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Poetry and Prose from the Transmigrational Beyond

Review by Trevor Carolan

Temporary Stranger
Jamie Reid
Anvil, 2017

Jamie Reid occupied a singular position in Canada’s west coast literary community. A co-founder of Vancouver’s original TISH group that arose at the University of B.C. in the early 1960s, unlike many of his student-era peers he veered away from literary/academic life for a lengthy 20-year period while engaging in labour activism. With the publication of his book Prez in the early Nineties, however—an homage to jazz saxophone great Lester Young—his active return to the city’s literary community came as a shot in the arm for Vancouver poetry. Writing in the Vancouver Sun, John Moore, one of the country’s most capable critics, noted of it that, “Cooler in tone than many of the raving epiphanies of Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsburg, Prez unmistakably partakes of both their style and substance in its jazz-derived improvisations-on-a-theme form and its deeply humanistic take on life.”

Opinionated, passionate, and generous, Reid moved within many artistic circles and was held in uniformly high regard by an uncommonly broad swath of B.C. and Canadian literary practitioners. He knew everyone, it seemed. Always socially-engaged, he encouraged younger and less-recognized poets, and his veteran presence at their readings brought them a kind of generational acknowledgement.

Temporary Stranger is a posthumously published collection of “Homages, Poems and Recollections.” In ‘Homages’, Reid presents a suite of poems that he first brought out a chapbook in 2009 and that he said once were inspired in part by a journey he made with France with his wife Carol. In these works—what for many will be an introduction to the symbolism, surrealism, dadaism, and existentialism of the Paris School—he speaks of the poets he works with as “guides’, and says of the poems: “These texts therefore might as well have been as ancient as the Rosetta Stone, because the poems I fashioned from them are really more like translations of translations than fully original works….” The voices? Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Andre Breton, Guillaume Apollinaire, Saint-John Perse, Pierre Reverdy, Max Jacob, Paul Eluard, Jacques Prevert, Francis Ponge, and Tristan Tzara. Add Jack Spicer and painter Francis Picabia for single-mindedness and anarcho-license. That’s a formidable undertaking for any poet. Reid notes how in these poems or transliterations he seeks “allowance to speak through the invented voices of the ghosts of dead authors who mostly wrote in French. In a way, they are a kind of monologue with these authors, but also, I hope, an introduction to a dialogue, silent or otherwise, with readers of these poems.”

He takes up the challenge mindful of the fundamental mysteries that “art and poetry can sometimes reach toward”, and he keeps things simple with a way of making them familiar. In “homage to jacques pervert” he writes,

first you name a thing, a cup of coffee, say,
and then some cream to add to it, a bit of sugar,
a spoon to stir it with. Whisper
the name of lips…
This is called the making of poems.

And in “homage to tristan tzara” we see

Some steps beyond the copse,
in the distance
against the pale silvery evening sky
the Eiffel Tower upraised
like the solitary finger
of a giant iron skeleton
somewhere beneath the earth of Paris.

A moment of silent freedom comes upon me,
completely inarticulate.

Approximate man. Approximate monster.

In the book’s second section entitled “Fake Poems”, the author addresses the nature and scope of poetic consciousness, language and production. Reid’s early academic lineage with the tutelage of Warren Tallman left him with an ear attuned to theory—Black Mountain, Beat Lit, Duncan-Spicer linguistic rigour, what have you. Steep this with his lengthy Leftist studies and there’s little wonder that in the work of his mature, searching years he marries Paris School stream of consciousness methodology à la Robbe-Grillet with a Spicer-like probing of language that questions ‘What’s real? What’s manufactured?’ In his twenty-one “Fake Poems” he maintains,

…all art is fake, because the artificial means we
use to represent those living objects cannot duplicate the
quality of human sensual experience, in which sensation and
intellect run inseparably together. Art and artificiality for
that reason are entirely inseparable. All art, in that sense,
must be, in some sense, false.

Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist who political theory permeates contemporary academic discourse, argued early in the 20th century something approximately similar—that if art and culture are routinely hijacked by western society’s bigtime operators, what then is ultimately honest? One hears Reid’s concern with politics and the influence of centralized media hype:

…The garment of want, unspeakable itself.
Spoken through them, the speakable surrogate
Of the poverty-stricken, the experts
Who came to save them and speak in their name.
A permanent fog seemed to flow from their words,
Impossible to find the world there,
No earth, no water, no animals, no birds,
Nothing but language,
the hum and the effluvium of the cheating word.
(“Fake Poems 14”)

There’s no doubt about the doubt there, nor the determination; almost echoing the negation of Eliot’s Four Quartets, and like them, moving on toward something near to redemption. Dense, yet articulate, the Fake Poems are not easy reading and at times can be difficult to get to grips with, but it’s clear that metaphysics is a part of this new style Reid is fitting on for the long distance.
Jamie Reid doesn’t ordinarily spring to mind as a religious or spiritual poet; however, in “Where To Find Grace’, a bookend to the Fake Poems he achieves what I’d argue is his most beautiful poem, offering a clear, resonant paean to the fundamental question of how and where to find grace in uncertain times:

Under the kitchen table with the flour
and the cat dish, in the kitchen sink
with the supper dishes and the bubbles of soap.

Behind half-closed eyelids in the sunlight.

Round About Midnight
in the moonlit garden.

Two steps down into
the Qu’Appelle Valley in April sunshine.

Called by one’s own name in the street,
an unfamiliar voice on any uncertain gray day….

In a phrase, he finds “impossible grace” within community, in the random, observable beauty of the natural world, of ordinary mind. This is a poem he will be remembered for in anthologies; ; you can feel that homage to Jamie Reid vibrating down the line.

“Recollections”, the third section of Reid’s final opus is compulsory reading for any devotee of Vancouver literary history. Here he sets himself the task of compiling and recollecting his life and times as a witness to the city’s literary ecology from the early 1960s onward, much of which has remained undocumented until now. It’s a superb compendium of essays on significant characters he encountered, lived and worked among throughout the countercultural revolution that shaped the lives of Reid and his companions over the past six decades, and they establish his place as a superb memoirist along the lines of John Glascoe’s Memoirs of Montparnasse.

The recollections begin with a colourful reminiscence about Curt Lang, an idiosyncratic East Van figure from the early 1960s perennially at odds with the world, and an ingeniously creative thinker. Within his discussion of Lang, readers are treated to Reid’s ancillary observations on Lang’s circle that included John Newlove, Al Neil, Roy Kiyooka, and Fred Douglas—a remarkably impactful artistic group in Canada’s west coast cultural history. To these Reid adds detailed remembrances about Red Lane; early psychedelic entrepreneur Sam Perry; Montreal’s Artie Gold; Bob Dylan; and an uncannily accurate, sympathetic portrait of Gerry Gilbert.

The most penetrating writing is reserved for portraits of John Newlove, bill bissett, and Warren Tallman. Like William Hazlitt who wrote on his Romantic-era poet and painter colleagues, Reid’s recollections engage with his subject’s work from a critical lens too. Of bissett he declares

While others change and adapt, compromise and take on new public personae, bill bissett seems only to emerge as more and more of what he was before, as though perfecting and protecting an original image of himself. His program has never changed: from the beginning, his work in every genre has aimed to mobilize the rudest, simplest, oldest and most primitive pictorial and verbal techniques to invoke a state of mind and being that he calls “ecstatic yunyun,” the linking of the phenomenal and the transcendental world, the vulgar and the celestial, the earthly and the heavenly.

By the time Reid trolls in the epic history of bissett’s publishing of blewointment journal, we are presented with something close a national life and times digest of Canadian literature from the 1960s on. It’s a tour de force tribute to this enduring coyote figure of our country’s arts and letters.

In “The Legacy of Warren Tallman” we’re given a necessary look at this complicated mentor about whom we need to know more as Vancouver assumes its larger place in the world. As Reid explains, “In the atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s before TISH was born, we were so used to the idea that nothing of any importance ever happened in Vancouver, that my friend Peter Cameron was excited beyond words to tell me that the author of an article in Evergreen Review about Jack Kerouac whose writing had aroused us so profoundly, was actually a professor at UBC, living right here in our very own city.”

Tallman got Vancouver jumping with an alternative to the narrative espoused by Earle Birney about literature and poetry around these parts. As those who knew Tallman remember, even when still exotically new his personality was as rumpled as the contents of his wardrobe. When Reid’s friend looks Tallman up at his faculty office he finds him,

far from being hip and cool in the style of the time…instead a skinny and nervous cigarette addict whose fingers were stained with nicotine and who shook throughout his entire body as he lit one cigarette after another, sometimes leaving the last one still burning in the overflowing ashtray on his desk. But there was also about him an air of restless intellectual energy and the nervousness was part of this energy.

The beat goes on and gets better. It’s fascinating reading, and as Reid concludes “Tallman was “the evangelist, the father of Vancouver literary modernism, and his children are numerous, although many of them may not even know his name.” There you have it.

Reid spoke later in life of possibly redeeming himself through his work. Complex, inherently feisty, and, as the Tibetans say, a poet of the bone, with Temporary Stranger it’s clear that he accomplishes his aim, probably for a debt few would remember anyway. Cumulatively this is a wonderful book and we can civically thank Anvil Press for taking it on. 

Trevor Carolan’s current work is New World Dharma: Interviews and Encounters with Buddhist Teachers, Writers and Leaders (SUNY Press, 2016). He writes from British Columbia, Canada.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #22