The Potter’s Field of Form: Catherine Kidd, Sylvie Bourassa, Janet Madsen, Matt Santateresa, Ibi Kaslik and Jason Heroux —Six Montreal Poets (Part One)

Note: This article originally appeared in ASH Magazine, issue Number 2 Volume 2 (Spring 1995).

I’m asked by the curious if I’ve discovered the next ——— yet: you can fill in the space with whatever “great” poet you prefer. The assumption is, as an editor I’ve got access to privileged knowledge. I haven’t of course; the poets I’ve chosen for this article are reasonably accessible, and the only knowledge you’ll need is the location of a bookstore. I anticipate complaints that this study has been too “selective,” and indeed that’s a fair evaluation. I’ve been less inclusive than I might have been—for practical reasons I won’t get into. The choice of poets that I’ve arrived at is based on the following formulation: public but not “established.” That means that you’ve got a fair shot at finding work by most of these poets in a good bookstore, i.e. one that carries literary journals and chapbooks—but these writers aren’t “household names,” and none of them, to my knowledge, has published a nationally distributed book (or a book, period). So, these are what are commonly termed “emerging writers.” Their literary reputations are not writ in stone (though Catherine Kidd has a local reputation, I’m led to believe). This puts me in an enviable but dangerous position as a critic. I’m exploring uncharted territory (that’s enviable), but my limited knowledge of these people and of their work means I could end up in regions of fire and dragons (not enviable). Unlike, say, the late F.R. Scott (a former “McGill poet” with a publicly available life), Ibi Kaslik’s life is not readily available to me as data—nor as anything else for that matter. A writer myself, I’d never attempt to take that dignity away from her. Alas, this paucity of knowledge then will translate into judgements that I recommend be taken as at best tentative. Caveat lector, let the reader beware. And I hope also that none of these poets decide to punch me in the face for my efforts, another fear that critics don’t face when dealing with the canonised Dead Englishman. But before I go forward, one final note. This essay is an informal consideration of contemporary poetry only as it applies to a specific geography, Montreal. That means that I’m not aiming at anything so grand as “Canadian poetry today,” but rather at writers who’ve spent a significant portion of their time in Montreal. Jason Heroux and Janet Madsen are now in Kingston (Janet works at Quarry; Jason studies at Queen’s) but both have connections with Montreal, having studied there (Janet) or having been raised there (Jason). The other four are living in Montreal at this time, or were when I did my research. The living, I’m thankful, defeat absolute categorisation.

Catherine Kidd came to Montreal from Vancouver in order to study Creative Writing at Concordia. It was at Concordia that she distinguished herself by winning the 1993 Irving Layton Award For Poetry (Ibi Kaslik won it last year). At U.B.C. she won a prize for an essay, demonstrating ability in prose as well as in poetry composition. I can say also from direct experience that she’s a fine performer of her work, using tone, inflection and facial expression to keep the interest of her audience. She projects a confidence that is rare in young performers, and thus isn’t tempted to theatrics and hyperbole (often gimmicks of the insecure)—or if she is, she does not succumb. In fact, she’s remarkably subtle both in print and in performance.

Kidd’s poetry depends upon the careful development of situations and environments; she relies on indirection and suggestion, dispensing with narrative in favour of an image-based style. Her landscapes are sometimes “exotic,” set in foreign countries (“Nagoa Beach” ostensibly takes place in Germany; “Matrika: The Lady Vanishes” has an Indian setting and refers to Benares). Other poems, “the red horse is female,” “with mountains in my eyes” or “The Visitation” are less geographically specific, but still rely heavily upon the evocation of place:

in a subtle boat of tree-bone, she and i
dismiss all our learning
let it sink sponge-heavy to the lake bottom
where goddesses of clay
dissolve to straw, then toss themselves on shore
to be eaten by cows

(“with mountains in my eyes” 5-10)

Kidd presents situations or landscapes in bare imagist terms, followed by an economical subjective response. I get the sense often of a narrator who is looking back at a childhood “event,” noticing lurking dangers. In fact, wrapping and unwrapping are common motifs for her work, leading me to speculate that her poetry, at this stage at least, is concerned with the “unpacking” of dangerous and painful pasts in order to disclose secrets and thus seek understanding and healing (a process made explicit in the poem “Matrika,” a word derived from matrix—the womb, the cavity in which anything is formed). The subtlety of Kidd’s evocations of pain and entrapment makes it hard to turn her poems into “stories,” but it is safe to say that her plots deal with personae who have sharp and cautious minds tuned to latent danger:

i can not imagine this
old man
could not want her to tremble, like the thin yellow flowers
when he carries them, sets them down
on the table before her plate. he says
he knows a German painter
who paints girls that look like her,
the many girls who look like her,
as though the painter were himself
seeing her without her clothes.

(“Nagoa Beach” 36-45)

This verse paragraph, which concludes the poem (it is not a traditional stanza: Kidd rarely even capitalises initial words of sentences), is an accomplished exercise in understatement and evocation of mood. The sinister repetition in “the many girls who look like her” underscores the magnitude of the abuse that is only indirectly conveyed throughout the poem. Her work is thus sensitive and subtle.

Kidd writes often of her father, and one of the most touching of her poems is “The Visitation”:

Unseen
beneath the wooden lid of the box
my father’s hands like raw pastry, while
above, unseen
the chapel’s shingled roof,
the workman’s hands are
hot and brown, with hammers and saws
to fix the hole where the light streams in
to Dan Devlin’s Funeral Home.

(“The Visitation” 1-9)

The funeral home, in which the protagonist feels caught “Between/life and death,” becomes an emblem for the claustrophobia of a life dominated by “conspicuous absence” and “ubiquitous presence”:

And did I know the deceased?
did I know this man well?
No
not well—he was
my father
once, he
was my god
and the unmanifest hands
spread over my life
like the black plastic tarpaulin
of vaulted heaven,
without even a hole to let in
light or rain or
to allow a soul’s ascent.

(“The Visitation” 15-28)

Kidd’s poetry is not morbid, despite its focus upon violence and victims (victims are often animals: a toad killed by a snake in “the red horse is female”; a wasp crushed underfoot in “Wasp”; “in a butcher shop window:/a split lamb with the wool still on”—”Feeling For A Pulse” line 21). Hers is a world of lurking danger, of “friction, attrition and contention” (“My New Pair Of Eyeglasses”), but one always has the sense of a cunning consciousness that is keeping a careful distance. A bleak consolation perhaps, but one that makes for powerful and, one hopes, potentially transforming insights.

Reading Sylvie Bourassa, we are in a world entirely differing from Kidd’s, at least, stylistically speaking. Sylvie is a Concordia student (this is going to be the case with most of the writers I am investigating) and a recent arrival on the scene, having first published her poems in 1994 (synchronously in Grain and Perhaps?). She differs in personality from Catherine Kidd almost as extremely as one could, and her work shows it. Sylvie writes predominately narrative poetry that relies less on imagery than on word-play and traditional rhetorical figures. Hearing her read, I get the sense that she conceives of her work as a character performance, as opposed to Kidd’s focus on the poem as a verbal construct, a linguistic exercise. This isn’t a neat binary opposition, merely a way of coming to terms with what are after all two distinct reading styles. Bourassa’s stage presence gets mixed reviews because of its uniqueness; she’s comfortable with an audience, like Kidd, but she projects an “innocent” persona in a lilting, “sing-song” tone of voice. Cynical sophisticates are likely to find her public readings “endearing,” but in small doses only. However, I’ll point out also that many admire her reading technique—and anyway, reading technique has little bearing upon how her work stands on the page.

“Seven Days in Jersey” is the opening poem of Corridors: A Concordia Anthology (1994). Despite this honour, it isn’t the strongest poem of the anthology—not even Bourassa’s strongest work. It’s witty, a sort of anatomy of the number seven, and it showcases a sanguine disposition:

An odd number, Seven Eleven
a pit stop on the boardwalk in Asbury
Park where Seven Up sipping teenagers flip
through Seventeen Magazine, looking
for answers they don’t need.

(“Seven Days in Jersey” 6-10)

But before you conclude I’m going to contrast Bourassa to Kidd (so-called Happy-Go-Lucky vs. Cunning Intellect), consider the poems “Danaë and the Gold” and “The Baker.” The first is a treatment of the myth of Danaë, who you’ll recall was impregnated by Zeus—he came to her in a shower of gold. (Danaë was imprisoned by her father, because it was foretold that she would give birth to a son who would kill—you guessed it—her father. The plan to keep her safely away from courtiers failed, as such plans always do…). Bourassa examines the myth in relation both to the inspirational and the mundane. The narrator wonders, somewhere near the middle,

did [Danaë]
bloom into rapture and know the sublime
agony of surrender, gold dust
flung in her eyes, fingerprints
smeared on her belly, a thousand
tiny flames bobbing in her
veins? Or did she awake awashed
in the pale cast of artificial light
remembering the sun?

(“Danaë and the Gold” 17-25)

The question assumes a healthy scepticism, and anticipates the sort of disappointments with which life is fraught. As we shall presently see, Bourassa returns to this theme (disappointment) in another poem, “The Baker.”

“Danaë and the Gold” is organised through the use of assonance, consonance and alliteration, all traditional rhetorical figures:

Blasted light splashed the brazen
chamber, casting its haloed glow. No
earthly source springs such caressing
shower, a seducing god’s gold.
(1-4)

Also commonly found in Bourassa’s poetry are internal rhymes and repetitions of phrases. But of prime interest now, as we turn to “The Baker,” is the subject ‘life’s disappointments.’ For “The Baker” is another narrative poem about frustration, this time the frustration of a man who loses his livelihood following a horrible accident:

My grandfather baked bread
by trade he made dough triple
…………………………………….
…….before the slicer chewed
half his right hand, two fingers and a thumb
missing, gone within seconds

(“The Baker” 1-16)

It’s difficult to read these lines in this context (note also, I’ve severely abridged the poem), and not note the absence of the subtlety I’ve mentioned in relation to Kidd. But to be fair, I don’t think this is the same sort of a story that Kidd’s poems “tell,” and I don’t know how I would have handled it were I called upon to do so. The poem works, not flawlessly though: its mood is one of pathos and nearly melodrama. And an attuned ear can’t help but notice the heavy (and inappropriate) alliteration of the close:

For years he mourned
his palate numbed by nitro pills,
his honey-trained tongue
tamed by tar. He grieved until
the pale glow of his Baking King’s hands
yellowed with the nicotine
of three packs a day Export “A”
until smoke cloaked his bloated body…
(36-43)

The last line is a good instance of assonance (smoke, cloaked, bloated) and conveys “cloyment” or “surfeit.” The old man is literally and metaphorically fed up. However, careful craftsmen and craftswomen will note that alliteration, especially when overused, is a potentially subversive rhetorical figure; it risks a provocation of laughter, not at all Bourassa’s intention. The internal rhyming of “day” and “Export A” is also too playful, too contrived. The lovely whimsy of such techniques is used appropriately by Bourassa elsewhere, but in this case I think she blunders. It’s a judgement I leave to the reader. For now, I will turn to the whimsical side of Bourassa once more, and look at a poem called “A Day at the All Saints’ Café.”

“A Day at the All Saints’ Café” is as playful as any Bourassa poem I’ve seen, and it’s perhaps her best. It has some nice metrical passages, and some notable rhetorical figures: internal rhyme, alliteration, puns, syntactical repetition and epiphora (repetition of a phrase in which a word is modified or changed) being among them. The poem also plays on the idea of a “dog eat dog world,” for there is much eating and being eaten:

Ambition eats
often at the All Saints’ Café.
………………………………….
you chew your pen while the Big Man
chews you piecemeal. He chooses
to savor the taste of your
downcast eyes, your acquiescing smile.

(“A Day at the All Saints’ Café” 1-27)

Like “The Baker,” this poem considers failure, frustration and human limitations. But this poem is stronger because the playful language confirms and complements the content; the characters who inhabit the café are not tragic, but rather folks like you and I, folks whose fantasies are the half-pathetic half-comic stuff of ordinary life:

You want to
sit in the brass section: he makes
you sweep the smoking section.
(29-31)

Bourassa finds the right tone in this poem, the one that seems to me to best suit her personality. True, the poem is excessive, but the excess in this case works:

You want to
tell him you’re only waiting
for promises of Paradise, a pair of wings,
the rhythm of swing, waiting
for the Big Break, the Big
Take, the chance to play
bebop at the top, hepcat
with the cool cats, whose ninth lives
upped and gone.
(31-39)

The poem ends in a dull world not much different from Danaë’s prison cell. It is a world of the “daily grind/of coffee grounds”(44-45), a world where inspirational moments or flights of fancy are at best questionable, at worst absurd. The poem seems to parody the kind of poetic ambition that perhaps Bourassa brought to its composition (a reassuring and hopeful thought: my observation is that we writers take ourselves far too seriously these days). But perhaps I’m getting too sophisticated at this point?

At the ripe old age of 30, Janet Madsen (born 1965) is among the older of the poets here studied—perhaps even the oldest. (I think Catherine Kidd is older; I know for a fact Sylvie Bourassa is younger. Jason Heroux is in his early twenties, and Ibi Kaslik is indeed a greenhorn—still in her teens). Madsen offers some interesting parallels with Catherine Kidd: both came east from Vancouver to study Creative Writing at Concordia (whether or not Kidd and Madsen ever met in Montreal, or even know of one another, I am unable to say—it seems unlikely that they have never at least heard of one another—but I know Madsen spent 1985-1992 in Montreal, making a meeting improbable); both Kidd and Madsen explore a child’s relationship to a father; both are able to write with subtlety (in differing manners albeit) and both are concerned with the danger involved in imposing one’s will on another. To demonstrate this, I’ll look at Madsen’s poems, “A Potter’s Field of Forms” and “Every Skin of Brightness” (the latter reminiscent of Kidd’s “the red horse is female”).

Madsen’s public career begins with the publication of “A Potter’s Field Of Forms” (a title recalling an Old Testament trope for God: “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel” Jeremiah 18:6). This poem appeared in Poetry Canada Review, volume 12 number 1, 1991. Two years later, The Fiddlehead published a poem, “Every Skin of Brightness,” and it’s this one that I’d like to examine first.

“Every Skin Of Brightness” is a carefully organised poem that depends upon the patterned opposition of terms, especially of light and dark. “Light” and “dark” are of literal significance because the poem tells of a father’s photographing his children (his daughter especially). But metaphorically too, light and dark designate that which is constructed for public viewing and that which is feared, mistrusted and rejected, respectively. In plain English, Madsen portrays a father’s inability to come to terms with his daughter’s sexual awakening (in this respect, he’s not unlike the culture which has produced him). The father’s response to this awakening is denial; he comforts himself by “framing” his daughter within the fictions that his photographs bring into being:

he imagines he sees
as the child sees and loves
as the child learns to love, alone. For years
I’m his images of me
framed on the edge of water.
…………………………………..
I learn to glide into
every skin of brightness
so the camera might uncover me
and hold me in his light.

The poem is uncanny in its economical use of basic yet richly evocative images: light, dark, flame, owl, angel. This list appropriately invokes the simple yet deadly logic that motivates the father’s appropriation of his daughter’s identity:

When the image is developed, my father
perceives a shape in the flame,
an owl or angel
flares behind me.
He removes me from the family
to create a striking portrait
plucked from a chemical bath:
girl and angel, black and white.

Madsen links image and imagination. Through the medium of the photograph, the father has learned to translate his private will (imagination) into a public fact (an image), and thus to define his daughter according to his narrow preconceptions of proper (“angelic”) femininity. The daughter’s/ narrator’s identity is thus shaped by the “simple” act of portraiture; but the will of the daughter persists:

Later, when in darkness,
I discover the colours of love
and men and women become
to my lips the brightest flames;
when to touch I emerge
wild red and orange,
the purest quiver of green
he doesn’t want to see
the woman who has surfaced.

The poem ends with an “escape,” but one still determined by the binary logic of the “black and white” “light and dark” “angel vs. owl” logic of the father’s photographic enterprise:

As I slip from his eye into darkness
I become an owl, lifting wing
over lake and island looking down on
a brighter land than I remember.

“Every Skin Of Brightness” is a good balance of narrative and imagery, and its logic is well thought-out. Madsen shows a sensitivity to diction in her work and almost never lapses into the obscurity or awkwardness committed by the typical young poet, and her writing demonstrates the discipline needed to avoid a counter-productive overstatement.

“A Potter’s Field Of Forms” is an earlier poem, and it shows. Like the other poems published at this time (“Deep From The Belly Of Sunday,” “An Impression Of It”), it lacks the grace of the later poetry’s finer lines. And there’s little subtlety, which doubtless you’ll by now have recognised as my cardinal virtue:

Dark, & cool within the shed
made studio for summer.
I work in a room bare but for the naked
forms kept wet in thick towels,
bodies half-emerged from clay.

(“A Potter’s Field Of Forms” 1-5)

Here then is the dramatic context. The poem is about a sculptor, a prototype of the patriarchal photographer of “Every Skin Of Brightness.” As this “false teleology” suggests, I do feel that the earlier poem is only rehearsing a theme that will be realised technically at a later date. It’s interesting to see a poet trying to work something out in prosaic fashion when you’ve already read the later, more accomplished version.

But to return: the sculptor is at first horrified to discover the sculpture is not conforming to his or her inner vision of what it ought to be. The artist “thumps,” “pulls” and “prods” the clay (the alliterative use of plosives suggests violence), but the figure who emerges seems “a grotesquerie, a mocking face/frame in a wild muck hair,/a face full of its own drooping eyes”(28-30). The poem reminds me of the Pygmalion story, but with a twist. Rather than imposing an idealised vision onto the sculpture (as Pygmalion does), Madsen’s protagonist allows the sculpture to will itself into existence; the result is a figure that seems grotesque at first, because of course it is not the ideal—or the “angelic” to borrow loosely from “Every Skin Of Brightness.” This sculpture must be addressed on its own terms, the way any child emerging into adulthood and thus independence must be. Gradually, the artist recognises this, and there is the following transformation of intention at lines 31-39:

I soften the clay with water, run my hands
over the slick neck, begin again,
but the eyes always emerge,
this one wants its own.
I give in, & follow the lines
of the eyes sloping into face, neck,
shoulders and breasts. I give her
the flesh arms & curved belly
she calls for.

The poem ends with a Joycean affirmation, put into the mouth of the sculpture:

[the sculpture is]
all wrong somehow, all saddened or defiant,
or reclusive,
but all
having somehow said through my hands,

Yes.
(48-52)

It’s a good ending, emotionally complex and affirmative without falling into mere sentimentality. Still, “A Potter’s Field Of Forms” isn’t as strong a poem as “Every Skin Of Brightness”; it’s prosaic, which is to say, there’s little to distinguish it from prose—other than the fact that the lines don’t go to the end of the column. And there’s the use of the “&” (of which I’ve become suspicious), which Madsen has discarded by 1993, but which appears in early works:

Your hands touch all the furniture,
& doorframes & walls. You pace,
& the apartment wears your touch
like tattoos. I wish
I was a wall, strong & holding
your hands on me.

(“Deep From The Belly Of Sunday” 1-6)

Whether this is a permanent change of heart or a momentary passion I’m unsure, but I suspect it indicates a deliberate choice. The & is an easy and cheap gimmick, a visually striking way to signify this is poetry. True, Blake used the &; but it isn’t until the establishment of modern free-verse that we find the vacuum created after the abandonment of traditional forms and metres being filled by what Paul Fussell terms “just-folks idiosyncracy”: random spacing between words, slashes, intuitive line breaks, pointless indentation, avoidance of the upper case (especially with “i”) and so on. Undeniable, such idiosyncrasies can convey a tone and a mood. Here is Ottawa poet Rob McClennan’s “Victoria Day” (ASH readers will recognise this: it appeared in the fall 1994 issue):

under a strawyellow hat, ron
dances his way into the warm summer sun.
arms & legs waving, silly grin
pasted to his face like new life.
tossing natasha, 2 1/2
in & out of his long twig legs,
laughing in trampled fields, leaves
& grass in her sandy hair.
& fingers in the clouds, she screams,
ballon! howls
& echoes…

I think the gentle, whimsical tone of the poem—its portrayal of “childlikeness”—is complemented by the idiosyncrasies listed above. But used unthinkingly, these become shamelessly affected techniques which symbolise a major weakness of contemporary poetry, a weakness that endorses pretension and favours superfice over substance. That’s a fault of our television culture overall, a culture slick and glittery (sophisticated when it comes to surface management), but intellectually and spiritually empty; and it’s one poets at least ought to try to transcend, if their claims of being artists are to have any credibility at all. A question I will offer to the reader as an interlude (this is a two-part discussion) is What is left for poetry when craft is dismissed as old-fashioned? (—i.e., use of metre, form and traditional poetic techniques). It’s a question poets need to consider.

No doubt you’ll conclude I’ve left much out; there’s more to say, or better things to say. I don’t deny the first accusation, and the second I’ll give grateful attention, if it’s intelligently substantiated. In my defence I’ll say only that I’ve tried to give accurate overviews of poets that I think have a shot at writing some decent poetry in the years to come. I’ve tried to hold certain trends up to praise, others to censure. The job of a critic isn’t only to say “I like this”—not even principally to say this—but to articulate a cogent argument for what works and what doesn’t. And the humble critic (this ought to be redundant: a shame it isn’t) recognises that it’s a hell of a lot easier to pick away at a poem’s weaknesses than it is to write strong poetry. In my own poems I’ve realised all of the errors I’ve listed here, and yet not all of the positive accomplishments. Poetry, I conclude, is difficult.

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