Monday, December 27, 2004

It was 20 years ago next summer that the Vancouver poetry conference took place, a great event that resonates still in this participant’s mind. Afterwards, I was talking with Colin Browne, the poet & filmmaker who did much of the organizing, trying to assess the differences between U.S. & Canadian poetics at that (pre-Internet) juncture in history. “Your monsters are our monsters,” was Browne’s reply, meaning that any young Canadian poet had to negotiate his or her own relationship to the work (and influence) of Pound, Williams, Olson, Spicer, Duncan, O’Hara, Creeley, Ginsberg & the like. But, in fact, that wasn’t entirely accurate, because there were major Canadian poets – Earl Birney, Louis Dudek, to name two – who had made virtually no dent south of the border. I had already had a shock discovering the poetry of Gerry Shikatani, a wonderful writer whose work I’d never heard of previously. How could somebody that good, even half that good, stay a secret here in the United States?

Now I have a new book in my hands from Mark Truscott & I’m having something very much like a parallel reaction. Said Like Reeds or Things is simply terrific – why isn’t Truscott a household name in my house at least? Well, it’s his first book for one thing – but getting one’s first book from a publisher like Coach House Press is itself a noteworthy accomplishment. The end matter in the volume indicates that the book was edited by Jay Millar, a well-known & prolific Canadian poet, copy-edited by Alana Wilcox, & designed by Darren Wershler-Henry, another of Canada’s first-rate post-avant writers (who, incidentally, did a tremendous job with this volume). Truscott lives up to the effort. His poems are spare, sometimes to the brink of a Zukofsky or Grenier:






They’re also witty in ways both complex & subtle:


Knowing he’s dead, Glenn Gould plays Schoenberg.

Knowing he’s dead, Glenn Gould plays Schoenberg.

The volume is composed in three movements. The first, from which the two above were taken, is the title sequence & is the longest. The second, It’s Snowing, consists of longer (tho never entirely long) poems:





Inside hollow tire sounds I’m

careful with sentences

Who isn’t knocking?


mechanisms built into

their surroundings

The dryer isn’t

lonely any more

People trip

over themselves

No one screws with

this operating system

The light on

in and out

This is a quiet, carefully modulated poetry – Truscott obviously hears the changes in vowels & consonants very exactly and trusts the reader to do likewise. In a way, a longer poem like “Snow” reminds me a little of Devin Johnston, a writer with similar values (I wonder if they’ve ever read one another), tho Truscott’s off-kilter sense of humor comes a tad closer to someone like Graham Foust. However, I recall that my positive review of Johnston’s work drew an anonymous flame in the (currently dysfunctional) Squawkbox commentaries – not everyone has a good ear. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that Truscott’s readers also divide between those who appreciate subtlety (and who thus like this work enormously) and those who flat out don’t get it.

The book’s third section, It Was, would surely be the test. It’s untitled pieces are far more spare even than the works of the first section:

It was hot I saw.

This poem works if – and possibly only if – you recognize how the last five letters of the poem scramble the first five. On top of this, layer in the epistemological question of seeing and heat. It’s not a simple poem, but like all miniaturists, Truscott magnifies the most minute details dramatically. Some people will get it, but just as some folks find the music of Erik Satie boring, it’s going to lose anyone who really can’t read at that level of discrimination. Truscott doesn’t stop there, either. Consider


Is it conceivable that a nature poetry – for that’s what this is, with Truscott very much being one to include language in his understanding of nature – this spare? To appreciate the one-word poem as poetry means to be able to see & hear the sensuality of soft consonants aligned with a pair of vowels that create a single, clear tone.

Reading these poems, thinking about them, typing them up here excites me – this book as a whole makes me excited about poetry & all its possibility. I can’t think of a better accomplishment for a volume of verse.