April 29, 2018
Below is a review of Tom Wayman’s book of poems, Dirty Snow. It’s funny reading the review now because it was written before Donald J. Trump was elected, so all my comments about ‘mean, bullying times’ seem even more urgent now than they were then. It’s almost funny.
Before the review I have posted a small prose poem I wrote called Matins 11 from a new book of mine called A Matins Flywheel, a book which Thistledown Press is going to release in 2019. I am posting this piece because I suspect it reveals why I have always been drawn to the work of Tom Wayman; I have always admired his visions and his dedication: even though our poetics might sometimes appear to be quite different, there is another bond that runs deeper than arguments over style, something that has everything to do with human dignity, with love.
Matins 11, February 7, 2016
When I was a boy and a young man growing up on the south-side of Edmonton in the 50s and 60s, I was raised, along with my six brothers and sisters, in a close-knit Roman Catholic parish called St. Agnes. There were probably two or three hundred families in that parish and we were one of the smaller families. It was after the war, and there was a great sense then that young couples had to re-populate a new and better world for the future. Somehow, and I know this didn’t happen everywhere else, that better world was envisioned as an international world in Edmonton, not a parochial one. It might have been a vision sewn somewhere in those fields our young fathers had fought in just before we were conceived. Or maybe it was conceived in a more capricious and hard-to-see mix of immigration and opportunity that had unraveled in cities like Edmonton ever since the first world war had ended. I’m not sure, but by the early 50s in Edmonton there was a rich mix of Aboriginal Canadians, and British, Scottish, Irish, Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, German, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, Jewish, Chinese, and Japanese Canadians. Except for a couple of famous football players hired by the Edmonton Eskimos—players like Rollie Miles and Johnny Bright— there were almost no African Americans in Edmonton then, and it wasn’t until the 70s that East Indian and Pakistani families began to arrive. But in some fundamental ways, Edmonton did feel like the beginnings of a new world back then. It really did. I’d wander its cosmopolitan winter streets in a trance, thinking of my own future, and imagining all of us doing great things and finding happiness in different ways. I have to admit there was a fundamental and complex modesty at the base of all this imagining, but it still got dreamed up anyway. I sometimes weep at the memory of that boy walking those streets and dreaming those dreams. Sometimes on Saturday afternoons or evenings I’d help out at the St. Agnes Church Bazaar or its Whist nights. I’d talk to the Olsens, the Trepaniers, the Mohers, the Schmidts, Mrs. Kroetsch and Mrs Pasternak—all the parents who had quietly watched over us, conspiring to do things for us whether it was coaching us at hockey or driving us to summer camps. I liked talking to them. And I don’t know what it was about them, but these parents forestalled a self-consciousness and vanity in me that I could have assumed as a teenager, but which I didn’t assume. I couldn’t put on any airs or be condescending or stuck up with these people. And this became a reflex that never changed in my life, no matter where I lived or what I did or achieved—in Edmonton, Toronto, Regina, Nelson or Vernon—I simply could never indulge in that kind of vanity. It wasn’t part of my make-up because of those parents back there in St. Agnes. I indulged in all sorts of other bad things, and could be an asshole in many ways, easily, but never in that way…do you know what I mean? And when I got lucky and went to U of A for six years, then York University in Toronto for another three, when I realized I was going to teach College and University students, and become an artist myself, a writer, I could still never break that fundamental reflex. The further I was drawn into avant garde aesthetics and experimental poetry and fiction even, the more fiercely I clung to this perspective I had acquired as a child and young adult. I could never make art for the vain ones, the hipsters, the second guessers, the restless pretend artists, the excluders, the ones who were perpetually stylish but afraid to risk Lou Reed’s ‘everything.’ I never felt comfortable in any art worlds that encouraged safe hiding places for the ego, safe distances. I came, eventually, to be even wary of irony, though I was often buried alive in it myself. And I kept making art for an audience I knew wouldn’t put up with me for a second in my own adult life. And it was true. The older I got and the more books I published—even if those book were about them, which they always were—the more wary they became of me, wary and suspicious even. I expected that. I knew the score. I was on the other side. It was easy to see I guess.
But I didn’t care really. I made art for them anyway. They had placed me where I was. They had given me everything to get me there. All I could do to honor them was raise up slab and hallucinatory mirrors to catch the light of their love and dignity and throw these things back out onto the very fields they had prepared for me. I don’t make art for the vain ones, the hipsters, even though I love them, too. I just can’t. And that inability keeps me right here, glancing sideways into the sun hanging and fracturing and flooding millions of dust motes through the beveled basement west windows of a St. Agnes’ Church Bazaar on a desultory March Saturday afternoon in 1963. We’re half-way to Easter here today. I am imagining spring through my fifteen year old body. I can smell the fragrance of it that comes right from the newly exposed dirt itself and the scent of rain rinsing the snow earlier this morning. Everything’s about to happen again. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.
TOUGH TIMES, TOUGH VOICE: A Review of Dirty Snow (Harbour, 2012), by Tom Wayman
By John Lent
These are such mean, bullying times. It’s crazy. I was born in 1948 and grew up in the 50s and 60s in Edmonton, and I never thought I might be living, eventually, in a culture that was more conservative than that culture I grew up in. I would have laughed at such a prediction earlier in my life; it would have seemed absurd. But these times and this culture are more conservative. We have allowed that to happen, and I’m not sure how, but we did. Of course, we resist it and mask it in order to protect ourselves from what we have done. We imagine all kinds of redemption that might get us off the hook. Surely, we have not become that indifferent, that apathetic, that complicit. Surely, we have made some progress. Surely The Second Coming Is At Hand. And in many ways we have and it is. But it’s the weight of a new kind of mean-spirited logic, a new sense of mythical, global, economic ‘bottom lines,’ shepherded in by leaders we’ve coughed up who are the most mediocre among us, and the weight of this new logic and its mediocre proponents has overtaken and/or overwhelmed us. So we must begin now to lift this weight off our plates and dismantle it. We must learn to gaze more deeply and critically into the political and cultural machinery we have erected in order to support, in time, political and cultural machinery that is more variable and celebratory, and kinder to human beings.
It is precisely this kind of gaze—both critical and loving—that Tom Wayman provides in his latest book of poems, Dirty Snow. Like Neruda, Lorca, Guthrie, Brecht and so many others before him, Wayman uses words and images to cut through the steel irony and cerebral and vain stylishness of these times, and quietly expose the machinery that encloses and prevents us now. There is no other poet in this country who is articulating the issues Wayman is articulating here. Artistically, it would be too risky. Such a voice and a gaze such as his might even seem, on different aesthetic levels now, politically incorrect. But Wayman’s voice is so important now. His aesthetic has always been engaged in politics and people. He has made obvious and significant contributions from that point of view. But this is, for me, his most political book since The Face Of Jack Munro (1986), and there is a power and exhilaration in it that needs to be singled out, celebrated and acknowledged.
Thirty-five years ago, in 1978, in The Canadian Forum, I published a review of Wayman’s third volume of poetry, Money and Rain: Tom Wayman Live! (Macmillan, 1977). Culturally and politically, this country was in the middle of a variety of tumultuous change at that point, and Wayman’s voice caught some of the edges of those changes beautifully. His was a leading voice that knew what it was doing, both substantively and technically. “Here was a whole voice, it seemed to me, steering a deft course between surrealistic and political poetry, incorporating the lyrical and dramatic in a crafted, contemporary way. A controlled way.” I still feel the same admiration for both the material and craft of Wayman’s poetry, but I have come to feel that his voice is even more important and significant than it ever was. The specific lineage that Wayman was writing out of then—voices like William Carlos Williams, Neruda, Purdy and others—was a lineage that required a crafted, vernacular voice that could seize both the lyrical and political, the internal and external in our day-to-day lives. Dirty Snow fulfils that lineage and powerfully extends it.
Dirty Snow is divided into three sections: The Effect Of The Afghan War On The Landscapes And People Of Southeastern British Columbia; My Wounds; and Calling The Season Home. The juxtaposition of these sections reveals a strength that has always characterized Wayman’s poetry: the drawing of the political into the daily lives of people, the careful situating of the political, the external, within the powerful consciousness/awareness we have of the political internally. Wayman’s strategy has always been to include himself at the heart of any of these critiques. This strategy insures that the poems do not just rant; they are never simply prescriptive; they are always inclusive, open, and self-questioning. I want to draw attention to the different ways Wayman realizes these effects in this book; and I would like to talk a bit about how, like Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller before him, Wayman invents and runs a voice that is so subtly crafted that a new writer might think, at first, “Well, I can do that…I can write like that…it’ll be easy…” only to discover that these voices are among the most difficult to imitate because their seeming ease comes from a complex poise. Like a seasoned jazz saxophone player, Wayman can lean back into the music he is creating because he has reached that point of grace in improvisation, a poise that takes years to acquire. I want to mention a few things about this aspect of ‘voice’ in Wayman’s poetry because it is seldom commented upon and yet such an enormous presence in his work.
In the opening section of Dirty Snow, The Effect Of The Afghan War On The Landscapes And People Of Southeastern British Columbia, Wayman begins to personalize the abstraction of war, the endless shell game of rhetoric politicians employ to keep the war an abstraction, a distance, “an improvised/innocence.” He employs two basic strategies. First, as in Money And Rain: Tom Wayman Live, Wayman includes relaxed, informal introductions to the poems, the very introductions he’d use if he were reading the poems live; these introductions are so human, so down-to-earth, that they function as balsam to the caustic visions the poems sometimes open up onto and, as in Heller’s work or Vonnegut’s work, they use comedy, humor or just a down-to-earth voice to cushion and make accessible the darkness that accompanies them. Second, in his gaze, against almost impossible odds, Wayman seizes an alarmingly full awareness of the difficulties and complexities of any attempt to speak about the war, to use language to talk about the war…including all the imperfections and inconsistencies in our complicity with this war, our self-induced aloofness towards the war supported by a rhetoric of inncocence and virtue, an old, old game. In ‘Mt. Gimli Pashtun,’ as Earle Birney had done years earlier in ‘The Bear On The Delhi Road,’ Wayman weaves the image of an unexpected encounter with a bear in his own Kootenay landscape to the equally unexpected power of rhetoric and disguise our government employs to conduct a war we cannot quite comprehend, but are suspicious and wary of, can sniff the danger of:
When a bear
stands on the trail to block the way,
her head lifted, tilting side to side,
to scent us, or black fur is abruptly evident
descending the slope
toward us, the future
we are given
cannot be predicted or justified.
Achievements, skills, insights
mean nothing to the unreasonable menace
advancing in the icy air:
our government’s insistence that they
—that we—have always represented virtue,
that our peaceful heritage
affords our troops the right
to establish fields of fire,
that torture, the stoning of apostates
and adulteresses are our ally’s culture,
meriting respect […]
The unfairness of the bear’s power.
No protest short of retreat
or violence suffices
to counter its presence in our lives.
In “There Is No War, And You Would Not Have To Consider It If There Was,” Wayman employs an alternate strategy, Vonnegut and Heller’s wry humor embodied in an almost deranged, Swiftian illusion of logic:
[…]this cash flow
does not arise from taxation, nor does it involve
fiscal activity in the standard sense
used to calculate, for example, GNP. Such peace or
security funds, including everything from weapons procurement
to repatriation of remains
and future veterans’ care facilities, in fact evaporate retroactively
the moment these dollars are spent
and therefore generate zero impact on the economy,
let alone budgetary surpluses or deficits.
Of course, Wayman’s bottomless cynicism seeps through the rhetoric here, but the reader is disarmed in the process anyway because, on another acoustic level, the wheedling, zombie-like voice delivering the poem is all too familiar. We’ve heard this voice-over a lot. Finally, in ‘Dirty Snow,’ Wayman employs the lyrical as part of his direct treatment of the war and closes down this section of the book:
A spray of reddish dust: dessicated earth,
Shreds of maple, hardened blood.
Black particulate: charcoal,
Ash sifted across meadow, stream bank, road.
Tiny paper flakes: cream, blue, green—
Stems and serifs of numbers perceptible on the largest shards.
Mounds of detritus will linger if this snow melts.
What rain? What wind?
To what sea will the April runnels
Bear this pain?
All landscapes in this opening section fuse in the vision of this closing poem…where are we in this vision? Is this the landscape of the Afghan war? Is this a walk in the Slocan? In the end, it doesn’t matter; all landscapes are a part of the vision just as we are a part of the war. That’s the issue. That’s the forest we cannot see for the trees.
In Section Two of Dirty Snow, Wayman pivots from the public war to the wars within the self. The Afghan War is still very much present, but Wayman is now doing what he does so well: internalizing it, making it even more human and difficult and complex as he exposes the human contradictions that crazily support kinds of violence and/or betrayal and/or complicity as in “My Wounds”:
For the sin of fear
The wound of loneliness
I loved the highway too much
I made neither asphalt, bridges, nor the truck I drove
But the night road said: though you lose the fields
And the light
I will carry you
For the sin of my fear
Later, in “Richard Meissenheimer,” Wayman eulogizes a friend, a mechanic, who has died. The poem draws a sharp portrait of the man and also celebrates the communal, the way people support one another even in the darkest times:
They lowered him into our valley earth
One August afternoon. After thirty-two years
Amid these streams, the rocky soil, the houses under the peaks,
His hand and wit
Will remain forever. A careful mechanic,
He knew how to assess fuel systems, when to coax
A reluctant alternator, when to hammer loose
A brake drum, when to rebuild, to weld,
To abandon. He never ceased to learn more
As the specs changed.
I wish I’d been a doctor,
He said. Then I only would have to be familiar
With two models.
He studied people as closely as their cars,
A connoisseur of absurdities in either case
But never entirely dismissing hope…
There are a number of deaths in this section of the book. In the stunning, longer poem, “Wasps and The Fire,” Wayman considers the deaths of friends who are dying in the midst of the lush, abundant Slocan Valley springs and summers. This poem seizes vibrant people caught up and sacrificed in a landscape of renewal and fertility which can also be a landscape surprised by war and violence, and the poem is rich in an imagery that accompanies a frightening sense of time, an element that is more powerful than either abundance or war:
A shrill wail at these losses, this pain
—a sobbing from far within the earth
Tears ascend through soil
As they flood forth
They blaze into flame
And are buoyed away by air
Like particulates of ash
Among these mountains
Finally, in the third section, Calling The Season Home, Wayman fuses the external and internal, runs them side by side to close the whole suite down. Though the poems struggle with war and time especially—the fragility of the human context—they take place in Wayman’s landscape, in the day-to-day ‘tinnitus’ of the Kootenays, in a culture shadowed by war. In “Whistle” Wayman captures the rhythmic rise and fall of ordinary people’s freedom to simply critique their lives and the institutions that shape those lives. In “The Everlasting Room,” he wrestles with recovery from pain and loss; though he uses the war as a reference point to open with, the meditation reaches for a larger isolation and a pain that is, again, bigger than the war itself:
Music fails. Wine and carpentry
Never existed. Each memory torched,
Vaporised: a room of fear trembles
In the room of pain.
No wonder we forget the dead.
Dying in pain, they forget themselves
In “The Turn” Wayman reaches for an unbearable sweetness in landscape, a lyrical beauty, that enobles the human struggles in the other poems in this closing section.
What the heck, as my Dad used to say. This is a stunning volume of poetry. An important volume of poetry. It is written by a poet who has already given us much, a poet who has, it seems, reached a poise and suppleness of expression that offers something rich and crucial. Though comparisons are odious…I know, I know… reading Dirty Snow is like taking in the performances of Bill Nighy and Kelly Macdonald in Richard Curtis and David Yates’ THE GIRL IN THE CAFÉ: in that movie, a complex, subtle, internal world turns itself inside out, layer by layer, against the backdrop of another urgent, external world that is just as real, just as subtle, just as complex: a G8 meeting in Rekyavik convened to prevent poverty …and in this movie it is the question of whether or not these two fields can ever be one field that is foundational, persistent and heart-breaking. But oh! how Richard Curtis, David Yates and Tom Wayman make us hope…that is a wonder in itself. If a new generation of young poets, artists and activists ever needed wonder, or a mentor to inspire them, they should look no further than the body of work Tom Wayman has created over the past forty years, and maybe especially in his latest volume of poetry, Dirty Snow.