" what's left in the dark after colour is spent" (Charmed Shadows - Mean)
I have been fascinated by Ken Babstock's poetry since I first read his third book, Airstream Land Yacht (House of Anansi, 2006) and heard him read a number of years ago. My initial and ongoing interest has been his brilliant play with sound; however, in the back of my mind, I have always also noted the visual nature of his work, his appeal to the senses.
Note that this blog entry concerns Babstock's first two books: Mean (House of Anansi, 1999) and Days into Flatspin (House of Anansi, 2001), the latter shortened as Days. I'll post a second part dealing with his latter two books, Airstream Land Yacht and Methodist Hatchet in April.
In the text below, the convention I use is to quote the text from the poem and then put the poem's title and the title of the book in parentheses. Rather than clutter up the piece with italics or quotation marks, I've mostly left them off. Any typos or lineation errors are my own.
For my first 5 x 5 theme piece, I decided to focus on the visual imagery, specifically Babstock's use of colour and texture, and in addition, because it feels like a related subject to me, his references to artists and his use of the vocabulary of art. When I read Babstock's poetry, I feel as if I am seeing paintings: sometimes these paintings are representational landscapes in that the colours very clearly map to specific things while at other times they are more like geometric abstractions in the use of shape combined with colour, the patterns and textures. Like an artist, Babstock builds up colour and texture on the canvas to evoke a tone. Here are a few examples:
A Leave Taking, the final poem in Mean, for example describes the skin of black paint; tired russets; corroded red veined and blotched with lighter shades closer to gold. Northern Ontario Road Metal.
Vocabulary from visual art is prevalent throughout: in Japanese brushstrokes you were more than you. (Fashion Consultant-Days). the collage of newsprint (1. Mouse Hole-Fall,:Three Views, One Window-Days).
Artists are referenced often: dark, Escher-vision (Deck, It's a Deck - Mean); this charcoal study by Cézanne (Bottled Rabbit - Days); The front left this time, like a black/Dali clock"(Flat-Days); You like Kandinsky?" Bear 10, Days; Giacometti (City Square, Giacometti-Days); Alone, a squid in profile/by Picasso or Braque. (Clothespins-Days).
In poems like A Free Translation of Hardy's Darling Thrush in Days, so much of the text is visual, very painterly, "a potted/ shrapnel plant, memory's jagged isosceles welded to air./Cellophane wrappers snag on power lines/cross-hatching the sky. Starlings/ like blips on a radar grid.
In Days, Boot Mat (After Géricault's Raft of the Medusa), an oil painting made in 1818-19 when the artist was 27, Babstock's description of the boots seems to echo the configuration portrayed in the painting of the people set adrift on the raft after the frigate Méduse ran aground. Naval vocabulary is used to complete the image. Also, Solid black silhouette, receding,/until distance undermined outline, form bled into field. (Regenerative-Days); heard the traveling s's of garter snakes//playing wet grass blades with cadmium scales (Regenerative-Days); The Painting on the Cover of Otherwise is an ekphrastic poem also, describing the painting, infusing it with the imagination of the speaker. eyeing the lost Pollack/in red on his butcher's apron, (Lines Toward A Strategy for Travel-Days).
Colours or things representing the colours are often used as contrast. a poem often has a specific colour palette, either very minimal with only two contrasting colours or chock full of vivid colours.
In Mean, in Father Thorne's Bad Sunday, the two colours are black and red: blackberries / the sun dimmed to crimson. a cloud shadow like black crepe; [ with a splash of defiant yellow] willow switch/butter cups; Father Thorne's Bad Saturday-Mean.
In City Square, Giacometti-Days,"the two colours used are blue and orange.
In To Willow (Days) only the colours brown, grey, black and white are used or alluded to. For me, the colours evoke the sorrow in the poem.
In Pietà, with Breeze and a District, in Days the colours evoked are blue and possibly red or pink, at least that's how I imagine the carnations, and the orange of the carp. still very minimal: dish-gloved arms into blue/cisterns of carp between bouquets of horse-sized steaming/carnations.
In Regenerative (Days), which articulates the speaker's witness to the pain and suffering experienced by an injured dog, there are nine colours mentioned directly or alluded to: bluish-white, grey, black(repeated several times), brown, cadmium, blue, white, wild rose, mauve. The gradation of colour from mute to bright and the riot of colour in the poem, for me, is representative of pain. I respond to it as a synaesthete because pain for me comes in a spectrum of colour from a green throb to a white hot sharp jab.
In "To Only Occasionally Ever Actually Look (Days), there is yellow with grey/brown alluded to through gravel, green through high grass and blue through ocean, and then a riot of colour alluded to: a yellow front-end/loader unmanned on hills of parched looking gravel …to have lost// it in the violence it chose to veil in a sargasso of wildflower and weed.
In 3. F Hole-Fall: Three Views, One Window (Days), there is yellow and red: Strung over the crosswalk, three/yellow boxes marked X: a lantern/festival in a red-light district. The second poem in this suite, 2. Manhole, contained no colour and the first contained just ochre and tan. The bright, primary colours saved until the final poem in the series, conveying, at least for me, a movement of darkness to light.
In Lyman M. Davis: Built 1873, Burned 1931 (Days), the overriding colours are black and red-orange, which helps to give a strong visual for a ship burning on the dark water: The night sky a frost-tangled tarmac,/ and a moon pouring its mind out over the lake. […] towed out into the ink[…]red-orange tint.
One of the overriding colour combinations of Mean is red and white; these two colours are contrasted several times:
this year's open mouth looks like a red room of your own / heart; tin icebox; bloody plush at his chest (Waiting on a Transplant); red sashes; a white, round snare drum (A Winter Carnival, A Moment of Loss); afternoon dark-berry jam light sequestered between its Mason jar seal of cloud and new snow (Flea Market: A Love Story - Mean); crimson valentines, white trim snipped from doilies (Steady-Mean).
Another example of a minimal colour palette, in this case, black & blue/blueish white: Away from here, unheard, a stunned,/scoured out shadow of Moose bears/its top-heavy echo of shag and girth through blue, intimate forests of snow. (Lines Toward A Strategy for Travel-Days).
Sometimes the contrast occurs in a few lines within the poem: As picked bluebell pines/away. Harmonica pouring out tall stacks yellowish. (Speed Blues Junket Into Harmonica-Days).
Bleakness is emphasized in the black, silver, concrete colours of this poem: "Lovely black tug…The sky sets an/undecided, dead colour, like concrete…the whatever-bird has surfaced with silver in shock/in its throat (Working the Lakefront, Days).
Colour from the urban or non natural world is often brought into a natural setting: the haze of cirrus fades to a passport black (Camping at Glendalough-Mean); houses…like pastel mints on drab green and granite (Crab-Mean); cormorants - full bottles of merlot, just breathing (Victoria Harbour-Mean); the tattoos, fierce green maps of the ten years spent eyeing whitewashed cedarblock; (Ex-Con: Friend-Mean); a damp blurry oatmeal of grey (3-Uncle in Eastport); prairie dogs…soaked in candescent blue (Head Injury Card - Montana Nocturne - Mean); Crow's/dark-closet wings (Crow, for the Time Being -Mean); margarine-coloured curtains (Bottled Rabbit - Days); A broad bank/of tire-rubber grey cloud (Late Reading-Days); silt clouds that roll like mushrooms/ of cream in black tea (Marsh Theatre-Days).
Textures are also part of the palette, often making for soft & hard contrasts: chalky grind of his teeth / guarding a diamond in your breast (the stars are all around you) (Fighting Space-Mean); bloody plush at his chest/ tin ice box (Waiting on a Transplant - Mean); "The valentine of the bucket seat perched on a spring coil: a metal palm-/leaf saddle burnished to a beach-stone's gleam" ( Tractor-Days); the soft boneless flop/of its form onto bark, its near-weightless skull striking wood/like a mid-range xylophone note. (To Willow-Days); the texture/of tree bark like moon rock…the bubble and warp of fifteen layers of paint (City Square, Giacometti-Days).
Abstracts are often coloured too: a long red thought (White Dog-Mean); a sage-powdered bleakness (Head Injury Card - Montana Nocturne - Mean); a gas-blue helix//of meaning (Head Injury Card - Mean); the world a future-less stop-motion white (Flea Market: A Love Story - Mean); The gas fire exhaled in blue whispers (…Resigned to a Quiet Life -Mean); the chocolate calm in her eyes (Carrying someone else's infant past a cow in a field near Marmora, Ont.-Days); the Irish Sea/its crinkled, jade glumness(Sleeping on an Incline-Days); brown-rivered afternoons (To Willow - Days); Or is peace that almond haze (The Painting on the Cover of Otherwise, Days).
Several of Babstock's poems contain no specific colours at all, but they usually have some kind of texture or striking visual image such as "It" which refers to the moon's bleak appendix & the speaker who shat in a porcelain bowl./Picked flecks from his teeth. sat at a "polished desk, went brittle and ached. The poem He and His Frisby: from Lord of the Little Gesture in Days is a very visual poem: There were squads of Galileos/in slacks and cloth caps…Someone's cocker spaniel looked a gross comet/bounding spastic with spitty teeth.
"He Speaks, I think, On Behalf of Every" in the section, Lord of the Little Gestures from Days echoes the idea of the horse in the poem being langueless, verbless by evoking only the colour of white Winterhorse/Snow is blank-faced/millionteeth/One drift, shaped like Finland./ a glacier through layers of early packed and unpacked snow. There is also the mention of "any number of soft, heated, mushrooming exhales of Equus."
"He Considers Nihilism from Inside a Culvert"-Lord of the Little Gestures-Days contains no colour reference per se and its imagery is given over to sounds: made by the Rain-laden ditch reeds…mossy gurgle, the ping of drips. Static flash, and an echo.
Brightness or a glow appear often in Babstock's work in the form of diamonds, loonies, gemstones, stars: full flat sun a loonie on a busker's fez (Drawing Skeletons-Mean); the jig's chrome flash (Bonavista 2-Mainland Boy in Eastport-Mean); licks of silver mast ribboned out (Bonavista 3-Uncle in Eastport-Mean); the cop still conscious, sequined with gemstones of glass shards / a dark bubble (School Bus Broadsided by a Patrol Car-Mean); streetlights wear a cut-glass halo (Authority - Mean); Bright-lit, bristling kitchen of angles, hair liquid coal above stainless-steel chair legs (to a Sister, Wherever-Mean); his surface glittered like mineral (Signature-Mean); acres of mirrored glass, under a seed row of streetlight ( Tractor-Days); Reeds like violin bows quiver in the pit, glinting/in low, angled light. They point to grey/weather, an incoming chill curdling beyond/the porticoes of striped yellow. (Marsh Theatre-Days); Dew, meltwater cold, slid down my calves/like wet wrists unburdening jewels in my boots. (Regenerative-Days); the ionized cobalt glow that fish-tanked the air. (Public Space-Days); any other bright variant//we might pull out of the toy box: sand in the cement's cracks;/a snow slope/in the Pyrenees. Unripened pear/left over from something's extinction. (The Off Chance, Days); before the palace itself and its plated,/ imported shinings (Epilogue-Days).
Similar to brightness, or what is also bright, is the metal in Babstock's poetry: tin icebox (Waiting on a Transplant), the jig's chrome flash (2-Mainland Boy in Eastport-Mean); fumbling with buckles, buttons--into dark (Two Divers Lost, Howe Sound-Mean); Blue sparks spit off chrome (What We Didn't Tell the Medic-Mean); Town, metallic herd. (Wolf-Tells - MEASURES - Mean); arctic-blue iron filings wagging like fingers, like palsied black lashes (Crow, for the Time Being -Mean); metal-glint sparrows in flight (Humber Trail Pastoral-Days); sheet/metals of gin --bottle aquamarine; an alchemical sky, its metallic purples melt,/diffuse, quartz splinters/smother, blink out, some other, warmer/less unending hue approach from the lake (Late Reading-Days); agriculture/ in the piddle running over ruts in this corrugated iron. (He Considers Nihilism from Inside a Culvert-Lord of the Little Gestures-Days); A face cast up where metal birds ignite. (Speed Blues Junket Into Harmonica-Days); The secondhand iron floor lamp you rewired/and scrounged up a hat for; tattered, slatting the light….from the polished convexity of a hip flask. (On Feeling Low, Housed and Grateful, Days).
The sun, the moon and the stars get colourful & painterly treatment as well as being part of Babstock's ongoing study of contrasts: the sun dimmed to crimson (Fighting Space-Mean); full flat sun a loonie on a busker's fez Drawing Skeletons-Mean; pumpkin sun (Angle-Mean). Sun-glint buttering the corrugated/lake (Unseasonable Warmth-Days); the moon, like the dinged/blade of a sickle hanging unused in the tar-dark/must of a shed. There and there, nail holes where the light tweeks/in. (Lines Toward A Strategy for Travel-Days); The sun's now/only half of one, will drown in minutes and take/the shape of things with it. […] the sun-stroke, ice-floe, mirror-calm page before page one. (A Master Narrative - Days).
The light and the dark are also infused with texture and colour: In "To Willow" (Days) the dark is quilted. Clay/so clean, so reddened in/ the light (The Painting on the Cover of Otherwise, Days) The light silvers the edges,/darkens the centre (Prayer-Days); Kitchen light's woolly, weak. (Winter-Lord of the Little Gestures-Days); disappearing into the dark heaven of a silent/house,…the light nodes pinging off the Rideau Canal (Not Lonely, Ottawa-so, and Bent-Lord of the Little Gestures-Days); the crimped bracelets of light/on the water's/ wrists (It Unhands Him; and Sanderlings-Lord of the Little Gestures-Days); in the riven gleam that gave lampposts and post-/boxes their faces, their blackened/reverse-sides' crimped shadows rippling away over snow, (Pietà, with Breeze and a District-Days); that eye-splitting halogen light of the office (Lines Toward A Strategy for Travel-Days); Today, the pigeon-cacked sill outside sat battered/in autumn light, hard, aslant; specks in the lintel/glinting. (On Feeling Low, Housed and Grateful, Days); the indifferent dark (To See It for What It Is until We Have to Go-Days).
The final poem in Mean, A Leave-Taking, is full of colour and texture. And is a very painterly poem. 1. night …plum blue into pungent pine mat; all thickened to black; 2. bourbonhued carpet; 4. skin of black paint; tired russets; corroded red veined and blotched with lighter shades closer to gold. Northern Ontario Road Metal, it's called; bright orange field; colours made loud by the background; golds, reds and rot. It's as if Babstock is ending with fireworks: black, orange, red, gold.