Carmen Faye Mathes Reviews Three New Poetry Collections for EVENT 50/1

Carmen Faye Mathes Reviews:

Afua Cooper and Wilfried Raussert, Black Matters, Fernwood Publishing, 2020

John Steffler, And Yet, McClelland & Stewart, 2020

Ian Williams, Word Problems, Coach House Books, 2020

I learned that John Ware was a Black cowboy in 1998, two years into attending John Ware Junior High in Calgary, Alberta. We were at the Glenbow Museum, and I recall a life-sized diorama with mannequins set about a campfire, possibly a ranch house in the background. The mannequins had that quality of being fusty with age, and the stress of always being someone new; their current incarnation gave them a distinct impression of blackface, the original yellow-taupe plastic showing through along hairlines. At the time, I remember being amazed both that I hadn’t known the identity of the person for whom my school was named, and that Black cowboys existed, full stop. The irony of naming a school for Ware while failing to communicate his life and achievements to its student body has stayed with me since, a touchstone for considering that peculiar intersection of toleration and pride that often animates whatever is ‘well-meaning’ about a white-washed education.

Three recent collections of poetry share an interest in the lacunas left by our educations, whether through the dynamics of erasure and celebration that complicate the history of Black presence in Canada and elsewhere; the fuzziness of remembered youth; or the logics of race, class, gender, etc., that school teaches us without it necessarily being on the curriculum.

In Black Matters, Afua Cooper and Wilfried Raussert collaborate on a collection of poems (Cooper) and photographs (Raussert) that testify to ‘the ubiquity of Black cultures and people’ now and throughout history, ‘giv[ing] voice to Black beauty, power, and resistance.’ Cooper is a history professor and Halifax’s poet laureate, and Raussert is a multidisciplinary artist and professor of InterAmerican studies at Universität Bielefeld, Germany. Their dialogue is reciprocal and layered, with Cooper sometimes writing a poem in response to an image and Raussert sometimes suggesting an image to pair with a poem. In most cases, the photographs feature a person of colour, unaware that their picture is being taken, standing before a mural, street art or an outsized art poster—a young Black woman in front of a pop-art Nina Simone; a man walking by two huge advertisements for the artist Rashaad Newsome. These juxtapositions foreground, quite literally, how the lives of unsuspecting individuals intersect with enduring and influential Black cultures from across the African Diaspora, which is a reality that galvanizes the poems in turn.

One such poem, ‘John Ware: Magician Cowboy,’ returns us to legacies lost and found with lines like, he was ‘part of the brotherhood of Black cowboys/who have been erased from the history of the West.’ Recounting Ware’s journey from South Carolina to Brooks, Alberta, the poem lauds Ware’s cowboy skills as the result not of New-World opportunities, but of his African inheritance: ‘if not for the slave trade/silken Kente would have draped your body’ along with ‘the symbol of your authority: a cow tail dyed ochre.’ That even white settlers recognize Ware’s prowess (albeit in their own context, the Calgary Stampede) ensures that his name, unlike his brothers’, is remembered; after Ware dies breaking a white man’s horse, ‘the newspapers called [him] the greatest cowboy/who ever lived.’ This tension, again, between pride and erasure, between a ‘funeral [that] was the biggest/Calgary has ever seen’ and a figure suffocated by settler expectations, shapes the poem’s conclusion, but only partially. The story’s other dimension comes into focus in the photograph, spanning two pages, of a Black man holding his young son in his arms as he walks by a vibrantly decorated wall. Whatever Ware’s lone-man triumphs, Raussert’s photograph and Cooper’s poem together suggest that carrying on means carrying those you love. Ultimately, it is to support his family that Ware mounts the horse that kills him.

How the care of fathers for sons can involve a kind of loneliness, the isolation of knowing how men ought to be—self-sufficient, self-contained, self-satisfied—while experiencing how men are, shoots through John Steffler’s And Yet. Steffler, who was the parliamentary poet laureate of Canada from 2006 to 2008, has a style unpretentious yet lavish, formally innovative without being precious about form. The collection slides between past and present, sometimes allowing the poet’s schooldays in rural Ontario to surface, buoyant but circumscribed (‘all urges and don’ts’), and sometimes plumbing the depths of family, travel, homecoming, nature and art. The title poem, 13 lines at once frank and poignant, feels like forecasting, like all the collection’s themes and preoccupations marshalled at the outset: the poet moving through the landscape toward his childhood home, his mother, ‘probably in the garden,’ his ‘father/at his lathe.’ He’s even carrying some art, ‘a silk-wrapped chunk of Roman mosaic/deep in [his] duffle bag.’ Other recurring themes bubble up too, circular suggestions like remembering to be remembered (‘For years you’ve pictured them,/wanted to see them remembering you. Your/old self’), and neglect as the punctuation of love (‘You wrote at intervals from Madrid, Algiers,/Victoria and Corner Brook’). The poem revolves around its central, seventh line, ‘the house that made your journey a circle,’ and yet it ends where it begins: ‘still not ready to return.’ At once, the titular phrase underscores a sense of history that many of the subsequent poems also explore, that of the return as the impossibility of the return.

‘I’ve been reliving childhood routines,’ writes Steffler in ‘What’s Given,’ ‘On the farm our drinking water came from a hand pump in the yard near the clothesline.’ This prose-poem—one of a handful in the collection, though many poems share its sentence-like syntax—reads like micro-fiction, a succinct meditation on his father’s refusal to update their plumbing. Their household, unlike surrounding farms, must conserve rainwater for washing and flushing, an embarrassment for the young poet that also makes his family ‘vulnerable and responsive’ to nature ‘in crucial, fundamental ways.’ When it rains, it’s ‘like the sound of gushing cash.’ The water cycle is one cyclical structure among many in this poem, and the poet’s adolescent understanding of his father’s rules as both arbitrary and natural, like all inherited customs, is another. Just as Steffler’s desire to relive childhood routines doesn’t get him anywhere but back where he started, so his father’s rules enact a compulsion to repeat; they are ‘an extension of my father’s character and personal history and of his sense of cultural legacy, of how people should live on the land: modestly, frugally.’ The poet even tags the patron saint of compulsive repetition in a standalone line: ‘Habitual reminiscence is the skeleton of the mind, Freud said.’ That this psychological architecture shares with cyclical nature its recursiveness is a suggestion that Steffler ultimately appears to embrace: ‘There are many things I regret about those early years, but the way my life was shaped by the immediate natural world is not one of them.’

Going in circles is structural too in Ian Williams’s Word Problems, a challenge in this case not of nature but of white supremacist culture and its enforcement. Here are words alongside emojis and images; text that curlicues or crisscrosses; enjambments across line breaks and pages; a layout that turns everything into problems of reading and of needing to return: to reread, to check your answers, to check yourself. Williams is a fiction author (most recently of the Giller Prize-winning Reproduction) and creative writing professor at UBC. Word Problems has an ‘A’ side and a ‘B’ side, which include poems on every page and each side also has a single poem running like ticker-tape across all its pages; ‘It Is Possible to Move On Without Moving Forward’ runs from pages 13 to 48, and ‘Is It Possible to Go Back Without Going Away’ from pages 51 to 90. The effect is to split our attention, compelling us to make choices about what and how to read, and, in so doing, to emphasize the kinds of attention we choose to pay. What if our habitual perspectives prevent us from seeing what’s really going on, especially when it comes to privileging one poem, or idea, or person, over another? Williams wants us to get it right on this one—he includes an ‘Answer Key’ on the book’s back cover—and, like any skilled teacher, his examinations include directions. The first ticker-tape poem begins, ‘suppose you are a black man who is supposed to be white,’ and then, ‘it’s important that you are a man                 we are/back                  where we started                 let yourself be a black man.’ The ‘Answer Key’ adds ‘Capitalize Black.’ More than presume his reader is not a Black man, Williams tests our recognition of a recent language shift: the decision by publications like the New York Times to capitalize Black as a sign of respect, to acknowledge the difference between colour and culture. Thus respect might ‘answer’ the problem posed by the poem’s narrative of disrespect, a tale of airport security interrogating the ‘black man’—you, the reader—for no reason other than colour.

It can feel like success, feeling we’ve figured out the poems in this way. Yet by giving us the answers, Williams implies that there are no excuses for not getting it: women, queer folks, people of colour and others labelled ‘Other’ have been explaining systems of oppression for centuries. Word Problems might seem overdetermined when it’s actually just tired of our failing. Its language games reflect the systems churning us while still hoping that, this time, we might learn something.

When I began considering these three collections as linked by a shared interest in educational gaps and glitches, I jotted down ‘Bildungspoetry’ in my notes, wondering about the collections as learning journeys, imperfect but nevertheless going somewhere. Now, though, it seems to me that these poems’ patterns of coming into knowledge are more often paths worn smooth by repetition, the loop we walk every morning for years, and that this recursiveness might suggest how ignorance reproduces itself too: by seeming entirely ordinary, doing things the same way they’ve always been done. And so I ask my siblings, ‘When you attended John Ware Junior High, did they tell you about John Ware?’

Carmen Faye Mathes