Saturday, August 30, 2008

Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets

The sonnet, says Wikipedia:
is one of the poetic forms that can be found in lyric poetry from Europe. The term "sonnet" derives from the Occitan word sonet and the Italian word sonetto, both meaning "little song." By the thirteenth century, it had come to signify a poem of fourteen lines that follows a strict rhyme scheme and specific structure. The conventions associated with the sonnet have evolved over its history.
The "Canadian Sonnet" is, presumably, one of the forms many permutations.

Is there anything Canadian about the "Canadian Sonnet"? If there is, only a foolish reviewer would attempt to isolate it in Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, edited by Zachariah Wells (Bibiloasis, 2008). That is to say, this is not a nationalistic collection. The editor offers no thematic synthesis -- such as suggesting that Canadian sonneteers reflect the country's deep relationship with its geography, or some such claptrap.

The editor does suggest, however, that the poets "understand the glory of Canadian identity is its prismatic variety." Canada is like a prism? You are never quite sure where the light is going, or coming from? Wells expands:
Something that strikes me, looking at the roster I've assembled, is the sheer number of immigrants and emigrants peopling this anthology -- border-crossing poets who can't be confined to the national or regional boxes we tend to put them in. This is reflected by the formal variety of the poems and it says a great deal, I think, about the portmanteau portability and cosmopolitaneity of the sonnet, a poetic form whose protean history is a (sometimes) gentle rebuke to hidebound provincialism.
I think by "hidebound provincialism" he means "the way Canadian literature has commonly been viewed."

Gentle rebuke? There is a more ferocious project underway here, I suggest. But it is humbly framed, and it is also largely left to speak on its own.

The reader is led to read these sonnets as examples of the form, not as chunks of the nation.


Two sonnets from the collection to reflect upon, picked at random:

DELIRIUM IN VERA CRUZ (by Malcolm Lowry)

Where has the tenderness gone, he asked the mirror
Of the Biltmore Hotel, cuarto 216. Alas,
Can its reflection lean against the glass
Too, wondering where I have gone, into what horror?
Is that it staring at me now with terror
Behind your frail, tilted barrier? Tenderness
Was here, in this very retreat, in this
Place, its form seen, cries heard by you. What error
Is here? Am I that forked rashed image?
Is this the ghost of love which you reflected?
Now with a background of tequila, stubs, dirty collars,
Sodium perborate, and a scrawled page
To the dead, telephone disconnected?
... He smashed all the glass in the room. (Bill: $50)


The sky is Reckitt's Blue of the bone
And the pavements catch,
For a redbrick house with a deershead
Porched, I watch,
It would have had big windows, curtains of ecru lace ...
And a matching African violet.
On the verandah there a lion (window-box)
Leans head and mane on the topmost pane,
(I fear to rile it.)
Moonlight falls through the trees in patches of ecru lace ...
Ah there's the house with the unicorn;
(Voodoo Man, Voodoo Man,
Won't you cure me if you can?)
The Voodoo Man said, Lift the latch.


This is as lovely and humane a collection of poetry as you are likely to find. The content is prismatic, an excellent image of the variety within.

Yes, there are nature poems, and there are poems about tides, rocks, trees, lakes and regrets. But there are poems about sex, too. I didn't see any poems about skyscrapers or the beauty of the DOS operating system or "Why I love my iPod," but one must leave room for a sequel.

I spent a couple of weeks attempting to think of something sharp and critical to say about this book. I didn't come up with anything. I confess that I have met ZW and found him keen in wit and intelligence and generous in spirit.

But if I could think of something cutting to say about Jailbreaks, I would.


Good work, Zach. This is a model of what an anthology should be.

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