Thursday, January 6, 2022

rob mclennan : the Absence of Zero, by R. Kolewe

The Absence of Zero, R. Kolewe
Book*hug Press, 2021

conversations on the long poem





Toronto poet R. Kolewe’s third full-length poetry title, following Afterletters (Book*hug, 2014) and Inspecting Nostalgia (Talonbooks, 2017), is the expansive long poem, The Absence of Zero (Book*hug, 2021), a book self-described on the back cover as a “triumphantly executed celebration of the long-poem tradition. Consisting of 256 16-line quartets and 34 free-form interruptions, this slow-moving, haunting work is a beautiful example of thinking in language, a meditation that explores time and memory in both content and form.” There is something of the text that sits as both fixed and fluid document, composing a long, continuous, book-length thread. The poems are numbered, as are the sections, set both in sequence and groupings, all of which allow for a particular kind of temporal erasure (akin to, for example, the Julian Day Calendar numbering of Gil McElroy’s ongoing “Julian Days” sequence). “reminding myself that I can delete this rewrite substantially—,” he writes, as part of “,” but one of a series of layers of strata that loop, repeat and recombine. Nearly three hundred pages later, as part of “,” he offers: “In the including topology a map, a proper map, / reminding myself that I can delete this rewrite substantially— [.]”

This is a long poem structured, in part, as he offers himself, from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943), a text equally cited by Renée Sarojini Saklikar as a prompt and model for her own long poem project, the life-long multiple-book project, The Heart Of This Journey Bears All Patterns (a title she regularly shortens to THOT-J-BAP). As well, The Absence of Zero is a long poem built upon mathematical structure, carefully placed and pieced and held together through attention and patience, as Kolewe offers at the back of the collection:

The structure of the 256 16-line poems is based on the Riemann curvature tensor in 4 dimensions, a mathematical object that describes the curvature of spacetime in Einstein’s general relativity. The Riemann curvature tensor is a 4-index tensor with 256 components in 4 dimensions, but various identities result in some of those components always having the value zero; other components are related in various ways so that there are actually only 20 independent components.

The mathematical structure might hold the collection as something contained, with particular and specific boundaries, even while the text itself simultaneously maintains and denys such deliberately-drawn lines. The poem cycles, loops and ripples, providing threads and tethers throughout, with possibilities that could easily extend beyond the pages of this particular work. “At this table scraps of the 20th century measured out.” he writes, to open “,” “The problem that words mean something / alone. Without remembering or acting on memory […]” The echo of phrases repeating, shifted into different contexts, allow for a shifting, and even fluid, perception. Whereas McElroy’s ongoing sequence moves in a forward direction, and Margaret Christakos’ multiple recombinative projects employ variants on repetition or the loop/cycle, Kolewe’s The Absence of Zero appears to play with all of these ideas in turn and simultaneously, allowing the mathematical structure as the skeleton of the poem he wraps his lyric across. This really is a remarkable book.








Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his latest collection, the book of smaller (University of Calgary Press, 2022), is (as you might already know) available for pre-order. He has never, to his knowledge, had any of his books on anyone’s “most anticipated” list.


Carolyne Van Der Meer: Grounded in Place: An Interview with Michael Carrino




Michael Carrino’s latest collection of poems, In No Hurry (Kelsay Books, 2021) does what Carrino does best: create such a solid link between place and time that we inherently understand that in his poetic universe, one is rarely without the other. Actual travel—and more powerfully, emotional displacement—are the geographies he explores with the precision of a cartographer. All because of the practice of naming. And occasionally, we feel the force, the agency of nature, of the weather, affecting his interpretation of the time/space continuum. In this interview, we discuss what makes a good poem, geographical space, space as punctuation and what drives a poetry teacher/mentor.

Carolyne Van Der Meer: You studied and taught poetry for many years. For you, what are the characteristics of a good poem? A good poet? What are the hot buttons?

Michael Carrino: For me, a good poem communicates without ranting or forcing opinions or ideas on people—the point of the poem being more evoked than explained. Yes, it’s a kind of “show, don’t tell”—but it’s more than that—it’s about being universal. A poem should be universal. What I mean by that is that it shouldn’t matter if you wrote it 5, 10 or 20 years ago, it will still be relevant today.

I like accessible poetry. Writers who try to confuse you or make you work too hard make me suspicious. Mary Oliver is a good example of someone who seems to be writing simple poems. Or the haiku from a thousand years ago about the frog in a pond. These kinds of poems have more meaning than what appears on the surface but how deep you go is your choice. For me, less is more. Look at Shakespeare. He wrote 14-line sonnets. They were formal, but not unnecessarily abstract. And they continue to be relevant today, they continue to be universal and relatable. They are still read and enjoyed.

For me, what it comes down to is communication—as the writer of the poem, you are trying to communicate with someone other than yourself. If you just want to communicate with yourself, use your journal. But if you’re trying to get other people to think about something, to feel something, then you have to get outside of yourself, outside of the abstract. As soon as you are no longer writing for yourself, you have to take the audience into consideration and use what you know about craft to reach them. A poem needs to create images and needs to make some kind of sound—not necessarily an end-of-line rhyme but it needs to echo and chime in some way. Line breaks need to be intentional—not just arbitrary choices of line endings. Poetry is more about lines than it is about sentences.

CVDM: In your own poetry, place is extremely important. Can you explain why this is so—and why so many of your poems are grounded in place?

MC: You call it place—which it is—but I also call it naming. I think it’s important to name things because it puts a spike in the ground. There, that is what you call place. Everything is named, everywhere. People have first and last names; rivers have one name or three—yes, names change over time, but people remember the old names. And what I like about naming is that it takes you out of the abstract. By naming, you are in the concrete world, the here and now. The more you don’t name things, the more likely you will fall into the abstraction of your own mind. And when you do that, once again, you might as well be writing in your journal. When I was a teacher of poetry, I would often put this sentence on the board to illustrate my point: “I walked down the street.” And I would say to the students, what is the first thing that should be changed about that sentence? Well, the first thing, the most important thing, was to name the street. And then we needed to find a better word for “walked.” And after that, we needed to change the “I” to an actual name. “Dorothy stumbled down Manchester Street.” That’s way more interesting that “I walked down the street.” But the thing that starts it all is the name.

But you’re right, place is important to me, not just grounding the reader to a place in a poem, but where you are. Where you are when you are writing, the environment that influences you and drives you. I try to name places and objects, and sometimes, though not often, I invent names for fictional locations to best evoke meaning. Sometimes I even change the name, or I put myself in towns around here to write poems because the names are better. When I lived in Vermont, there were poets coming out of the woodwork—new poets, older poets, retired poets, starting-out poets. And being in such a place where everyone was writing and wanted to write made me want to write.

CVDM: Let's talk about punctuation and the use of spaces and line breaks. How do you think space can be used to advantage in a poem?

MC: For me, only the thinnest amount of punctuation is necessary. Along with intentional line breaks, using very little punctuation challenges and pushes the writer to think more clearly about where one line ends, where the next begins, why a longer break might be needed and where spacing can be used. Where can I use white space or spacing instead of a comma—what does it mean if I use one space or two—or three or four? If there are too many commas floating around in a 20-line poem, I can’t help but think there is something the matter. If I am end-stopping with periods or commas—then something might sound a bit off in the rhythm, the flow, the pace, maybe even the tone of the poem.

To me, the perfect poem is one with no punctuation at all, but readers can still make perfect sense of it.

CVDM: If you had to classify your own work, how would you? What kind of poet are you?

MC: I am a free verse poet. I like some kind of structure—I wouldn’t play tennis without a net. So sometimes I like to count syllables and put boundaries, but I am still a free verse poet.

CVDM: You are the author of nine poetry collections and chapbooks. Which of them is your favourite and why?

MC: Let me start with my least favourite by way of explanation. That was Some Rescues, my first book, which came out of my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. That book was overstuffed, crammed with poems. It was 75 pages, and it should have been 62 pages. Sentimentality crept in and I included pieces that shouldn’t have made the cut. That book set the tone at the beginning of my career, and I felt like it got righted somewhat with By Available Light, published by Guernica Editions. That book took the best poems from all the other books—it’s a new and selected—and I added a good streak of new pieces. The other two I am pleased with are Autumn’s Return to the Maple Pavilion and the latest one, In No Hurry. For Autumn’s Return, I was completely engaged, enjoyed the process and the poems were simple—the way I like them.  In No Hurry was a surprise. I had no intention of writing another book, but I found myself writing a lot over a short period and seeing many of the poems published in journals quickly. I wasn’t writing for anyone, I was unfettered and that felt good.

CVDM: You were a lecturer at SUNY Plattsburgh for many years and you taught poetry. What was your goal as a teacher of poetry?

MC: I wanted to take my students on a journey that made them feel better about the work they were doing, like they had advanced in some way, gained new knowledge and insight about themselves. I pushed them to try different points of view, different approaches—even if they didn’t stay with them, just to broaden their practice. My favourite thing was when students would tell me about a poet they liked, and I would suggest reading other similar poets—and then I’d sneak in something a little different because I wanted them to go beyond their own expectations and preconceived ideas of taste. I would tell them, “I don’t want you to look, I want you to see.” I hated the idea of being the gatekeeper who would only let poets with a certain aesthetic advance—I think this happened far too much in my day. Instead, I wanted to push as many students as possible to grow.





Michael Carrino taught poetry and literature at SUNY Plattsburgh in New York State from 1998 to 2008. He completed his undergraduate degree there in 1971 and, later in his career, graduated with an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He was co-founder and poetry editor of SUNY Plattsburgh’s literary journal, Saranac Review. He has been widely published in literary journals in the United States and Canada. His poetry collections include Some Rescues (New Poets Series, Inc.), Under This Combustible Sky (Mellen Poetry Press), Café Sonata (Brown Pepper Press), Autumn’s Return to the Maple Pavilion (Conestoga Press), By Available Light (Guernica Editions), Always Close, Forever Careless (Kelsay Books) and Until I’ve Forgotten, Until I’m Stunned (Kelsay Books). His latest chapbook, In No Hurry, was published by Kelsay Books in 2021.

Carolyne Van Der Meer is a Montreal-based journalist, public relations professional and university lecturer who has published articles, essays, short stories and poems internationally. She is the author of Motherlode: A Mosaic of Dutch Wartime Experience (WLUP, 2014), Journeywoman (Inanna, 2017) and Heart of Goodness: The Life of Marguerite Bourgeoys in 30 Poems | Du cœur à l’âme : La vie de Marguerite Bourgeoys en 30 poèmes (Guernica Editions, 2020). This book, for which she translated her own poems into French, was awarded second prize in the Poetry Category of the Catholic Media Association's 2021 Annual Book Awards and was a finalist in the Specialty Books category of The Word Guild’s 2021 annual Word Awards. A fourth book, Sensorial, is forthcoming from Inanna in spring 2022.  



Letter : Jeremy Luke Hill responds to Greg Rhyno



I know it's not common (or even proper?) for authors to respond to their reviewers. Authors are supposed to grin and bear their reviews, no matter what they say. But given that Ordinary Eternal Machinery is about conversation in the first place, and given that Greg Rhyno's review pushes that conversation in a direction it probably needs, I'd like to keep it going at least one step further.

Near the end of his review, Rhyno says this – "What’s missing from this exchange [between myself, Cohen's book, and my interlocutor, John Nyman] are the marginalized voices Cohen co-opts: the survivors of personal and historical horrors. As it is, this chapbook represents one kind of privilege interrogating another. Some external oversight would be welcome."

Yeah. He's so right. Particularly when you consider that the publisher, Aaron Schneider, is also a middle-aged, middle-class, White guy. As is Rhyno himself. As is rob mclennan, the editor posting the review. Aw, shit.

Part of this is due to the nature of the project itself, of course. It's driving question was, "What should privileged people do with the books they love when those books are complicit (more so than usual) with the structures of privilege?" It makes a kind of sense that the people engaged with that question would be the privileged people concerned.

On the other hand, Rhyno's observation is absolutely just. Posing that question in isolation from the people being marginalized only perpetuates that marginalization, not to mention passing over other valuable perspectives on the issue.

So, here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to send comp copies to some writers I know who identify with the marginalized in Cohen's novel, and I'll see if they have the time and inclination to respond to the problematic of Ordinary Eternal Machinery.

Jeremy Luke Hill

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