Formally Speaking: In the Pen with Pigheaded Souls

My goal in composing these pieces has been to honour gut reactions, however acidic, and to be entertaining about it. I have tried to assume that readers of poetry are smart grown-ups with overscheduled lives, who might appreciate a vigorous opinion. I haven’t felt especially hemmed in by the Canadian border; I have scarcely noticed it… 

So begins Jason Guriel in The Pigheaded Soul

Look how he entertains himself, and establishes his skill at close reading, with the opening couplet of Jeramy Dodds’s Crabwise to the Hounds:

“A bed / robbed of its river.” The first two lines of Dodd’s debut. With those first two words, “A bed,” Dodds sets up the reader, gets her picturing something to sleep on. With the next four, “robbed of its river,” Dodds startles the reader, pulls the bed out from under her. Also, by robbing a familiar word, “riverbed,” of its river, Dodds enables the reader to see the metaphor anew—to recognize, for the first time, that the word “riverbed” is a metaphor, that a river is like any other body stretched out on bedding, that its tossing and turning is not unlike a dreamer’s. And “robbed” is a smart choice (perhaps the only choice) not just because it alliterates with “river” but because it conceals that stolen “bed.”

On Anne Carson, he writes: “I have kept up with Carson because, once upon a time, she wrote poetry like ‘The Glass Essay,’ in which the bad is tolerable and the good unforgettable.” “Godno” is his title for a review of Dennis Lee’s Yesno; you know where that’s going.

In “Manufacturing Conceit” Guriel explains what bothered me about George Murray’s The Rush to Here, which I praised extravagantly in these pages several years ago. “Over and over,” writes Guriel, “Murray’s metaphors bottle foggy, abstract tenors inside clear, specific vehicles.” He cites examples.

As an advocate of poets he admires, Guriel is concise and convincing on Elise Partridge, Don Coles, Suzanne Buffam and Brian Bartlett, and there’s a beautiful personal essay about New York poet Samuel Menashe.

Guriel writes these reviews to deadline, for places like Poetry magazine, where he has won the editor’s prize for reviewing, and The New Criterion: humbling. 

The programmatic essay here is the last one, “Going Negative,” where Guriel advises that “it’s best to brace ourselves and expect the worst.” The essay concludes a book that establishes him as the most incisive, well-informed, and entertaining poetry critic in Canada: 

…how I know poetry exists: when I’m least expecting it, when everything’s dross, when I’ve given up hope and have my head down—that’s when the real stuff, like so much low-hanging plumbing, clocks me. Or takes the top of my head off. Or whatever poetry does to us, those rare, rare times we run into it. Stay positive.

Maurice Mierau’s latest book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, came out with Freehand in 2014. He is also the author of several books of poetry, including Fear Not, which won the ReLit Award in 2009. Maurice edits the online magazine The Winnipeg Review.