College Quarterly
Fall 2003 - Volume 6 Number 1
Reviews A Ramble Through "Uncivilizing"

Uncivilizing
Jennifer Footman, editor
Toronto: Insomniac Press, 1997

Reviewed by Malca Litovitz

Uncivilizing is an interesting potpourri of contemporary Canadian poetry by six established writers, published by a young, daring press. A poem that stands out by Caroline Davidson is entitled "Moon on the Rise". It deals with the classic Ontario experience of driving north to a summer cottage. The lyrical verses create the rhythm of canoeing through repetition of the words, "Lift, dip the paddle deeply" in slight variations in each verse. It manages to be sweet without being sentimental, for the most part, re-creating the sense of peacefulness and home many of us have felt in northern cottages.

One receives a solid taste of the well-known poet Bernice Lever here. I particularly like "Eating", which deals with the foods we should eat ("crisp cucumber and salad pals/pretending they grew without pesticides/ and all those amazing claims of low-cal/ supermarket alcohol don't raise my spirits.") It juxtaposes these with the foods we eat in joy and sexuality:

Yet I have my feasting memories
when everything was chosen for delight,
when taste was all that counted,
memories of your tongue and lips,
your hands and other things eating.

In the lines, "Eat, eating, ate, have been eaten: /pleasure all over now", Bernice also reveals her background as a professor and rhetorician. Author of a textbook which advocates a colourful approach to the study of grammar, here again, Bernice demonstrates her love of language for its own sake. Similarly, later in the same collection, Robert Sward muses on the poetic aspects of the teaching of English. In "Turning Sixty", he uses section headings such as "Homework", "Grammar as Hymnal" and "Living in the Future Perfect" to play with English verb forms. The poet as professor of English is a common figure on the Canadian scene and figures prominently in Sward's riff:

As a teacher, I talk. That's present.
For thirty years as a teacher, I talked. That's past.
It may only be part time, but I will talk. That's future…

I will have invoked the muse.

"Hurting You", also by Bernice, is clever, taking the line, "I never meant to hurt you" on a little journey and revealing a whole relationship, an entire situation in a few economical lines: a satisfying linguistic treat.

The "heart" poems take us into the core of middle age, with its new worries about the temporal nature of life, the fragility of the human body. Then, Bernice takes us back to earliest childhood in her poem, "`They'": "Then I was small/and they were big/Then I was weak/and they were wrong."

Bullying is a universal childhood experience; are there any typical Canadian manifestations of it? Puddles, garbage bins, and outhouse holes surface here, but these could be anywhere. The poem ends on a lovely note of redemption: "and the Lord answered my painful prayers./ Now I am healing, my scars are fading...". This is not a poem written in anger; it simply reveals a truth, an experience, and therein lies its power.

Roger Nash, a professor from Laurentian University, adds his voice to the collection. Of note is "The Forecast for your Region Tomorrow" with its "excellent condition for infidelities on the hills" and other weather predictions: "In first marriages and last, it won't be moderate..." This poem acts like a little weather bell for our marital and familial stresses:

There will be high waves in daughters' dreams,
and afterwards uneasy calms at breakfast tables.
Sunrise will keep getting earlier in middle age.
Yet hope will be constantly renewed between somebody's legs.

In "The Woman of Your Dreams", Roger Nash successfully creates a woman's sensuality in her own voice -- a clever reversal of gender.

I am the woman of your deepest dreams.
I have a way of slipping under your eyelids
as you fall asleep, without even knocking.

At the same time, the poem gives us an insight into the world of men's fantasies – a portrait of the Jungian anima figure:

I'll whisper back,
"You're dreaming"," You’re dreaming" and a speared octopus
will spurt the room indelibly full of ink.

Pain, Angst. In "The University of Silence", Roger Nash asks: "Why do long lasting marriages fail?" -- a question many of us have asked based on our own experiences and those of our acquaintances.

What then is love?
Two snails climb a cabbage stump.
They don't turn back. Tracks shine.

Insomniac Press is run by the young and the bold, yet they could relate to these poems which deal with mid-life issues. Our college students probably can, too, by reflecting on the lives of their parents. Our student body in general is also probably somewhat older than it was: many of them already have families of their own.

Sonja Dunn deals with an important theme for a young Canadian audience as she voyages back into her Ukrainian past. In our multicultural society, everyone hails from somewhere else. Recently, I had a story-teller named Helen Porter visit my creative writing class and her tale of Remembrance Day had a powerful effect on my students. Some of them came from countries like China where war did not play a great part in the historical imagination of the people. Others lived here and were too young to really understand the significance of "poppy day". Still others came from countries in the Middle East where war was a part of one's daily reality. Sonja Dunn's poem "Babyn Yar" takes us to the Holocaust, our universal Twentieth Century source of guilt and grief. Here, the poet reminds us of what we must not forget:

It is said that beneath us
we can find brains
babies' shoes
embroidered nannies' blouses
under us lie
the ravaged
Nakedness made them invisible

Maybe a Canadian poem like Dunn's could be taught in conjunction with the American Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy", which is also a powerful evocation of the horror of World War Two.

On a more optimistic note, Dunn writes "Advice to a Canadian in Paradise":

Come, come eat the soft mango.
Now take a swim.

Like her friend Bernice Lever, Sonja Dunn finds food a source of sensuality in her poetry. Canadians may not be as inhibited as T.S. Eliot's Prufrock who did not "dare to eat a peach", but clearly, we can learn a lesson or two about the pleasures of the body from our trips to paradise.

Robert Sward is a satirical poet of the contemporary scene with a truly funny, original streak. In "The Biggest Party Animal of them All", he describes his disillusionment with a guru he followed:

Once, mid-revelry, enraged at something I'd written,
he drew back, swatted me four, five times
with a mass of peacock feathers. Whoosh! Whoosh!

However, the poem also contains moments of genuine revelation:

world without end
world like a skyful of blue suns
Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!

We professors who have our roots in the Sixties can all recognize the figure:

O thou paunchy one
in Birkenstocks
and orange silk robe, trickster…

In "42 Poets Named Robert", Sward muses on the stress of writing poetry for an almost non-existent audience: all those Roberts on shelves no one reads. He includes Roberts from England, Canada, Scotland, England, and the States. The conclusion is in favour of life, not literature: "in the time that remains I should be living more like a man with his feet on the ground and less like a poem."

Miriam Waddington, who is now approximately eighty years old, expressed much the same thought in a recent lecture to Toronto university students when she said she has come to realize that what is important in life is being able to change one's automobile oil and hanging onto one's teeth. As in George Orwell's "Keep the Asphodistras Flying", recently turned into a cynical, worthwhile film entitled "The Merry War", Sward's poem reminds us that life must still be lived; one cannot survive on poetry alone. A little defeatist for young lovers of poetry but still, a viewpoint which cannot be overlooked.

"Portrait of an L.A. Daughter" by Sward takes us through a lot of pop culture and in a few poignant stanzas, we watch a young girl grow:

Braided blond hair
white and pink barrettes
Bette Davis gorgeous
I hug her

Through the loving eyes of her father, we watch her various transformations and end curiously, with images of her birth:

Appearing,
"crowning" says the doctor
"Hannah" says her mother
"the name means `grace'"

Uncivilizing ends with a selection from the Granddaddy of contemporary Canadian poetry, the masterful James Reaney. We see the Reaney wit and spark, the sweetness:

I know an experience
that brings my 2 butterfly wings
Tight together
Then open
Now shut

Shaped like butterfly wings, the poem echoes Herbert's famous "wingèd prayer". Reaney's poem brings the collection (and this review) to an end, on a note of loveliness and peace:

There the grateful stream of Sleep
Slides in and under
The other Stream outside
Still flowing Ice and Rain.


Malca Litovitz is a Professor in the School of General Education, Newnham Campus, Seneca College. She can be reached at malca.litovitz@senecac.on.ca or (416) 491-5050 Ext. 2049

Reviews

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2003 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology