Flat Side brims with humour and bereavement.
The humour is everywhere evident and invigorating, and it can be laugh-out-loud entertaining. It is always fresh, and it flirts with the absurd and the macabre. Endowed with Reid’s folksy and extended personifications, things dwell in very human ways on their prospects and their successes. Curling rocks aspire to what they suppose are their fitting places on the ice. They watch with apparent dismay as other uppity rocks arrive at more satisfactory sites, “whispering their thank yous / and condolences.” Telephones abandoned in an orgy of new technology wait in storage with their wires and diaphragms to hear despondent messages and faint greetings. The telephones, rendered obsolete, speak only in murmurs and whispers.
The book is full of such whimsy, but it also treats the comic scenes as occasions of pain and loss. The telephones never connect, not really, not in any sustained way at least, and they are “depleted to the heart.” Even the smart-alecky pun that accompanies the telephone story registers a sudden sadness at having lost what most matters: “they can no longer remember what it feels / to be held in someone’s hands.” The zucchini, “bruised souls,” who in another poem drag themselves cumbrously across the dirt, feel “nothing more / than . . . left behind.” It’s a playful notion, the race of the zucchini, but the zucchini who languish in disappointment have in some way to make up for their defeat. In the poet’s mind that means learning “how to / imagine themselves as something else.” The eventuality is realized in “Flat Side,” which outlandishly announces that the poet is transfiguring into a flat-sided man. In free-roving gests and meditations the poet tries out the permutations. The flat-sidedness, we soon learn, can be accounted for within scientific discourse. The terms that abound—”interstitial fluids” and “thermal gradient” and “laminar passages” and “the bonds dissolute among the spicules / and microscopic cavities” and “aggregated molecules”—seem to be based in firm no-question understandings. They also sound like a mad parody—a voice that is too much of, too satisfied with, such authority. In any event the poem does not settle for the jocularity or the erudition it enjoys. It arrives, like so many poems in Flat Side, at a quiet wisdom: We “release and spring back resolutely,” because “we are only remembering / the persistent order of ourselves.” Though “unbalanced,” our identities are “persistent.” And so the poet can ask the question of the day that defines our lives: “is it also not misshapen / but ours nonetheless?”. How like are we to the curling rocks that risk a long and precarious way across the ice: “now that all of those who promised / to come with us are gone / how will we return?”. How are we to deal with such loss? How are we not to see ourselves in the rocks and the telephones, their yearnings and disappointments?
The book attends to what for Reid abides beneath, or within, the world’s satisfactions and vexations. It thinks of the self as variously necessary, mislaid, unfound, or unrealized. Though the guffawingly funny “Atkinson’s Ghost” laughs at a dotty spiritualist, it acknowledges “the unfinished part of everyone, the surplus aura that every host leaves behind.” In another poem “the most necessary / version of ourselves is always brought back to us,” even “when we thought / we could let it go.” Another poem, “Near the Beisecker Bio-Medical Waste Incinerator” hears in the steam issuing from the windy “throat of the world,” and from an incinerator that is spilling sooty particles into the air, “some music that really did call the presence of each / living thing onto itself.” The poet does not turn from the dreck of the facility, or the horrific details of an illness, or from his own pain in losing something of his son into the fire. In a religious vocabulary distributed across the poem—”retributive,” “innocence,” “ceremonial,” “snake,” “ritualistic,” “cask,” “cairns,” “cadaverous,” “smoke,” “fire”—it names the mutualities of life. The experience culminates in the intimate terms of personal loss. The skinny bewildered son who has died beyond the reach of the father’s arms is held in the poem “as if love is always the knowledge / of what it has not accomplished.” The sacramental sense is powerfully realized, no easy matter, here and elsewhere (as in another poem the family gathering around the table, say).
The world, we see, may be renewed in the seasonal turns which we experience in simple concrete words: the trees will “stir with the first warm rains.” There are returns, there are recoveries. There are discoveries. Many of the poems end on a high note. This is especially true of “Previous Owners,” a brilliant comedy about visitors who arrive unexpectedly on the poet’s doorstep. Their incredulous stories about the house’s remakings and occupyings gather force until the current occupants are swept into a fervor of renovation. “We restored,” “We planted,” “We made.” The latest effort is so determined and so thorough it is almost laughable. In a bout of enthusiasm the new occupants “scraped down / through . . . through the coral and lime and cream, down through / the undercoat”—all the way through the flotsam of earlier inhabitants—until at last they reach “the original wood, and / started over again.” They reach bedrock, Reid might well have said. The repetitions in grammar (we did, we did, we did) and in preposition (“through” and “through” and “through” again) draw out the undeterred force of their intentions. We feel amused at their susceptibility to the story, but we see that the stressings also articulate a reaching for something else. They bring the almost dottering gestures of those who had once lived in the house to a poignant connection. They are portrayed as silly in their ardor, true, but they are construed as sympathetic too in looking toward a larger life: “trying to remember / What it is they left behind,” where “they had penciled in / the small additions of their love. Elsewhere a strange woman, who impossibly sees a new-born or unborn infant as “crying down towards the earth,” decides “there must be more of you somewhere / . . . left behind, or escaped.” Here, as so often in Reid, the route to meaning lies down and through. The trajectory is strongly felt in a line that fuses the natal and the Edenic: “And then you fell alone into the dilated world.” Loss and jeopardy permeate Reid’s book. He searches for meaning or a smidgeon of innocence to help when you are “out here on your own” among “old messages, unlisted.” Wisdom lies in the forgotten or the not-yet perceived. The stance is certainly elegiac for Reid, but it is never regressive. In his writing we live uncompromisingly in the present.
It may seem surprising to lean that Reid’s world—crammed with its obdurate materials—is not untended. But in unperturbed moments we do see that “the stars twinkled their / inevitable advice towards us” when we are born, and that “switch after switch of starlight / blinks on as if it would light the way” for the zucchini going to who-knows-where. The speaker in these lines smiles in small equivocation—Is the twinkling for sure “inevitable”? and is the perky intercession of the stars only an “as if”?—but the caring, frisking lights do turn on. From even the bleak and dispiriting incinerator (“paid for by my tax dollars” Reid dryly notes), which consumes remnants from human bodies, the steam “falls tenderly / upon us all.” And so, he measures the ordinary and extraordinary world in ceremonial ways. For all the mockery and all the mad inventiveness in the book; for all its erudition; for all the wonderful vital and parodied voices (think of the confiding, hectoring, ingratiating mother in “Lost”) Reid’s poetry lays itself in simple risk and hope before us. The earnest and perplexed visitors to the poet’s home, who see and do not see, in the visionary terms that end “Previous Owners,” are prepared to step
over the threshold, with all their dates
and still, as they enter the persistent light
of this old house, they say they
Staunch though the poems may be, they invite us into tenderness and a quiet hope that we might invent, if not come upon, glimpses of a fine and beloved place. They do so in simple words and in rhythms that are almost iambic.
About the long poem. Reid loves the form, as we can see and he attests. He uses it well to expand and to enrich a site. The term is handy enough to allow a large latitude in subject, treatment, and instance. Most of Reid’s long poems in Flat Side might be usefully called “serial.” Four of those included (“Flat Side,” “La Gunilla,” “The Shale Disparities,” and “Near the Beisecker Bio-Medical Waste Incinerator”) seem to be directed by personal and perhaps professional narratives, and to stretch out alongside the rest of the book in comparatively flexible, expanding, and frequently redirecting forms. The other pieces (“Burning the Back Issues,” “Lost,” “Previous Owners,” “Atkinson’s Ghosts,” “Five Smaller Dreams,” “Draw Weight,” “Migration of the Zucchini,” “Learning to Play ‘Blackberry Blossom’,” and “Phone Lesson”) appear to have been created within a serial mode. Their numbering of subsections does not by itself distinguish them from the other ones, which observe the same practice. However, what is set within those numbered parts is different. The most obvious instance probably comes in “Five Smaller Dreams,” whose parts seem almost nailed together. The dreams are tenuously related and only loosely gathered under the topic. And under the assurance that there are five of them. The whole poem that includes but never subsumes the five dreams is structured upon addition: here’s one, two (a spectacularly funny and alive piece, by the way), and a few more. The strategy could carry a poem indefinitely as a series of variations on a theme.
Others of this sort are more strongly
focused on a site. “Atkinson’s Ghosts” portrays a series of hilarious anecdotes
which concern a professor recently arrived on campus, a recently departed
professor, and an interloping spiritualist. “Previous Owners” provides the
buoyant histories, story after story, that gather around the poet and his
spouse’s understanding of their own occupancy. In composing the poem Reid must
have been asking what other stories he might remember or invent. “Lost”
assembles seven bizarre parts that circle stories of the narrator’s infancy and
bits of his later existence. And so on. The most focused of the serial poems, “Burning
the Back Issues” (a facetious play on one of William Carlos Williams’ poems)
renders the act as a witty and troubling comedy which passes through many
Reid’s poems rustle with rambunctious humour and large shifts in tone and register. In some ways they are also unperturbed. Many of the poems, especially the serial poems, are visually organized within neat shapes. The stanzas in those poems tend to replicate one another, sometimes in small units of two lines, or in larger units that in size and shape are close to one another. They also observe left justification and fairly consistent right margins. Cumulatively they create an impression of steadiness, as if the expansive imagination and the anarchic energy so characteristic of Reid’s poems were somehow managed or at least lessened within them. The clear and frequent spaces that open between the stanzas and the numbered sections allow a reader to ease across the poem, a chance to come up for air and to regather in brief repose.
The point may seem more cogent when we consider the topography of those poems that are not so modally organized. Take “Flat Side.” The eight subsections in it feel more destabilizing, though their parts are comparable in bulk and so, we might suppose, comfortable in their own skin. What happens within them represents a drastically different cast of the horizontal. The lines stretch far across the page to create a strong sense of fullness, as if whatever impels the words needs more room, perhaps as if there is lesser room (physiologically) for the reader. The effect is intensified by irregular and sometimes large indentations that fling us off the margins. The fissures imbue the text with torque:
Or there is the alternative
possibility that we sleep this way because so many others have
and we are only remembering
the persistent order of ourselves
which is both out there and within us.
Have you not also
The pages persist margin to margin, and they open gaps dramatically within themselves. The results are compounded by a high level of abstraction, scientific vocabulary, and latinate diction, the work of an erudite poet who releases the philosopher in him. Compared to the more symmetrical and briefer parts of the serial poems, they show strain and require effort. Even their stanza- or sections-breaks feel less self-sufficient.
These poems, too—all of the poems—flash with humour and invention.
Dennis Cooley’s latest book is Gibbous Moon with At Bay Press. Body Works is forthcoming at University of Calgary Press. Photo courtesy of Pat Sanderson.