Monday, August 07, 2006

“poem for a sad november” from aubade by rob mclennan: some notes

I should be offering a detailed look at the entire book, fresh off the presses by Broken Jaw Press, but I’ve chosen to dally with the long poem I find most striking, in a book of remarkable work. As a follower of mclennan’s poetry, I am noticing growth in his writing. He’s always experimented with form and language, and these poems are no exception, but I’m finding his newest work to be more lyrical, more personal than in the past. By publishing yearly, or in some cases even more often, he gives readers an opportunity rarely presented: to see the evolution of a writer’s work as it develops and as he is exposed to new influences on his writing. This year he already has another book out with British publisher Stride, called "name, an errant" plus the chapbook, Perth Flowers published by Nomados Press

mclennan excels in the long poem and the series. He’s often said that when he writes, he thinks in terms of longer poems rather than in terms of one moment, one poem.

There is something so intensely beautiful about this poem, that I keep coming back to it. Here are my thoughts on the poem, bearing in mind that all is up for grabs, that interpretation is subjective.

“poem for a sad november” is a love poem, a lament, which opens with a quote by American poet and blogger Ron Silliman: “The sky grows lighter before it starts to rain.” The quote informs the tone of the poem with tentative hope and the pessimism associated with the month of November and with a love unblossomed.

Kudos to Joe Blades of Broken Jaw Press for the design and layout of “aubade.” In the case of this particular poem, there is enough space for the spaces between, which is an important element of mclennan’s poetry. Any publisher who tries to crowd the words of this poet is doing the work a disservice.

The opening is two lines at the bottom of a page, with space between each line:

“the impedimentia of grey white on the street below

breath like ghosts, float white affront the mouth”

As always mclennan is a clever word player. Here he blends “impediment,” a hindrance or obstruction with “dementia,” deterioration of mental faculties.

The opening lines act as a preamble to the poem. Throughout the poem, the images of white, of breath, air and floating recur.

Each section is separated by asterices (aster ices), which, for me, given the white, evoke snowflakes. In a mclennan poem, every element, including the visual, is deliberate.

“how many winters will i sit thru

before the ease begins, hearts aplomb
& sacrifice of days thru heart / she speaks
/ she says & then she just wont say / says
i dont know / i dont know
abt this / she says / wont speak / & now
no messages in days / watch ice form
on the trees outside the window

each drop pools the alabaster window frame”

The question form in line one of this stanza evokes the lament. Think Scottish bagpipes, a dirge which starts slowly, has themes and variations and returns to the melody or refrain.

mclennan breaks apart the stanza at the beginning and at the end, interrupting November’s freezing rain with thoughts of “she.” The interruption is in the form of internal thought, a realistic rather than traditionally poetic representation, which is classic mclennan.

Once again we have the reference to the colour white: “alabaster,” a dense translucent, white gypsum or variety of hard calcite. He could have said “pooling in the frame,” which would have been more expected, but “pooling the frame” makes the reader question the image, and gives the idea of the drops of ice melting and pooling, as if softening the hard window frame.

Next stanza is one line separated by an asterix:

“new for me still then becomes”

This method of separating one line from other lines by isolating it into its own stanza, breaking phrases and reordering words is disorienting, a way of interrupting the flow, of forcing a careful read.

“the tempest

ask which ocean the wind shows / the storm
backs off to the sound of its name

west windows out into the point-of-yard / check
back only thru the eastern front door
/ where one is another / which way

nearly bought a snow shovel in calgary october
to put my lips out, mine out there
to hers in the warehouse mall
film & letter drop / break
& yellow circles navigate white spread”

More evocation of air and breath, this time a wind going from west to east. The very interesting notion of the storm backing off to the sound of its name makes one think of the power of naming things, naming love perhaps, a new love becomes a tempest. Here nature is interrupted by the description of a romantic tableau, but a twenty first century view of romanticism, a kiss in a warehouse mall.

Once more the image of white, this time broken by yellow circles, an image of light on the snow, echoing the opening quotation.

“so much of this the way of remembering

trickles and fragments / goes thru
aversion, in that / what had happened, or
plows push thru the street / melts
wet footprints clear the earth / visibly

streams of white pour over government smokestacks
/the bridge to hull / past bytown / by”

We’ve moved now back to Ottawa, with mentions of Hull and Bytown. Mclennan is an admirer of regional poetry, poetry of place and this is clear in his own work. He often makes mention of Ottawa, the city of his birth. If others are known for the prairie long poem, McLennan is becoming the Ottawa long poem specialist, or do we have to say the Central Canada long poem specialist?

This section is dreamlike, smoky, the image of white still prevalent. mclennan has included a lot of liquid imagery in this poem, and most particularly in this stanza, we have the trickle of memory, the melt of wet footprints. Once more there is a clearing, an attempt to plow away all this yearning. Mclennan is emotional without being sappy. He uses the force of language and imagery to convey emotion.

“make out where we beseech the world
& long for beautiful days

the treacheries of the day-to-day / & green earth
peat moss bog beneath the understep
& swallows, whole / sentimentality

& pale descriptions / airplanes
circle the earth like stars / satellite

& rocket fuel commence / small parcels
& arrive in even smaller positions

the one chair where my mother sits / & wont
be moved”

The mention here of “treacheries” in reference to the day-to-day is an effective juxtaposition. Day-to-day is usually just ordinary stuff, how can it betray, how it is unfaithful? The feel of green earth under one’s feet is a lie in November. The longing is here once more, for “beautiful days.” Yet descriptions are pale, sentimentality is swallowed whole. Still mclennan pens a lyric of hope where airplanes circle like stars.

This technique of going from the wide circle of an airplane’s swatch to the small movement of a mother in a chair who won’t be moved is brilliant. Somehow the non-movement of the mother seems harder to understand, harder to accept, given that airplanes can circle the earth like stars. The poem feels very personal and the reader develops an intimate sense of the narrator as the poem moves forward. This is something that is difficult to accomplish in a short poem.

“look at me now, o mother, what have
i become

if you dont have it, you dont
need it / requiem

for sour grapes / to justify

five spaces left”

Interesting mention of a requiem here, a mass for someone who has died, or a music composition for the deceased, a hymn. This works well with the whole idea of this poem as a lament. The use of the interjection “O” is very much part of a lament, but not something one typically finds in a mclennan poem. O can be an interjection and it can also appear as a zero in print.

“corona down the macrolevel of a

novel spent overwritten on the trees / crack
ice or air she culls it, glass en français,

glace / not wrong but one language overlay
the other

beautiful & binary, irregular and dangerous”

Binary is the idea of something consisting of two parts. There’s the mention of ice once more, and the connection between glass and ice. The poem is covered with a layer of glass. The structure of the poem is binary also, beneath the weather layer, is a personal layer where lost love and family are lamented, in a twenty first century version of the pathetic fallacy.

There’s some delicious sound play here: the repetition of hard c in corona, crack culls, a hardening of the layers, but also a fracture, a crack of ice and glass.

“this lyrical twoness—breaks apart
distinction of the heart & beauty myth,
binary / yang / ying that completes the
hidden circle / i miss you
like alberta moisture, dry snow
so wet & cold & damp
sung deep in the bones”

With an abstract start to this section through references once again to the binary and to the philosophical yin/yang, the sudden “I miss you” packs an emotional wallup, touches the reader, then it goes on with an unusual simile, a bit of dry wit “alberta moisture, dry snow” and then back to another emotional punch “so wet & cold & damp / sung deep in the bones.” This is another example of the ability of the writer to juxtapose nature with the personal, abstraction with emotion. This ability is what gives mclennan’s poems their memorability. You don’t forget lines like these and the emotions they conjure up.

“presents a reasoning for this cold november
more than seasonal heat & lack thereof
prevents a making of
stone cold soup / hydraulic sage
& microwave blaze / old
radiation-king / & roommate
argues with her boyfriend, screams

thru the wall a desire that has not been spent”

The precision of the details here, the attention to sound in the long a of sage and blaze, and the close observations of the narrator make this section very poignant. You know what he means when he talks about a woman who screams a desire not spent. The idea of the doubling is still here, perhaps the doubling of the narrator and the woman with unspent desire.

“characterizing all spring rhythm—beat march
rapids & tripping, almost
liquid food / falls the gait
of desperation breathing thru

quiet anxieties / of snow
& liquid turnd to ice/ persistent chill

& heartbeats collapsing from the wait

/ the disappearance marks itself

/from beneath itself / an imprint”

Just stop here and admire the lovely imagery: “quiet anxieties / of snow” and the double entendre: “heartbeats collapsing from the wait.” Once again the imagery of snow, air and breath, liquid and disappearance. The repetition of these images throughout the poem reinforces this poem as a lament, provides a structure for the poem. In the previous section, mclennan has linked the ongoing winter to the “I miss you,” so that now all he needs mention is the persistent chill and there’s a metonymic representation of absence through the reference to snow.

“the dissolute warmth the body recalls
from seasons past / grasping arms / long
fingers pull closer

defensive moves/ turns strength
against itself

an open letter purporting / to be”

Here we have the sensuousness of warmth after the cold lament of snow, but its much more abstract than the previous sections, almost blank in its starkness with references to the body, grasping arms and fingers that pull closer. There’s a kind of depersonalization of the memory here.

“dont make much out of a spiritual crisis
/it happens all the time, to enter
the mind of the speaker
amid speech / & warm

that sort of piety / a theory
of absolutes doesnt wash

take out of the rain / dissolves”

There’s a feeling of washing clean in this section as if the narrator tries to talk himself out of the emotions through intellectualization. Rain washes everything away. There are occasional religious references in the poem. Here we have the notion of piety and absolutes.

“no one knows what other accumulations exist

lie beside the phone / pretending
to flip channels / space heat red
glow out into presumptiveness & pro

:creation myths and syllabus / to know
the name, look up the number / twelve
hours pass by fruitlessly / an orange”

This section has the feel of time stretched out waiting. Colours are no longer white but red and orange, but the heat isn’t real, it’s artificial. mclennan plays with words once more here, breaks up the word procreation, in order to have a doubling once more: procreation and creation myths, the sophistry of having to know a number to find a name. All these details add up to the absurdity of waiting for the cold November to pass, for the love to come to fruition.

“to act, air
of days pass

blood ghazals
& stealing breath”

This short section repeats the motif of air. Ghazals are created out of blood, out of stealing breath. What is created from raw emotion.

“the first poem to synchronize swim
lake winnipeg &
the ottawa river
what saint gregory
called angels, angles
in flesh”

Here is an example of mclennan’s playing with conventional concepts to turn them on their heads. Be wary of swimming too deeply in literal waters with a mclennan poem. Just enjoy this, think of the concept of doubling. There’s another doubling in this poem highlighted by the mention of Lake Winnipeg and the Ottawa River, and that’s the references to both the Prairies and to Ottawa.

Angels are a theme that runs throughout the poems of “aubade” starting from the front and back cover paintings to direct references in the poems. There’s also word play of angels with angles, the whole reference an allusion to the story of Pope Gregory.

“spills coffee across the sheets of this page
& eighty-eight keys, piano forte

a life lived solely for 80s new wave”

There’s such a surrealistic feel to this poem. It meanders. In this section, we see once again the self-referentiality of the speaker to the poem being written. Throughout the poem there are references to the process of writing poetry.

mclennan’s poems often contain references to pop culture, to the era he’s living in. In this case a reference to 80s new wave music is a common feature of a mclennan poem. While some think it’s not a good idea to include popular culture in a literary work, mclennan has never shied away from referencing it as a deliberate force that informs his writing.

“this innocent movement, what stylistic body incarnates

the dimension of the poem? the self-consciously
constructed on the heavenly number seven,
conventional ingredient of the perfect rhythm,
first syllabic, of the fact always in

the only significant pause. oh, there
little aesthetic shocks. gets between

the blanket & her warm thighs.”

More specific reference to poem process, to perfection. There’s a link between the rhythm of poetry and the eroticism of “her warm thighs.” This small tableau is highly sensual. Even the interruption and the punctuation reflect the sensuality of the moment.

“from these intrepid movements where we contradict

get ephemeral / say one thing & say another
/you dont say / rain washes frozen boots
awash in verbatim / phone rings

in triplicate: forms an office cubicle & es
cape / ism / fear
forms out of popsicle sticks / kids craft

from glue & hot summer mornings, long gone”

More word play here, more seemingly free associations. There’s a “we” here suddenly, a reiteration of the cold weather still in existence juxtaposed with thoughts of summer.

Quite a few of the sections have a specific structure with a single opening line, two stanzas and a final closing line. There are some lovely images here: frozen boots/awash in verbatim, fear forming out of popsicle sticks. The treacheries of the day-to-day once more evoked. Word play once more, taking a cliché phrase and playing with it: say one thing and say another. mclennan has fun in this poem, plays with language, with concepts and with images, leading to images that resonate beautifully. There’s a poetry to letting go.

“& second vision of a staid perplexity

hunkers in: waits for slow fattening & sleep
disappears from view, we disappear from those
/ there i go again
plant body firm into bedsheets & slow mercy
of eventual snowfall / where

the heat includes / wont leave
: goes back off like a threat

made up in a dust storm”

We’re back to the artificial heat again, not quite real yet. Dust storms, dust when the heater hasn’t been used in a long time. Heat where there hasn’t been any in a long time. He says so much. You know what he means when he refers to the “slow mercy of eventual snowfall.” November is an in-between month. The poem reflects this so well.

“interplay of movement, love

final decision, “suicide is a last resort”,
pathologists, etc / the funeral
on the day he would be twelve / news photos

of him in a cub scout uniform / promoting
strange brotherhood / or the eight-year old

who shoots a neighbour / birthing
a generation of potential killers

waits for me to turn my back before leaving”

More doubling here, talk of love interrupted by mention of the suicide of a child on the verge of adolescence, an eight-year old who murders. All of this heartbreaking stuff we hear on the news, read in the papers. Perhaps once again a part of the treacheries of the day-to-day.

“were it only so
its own positioning
or posit
of the end result
& seeks out valuables

not something that can be
turned off / or
decided against / my mother

puts the soup on / says
turn the radio off”

I like the juxtapostion here of on / off and soup on / radio off.

“sets out into division of labour

lovers lost, dont know where it
got away / puts up periscope / looks

for unknown shores but comes back short
/ i dont know when this all began

to wither”

The idea of the periscope is interesting here, of being below, in some kind of submerged space, finally looking out, but submerging once more. The writing of poems can be an attempt to emerge from a small space.

Wither is to dry up, to lose moisture. This evokes the earlier “i miss you / like alberta moisture” for me.

“into this shadow of doubt, where it

two pigeons feed on bank street / symphonies
stolen from under our noses / kate refuses
board games for cd-roms, doesnt know
a single game of cards / holed up


despite everything i still mailed the package
/ those letters

television introduces divorce court: new season”

More mention of Ottawa locations, personal references and popular culture and the lament continues: “despite everything I still mailed the package / those letters.”

The idea of a couple is conveyed: not one or three pigeons feeding, but two, divorce court. Symphonies, something beautiful, is stolen.” Once more the idea of being holed up returns.

“when will love come home / or was

it ever”

Short section in form of question on love is reminiscent of the opening “how many winters will I sit thru / before the ease begins.”

“tongue licks lips to whistle”

Another short one line section, poignant in its simplicity and sound play.

“the days are supposed to get better, not worse

hold off any decisions until next week

someone is waiting patient for your call

possible words explode in the matter

the big bang had to release from something else

gateway is not a word i understand

not all in the universe divisible by tens”

Sad despair is the overriding tone of this long poem and it’s expressed with clarity and straight-forwardness here. At times mclennan is a master of ambiguity. Here there is no mistaking the words, no word play, just a straight statement of despair, making it all the more effective and emotional.

“love is no longer a plausible standard,
known quantity

_______________gets in the way of our selves”

A nifty way of including everything, the ___________. The unknown of love can also relate back to the big bang of the previous section, it has to come from somewhere.

“not so much artful as

inevitable. a sequence
of diminishing numbers. & days

the roof falls in on . dogs
bark at trees . squirrels

collide . stay away from

//// a burning building, love love
beams collapse and bury the basement”

The images go from every day nature to conflict to disaster. There’s a fatalism in these words. Love is inevitable, but the beams of the house collapse, and bury the basement, another reference to something below.

& day of the dark sun, arrived

just before rain & snow, a little bit

of light”

A reworking of the Silliman quote used at the beginning of the poem, the juxtaposition of light with darkness: the dark sun.

“as deliberate as greek or latin

melts, back with time, tho
never enough

what can be done with the line”

The whole poem deals in some way or another with the inevitability of time and mortality. We’re starting to see a return to mentions of melting and winter again, as the poem draws to a close.

“how many times
do i have to say

before you believe it
before it starts to matter

persephone assails the
welcome mat / & locks

the door to the cave / behind her”

Another reference to the underground, this one a mythological one, but a fresh look, a cave with a welcome mat and a door the seduced woman can lock to keep her lover in or out or to keep others out?

“love is a strange thing / it eats

away the mind /demented
cache of despondency & hurt

in a time of / take & wake”

This packs a powerful emotional punch, the sadness of love. “Take and wake” is a rather brilliant way of describing the casual affair.

“cold air breathing thru the house”

Final section of the poem, one line, back to the beginning, the cold air that never really goes away, the perpetual feeling of absence.

I like this poem. I like the reiteration of imagery and theme throughout, the jumble of every day influences, the raw emotion of it, the clever word play, the humour and occasional biting wit. It builds up in intensity, yet at the same time conjures up the feeling of being emprisoned by November, a sad month of in between.

It is my understanding that the launch for “aubade” will take place in October. The book is available through Broken Jaw Press and if you happen to see him, you might be able to acquire a copy through rob.

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