Tuesday, June 18, 2019

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What’s Happening At Andy’s

The “Andy” in the title of Vancouver poet George Stanley’s new collection, At Andy’s (New Star, 79 pages, $16) is psychologist Andy Klingner, a longtime resident of the northwest town of Terrace, British Columbia. It’s a place of about 10,000 or so people on the banks of the winding and powerful Skeena River (which flows out to sea at Prince Rupert, about 150 km. Beyond this bend). I’d be tempted to call Terrace, with its unlovely malls and former sawmills, “nondescript,” but for the fact that Stanley–who lived and taught college English there for about 15 years–has described it at length, in a series of poetic prose pieces (“Terrace Landscapes,” in Gentle Northern Summer, 1995), as well as in occasional poems and the title piece of his current book.

So, what’s happening at Andy’s? And what’s going on in Terrace? Well, quite a bit. The first thing that’s happening in “At Andy’s,” the poem, is writing or, rather, the interferences of writing. It makes sense, then, to talk briefly about how George Stanley writes before getting to what he writes about.

After arriving on the bus for one of his periodic visits to Terrace, and being picked up by Andy and his wife, Martina, Stanley is at a desk in Andy’s basement, on a hot Sunday in August, pen and notebook in hand, thinking about Terrace and writing.

“(While I’m writing,” he writes parenthetically, “I’ll try to ignore undercurrents of the brain, personal worthiness, outcome or ‘point’ of this writing,” but a minute later asks, “or should I include them?” Then he adds, “A pointless paragraph. I can’t write.” The parenthesis remains unclosed, and the undercurrents of his brain constitute one of the strata not only of “At Andy’s,” but of a good many other poems in his work.

One of the notable features of Stanley’s poetry is that his mind’s processing (if that’s the right word) of the phenomena he encounters in the world, a world that of course includes himself, is always a possible partial subject matter for any given poem. The events in his mind frequently interrupt, short-circuit, or, as they say these days, destabilize whatever he’s writing about. While such self-reflexive strategies appear regularly in post-modern writing, in Stanley’s poems, the interruptive self brings a particular, unheroic, anxiety to disturb the placid social reality in which he locates himself (small towns, malls, airplanes, busses, or in front of a television).

The salutory effect of this mode of poetic investigation is to give readers a sense of edginess, risk, and simultaneity of meaning, a sense of the poem being an action in language and the world, a sense that almost anything can happen and that there’s something life-or-death-like at stake, namely, what we make of that world.

Or, more specifically, what we make of Terrace: “–strip mall on Keith–we stop at Safeway for groceries–obesity–almost everyone too big, I think–is the weight of all the food that gets here, by truck (less waste, and, Andy reminds me, heat loss) added to the bodies of those living here, Terraceites?”

Terrace, or its strip mall Safeway, shares the features of anywhere in North America, and the poem is, oddly enough, “about obesity, cheerful obesity, all the big people at the mall–one lifestyle–nothing but the economy–the drinking water sour–” That is, it’s a poem about the social shape of capitalism–grossly overweight these days, or as one waggish friend puts it, about 5,000 donuts over the limit.

#While part of the scene in Terrace is equally available in any cosmopolitan centre, the local panorama includes the particularities of a declining resource town: “truckloads of log corpses from farther & farther away, up the Nass–operate the mill at lower cost, develop the mining sector, truckloads of food–this is a site of conversion, realization of surplus value, how else to conceive of it.” In fact, “No way to conceive of it, no understanding. And I’ll never know if it’s really understanding that’s disappearing or am I just moaning the loss of a sharper mind.”

Stanley is one of the few poets I know of who consistently takes capitalism–its social effects and the difficulty of comprehending its dual character of blatent obviousness and invisible workings–as a necessary feature of his subject matter. If there’s a Samuel Beckett-like sense of finality to Stanley’s subjectivity, unlike Beckett’s landscape of abstracted gloom (say, in The Unnamable), Stanley’s world is realistic, ordinary, and informed by an understanding of macro-economic causality.

Subject matter isn’t just a coincidental issue in his work. Of late, Stanley has been half-jokingly touting the notion of “aboutness” or “aboutism,” the idea that poems should be about something, rather than being mere personal expression or ironic linguistic commentary. In AT ANDY’S, the poems are about hockey pucks, movies, dogs, Moscow (!), monasteries, aging, sex, death, Vancouver, Calgary, capitalism, and, of course, Terrace. But the idea of aboutness turns out to be a radical simplification of what Stanley’s poems are actually about.

For instance, a poem called “The Puck” is nominally about watching hockey on TV and following the puck, “the black dot. On the replays, of near goals, sometimes I lose it, in the collision of bodies, the goalie spreadeagled, the glare. Then it reappears. Is it in or out?”

But if watching the puck is a straightforward enough parable about paying attention to what’s really going on, the poem is also about the boozy, stoned minds of the viewers, as well as about advertising (“& then you truly can’t fend off the commercials, the car drives into your head & is wedged there, & the beer pours through your veins”), words themselves, and finally, “the huge surrounding fucked reality.” One of the many things I like about Stanley’s poetry is that what often starts out as a familiar, if slightly tense, mundane scene of reality, recurrently breaks into jagged considerations of everything, of everything-going-on-at-once.

Meanwhile, in Terrace, “cars moving slowly up Lakelse–cumbersome-in & out of parking spaces–slow–because so heavy & so dangerous–& there is food, in bags, in carts, lifted into trunks & back seats of cars, backs of pickups, in mall lot… inside all this, inside the cars (the objective poem sees) there are people, placid, cheerful–“. “What a vision!” Stanley exclaims, and then wonders “is there behind this some animus-is it deep dislike of these people, misanthropy, or just objective– is this a phenomenon anyone could observe or the twisted vision of a fucked-up old man”?

“In this slow moving jumble of steel carapaces & Safeway carts & fat pleasant faces with the log trucks an undertone in the background,” Stanley asks, “Who can see the inner Terrace?” At the edge of many of Stanley’s poems, including this one, is the issue of “care,” of whether one can care for all this–the world, Terrace, one’s self, the obese shoppers. “There’s no way to know except by knowing them, which here I don’t, except my old friends,” Stanley says, and then shrewdly adds, “& their knowledge of each other, seen in faces & heard in tones of voice more than in words–knowledge of what is not said, out of kindness–life a condition of unsaying, of waiting for the unsaid to fade, of waiting for forgetfulness while preserving shards of memory, of avoiding laying it all on each other, out of forbearance.”

What’s interesting here, is that amid the fretting about writing and one’s decentred place in the scheme of things, amid the realistic and ordinary daily events of a summer day in Terrace–heat, lawnmowers, kids, and the casual cameo appearances of Andy himself–there’s a metaphysical storm. As Stanley writes in a translation of Roger Meunier’s “October,” “The world, outside, inside, is a violent contradiction. Only split in two can one live with urgency.”

Against the political malevolence that envelops the highway/mall of Terrace or stoned TV hockey viewers, Stanley counterposes the innocence of words (not language, or poetry). He represents words as “innocent, like the child,” or “the butterfly… in the ambience–winged–when it is set free, from the lips.” Here, rather tenderly, the poet locates the human connection: while our minds are on the word, he says, “our hearts go out to the speaker–she–who put herself on the line.” In “The Puck,” Stanley concludes: “the child the word the bird the butterfly the puck. They have no need of us… But where our care does go, where it is wanted with a chemical hunger, is the willing, dying, speaker.”

At Andy’s moves out from the cool command of ostensibly lyric poetry in Stanley’s earlier books to an increasingly ragged-edged prose poem. It’s almost as if he’s saying that the conventional poem itself can be an obstacle to what he’s getting at. Still, there are a half dozen or so memorable poems which appear in recognizable form: “Veracruz,” “The Dying Cow” (that’s the name of a pub in Wicklow, Ireland), “The Power of the Unhappy People,” “Naked In New York,” “Sex at 62,” and two or three poems from a semi-comic series in which the poet imagines his communal living circumstances as life in a monastery, with abbots, young monks, dogs, and himself as “the old fox.”

In “Sex at 62,” Stanley’s handling of homosexual desire in a poem that’s primarily about aging is instructive:
I knew him, then all through the morning
as we sucked & kissed & caressed
that it was him, got ahead of
this jerky demanding need to do
sex, when it was him there was no choice,
only a face, his rough chin, tousled hair–

The fear & the demand, to MAKE love,
are still here, but the mythology is gone–
the fear & the demand weaker, & desire
weaker…

What I like about the homosexual context here is its under-statement, which is to say that it’s stated accurately. The proportionality of the subject–and certainly homosexuality is a topic of our time–is just about right, too, forming but a small, but necessary, portion of how the poet sees the world. The poem takes the circumstances of desire as given; what the poem is about is the social compulsion in our culture to engage in sexuality (do sex, make love) against the condition of aging. His point is that recognizing the other person as an actual person (and not a mythologized image) is under the pressure of a cultural demand to engage in sex in order to be “normal.”

Similarly, in “Naked In New York,” a poem about a film of that name in which there’s an impulsive homosexual kiss, what Stanley registers is the social effect of queerness: “In the audience loud gasps, / as-if-sickened groans” of the “guys in the seats,” beneath the “two giant heads soft as flags / or luminous clouds above us negotiating / a moment of intimacy.” Their straight disapprobation of homosexuality (treated metaphorically in the poem as “the rotten apple” in the barrel) invokes “homophobia high school, / hoping none of us were rotten, no bad apple, no queer / certain we were all unwanted, none wanted by any of the others.” That is, the fear of being undesired, the poem argues, is what drives the false sense, in the young male audience, of being offended by the sight of homosexual desire.

Stanley eschews rhetoric, in favour of a demonstration of “desire all over the place.”

The poems to which I find myself returning are the ones in which not only the content, but the form itself, is troubled, forced to unsyntactical prose, punctuated by dashes, barely able to contain itself, anything but a poetry of reflections recollected in tranquillity. While poems like “Ripple + 26” and the beginning of a long William Carlos Williams-esque poem about Vancouver equally represent this condition, “How Was Calgary?” is perhaps the poem that most urgently embodies what Stanley is doing in At Andy’s..

As people in Vancouver occasionally do, Stanley makes a trip (characteristically, by bus) to Calgary, and when he gets back, people ask him the question that becomes the title of the poem, “How Was Calgary?” “Hard to tell,” Stanley says.

He reports the phenomenological appearance of Calgary–“lots of golden lights, like golden marbles, on a glass tray–but rising & falling–though some of that apparent motion was due to the bus, & the rising & falling of the land over which it was approaching–& then the subject was in among the golden lights & saw they were–street lights (aw, you guessed!)–”

The bi-focal consciousness in the poem moves between an autobiographical “I” and the third-person “subject” (or “S.”), as that term is used in psychology experiments. As often happens in Stanley’s poems, the subject matter (what the poem is about) arises from an unexpected angle of vision–a recreation vehicle lot, Woody’s RV World, and a restaurant curiously named Ristorante Ristorante, seen from a passing bus. If Woody’s RV World coincides with the “subject” thinking about “what might count as ‘world’ for an AI system,” the flashing by of the double-name (is it a restaurant named “Restaurant,” a “ristorante” called Ristorante”? and why is an Italian restaurant in Calgary called a “ristorante”?) opens a deeper vein:

“Took him back to his youth, when even the best Italian restaurant was called a restaurant, & that took him back to all his talks with Stan, their never-ending conversation, about how things had changed since their youth-one youth?”

The “Stan” is me, I’m happy to note, and indeed I’ve been involved in what seems like a never-ending conversation, usually about language, philosophy, politics, the world, with George Stanley for most of my life. Stanley, by the way, is one of the few poets around who is well-read enough in philosophy and economics, as well as literature, to permit the conversation to be never-ending. Equally happily, though I’m in it, the poem is not about me.

Rather, it’s about “A consciousness–something–stretched out between the past (seen as a kind of paradisal, happy-go-lucky place–a REAL place, where you could eat spaghetti (& not linguini)… while level on level, at the same time, other voices (other persons?) from this time & that, mumbled, muttered, half-started phrases, the beginning of arguments you had to pay attention to…

This is what S. argued with Stan about, whether plain, uncomplicated reality was disappearing or were they just getting older–but why should getting older have that effect?

& it happening inside the head–
A man on a bus sees a sign from the window, Woody’s RV World,
& can’t understand it, because he’s passing by it–

And then…? And then, we’re in it. In the poem, in Calgary, in S.’s head, in the world. ‘Cause there’s no way out of it. The poem/S. goes on to drinks in an Irish pub, a Cannons-Las Vegas baseball game at Burns Stadium, the Econo Court motel, a zoo of the mind (with a sleeping Siberian tiger), whatever.

The notion of simple aboutness is really shredded if this is, as S. indirectly avers, a poem about the nature of reality, about the claim that “consciousness is an illusion,” counterposed to Stephen Leacock’s counter-claim (Stephen Leacock! what’s he doing here?!–anything can happen!)… Stephen Leacock’s counter-claim that “The illusion is the real reality.”

Near the end, Stanley cites Oscar Wilde’s remark to Andre Gide, “There is no first person in literature,” and replies that “There is too much first person–and yet I know, just beyond this (blank) of words is a country without reflection–a river (like the Bow) that flows from the past to the present & makes them one… S. snaps back into the landscape–ristorante-scape–& the landscape knows its being–the less he knows the more it is aware.”

And that’s how Calgary was. “How was Calgary?” is a question that Stanley reads, “How was life?”

When I was in Terrace long ago, I had a friend (now deceased) named Jeff Marvin, and when we got to the Zen-point of something, we’d quote to each other the tag-line of a then current TV detective show, featuring a character named Baretta, who always punctuated the conclusion of climactic events by saying, “And dat’s da name of dat tune.” At Andy’s, which proposes programmatic uncertainty, frequently stops me in my tracks with exactly that sort of definitiveness, echoed by self-mockery. As in:

*
Why should a sign:

Own a New
Mercedes-Benz
From $37,550

remind me that I’m going to die?

What is this ‘reminding’?

*

NOTES

*Given that I’ve been a friend and reader of George Stanley for some 40 years, this essay is meant simply as a set of reflections on his current work, rather than offering any pretense to being an “objective” critical review.

(1) I should mention that I also lived in Terrace for several years, but with only a fraction of the sense of engagement that Stanley brings to it.

(2) The technical term for this method of working is called “parataxis,” meaning that the poet/poem registers one authentic perception after another, without worrying too much about syntax or the connections between subject matter. In Stanley’s later poetry, the work becomes increasing fragmentary, using dashes,
ragged-edged prose, announcements of being “stuck,” and any other device at hand. As in early television, the picture is always threatening to break up. Deciding on the authenticity of a given perception (including perceptions of mental interference) is a further problem, one to be left to revision (in both senses of
that word).

(3) As is almost always the case, there’s a longer story to tell than the one I’ll tell here. These days, any serious discussion of a book of poems carries as a subtext the entire problem of poetry and its near-invisibility in our culture. In the case of
Stanley’s writing, the exposed stance of the poet is to be distinguished from either the abstract riffs of “language poetry” (in which the authorial subject is seemingly effaced) or the anecdotal expressiveness of much contemporary poetry (in which
the poet’s feelings are often the real subject matter of the poem). Naturally, that isn’t peculiar to Stanley but, rather, it’s the story of Modernism and its successors. Stanley’s poems–which are an existential variant on the modernist tradition we
associate with Pound, Williams, Olson, Creeley, and others-have a quality akin to scientific research, in which the poet attempts to make objective discoveries about the world, discoveries which necessarily must appear via the poet’s subjectivity.

* * *

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in North Vancouver, B.C., and is a literary columnist for the Vancouver Sun. He’s the author of Buddy’s: Meditations on Desire, Then We Take Berlin, and Autobiography of a Tattoo.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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