amongst books

amongst books

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Counting Ghosts and Angels in Contemporary CanPo

As part of my health crisis in 2009, I developed ICU psychosis in which I endured horrifying delusions. Horrifying because of the presence of evil characters and ghosts; I had no way of escaping from them, and I couldn’t differentiate them from reality. These delusions later made me think about those who have to suffer through such all the time, who deal with mental health issues as part of their daily routines.

About a year before my health crisis, I encountered a homeless woman one day. She was speaking aloud and lugging a shopping cart behind her, wearing layers and layers of clothes. From what I could overhear from her words, she seemed to be spouting prophesy. For some reason, she intrigued me. I never saw her again, but I kept thinking about her.  In my mind, I named her Ursula.

When I looked up the name Ursula, I found out about Saint Ursula, a woman from the third or fourth century. Variations on the saint’s story exist. In one version, she is travelling by ship with eleven thousand virgins to meet her groom, a Pagan. The ship is attacked and the women, including Ursula, are beheaded by the Huns.  I was inspired to write a long poem entitled “Ursula,” the first part of which was published by Pooka Press as a broadside & the whole poem self-published as a limited edition chapbook of 26 copies. through my micro-press, AngelHousePress.

Last year, I had the idea to write a sequel entitled “Saint Ursula’s Commonplace Book” because I didn’t feel like I was finished exploring the character and her relationship to the saint. I began learning more about the saint and reading up on delusions, visions and the sacred. In July, I received funding from the City of Ottawa to work on the manuscript.
I wished to incorporate the type of visions and hallucinations the modern-day Ursula has into the manuscript. While a vision is a spiritual awakening that comes from a state of dream or trance, hallucinations are more general. Ursula’s visions and hallucinations take the form of dreams, nightmares and the presence of ghosts, angels and what she perceives as memories of the murder of Saint Ursula/her own death.

When treating the life of a woman who was canonized, I’ve had to consider religion and the sacred in the writing of the manuscript. In dealing with a character who has delusions and confuses them with reality, I’ve had to think about my own delusions when I was hospitalized in 2009. I wanted to deal with this confusion between nightmare and reality, the presence of ghosts, a supernatural phenomenon that seems completely real to the haunted.

I wondered about the presence of supernatural phenomena, such as ghosts, angels, demons, and the presence of death in the work of other contemporary Canadian poets.
I decided to take a look at the works of other Canadian poets to see how the supernatural was dealt with since I’d rarely come across poems of that nature in my reading of contemporary poetry.

Folk tales, fables, legends, mythology, creation stories, tall tales, versions of the truth, dreams and nightmares are rich sources for poetry. My preconceived notion was that I wouldn’t find a lot of such elements in contemporary Canadian poetry. I had a general impression, based on my readings, that much of the content in our poetry is mined from lives lived, memories, moments observed…in other words, reality and experiences. Or in some cases, extrapolation from historical figures (see Carolyn Smart’s “Hooked”or invented fictional characters (see Dennis Cooley’s” the Bentleys” or Natalie Zina Walshots, “Doomed”).

Jason Christie has pointed out to me that poetry is catalogued as non-fiction in public libraries. Yet not all poetry is non-fiction. Or it can often be a hybrid of fact and fiction, the personal and the imagined. His own poetry collection, “i-Robot Poetry,” would fit into science/speculative fiction, and another Western Canadian poet Jill Hartman’s “A Painted Elephant,” falls into the realm of the fantastic.

Anne Carson blurs genres between poetry and other forms, including theatre. She often retells and revises myths and translates classic Greek and Latin stories.

Twentieth century poet, Gwendolyn MacEwen also included myth, magic and enchantment in her writing.

In the last century also the French Canadian poet Emile Nelligan wrote of angels. Perhaps he wasn’t the only francophone poet to write of angels…

The only journal I discovered with a supernatural focus was Goblin Fruit. Goblin Fruit is a contemporary quarterly journal that treats mythic, surreal, fantasy and folkloric themes, or approaches other themes in a fantastical way. http://www.goblinfruit.net.  In reference to that well-known fantasy poem of Christina Rossetti’s, “Goblin Market” (1862).

I read through the Best Canadian Poetry (BCP) series of anthologies published by Tight Rope Books. In these books, Tight Rope publishes poetry culled from a selection of that year’s literary magazines, both on line and in print, with different Canadian poets acting as editors each year.

I went through the first three (because they were the ones I could get from the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library).

I found that these other worldly characters and elements of the supernatural occur in three basic ways:

1. On the periphery, as mere mentions;

2. Figuratively;

3. Deliberately ambiguous.

Take for example, Jeffrey Donaldson’s poem, “Museum” published in the 2008 BCP. Exhibits from the Royal Ontario Museum in glass cases with aboriginal masks are described as descending “like messengers from the real world above,” but the rendering here seems figurative rather than literal. A former professor/mentor is evoked, but we are not told if he is still living or a ghost; although there are references to ghosts throughout the poem.

Or Méira Cook in “A Walker in the City”: “when all the angels have been let out of their cages.” (BPC 2008).

Jason Heroux uses his reversal technique to make it seem like nature is performing actions, at least figuratively: “A small forest walking through us” & “We can feel the lost forest inside us closing its eyes” (Lost Forest, BPC 2008). 

In Keith Maillard’s “July” an evil dog is “the devil running” (BPC 2008).

Joy Russell in “On King George’s Crowing” talks about “how air moves vampires through bone.” (BPC 2008).

In the 2009 edition of Best Canadian Poetry, Margaret Atwood evokes Bluebeard’s Castle in her poem “Ice Palace”: “Where/is the fearful beast who runs the show/and longs for kisses?”

In “Space Is A Temporal Concept,” Jan Conn mentions the goddess Diana, the Aztec calendar, a Wide-Eared Clown and Lord Death, but Diana is a marble statue, the clown and Death are costumes. “our loved ones join us, my father included, and all the emotional debris of a lifetime hovers overhead in a vast vertical column…” (BPC 2009)

Death is treated as sacred and holy in Don Domanski’s “Bite Down Little Whisper.” There’s something ethereal and magical about the whole poem, which deals with pain. Much of the vocabulary is spiritual: “dharma of bruised lips, talismans, the ghosts of our fallen hair, microorganisms written as sacred text.” (BPC 2009)

In “Six Times,” Tyler Enfield writes about a dead loved one who is moping on the grave, “sitting cross-legged in the dirt.” (BPC 2009)

Some supernatural or magical phenomena are recounted as dreams, such as in Connie Fife in “New World Poem”: “I dreamt I had goat hooves, hollow horns, coarse hair,/and scaled the face of a rock slide.”  (BPC 2009)

Adam Getty’s poem, “Pender Harbour,” also relies on the dream to render a magic phenomenon, this time of a crone slowly bleeding out her child as an analogy for the way humans treat the earth. (BPC 2009)

Matt Rader’s “The Ocean Voyager,” doesn’t contain references to anything magic or supernatural and yet its rendering feels magical and epic with its majestic descriptions, such as” to hell/with illness-stitched wool, English pain/Balled in musket shot, delicate otter shells//Pile like money in the hold.” […] “and since then I have flown/Lightning wracked seas in the fissured west, Known what men thought they’ve known.” (BPC 2009)

In Kildare Dobbs’ poem “It” (BPC 2010), an unexplained presence enters a room. “you are safe now/but just you wait, it is never far away/and it can be here whenever it chooses.”
Don Domanski evokes dreams and the afterlife in “Gloria Mundi.” (BPC 2010).

In “The Trees Have Loved Us All Along” Sonnet L’Abbé applies human senses to trees, including the sense of smell. (BPC 2010).

In “Rupert’s Land,” Tim Lilburn refers to “the guy who invented the guitar, a turtle-in-a-/handbag kind of daemon” & references Hermes. (BPC 2010)

In “Cullen in Old Age,” P.K. Page writes about a ninety-year-old man whose dreams conjure up clowns and dancing dogs, who hears the Guardian Angel. He “had a vision of heaven./Total immersion. Where? He couldn’t tell./A flotation tank, perhaps, a void, a vast/container for single souls that gathered together/and merged in a giant soul that encircled the world/where everything came out even./ (BPC 2010)

In Marilyn Gear Pulling’s entertaining poem, “Billy Collins Interviewed on Stage at Chautauqua,” the speaker sees that Collins has wings and flies from the stage. (BPC 2010).

In “Postscript” Karen Solie thinks about the life of mathematician Carl Gauss and ties it to the land, existence and past existence. There is something magical in her descriptions. “Has the devil any servant on earth so perfect/as the stranger?”

David Zieroth’s poem “How Brave” is about how the non-believer faces death. There’s a mention of cherubs, but they are church cherubs.

There are so many sub-genres of poetry including fantasy, sci-fi, horror, weird, etc, but the predominant type of poetry found in Canada’s official verse culture in the form of  mainstream literary magazines, prizes and anthologies is realism with a soupçon of the supernatural. It’s not always straight-forward. Many of the poems I read included whismy and flights of fancy, but these flights were more inclined toward the possible than the impossible or the supernatural.

If I had time and inclination, I would also go through various contemporary Canadian poetry anthologies to count angels, devils and ghosts; however, the initial survey I’ve conducted here has helped me figure out how to tackle the supernatural qualities of my manuscript, so I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to conduct further inquiries…

Articles consulted for this note:

Speculative Poetry: A Symposium by Mike Allen, Alan DeNiro, Theodora Goss, and Matthew Cheney (ed.)




Magic Realism in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_realism

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