection is that it is way too long (6 sections, totaling 116 pages) and could have done without some of the weaker sections that stick out like a sore thumb (or thumbs), such as “the compass rose poems”, which deals too much in stick diction, maudlin tones and clichéd themes, making the poems far less memorable. Overall, shauna mccabe’s ancient hotel landscape is an exciting, well-wrought, and eclectic collection for any reader who is not interested in tired, run-of-the-mill type poetry.

ancient motel landscape, shauna mccabe Release: September 2005 poetry (BISAC: POE011000) All rights available117 pp, 6 x 9, 6 b&w photographs, trade paperBroken Jaw Press’ Cauldron Books, 6ISBN 978-1-55391-041-1 or 1-55391-041-9$19.00 CDN, $17.00 US

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