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Three Takes on Mortality
reviewed by Linda Rogers

Vanishing Act
Giles Blunt
Exile Editions


th book
bill bissett



The Bird in the Stillness
Joe Rosenblatt
Porcupine’s Quill


Mortality has always been a preoccupation of lyrical writers, but now the concept has spread from the individual to the universal as greed, global warning, hunger and genocide push everything of which we can conceive to the precipice. The house of cards is falling and inside that burning house, poets continue to raise their voices in protest.

The tone is sorrow as three older poets make way for a new generation as divided as civilisation, between formalists adhering to the construct of the familiar and populists making charts for brave new worlds. As they deal with themes of mortality and legacy, we are informed by çtheir experience.

Vanishing Act, a gathering of poems in different voices, is an experiment in form by a master of mysterious (mystery) writing, as we are given to consider different formulations for end days, random thoughts and formal variations on carpe deim and the human elegy. It could be the transformed novelist is contemplating the death and possible resurrection of poetry as he shifts form, from pantoum to prose poem in the age of spoken word, rhetoric versus lyric, page versus stage, the new religion, whatever that is, and the shape of his narrator(s).

“Anoint yourself.”

His various characters, male and female, even the anthropomorphic car that “answer(s) easily to the slightest suggestion,” witness the grand events, sex, death and the little deaths, sexual and otherwise.

All night I dreamed of signposts the highway and its long slow curves. Music in the background, Many accidents.

These theatrical events: sleight of hand, card tricks, snow and ash that fall from the sky after tiny explosions, manifest as confetti or snow, ash from the deadly chimneys.

You who cannot love me shove me
Off to finer kingdoms with a prayer

This is the way love and the world ends, vanishes, in incantation, little explosions of dust, “Pouf!” Matter, words appear and disappear on pages designed and allowed, all of them mined with accepted wisdom that scatters as the pages are turned. It might be the fault in a carefully crafted song, “too holy to be sung,” or the stutter in a prose poem, the word “dock” repeated once too often for convention, so we stop to ask, is the child, “three parts wishes one part dreams” really nailing his sunfish to “clock” not dock, dissonance thrown in because

Part of me
Wants to kill me
That’s the part
I want to meet.

“Meet” is the operative word as his chorus sings into the void, becoming the ways in which we are mortal, where human harmonizes with humanity, the collective noun that shouts over the bomb, a lethal concept we have received as cool in the urban vernacular.

It was not the identical voice I was hearing now but the tone was much the same. What man shall die what girl be free? Whom to love, to what degree?

We sense that vanishing is a relief, the relinquishing of control, of plot, maps that hold down the soul. In this book, the car relaxes and the navigator suspends disbelief. So much is revealed when the trickster takes off his feather jacket and is left alone with his voices. Poetry is closest to the bone.

bill bissett, still relevant to younger audiences, balances multiple platforms, different genres, different ways of being, corporal, ephemeral, healthy, unhealthy, solvent and stuck, of sound and unsound mind. th book is a catalogue of prescriptions for getting through the pain, and this time more than before he doesn’t flinch at the details.

bill encouraged us to watch a film, Voices, about the lethal edge of paranoia. We were surprised by its violence, but given he has recently endured the duller blows of a heart attack and the accidental deaths of his daughter and grandson, objective conversation about mental illness and mortality makes sense. His new writing reflects that sharper grasp of reality, the knife’s edge and snake pits that trip our lofty intentions.

I suspect that some readers buy bill bissett’s books of poetry and drawings as artefacts, sentimental reminders of a theatrical reading or vernissage. That’s a pity because the art of reading bill is quite simple and very rewarding. He paints with words and music, orchestrating the apparent randomness of creation with an ironic intelligence that leaps just as high off the page as it does on stage.

As with the masters Joyce and Woolf, bissett should (a word he never uses) be read with the ear, last words for the dying and the dying planet, or not. It is only a slight adjustment, one that opens an important portal for accepting the deeper meaning of language. His idiosyncratic syntax is intentionally aural and in no small part, rebellious.

Maintaining his real provenance was in the mating of the planets Zatria and Lunaria, this son of conservative Halifax dared to be different, in singing, dancing and painting outside the family lines. A Ballet Boy, until his ruptured appendix ended that dream, soon banished himself from this culture of conformity and has maintained a bi-coastal presence since the Sixties. His paintings and poems record a fearless passage through strawberry minefields, a life of joy and celebration, tragedy and loss.

remembr aftr th shock n rebuild
ing yr mind from th ground up th
gud memoreez can help yu thru

Grief and illumination are the themes of th book, compost that sings. The poem “whn my fathr n dottr first met in hevn” is about hard truths and redemption, the romantic possibility of redemption when different perspectives meet in a holy place. The poet’s father, a seemingly unyielding judge, hindsight reveals as a courageous fighter for civil rights.

That is the meaning of bissett, the shaman. We are lines that intersect and interact. In his perfect world, there are no degrees of separation as we move in and out, interact, love and accept one another. There is no nationality, no gender, nothing but complementing complementary colours in the ideal spectrum of lightning and magic rainbows, where the most powerful weapon is transformative humour without cruelty, peace.

chill n watch th sunsets th answr being
in natural beautee n the flow uv
the birds up wards up up n ovr these

Always a voyeur, Joe Rosenblatt first stalked his prey in windows and picture frames, an urban poetry populated by urban goddesses. Next, his ambition was to sight the brides of the stream. Now, in his ninth decade, he has retreated to the woods where his muses, birds in the bush, flit in the gaps between branches, cracks where light is revealed. The Iron Man, his earlier spirit guide, has become Green Man leading him further into the forest.

They also serve who (listen to the birds).

Always a lyricist, Rosenblatt has, in this time of academic retreat to formalism, responds to fashion with his own form, the Rosensonnet, little bird songs that celebrate the greening. His new paintings and poems break into the beautiful silence of trees as he hugs the trunks and looks up for the revelation in measures unique to every species.

These are, until the Rosenblattian interruption of lust, respectful poems. The voyeur is a song-catcher whose obligation is to record without changing the intention of nature to celebrate itself. Too much of that has happened already and Rosenblatt and his wife have fought hard for preservation of natural habitats on Vancouver Island.

The forest sings but, when the voyeur is overcome by his own hunger, the mask slips and he lusts as before, plotting to drag the Green Man’s bride to some Photosynthesis Motel, where

shamelessly I’d snatch a multitude of alabaster moons
to string a pearl necklace and tempt the green man’s mistress.

This is after all call and response, the poet’s prerogative as he stumbles on beauty, even as he mourns its exploitation by others,

As in a theatre when the lights dim, so fall the curtains of eternity.
“And where will it end,” I said, “when they’ve eaten all the leaves?”

Iron Man and Green Man will duke it out after all in language invented for such rituals. The Birds continue to sing, the poet to saunter past multi-syllabic words and the Green Man, necrophile his alter ego, to reproduce with nurse logs, the Madonnas who in real life are whores.

Life goes on and Rosenblatt continues to invent his own realities, the baroque sounds, word-bejewelled liturgy of his Aristotelian belief system. His voice is unique and he dances it further and further into the firmament, “The spinner waltzes with his prey between this world and the next” realising he is talking to a complete stranger; that, he says, is poetry.

Linda Rogers’ new novel Bozuk (Exile Editions) is the story of a broken Canadian who follows a spirit guide to the highest mountain in western Turkey.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 21.