“The Thatness of This”: A Review of M. Travis Lane’s Ash Steps, Robin Richardson’s Grunt of the Minotaur, and Carey Toane’s The Crystal Palace

by Mark Sampson

Mark Sampson has published one novel, entitled Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007), and has two other books forthcoming: a novel entitled Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, Fall 2014), and a short story collection entitled The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, Spring 2015). He won The Puritan’s inaugural Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Literary Excellence (poetry category) in 2012, and has had many poems, short stories, essays and reviews published in journals across Canada. Born and raised on Prince Edward Island, he currently lives and writes in Toronto.

Ash Steps
Cormorant Books
10 St. Mary Street, Suite 615
Toronto, ON M4Y 1P9

2012, 85 pp., $18.00, ISBN 978.1.77086.096.4

Grunt of the Minotaur
Insomniac Press
520 Princess Avenue
London, ON N6B 2B8

2011, 80 pp., $16.95, 978.1.55483.031.2

The Crystal Palace
Mansfield Press
25 Mansfield Avenue
Toronto, ON M6J 2A9

2011, 96 pp., $16.95, 978.1.894469.57.9

[T]his book is no diary. I am under revision but have not grown wiser. And my poems do not build upon each other like coral polyps in a reef. Each of these poems is a separate experience. To force progressive or developmental structure on a miscellany of discrete amusements is to forsake the fact of poetry for the wish of theory … When Adrienne Rich writes of meaning searching for its word like a hermit crab its shell, she makes more poignant Robert Frost’s image of metaphor as a temporary and imprecisely fitting shelter against the confusion of experience. Both poets remind us that the word is not the meaning nor is the word created by the meaning. The shell may be discarded. But a shell, a word, is needed. Unhoused, the nude crab perishes.

So wrote M. Travis Lane in the introduction to her 1993 poetry collection, Temporary Shelter. Reading this now, 20 years on, one might suspect Lane’s missive as a shot over the bough of a certain type of poetry book common in the Canadian canon, a type that builds upon itself, poem after poem, into a patchwork of overarching obsessions or constraints to fulfill the “wish” of theory. Yet Lane’s predominant observation, that metaphor is a temporary, ill-fitting, but ultimately necessary component to poetic expression, applies to most, if not all, approaches to verse. We can see it in the work of those poets who amass “a miscellany of discrete amusements” as well as those who forge a broader structure, preoccupation, or narrative through their poetry.

I thought about these things as I read Lane’s latest collection, Ash Steps, as well as recent collections by two younger poets, Grunt of the Minotaur by Robin Richardson and The Crystal Palace by Carey Toane. In each of these books, metaphor is played in a number of tonalities—sometimes whimsical, sometimes serious, occasionally erotic—but always treated as something transient, something capable of being outgrown. Even in Toane’s The Crystal Palace—by far the most accomplished of the three books—where she centres her focus on the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, she does not succumb to treating her subject matter as a constraint on the poems. That is to say—if I may borrow Lane’s analogy, which she borrows from Frost—the poems in these books roam like hermit crabs, picking up different shells of metaphor as they will.

There are clear examples of this throughout Lane’s latest offering. Ash Steps can, upon first reading, come across as a mere hodgepodge of observational poems couched in various levels of metaphor. But Lane has a preternatural knack for isolating her vision onto the singularity of an object or experience, expressing a thatness (if I may create an inverse of Jan Zwicky’s theory of thisness) to whatever thing, or series of things, her poetic eye falls upon. The interest expressed here is less about the particularity of an object and more about the momentary impression of it, the fleeting and intangible quality that hits us at the level of metaphor. Lane stakes out this ground from the very opening poem of Ash Steps, “Confluence,” when she writes:

A milky brown, the rivers slid
below the graying cottonwoods
like great pale snakes. I found them dull.
The bridge from which I looked at them
seemed nothing much. A beggar
wished me blessings just half way.
Early, I thought, and chilly.

To sit all morning on this arc
of concrete! That man seemed
like the small bubble balancing
midway in a plumber’s level,
calm as the waters seemed to be,
bland, muscular, indifferent.

Notice how each metaphor and simile here serves its function quickly, transitorily, and then slips away. There is no grander relation or structure between them—“graying” cottonwoods (which I took to mean “aging”) are followed by snakes, which are followed by an “arc/ of concrete,” which is followed by a plumber’s level, which is followed by the term “muscular.” These images imbricate with one another, in beautifully ethereal ways, to create an overall impression of that bridge—Lane’s experience of sitting on it, watching the river below flow by.

We can also see evidence of this approach in the collection’s title poem. “Ash Steps” is, on a certain level, a meditation on loneliness—yet it is not concerned with the specificity of that emotion, but rather the dint it leaves on other, more mundane experiences. She writes:

No frog
jumped into the water bin.
But something fell, and for a while
that tepid mirror shifted, squirmed,
and shook beige shreds of floating leaf,
a pigeon feather, dust,
larvae perhaps.

The ash steps wet with dew
a toenail paring of the moon:
means rain. I think of you
white-ankled through the gauze
mosquito net we salvaged for our bed
in this tin/cardboard/canvas town
that, mountainous,
shadows the city where you work.
It’s late. You will not come.

Again, spot the looseness in Lane’s metaphoric depictions here: a mirror is described as “tepid,” and then we’re told that it “squirmed”; we’re given the sharpness of “a toenail paring of the moon” followed by the softness of a mosquito net. What gets created in the mind’s eye may vary from reader to reader, but there is no doubt the system of images is meant to be kept at arm’s length—a thatness which captures an intimacy beyond the thisness of immediate recognition.

Of course, to be fair, there exists a subtle overarching preoccupation in Ash Steps: one of widowhood, of having lost one’s life partner. (Lane’s husband passed away in 2005.) We can glimpse expressions of her grief in such poems as “What’s Left” (“And if I miss/ my friend, my lover, what I miss/ is real, fills up the afternoon/ with a strong sweetness”) and “How Long” (“How many dear friends have passed away/ ahead of us/ as if they bore our standards into dark/ while we/ hover impatient on a shore”). But this subject matter is not a constraint on Ash Steps, nor is it even an organizing principle. At best, the metaphors expressing this sense of loss are what Lane calls in her foreword an “imprecisely fitting shelter” against the harshness of such an experience.

If any overarching preoccupation exists in Robin Richardson’s Grunt of the Minotaur, it certainly eluded this reader. I don’t mean that as a critique of either the book or myself: Richardson writes with such brio in each individual poem—or, indeed, in individual lines of each poem—that your desire to spot a unifying structure or arc soon slips away. The pieces in Grunt of the Minotaur do not, to borrow yet again from Lane’s foreword, “build upon each other like coral polyps in a reef”; these are discrete narratives, descriptions, or ruminations that form their own system of metaphor or symbol, poem after poem. The effect is, in many cases, arresting. Take for example, her piece “Didac”:

Didac is bathing with the door open; burnt
umber under water and his prick upright,
bearded by bubbles.

Grinning he rubs his belly,
lisping Catalonia nativity
as we listen from the kitchen

half looking, half turned back
to see the scurry of a Spanish rat.
He wraps a pregnant pause

with pink and porous revelation.

As anyone who has experienced an erection in the bath can attest, Richardson’s description in that first stanza is spot on. More to the point, she arranges a sly network of metaphor throughout this piece to create—almost—an epistemological framework for processing her experience in that Spanish kitchen. There is a knowing-unknowing aspect at work here, captured in the line “half looking, half turned back,” as well as in subsequent lines like “the language/ hides me from your kitchen banter” and “The bookshelf stacked and dropping/ vowels like unripe apples at my door.” The thatness here is the Spanish language itself, an illumination of it that comes only through—to play off the title of the poem—a slow and partial didacticism. This arrangement of symbols is very similar in approach to Lane’s technique in “Confluence” discussed above: there is at once a jarring randomness to the chosen tropes that, upon repeated readings, layers the narrative with richer meanings.

We find a similar experience in other poems in Grunt of the Minotaur, including “Citing Dimensions of Mad and Mundane Counsel,” which supplies the book with its title. Again, one can’t help but be reminded of Lane’s comment on “the fact of poetry for the wish of theory” when reading this poem: Richardson does not reach for a singularly grand thesis here; instead, she commits herself to a dizzying array of seemingly unconnected symbols that build to an open-ended climax. Consider the poem’s closing stanzas:

Or likewise fight the obligation
of an arm offered up in buttermilk
abduction. This is how duty implores

intimated by the watch, tyranny
of tin and magnet, gentle in a kind
of ennui. Without the boastful

noble enemy of high official rank,
there’s only task: talk to her, cook
the dining room drabble to a gold,

good-humoured wrap of conversation.
Afternoon is plain. Ten pages make
the brisk walk from Wagner’s minor

chords to the low sliding grunt
of the Minotaur.

The disparateness of these images is clear; and the poem’s central proposition or narrative remains just out of reach. We find the epitome of Lane’s reference to an “imprecisely fitting shelter against the confusion of experience.” And yet there is a formidable cohesion to this poem that transcends a thesis, transcends narrative, transcends immediate recognition. We are in the very heartland of thatness.

Richardson is adept at this kind of technique—mobilizing an allusive array of poetic symbols that do their jobs and then slip away like assassins. Again, the purpose here is the processing of discrete experiences, an exploration of precocity (the poet was 26 when she published this book), of encounters and contemplations that hold a distant or bewitching nature. The key to interpreting these experiences remains metaphor—the type of transitory metaphor Lane alludes to in her foreword. Evidence of them abounds in Richardson’s work. Take, for example, the final stanza of her poem “Pointed Black Drop Shadow”:

She was spindly. Just now menstrual, a peach leaf
in her teeth, she smiled: cane chair, powder box
scoffed, shuddered. Nothing could be done.
The pelvis of this girl, turning worlds like
an Arab’s flute, would have to do.

or the opening stanza in “Choked by the Debate”:

Insult gave him Babylon, promptly across
the room, nimble they came, argued for the garden’s
hanging, snaring vines, could not be swayed.
This is the come-along pivot of discourse, whereby
the sign commits, adept at changing trains, tradition.

In these and other cases, we encounter metaphors that reside right on the outskirts of immediate recognition—How does an Arab’s flute turn worlds? How does an insult give someone Babylon?—and yet the illumination they provide is fierce, original, nourishing.

Not every poem in Grunt of Minotaur succeeds in this way; there are times when it feels like some of Richardson’s pieces reach a bit too far to achieve this allusiveness. Specifically, I’m thinking of poems like “Blue” (which contains the lines “Swans pass like shifting latitudes/ East inches over and the Earth commiserates,/ it’s lost its place”), or “Text and Taxidermy”(which opens with “The high brow ridge, streaked dark with eyelash,/ is the hub of the world”). In each example, there is a lack of snap to the description; the acquired metaphor seems loose but not in a deliberate way. But these flaws are only a minor and occasional occurrence in Grunt of the Minotaur.

If what we are talking about are poetry collections that don’t manufacture a constraint on themselves “for the wish of a theory,” then Carey Toane’s The Crystal Palace both typifies that rejection and transcends it. After reading the back-cover blurb, one might expect the book to enact a fairly predictable poetic rendering of the 1851 Great Exhibition through a collage of carefully contained set pieces. But it’s as if Toane is blowing a raspberry at that expectation; it’s as if she is making it clear that her verse will not be limited by such vulgar restrictions, including ones that she herself has imposed. How else to explain the tiny masterpiece, “Vladimir Putin Is a Real Tiger in the Sack”? This poem would never fit into any pre-determined schema or structure—it’s an example of Lane’s “discrete amusements” if ever there was one—and yet it still fits, still breathes the same animalistic air that hangs like a firmament over this whole book:

Vladimir Putin is a real tiger in the sack:
Russia’s pharaoh with his abs out,
blue lips bared, bald pate replaced
with the fierce mane of his
fearsome idol.

He’s got a well-trained cub on a leash,
sipping Starbucks in Park Slope
—a Maasai warrior and various heads
of the Myanmar military junta in tow
for a conversation meeting:

“The Virtues of Large Cats and the Virile
Men Who Love Them.”

We could take a moment to examine various metaphors and symbols here—hard to see anything topping “He’s got a well-trained cub on a leash” as an apt description of Putin’s grip on Russia—but Toane goads us with the idea that a close reading would ruin half the fun. What makes The Crystal Palace such a remarkable achievement is its breathy ability to both build up and tear down our assumptions of what the book is going to be. You cannot come to this collection thinking you will find a Zwickian thisness to the Great Exhibition, or to rats, or to flowers, or to any other recurrent preoccupation cast upon its pages. You come to this collection to marvel at the looseness of its metaphors, the temporary but powerful allusions scuttling like crabs across its landscape.

Example: “The Prince Hears Plaid.” In this poem, Toane leads us—by way of an exploration of the sensory disorder synesthesia—on a romp into the very heart of how simile and metaphor work. There is a certain kinship here with some of Richardson’s lines discussed above. In the following passage—and please forgive another reference to erections—we can see Toane deploying a similar array of coy comparisons:

… The jig frames throbbed
like erections on drums, but the concrete
foundations stanched the leaky fear
of falling. The asymmetrical ceiling
was a shiver he wanted to comb clean.
The columns were shrill as ornaments.

Again, I’m not entirely sure how ornaments could be “shrill” or how one might “comb clean” a shiver, but instead of jarring us, these lines create wonderful mysteries with their elusiveness. They lend a level of shading to what Toane draws for us; they hint at a rich world residing just below the surface. From her sestina “The Crystal Palace (Reprise)” to the percussive lines of “Bottle Greening,” we see countless examples of this playfulness.

Much of The Crystal Palace reminded me of Lane’s analogy of the hermit crab—including, fittingly, the poem “Crab” itself. There is an aura of distress in this piece, a “confusion of experience” that creates a deep sense of unease. But what provides us shelter from that unease? Of course, it is metaphor itself. There is such joyfulness to Toane’s descriptions, an insouciant expertise in making fast and bright comparisons that burn with imagination. The poem is worth printing here in its entirety:

Pretty pippin, you lost
your inheritance. Whoever said
you wouldn’t name names
had the sugar of a lie on her tongue.
Your brother was a teacup,
your sister a grenade.
Your mouth splits your face,
a persistent relic.
The produce aisle is a wax museum
forty-five million years in the making.
You have legs, so run.

There is no thisness here to the crab, only a thatness to the evolution that has shaped it, given it its inheritance of a split mouth, its place within the terror of a supermarket. Metaphor does its quick, fleeting job, and we are richer for it.

And therein lies the true crux of M. Travis Lane’s argument above, the great paradox to treating metaphor as a temporary rather than permanent shelter. Doing so provides the working poet a certain freedom to see her world in all its elasticity, in its infinite permutations, contradictions, and mysteries. Constraints have their place, of course, but so too does looseness. So too does the need to cast off metaphors when we are done with them, in the hopes that our visions will never be fully theorized. Toane articulates these very ideas, I think, in her poem “Ladies’ Favourite of Tennessee,” and so perhaps we’ll leave the last word to her:

We chose the bird that was most
birdlike to our mind, the one perched
at the centre of the circle that is
bird. The decision was ours, simple,
and yet a crow’s black feathers are blue
on a jay; we drew the bird and did not give
it a name, as inside birds are all stomach
and seed …
… For the most
birdish of birds, the fruitest of fruits:
we drew it there, and tried to tell an apple
from a pomegranate from a quince
from a persimmon, not knowing the names
of any of these—how like a potato,
we remarked. How like a rose!

Mark Sampson has published one novel, entitled Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007), and has two other books forthcoming: a novel entitled Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, Fall 2014), and a short story collection entitled The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, Spring 2015). He won The Puritan’s inaugural Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Literary Excellence (poetry category) in 2012, and has had many poems, short stories, essays and reviews published in journals across Canada. Born and raised on Prince Edward Island, he currently lives and writes in Toronto.