Thursday, October 25, 2012

Book Review #35 : Airstream Land Yacht by Ken Babstock

A fine Canadian poet with a great ear. The Airstream Land Yacht is a brand of American motorhome as well as Ken Babstock’s third collection of poetry, shortlisted for the 2006 Governor General's Award. In this vehicle, Meaning and Sense take a back seat while Sound drives. Babstock doesn’t so much mean as sing, packing each poem with a flurry of sonorous details. At times, his images can be utterly exact and startling (“clutching tongs that pincer-gripped a heat-split wiener”), or surreal and humorous, as in this reference to autumn: “…the valley’s trees pulled their embarrassing sports coats on.” The book is divided into four parts: Air, Stream, Land and Yacht. Too often the author whips up an impenetrably dense froth of language; at other times, when he is not quite so intent on revealing the blur inside his head, he can conjure a poem that whispers down and settles inside the reader like a fine, even snowfall, as in ‘The Tall Ships Docked in Kiel Harbour’. There’s little doubt that no one else in Canadian poetry today (except perhaps, George Elliot Clark) has quite the Babstock ear, as he sets the reader whirling with his complex rhythms and rhymes that are never simple but always refreshingly devious: “we finished early to a round / of applause from a bank of thundercloud.”

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Review #34: Lambsquarters by Barbara McLean

An enjoyable visit to the country and the quiet ways and objects of country life. Subtitled 'Scenes from a Handmade Life', this back-to-the-land memoir is constructed of numerous short sections, many of which are meditations on familiar country things: a leaning barn, a crowbar, a snapping turtle, a towering beech tree, a corduroy road. But the book comes fully alive when McLean recounts her many experiences raising sheep. When the author and her physician husband, Thomas, first came to Grey County in southern Ontario, they gave their farm the singularly appropriate name, Lambsquarters, the name of a local edible weed. The tales of delivering, raising, shearing and caring for sheep and lambs have the scent of authenticity – the reader can smell wet wool and lanolin in the air of the old barn. McLean is good with a simile: a lamb born dead is “neatly contained in a pellucid envelope, as beautifully wrapped as a Japanese present”; half-grown chicks are watched by barn cats “following their moves like tennis fans.” The broader considerations of life in the country are all present (weather, wildlife, social gatherings and so on) but this book excels in its homey, almost invisible details, for example, the way moisture quickly evaporates from a freshly laid egg. At times the book feels somewhat overwritten with too many references to the gods and goddesses of classical myth, and McLean fails to make the few characters outside her own family come alive. Nevertheless, for its quiet reflections on country ways, this is a most enjoyable read.