Poetry Reviews by Ian LeTourneau

Shane Rhodes, Err (Gibsons: Nightwood, 2011). Paperbound, 96 pp., $18.95.

Matt Rader, A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno (Toronto: Anansi, 2011). Paperbound, 112 pp., $22.95.

Shane Rhodes’s Err and Matt Rader’s A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno occupy space on opposite ends of the lyric spectrum. The difference is almost as dramatic and obvious as the length of their titles. While Rhodes’s language flourishes in rich diction, playful metaphorical leaps, and an in-your-face attitude, Rader’s poems are quiet, obviously structured, and understated. That is not to say Rader’s diction isn’t rich and Rhodes’s poems aren’t structured (simplicities must be evoked when writing a short review of two fantastic books), but the qualities I’ve attributed to them are certainly their dominant strains.

Rhodes’s book is broken into four sections. The first, “Spirits,” contains poems Errabout alcohol that engage in a playfulness with language, intoxicating our senses. The first poem, “Rise Spirits,” begins by invoking the muse of alcohol—opening with “Stagger up from caudled cups, fuddled sops / Revive & sway from allsorts pots, debauched sots” and ending “o rise / Intoxicants, rise up and speak.” And this muse listens, as the playfulness of alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm evident here carries through the rest of the book. In this section, we begin to get a sense of Rhodes experimenting with poetic form. The first such experiment, “Choreographed Echoes,” is filled with words that contain the hydroxyl, which a note in the back of the book helpfully explains as “oxygen and hydrogen or, as represented in chemistry shorthand, OH…; organic molecules with a hydroxyl attached are known as alcohols.” This poem is clever, straining language to construct a poem with the constraint of words with OH in them. Ultimately, though, and unfortunately, it strains the reader’s patience, as it is very tough to read. Here are the first two lines: “OH C2H5OH (aka alcOHol), alOHa! / HOwdy HÔte HOrnswoggle…” It is a conceit that falls short, but it’s easy to appreciate the effort. In the very next poem, however, Rhodes shines again, constructing an alphabetical list of euphemisms for being drunk that simply sings. Admire the sheer pleasure of sound and choice of words in “T Totalled”: “addled, banjaxed, coguyed, dagg’d, cock-eyed, fuzl’d, groatable, hammered, inebriated, jagg’d, het the kettle, laugered, moon-eyed” and so on to “yanked and zombied.”

By the end of this section, we are prepared for more full-speed-ahead wordplay and the light tone that has been established, but the second section, “The Body,” stops us abruptly in our tracks. The poems here deal with AIDS and draw upon Rhodes’s work with prevention. Language is again at the fore here, but a word like cocktail morphs from its meaning in section one as an intoxicating substance into a dangerous elixir of drugs to combat disease. A poem titled “The Cocktail” is a moving elegy for a friend who, according to a note in the back, was an early community organizer in Calgary, raising money and awareness for HIV prevention. The poem ends with a complex moral question: “Lypo, pills, tubes, the shits / is it eulogy / if we wished you death?”

One of the best “experiments” of the book is the title poem of this section. “The Body” is a found poem using text from pre-existing discussion threads and forums of the world’s largest HIV/AIDS electronic resources as its source text. The poem is rhythmically very interesting as it splices different voices together. Spelling errors found on the website have been preserved, which heightens the poem’s authenticity:

I guess i wanna know
whos neg whos poz
when every ache, every cough
is the virus taking away
whats fake
I mean, I knew it was the HIV
killing me slowly
you see, i’d been neg 23 times

The aforementioned splicing suggests a continuous narrative, but there is no way to know for sure. We are defamiliarized by this, and the disjunction we feel (it’s almost visceral) from this rhythm—this denial of knowing what answers or comfort were given, if any—is ominous. This section’s only light poem is one playing with the language of safe sex called “Safer Lex.” In this metaphorical free-for-all, Rhodes compiles a rich soundscape of slang and euphemisms for the usually prosaic terms for sexual acts and body parts—for example, “If you have venetian blinds, pull them back so the Cyclops is deadeye in the Trojan.”

The other two sections are tamer in terms of subject matter (by very little), but not in linguistic panache and fearlessness. Some readers may dismiss great portions of this book as merely a collection of word games; there are a few experiments, as I’ve pointed out, that go awry. But those types of readers err, because most of the experiments are fresh and invigorating, and demonstrate the power of language. If you appreciate when poets twist and stretch language to see how far it can go, then Rhodes’s Err is for you.

Matt Rader, on the other hand, sticks closer to the traditional lyric and does so A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arnobrilliantly. Rader’s ear is one of the better ones I’ve come across recently. Like Rhodes, he delights in unique diction—“nacre” for example—and sound. Consider the first few lines of “Loosestrife” with their internal and end rhyme, and their rhythmical brilliance: “Loose in loosestrife and knotweed, / the suck and thunk / of bootsteps in nitrogen drunk, / ocean sluiced, tidal mud.” These words match sound to sense and excite the imagination.

Rader is a confident poet. There is no ponderousness here. The poems are direct, sure of themselves. Listen to these lines from part 3 of “Reservations,” a sequence that is broken up throughout the book: “A carpet of tarmac, grass. A welcome mat / For swans in winter, seagulls, crows, aircraft.” (Most of his lines start with initial caps regardless of whether they begin a new sentence—why not all?) The language is precise. But this confidence backfires a few times. For instance, “Worldchanging” seems too anecdotal and ambiguous, and “I Acknowledge,” a poem that seems to have its heart in the right place, reads more like an exercise in political correctness than poetry. It is written in lines that are also stanzas, and it attempts to thread a few different ideas together in a rather oblique fashion. “I acknowledge the proposed treaty rights of the K’ómoks First Nation to construct a hotel and conference centre on Goose Spit, Comox, British Columbia” is followed by “Only trust those who are not afraid to get sloppy.” It is clear the disconnect between the plight of First Nations and our own trivial concerns (or in this case what seems like received “wisdom”) highlights a real problem, but I fail to see how this poem does anything beyond that.

Rader excels with the longer poem form, though. Using archival material, he has written a fine suite of poems, “Customs,” about Louis Sam, a young native who was lynched by an American mob in 1884 for a crime he did not commit. The suite unfolds in different voices (historical figures, the river, a rope) and forms (epistolary, ballad, etc.). And in the final poem of the book, “History,” we understand the significance of the book’s title. I won’t give it away, but history and family history come together in a gem of a poem that resonates with significance, reminding me of Alden Nowlan’s poem “What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread.”

—Ian LeTourneau

As in The Malahat Review, 176, Autumn 2011, 81-85