if I knew more
I'd say less (Trouble Sleeping)
splintered then rose
banked & compulsed by otherlove
again & again flopped so
so cold exoneration
if to hatch safe poems alone
& nudge from each a stunt proud
dodo/minion (Hearthedral: A Folk-Hermetic)
In a recent issue of Event magazine, Toronto poet Phil Hall wrote about what he calls his "totem bird," the killdeer.
Our national bird, for years, was, as A.M. Klein said, the rocking chair.
I don’t know what our national bird is now, but my totem bird is the killdeer. Its names, odd mannerisms and cry explain a bit about me, but in riddles.
My daily writing self at 50 has accrued the usual odd habits and noises, of course. There are awful names I know myself by, lie-dances I perform to avoid work.
In my hopelessness, I half hope my deflections might honour the Self...
In open fields my shorebird ranges. It nests near cow plops and hooves. Its only protection is a desperate little theatre.
If a person or a creature approaches its eggs, the killdeer pretends to have a broken wing. It flits near, then hovers away. One wing splints forward at an unnatural angle; its cry seems so plaintive. Intruders are diverted from the eggs by a chance at catching the bird.
Like that wounded arrow-maker, Philoctetes, I have a broken wing of sorts. There is something wrong with my hands. Eczema? Stigmata? Nerves? My palms, red and dry, split along the lifelines and bleed. It is hard to wear white shirts, for instance. My quill-mitts have been like this for years.
In an interview with Phil Hall in Toronto in 2002, conducted by Mick Burrs/Steven Michael Berzensky and published on Hall’s University of Toronto “Canadian Poets” page, their conversation ends with:
Ph: I’m trying to say what I really feel, which is not necessarily what I want to be cornered in to saying.
MB: Well, I’m sorry if I’m cornering you.
Ph: No, no. It’s just that I’m reluctant to speak about myself and by so doing reveal how important this all is to me. You know my emblem bird is the kildeer. It shows up often in my books. The killdeer, by pretending to have a broken wing, tries to distract and lead away those who come too close to its eggs. I make stupid jokes, plunk the banjo, tell funny stories. These distract, they entertain, they lead an audience away from seeing my eggs, seeing how scared the nest of poetry is to me.
I'm just letting you see the eggs tonight. But my experience is that if people really see that something is vital to you, they'll take it away. [Laughs.]
MB: Because you've had that happen to you?
Ph: Yes. But I'm publishing books, so where the hell can I hide? I have to hide in the open air.
Phil Hall has been an interesting figure in Canadian poetry over the past few decades, beginning to publish while in Windsor, Ontario, where he got his MA, and later coming through the work tradition in Vancouver around the same time as friend and peer Erin Mouré, before eventually ending up in Toronto, where he works as an editor and teacher. Much like Mouré, his poetry moved further out from the "work poetry" tradition and into a range of non-linear language, but somehow got far less attention over the years, despite a flurry of activity, including the chapbooks Eighteen Poems (1973; revised, 2005), The Crucifiction (1979), A Writer’s Guide To Restaurants (1982), Unison-Light (1985), The Bad Sequence (2004) and (as Holly Phillips) Les Transparents (after René Char) (2002), and trade collections Homes (1979), A Minor Operation (1983), Why I Haven’t Written (1985), Old Enemy Juice (1988), Amanuensis (1989), The Unsaid (1992), Hearthedral, A Folk-Hermetic (1996), Trouble Sleeping (2000) and An Oak Hunch (2005), as well as a cassette of labour songs. As he is described on the poetry spoken here web page of the League of Canadian Poets:
Phil Hall started out with what has been called, by Tom Wayman and others, "work writing" ideologically driven poetry that passionately pursues the experience of ordinary people in occupations and with preoccupations not often highlighted or even acknowledged by those in political or literary power. That is to say, Phil has not turned his back on the outsiderhood he grew up with. Instead he has made himself a voice ― often a tough voice ― for the deprived and the marginalized. At the same time, Hall's writing has been changing over the years. His poetry has never been marked by the emphasis on mere content and accessibility that might be expected from a work writer, but in recent years his language and forms have been stretching experimentally. He is a writer now wonderfully difficult to categorize, though he himself has made a stab at joining the extremes. In a piece from The Unsaid (Brick Books, 1992), he says "I am becoming more hermetic and more populist at the same time!" That's Osip Mandelstam and Woody Guthrie.
Through decades of poetry collections, part of an influence on Hall's writing can be seen from the work of the poet Paul Celan; there are traces of Erin Mouré, Don McKay and René Char; and even as Hall has worked decades in the book as the unit of composition, he has yet to appear properly in a major anthology of Canadian poets, missing out on Gary Geddes' expansive series of 15 Canadian Poets anthologies, Ken Norris' Canadian Poetry Now: 20 Poets of the '80's (1984), Dennis Lee's The New Canadian Poets 1970-1985 (1985), but included in anthologies of work poetry such as Shop Talk (1985). Ask any writer who has experienced his work, and they tend on the whole to admire it greatly. They say timing is everything; he seems not to have been part of any specific grouping of Canadian poets, but for his time in Vancouver as part of the Vancouver Industrial Writers Union, and even as he's been a Brick author for the past twenty years, he somehow doesn’t properly seem to fit there, either. It seems interesting that he would consider his emblem bird the killdeer, suggesting that his own writing works hard to distract the reader away from what is right in front of them. It's as though through his poetry collections and refusal, almost, to place himself, Hall's poetry has been difficult to place, and difficult to explain, leaving him to slip repeatedly (even he would say, deliberately) off the radar. Hall could be considered a variant on the tradition of work poetry that would also include west coasters Tom Wayman, Kate Braid, Gerald Creede and Peter Culley, but that wouldn’t properly explain it either. Writing working class poems in an Ontario gothic that references physical abuse, geography and writing itself, it is almost through the shifts that exist from book to book, Hall works against the reader properly having any sense of his work that is easy to categorize, which might explain the component of critical silence on his poetry generally. Through a series of works honing and altering what he is best at, Hall's poetry is dangerous and difficult, both in terms of structure and emotional content. As translator and critic Michael Hamburger once wrote of the poetry of Paul Celan:
From whatever direction we approach it ― as plain readers of poetry, as critics or literary historians, as biographers or sociologists, or as translators ― Paul Celan's work confronts us with difficulty and paradox. The more we try to concentrate on the poem itself, on its mode of utterance, which includes both theme and manner, the more we are made aware that difficulty and paradox are of its essence. As for "placing" his work within the body of German imaginative literature after 1945, or against the larger background of international modernism, all we can be certain of at this point is that it occupies a prominent, isolated, and anomalous position.
Phil Hall's poems work the writing by working to alter what the writing and the process of writing means; through threads that include his token bird, the killdeer, and childhood abuse, his long poems work variations on what can also be seen in the expansive lines of Prince George, British Columbia poet Barry McKinnon, and the Canadian ghazal brought forth by the late American expatriate John Thompson.
When we handle things and then write words
we speak of that interchange of prayers
but when we handle only
we begin to pray to our pens
that are solid
excuses for having to let go ("Pay-Dirt," Amanuensis)
Originally from Bobcaygeon, Ontario (think of the song "Bobcaygeon" by Blue Rodeo), he moved to Windsor, Ontario in 1972, where he later published his collection Homes (1979); as the back cover claims, "This book represents three HOMES: where I came from, this adopted city, and a Home for the Aged I worked in for a year. Where I am is always a style bender, so I give credit to these places for these poems, dwelt in and now rented to you."
Living in Windsor now
I always go to Rudy's
when I need a haircut.
Why do you call this
Shut up and sit down!
But today I've been
thinking about my dad,
how he chokes up over
the phone now, and has
to hang up to spit in
the sink when I say
So I don't go to
Rudy's Hair Salon
but to his kind of place:
Al's Barber Shop.
Do you cut hair?
Will you cut
this one? ("Memorial Hall," Homes)
Windsor is also the place where Hall started publishing chapbooks and other smaller pieces of ephemera by himself and others under the name Flat Singles Press, with small pieces produced by Bronwen Wallace and others, and where he wrote the book A Minor Operation (1983), being, as he wrote in the front of the book, "posthumours poems written in 1983. In December 1982 I got a vasectomy. Much of what's here responds directly or indirectly to that." Apart from Prince George, British Columbia poet Rob Budde, I don’t know too many Canadian writers who have written about getting a vasectomy (the title poem, subtitled "and plotted perhaps too freely with my life," even includes illustrations). Hall ends the small book with the title piece, and its own ending, writing:
So this is the child
of our love for each other
of the operation
the choice we made
in our favour
we knew we'd forget
so we wrote it down
It unites us
the way a child
but does not threaten
to tear us apart
over money or the right
to be selfish
We want only what's best
In an interview conducted by Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy in the collection Poets Talk: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouré, Dionne Brand, Marie Annharte Baker, Jeff Derksen and Fred Wah (2005), Mouré references her Vancouver days and Phil Hall, briefly.
Erin: […] I didn't come from a community were you talked about writing itself. Everybody was writing, but nobody talked about it in terms of feminism, or in terms of the workings of language. The only context I had found where people talked about writing was the Vancouver Industrial Writers Union, which was full of problems for me.
Pauline: Who belonged to that group when you were involved with it?
Erin: Tom Wayman, Phil Hall, Kirsten Emmett and Zoë Landale. At least those people talked a little about writing, and I worked with Phil Hall and the others to organize a reading series. Yet the whole orientation of work poetry and the theory about it all really was problematic for me. It was populist in a way that seemed to negate things I wanted to explore.
Part of the Vancouver Industrial Writers Union, Hall ended up teaching at the Kootenay School of Writing, back when one of the overlaps in consideration at the school focused on work writing, given that the poet Tom Wayman was one of those involved in the early days. Hall was one of those influenced by the "new work writing," but not held back by its limitations; consider the fact that whatever movement they had out west during those times, apart from Wayman himself, there is almost no one else left standing; their version of writing work an idea that simply couldn’t sustain itself. As editors Michael Barnholden and Andrew Klobucar write in their introduction to Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology (1999):
"Hammer," an early poem by Tom Wayman, who was also a Wobbly, illustrates the close relationship KSW maintained with labour movements. In it, Wayman symbolically abstracts the common tool of a carpenter ― the hammer ― into an emblem of social unit among the impoverished working classes. The image is hardly new, having signified basic labour in everything from Masonic badges to the flag of the Soviet Union. What is fresh in Wayman's poem is his descriptive prose, detailing the various working situations the hammer must transcend. In the final stanza,
Nothing can stop it. The hammer has risen for centuries
high as the eaves, over the town. In this age
it has climbed to the moon
but it does not cease rising everywhere each hour.
And no one can say what it will drive
if at last it comes down.
Wayman's interest in class struggle is evident throughout the poem. All workers, regardless of their individual working situations, share an important social bond derived from their common oppression by capitalism. Class oppression and the need for social change it subsequently provokes unites, for Wayman, the restaurant cook with the carpenter, and both of them, oddly enough, with the astronaut. Labour does not ever cease in this poem; but neither does the need among labourers for emancipation and their social right to own the relations of production.
Only one year after KSW opened an office on West Broadway near Oak Street, the school co-sponsored, with the Vancouver Industrial Writers Union, a colloquium on what Wayman and others were calling "work writing." Among the issues discussed there was labour's unclear future within a Socred-administered province. Such political uncertainty generated a specific confusion regarding KSW's own relationship to conventional labour groups.
The Split Shift Colloquium of August 1986, called the first North American symposium of contemporary work literature, included both Canadians and Americans as participants, such as Phil Hall, Tom Wayman, Erin Mouré, Antler, Kate Braid, Sandy Shreve, Howard White, Clemens Starck, Susan Eisenberg, Robert Carson, Jim McLean and Kirsten Emmott. As Wayman himself wrote of work writing in his essay, "Split Shift and After: Some Issues of the New Work Writing":
Work writing, on the other hand, states that every job has importance in society and that whoever does that work is an expert concerning the value of this work and how this work affects individual and community existence. Therefore each of us has the right to speak out and be listened to, irrespective of financial status. The present educational and critical apparatus is not likely to devote a sustained effort to promoting this message.
Whatever statements on poetry and poetics that Hall himself has made over the years have been shifted and even circumvented as poems slipped into various of his own collections, echoing what writers like Erin Mouré and bpNichol (and since, nathalie stephens and Margaret Christakos) have done, merging poetry and poetics as opposed to keeping them separate. Prince George, British Columbia poet Barry McKinnon has also written a number of prose/critical pieces that suddenly shape themselves into poems, almost as though the poem itself, as for Hall, is his best thinking form. The piece "Inner Handles," for example, that exists in the collection The Unsaid, was revised from Hall's own statement of purpose written for the Split Shift Colloquium, that begins:
I have this recurring dream of swallowing the dagger that figures
in one of Borges' stories.
Its blade comes out my stomach, and its handle remains inside ―
opposite of how a blade lodges in combat.
Then I fall, stabbing my shadow and its earth. The point enters
This is a poetic dream of process and intent.
Each of my poems is a fortress built for a party. How entrancing
the melodies of opposition to self can be! How useful the poems
that leave all their handles inside!
Useful: the lathe inside grinding out hopefully elegant tools.
Having a grip on the handle inside me allows me to love the
details of this world, each gimcrack/talis-shard.
Obviously Hall is mentioning Borges; is this another deflection? Is this another wounded wing? The piece seems instead to echo the language of a John Newlove poem that originally appeared in 7 Disasters, 3 Theses, and Welcome Home. Click (1971) (Newlove is mentioned as an influence, briefly, in An Oak Hunch):
Everywhere I Go
What are people talking about. Everywhere I go they whisper.
They stick their eyes at me, right at the base of the breastbone,
when I'm not looking.
The breastbone seems flat, pointed like a dagger to the top of my
O, my stomach, my stomach…when the knife rips you open it will
find coffee and four strips of bacon, pieces of chewed beard and a
handwritten note saying I have left town forever again.
Another of Hall's pieces from the same collection, "Tillsonburg," first appeared as an author's statement for the Vancouver Industrial Writers' Union anthology Shop Talk (1985).
Stompin' Tom, in his song about tobacco picking, mentions a
town in southern Ontario, Tillsonburg, and then says, 'My back
still breaks when I hear that word.'
I understand his relationship between health, place, work and
language. Some words are that mighty, that crippling. Certain
place-names, if uttered, cause asthma. Mention a mere file code
number and certain people will stick their fingers down their
I write to cure myself of regionalism, to break free from Ontario's
plated dolour. I write for personal and political revenge. Spite,
given form, allows me to stand upright and scan this field,
wheezing. Allows spitelessness, music, humour.
I mean each poem/word to be useful, not clever. As practical as if
found on a map. As if I had gone there, worked there, been
broken, quit and come back. As if you could go there and find a
better job than I did.
My simple anarchy mistrusts even tools, and so I mean to grasp
Hopelessness with my bare hands, pull it out of the ground, and
set it on fire in my mouth.
My goal is joy. Joy. But my back still breaks when I hear that
Where is Hall placing himself and his own poetic? It's as though Hall has to remove himself "from Ontario's / plated dolour." so he can return to it, and even reclaim it later on, in the poems that make up his 2005 collection An Oak Hunch (but more of that later on). Hall's aesthetic can certainly be considered shaped by "work poetry," even as a point of foundation to what he has done throughout his career, but by itself is only a part of something else, and would ignore whole swaths of other threads throughout his work. Put alongside Erin Mouré, who came through Vancouver writing "work poetry" while a station manager at VIA Rail, and also moved out from there into more experimental forms, Hall's poetry seems more experimental than the work poets, but less overtly so than the poetry of Mouré. Hall's writing process reads like a hammer (his plainspeak and/or experimental leanings) taken to glass (his working class aversion to preciousness), before deft hands carefully and deliberately re-assemble the pieces into collage.
For many years, the working class plain-speech of the "work poetry" traditions in Canada seemed to go against the traditions and explorations of any more formally experimental works. I don’t know if Wayman still holds to this opinion (which reads as painfully oppositional), but in another essay years earlier he referenced experimental writing against a larger piece on "work poetry," suggesting that
Experimental writing has its own social consequences, however. Formal experimentation (that is, experiments involving artistic form) has increased during the past three-quarters of a century to become what many artists now practicing think art is supposed to be about. Formal experimentation, be it "new music" or "abstract expressionism", is art about art. And that means an end of a critique of society in art.
The thing Wayman doesn’t seem to understand, insofar as this quote, is the very argument between the modernists and the post-modernists, with the former creating art to change the world, separate from and working to represent the world, and the latter creating art that includes the world, referencing the world from the inside. What Wayman doesn’t seem to understand (or at least, when he wrote the piece) is that postmodernism is more interested in the questions than it is in authority, and that it is the language itself that is political, and by itself can be used as a critique of society, such as the work of west coast poets Jeff Derksen (one of the original members of the Kootenay School of Writing), Dorothy Trujillo Lusk and Peter Culley, who very much work out of both the traditions of "work poetry" and avant-garde formal experimentation (think, too, of the political poems of the late American poet Edward Dorn). Even further, has been some of the work done by Vancouver poet Roger Farr in his collection Surplus (2006), writing both regular speech, writing theory, working class values and social action, bringing the two halves of the original Kootenay School of Writing back together in ways they haven’t been in decades, and expanding something rich and rare in the considerations of Canadian poetry that have been barely understood, let alone acknowledged.
It would seem that Hall's consideration of "work poetry" might fall somewhere in-between Wayman's aesthetics and the aesthetics of the late Kingston poet Bronwen Wallace (Hall was one of her early supporters, during the time they lived as neighbours in the same apartment building in Windsor, Ontario). Kingston poet Joanne Page, editor of Wallace's posthumous collection of essays, Arguments with the World, wrote in the forward that
Attaching people, weaving them together was Bronwen's great delight. Much was sheer Bronwen: generosity, scarves and earrings, curves, outrage, curiosity, gardens. And just as distinctive was her sense of place, or "location," to use her term. By location she meant home, the center, a roof over the heart. She loved the implications of home, how it was more than shelter, how it mixed family history, daily life, friends, chili sauce recipes, the patches of earth that are peculiar to each of us. Bronwen located herself in the hardscrabble farms and lakes of southeastern Ontario, identifying herself with her grandmother's runaway horse, tears on a friend's cheeks, her father's Sunday grace, lemon balm and green tomatoes, Jeremy's bike, an Emmylou Harris song, her mother's stories. She anchored herself in this commotion of past and present. Her territory, in writing as in life, was like the eastern Ontario landscape she loved so well — the immutable realities that lie like bedrock beneath the ordinary dailiness of life.
As Page writes, the "anchoring" of daily life. As Hall wrote in Amanuensis (1989), writing so many of his concerns together in a poem that probably isn’t about ironing, writing:
Ironing my white shirt
before another reading
pressing weight water and volts
against every crease
thinking of what I'll read
insecure doubtful memories
Mom from cuff to shoulder
to cuff pushing a hot toy boat
Dad directing traffic
at the Kinmount Fair shouting
drunk and rolling up his sleeves
Pressing my white shirt smooth
the way she taught me knowing
I'll roll up my sleeves
Ironing the only crumpled page
I brought to wear
Any larger concerns of the Canadian avant-garde in poetry often fall into either a geographic area or a series of stylistic groupings; Hall seems to be one of a series of individual Canadian poets whose work can't easily be placed in any sort of grouping or avant-garde "movements" (whether what Bowering once referred to as the "Calgary renaissance," or the groupings around the current and past versions of the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver and Coach House Press and/or Coach House Books in Toronto…) ― Sylvia Legris in Saskatoon, Erin Mouré in Montreal, nathalie stephens in Chicago, Judith Fitzgerald in northern Ontario, and Stan Rogal in Toronto ― leaving many of them misunderstood, and, much of the time, critically out in the cold. The fact that Hall seeks very little attention certainly helps; it's almost as though he has spent a concerted effort in keeping his head down, what with very little written on Hall and his work over the years (although the fact that An Oak Hunch appeared on the Griffin Prize shortlist might perhaps see a change in perception). Are these critical failures a sign of Hall, or a sign of the times?
What seems interesting in the response Hall predominantly gets for his poetry, working the seeming contradictions of language and work, those who might know more from the work side don't seem to comprehend the other, and even see his movements combining them as some sort of poetic failure; they seem to like the work well enough but don’t entirely comprehend it. Is this a failure of the poet or the critic? As northern British Columbia poet and critic Don Precosky wrote as his rather harsh review of the collection Amanuensis in Literature and Language:
This is a thin book of wan poems. The author displays some wit and skill at word play, but he does not get much beyond the surface. The postmodernist talk about "writing" and "language" with which the book starts was fresh 10 years ago but is now getting stale. Furthermore, it is more convincing when it comes from poets who are doing a good job.
Later on in another issue of Literature and Language, a review James Deahl wrote of the collection Hearthedral: A Folk-Hermetic:
Although the title of this collection evokes Hermes Trismegistus and such concerns as gnosticism, alchemy, and magic, the actual poems are awash in existential angst and pessimism. Hall is well versed in "the terrible punishments of humans inflicted upon humans" (to quote Erin Mouré), and his book is full of historical reminders of how brutish life can be. In Hall's poetic universe, the Judeo-Christian tradition, secular humanism, and social activism are all spiritually bankrupt, while death is the ultimate release from suffering.
Hearthedral does break new ground in its use of language. However, its vision is unlikely to appeal to readers who like their despair in modest doses.
How does he get treated so badly so often? In so many ways, Hall's token bird could as easily be the magpie, something Vancouver writer George Bowering has suggested of himself through his memoir, A Magpie Life: Growing A Writer (2001). It's as though Hall's poetry is continually picking up objects and placing them carefully in what end up being complete poems in complete books; far more than a collage than a significant whole. What has the magpie Hall picked up from his father? What has the magpie Hall picked up from other books he has read, scattered throughout his own texts? Is this the distraction the killdeer is there to prevent, to keep the reader from seeing just how much Hall has collected? In the collection Why I Haven't Written (1985), Hall writes:
Each one of us is two stupid birds,
our hands in our armpits, our faces moronic.
Or later on, in the poem "English" from the collection Amanuensis, he writes:
Such foolishness as that, and more, but really
looking into your eyes' clear tan speckles and shards
I feel my upper-lip and eye-lids tug hairward
I am leaning that far out and down to see
wobble-lights in a purple current
pass under me this bridge
that is moving
this doomed London bridge
to which all my self-portraits are moored
Moving from bird to bird, from son to father, from self-portrait to something other, it's as though Hall is working the idea of the double while using one to distract you from the other. What is it he doesn't want you to see? Is this what the reference to Borges means, with Hall locating his own self in the double, whether pseudonimously (as Holly Phillips) or two birds? Vancouver poet Lisa Robertson has worked with the double as well, such as in her long poem "Palinodes" from The Chicago Review, where she writes:
Suppose I never saw deception
No distinctions—just the fear of isolation
That structure was not finally my medium
I am an animal I don’t know
Nor an orchard nor a single soul nor
A dog nor a leather purse nor subjection
Nor trivialization nor worthlessness
Nor apples and stars when the festival
Of war unfurls from garden suburbs and
Decks the patios in grand coloured
Swags flipping upwards in the breeze bringing
The shampoo scent of blossoms
It would be nice
To interfere with the accuracy of the world.
It seems interesting she would mention "the double" in a subsequent piece on the poem, included in the same issue ("There is a doubled sensation."). In her collection The Men (2006), too, there is the talk of the double, moving regularly from the "I" into "we" and vice versa. There is the collective and then there is the individual, as she writes in the poem "MEN DEFT MEN" from the same collection:
We are weary in the watching.
What is this double-speak she speaks of? What is this kind of doubling? Writing herself as herself, writing herself as man, writing herself as the men. Writing herself or writing narrator. It was something prairie poet Andrew Suknaski wrote of again and again, predominantly when referring to Eli Mandel (and therefore, Borges) in various of his critical pieces, writing:
No, it isn't just the prairie that drove some of us mad. It was the mutants in the lineage. Shakespeare taught us that. Borges reaffirmed it in a healthy obsession with doubles: Christ/Judas; Cain/Abel; Othello/Iago and others — fleshed-out binaries of the tormented, human mind. No, it ain't easy to follow Mandel.
Eli, as I began to pass the Bergman Apartments, your words faded in that coldest of all cold nights I'd ever known. I didn't look right to what had once been your window. I did remember, again, how you once talked of seeing your double at the Cave n' Basin Hot Spring that one summer. I think it was about then — as I looked back once at the place that once doubled for home to you — that your dead ringer began to peel my name off the cold aluminum sky illuminated by the city's light: "Andyyy! Andyyyyyyy! Stop! Don't do it!" It didn't stop me. What actually slowed my pace were the faint words of a woman I once loved. Miraculously, her words surfaced again in my memory: "Andy, whenever I thought of you somewhere, I imagined this Towering Spirit moving across the Prairie . . . ." I stopped one block past the Bergman Apartments. Abandoned my premeditated long walk east across Wascana Lake where I might have confirmed the word with flesh. ("Mandel Memoir")
Does this all come back to Borges? For Phil Hall, in a collection rife with considerations of the father, the title poem to Why I Haven't Written seems deflection again (writing "You failed me" to an unnamed woman), a distraction against writing slowly about his late father in ways that he couldn’t have previously, writing their relationship as awkward and seriously flawed, and him as a gentle man, as in the poem of the same name. In later collections, the mentions of the father become more full, of that quiet, rural Ontario man who knew little of conversation but much about guns and the land; the father Hall knows he is different from, but afraid of becoming. Is that where his double is held? Or at least one of them?
A Gentle Man
My father killed everything
he could get his hands on.
As a gentle man he made
such a fool of himself.
The old paddle he shellacked
after painting, looked stupid:
little teepees, a tree. The man
was vain about his trees.
I hated to see him, retired,
at his work-bench in the shed;
he was putting tiny white beads
on the front sights of his rifles
to help him see.
The only thing he did beautifully
after that, was die. It seemed so brave,
or selfish, the way he asked for water,
then quit breathing the moment
he was alone.
It was as though from Homes on, Hall was writing writing and fathers and mothers and what else that would come from there and through to the late 1980s, from a construction of individual poems and more into fragments of a larger, more ongoing poetry; writing so many of the concerns of "work poetry" and rural Ontario ideas and ideals, and writing out parts of his life in small fragments. It was as though from Homes on, Hall too writing further and further away from what poems were "supposed" to have looked like, as in this fragment of the poem "Mould," from the collection Why I Haven't Written:
Now I haunt the second-hand bookstores,
loving the smell of old, terrible books: The Little
Lame Prince, Penny Nichols, Freddy The Pig And
The Baseball Team From Mars…The poor children
who read those books now, who take them home
broken from the Salvation Army, are receiving, as
I did, slammed-shut concessions to working class
hope. They are eating what there is to eat: the blue
and green moulds that grow on silence.
I am allergic to mould. The doctors want to
inject me with phrase-sized solutions of mould till I
develop immunity. Having scratched through that
wall with The Count Of Monte Cristo, having
sucked on the same smooth stone of revenge, I
avoid medicine the way my ancestors probably
tried to avoid the plague.
It was in the 1980s, too, that Phil Hall started getting further attention for his writing, and when he was slowly coming into his own, as in the piece "Canadian Poetry: The Year in Review" in The Third Macmillan Anthology, where Toronto poet and critic Kevin Connolly wrote:
Phil Hall's eighth book, Old Enemy Juice, struck me as a breakthrough for a poet whose style and subject matter has attracted me, but who has always seemed to overplay his textual persona, that of the gritty, blue-collar moralist. In Old Enemy Juice Hall focuses on the overwhelming negative power of societal concepts of manhood as they are handed down from father to son and acted out in subsequent relationships. Hall uses his own life failures and unwelcome patriarchal inheritance as the material here, and while the slant is political, the poems themselves are particular and personal. One of the strengths of this book is that it does not assume a clear conscience on the part of the speaker; it refuses to oversimplify the issue of abusive male behavior. There are poems which deal explicitly with physical and mental abuse, but even more powerful are those which focus on the subtler effects of the masculine myth—on apparently healthy relationships, on the motivations of the writer, on language itself. Editing help from the late Bronwen Wallace may have been instrumental in harnessing Hall's intense and unusual talents. In any case, the result is easily Hall's best effort and a book well worth tracking down.
Old Enemy Juice is Hall's last collection of individual poems, but there still seems an overlap of construction, and is probably his most effective collection and single unit of composition up to that point. Hall's work shows a strange and refreshing kind of vulnerability; strange not just for him being Ontario rural male, but being human at all, and that kind of vulnerability becomes very honest and refreshing; the things held back in Hall's writing are those things held only because it is necessary to, whether for the sake of himself or for the poem.
His teeth marks convicted him
as this old story does me
An 8-page rape fantasy
I had forgotten
Wrote it 10 years ago
and am shocked by what I unearth
Am forced to face another of my names
It means mysogeny, mass murder
Ted Bundy is one of my names
I must answer to, but am trying to change
By an invocation of others
I gladly go by ("Ted Bundy")
Writing, as he says, another of his many names; is there more here than doubling? There is something about the erratum held in at the beginning of the collection I don’t believe is there accidentally, working a way his further writing plays; writing error as deliberate, echoing Phyllis Webb's notion of "failure."
I can't keep the cockroaches
out of my cupboards, the morbid doubts
out of my head, the typos
out of my books — nor can you —
The only perfect things I can think of
are dead and untrue:
acknowledgements: Rick Johnston read Johnson
contents: What Times Does to Salads read What
p. 20: right lights read rich lights
p. 46: and the guilt read quilt
p. 75: build as air read us air
p. 77: writing with convulsions read writhing
What is it about failure that attracts? Every poet, Hall has even said, should have a book that fails (and some poets are lucky enough to have more than one); at least for Hall, this is as far away from actual failure as one gets. As Brian Vanderlip writes of the collection in Poetry Canada Chronicle (Vol. 10, No. 4):
Phil Hall's eighth collection of poetry begins warmly, with a quiet intensity. Hall is not exactly an intellectual poet, more an emotional vision masked in intellect, injured by memory: "The crumpled paper/ cup of my longing still/ floats// But will not hold us/ both." Still, his heart reaches out in hope: "We must not enter/ or encircle each other/ with that crude arsenal of words we know/ are against us…" This poet doesn’t have a fantasy sunset for lovers to disappear in; he's world-wise. But he does offer a vision of shared humanity that enfolds both the positive and negative capabilities of humankind, the need to realize our capacity for choice. Not only does Hall allow for the most negative of possibilities, he relates very strongly and personally to them. In the poems "Heart and Anchor" and "Ted Bundy," Hall stands beside those criminals we often view as the embodiment of utter evil in our world, the pedophile and the mass-murderer. He calls the pedophile his brother and notes that they look so much like each other. There is no hope in a merely us/them perspective. The possibilities for love come from compassion in the midst of our own experiences: "…a triumphant culmination/ of all that old caring/ we did less well."
The second of three sections, "The War In Ontario," focuses primarily on Hall's blood family, especially his strained, bitter memories of his father and the knowledge that in so many ways he and his father are inseparable: "I write of killing him/ and find him only alive in myself…" This is the most powerfully conceived section of the book and the darkest in tone. In one of the best stanzas Hall juxtaposes his memory of a mean, distant father with verses describing the behaviour of a mother bear's cubs after she has died, the cubs "(tearing her) apart in rage and hunger." He often acknowledges this tremendous power of experience and memory, as in a lovely lament in the third part of "The War In Ontario:" "How many times on a bus or a train/ have I looked out at those fields/ I hate/ and seen them slowly become/ myself reflected in the moving window/ till morning?"
The final section of the book is the least cohesive, but does include some strong poetry: "Swoop," "Life Support System," "The Holes In Trees," to name a few. Following the dark strength of the father poems, these pieces seem to lack as strong a focus, not coming together enough to deal with earlier elements. Is the hope of strength through sharing ("Correlations," "Uttering The Chestnut," "Facing") reduced in the end to only "…a tradition of resistance?" Are Hall's songs finally destined to come from "…a scrapper… his songs up like gloves?" I think not: stay tuned.
There is something about his following poetry collection, the book Amanuensis (1989), with its array of fantastic gestures and fine lines, that somehow doesn’t hold together as a single unit in the same kind of way; a small book with such a potential that it doesn’t quite reach, but rife with echoes of what work had come before, and was still to come, talking about fathers, writing and the killdeer. The collection reads as both a continuation and progression of previous work, and an introduction into further openings, such as the double of the two men in Trouble Sleeping. As he writes again of his token bird in the final poem-fragment of Amanuensis:
there isn’t much to say
just here I am
here I am
of old tools
as if they were broken
A thin plea
my pain my pain
Lies dying out in the dry grass
dying out in starlessness –
A few small poems
have stayed warm ("To Be More Round")
After so much deflection, it seems interesting that Hall would talk about a kind of clarity surrounding his place, writing "here I am / here I am," and in bold, no less, seriously highlighting what otherwise we might have passed over too quickly. The bird itself is famous for the broken-wing display, to lead someone further and further from the hidden nest of killdeer young; building their nests in open areas, distraction is the entire point. In the title poem of The Unsaid, writing:
Praise her curse this weight
of thought ― killdeer brain shovel
In a short review of Amanuensis in Books in Canada, Erin Mouré wrote:
AS IT IS: dense, compact, elliptic, fierce, without evasion.
Then they put our cages on wheels
and let us (stinking of snacks) push them—
we push them out of their parking-lots
into fields of wild carrot and chicory
but they always find them and drag them back
shove each cage into the muzzle of the next
In Amanuensis (Brick, 64 pages, unpriced), Phil Hall has come, by strife with words and their embedded values, to a technique of compression that reminds of Paul Celan's knotted poems; they beam straight through the skull. So that: "It is a lark drinking rain-water from a sun-dial" and "oat-dust gold along the snout-beam." Poetry that recalls the organs of the body, that invents and compounds verbs, nouns, and adjectives to reach toward what cannot be spoken, without censoring our hands' flutter. It is poetry that "has been taught mockingbirds well." Which is why, perhaps, Hall's work has been little recognized by those grocers who are so invested in the cages and parking lots of the literary supermarket. Never mind. It is recognized by those who want, instead of supermarkets, food.
His subsequent trade collection The Unsaid (1992), on the other hand, returns to that sense of solid form that makes up a collection by Phil Hall—a single unit out of a series of disparate forms, including the title poem, made up of twenty-five numbered sections writing rape and violence and accidents of beauty, writing out of labour songs and Woody Guthrie echoes. In The Unsaid, Phil Hall saying what he previously couldn’t but so long worked toward, and somehow, finally did. In a review of The Unsaid in cm, Cambridge, Ontario teacher-librarian Ian Dempsey wrote:
In one of Phil Hall's poems in The Unsaid, he admits that he is writing to cure himself of regionalism. The author is literary editor for This Magazine and is editor of Don't Quit Yr Day-Job, a "labour-arts literary magazine."
Hall grew up in the rough landscape of the Canadian Shield under rough conditions, his father
slinging beer at night
fixing & dealing old cars on the side
bootlegging at Curve Lake.
From this existence Hall ran "full tilt into books." He became a "Mandelstam in Guthrie clothing," the classical Russian poet representing his inner compulsion for pure art, and the American folk-singer and activist being the link to the common, working life.
This schizophrenia is embarrassing at times in his poems, that is, it stops us from entering easily into his experiences. His poems lack the precision and grace of a classical expression, and only a few have the simple directness of popular pieces.
One wonders how some of these poems would be greeted by the auto workers in Windsor, for whom he conducted creative workshops at one time. The poems are often dense and tricky, like the brush trails in his native Haliburton. There are references to many poets and artists, bits in italics, experimental blips, images that do not complete themselves. For the poet, these may be the glimpses of sky, the far-off vistas that will lift him out of his childhood losses. More of Guthrie would have worked for all readers, sophisticated and simple, and had us singing along.
That "Mandelstam in Guthrie clothing" becomes a kind of umbrella mantra for all of Hall's ouvre, writing out "pure art" against a "common, writing life" but not out of any sense of schizophrenia, but instead a sense of complimentary movements; how can one claim that there isn’t pure art to be found in common music? Bronwen Wallace knew, and wrote a whole collection of Common Magic (1985), writing her own domestic and common moments into the essential poems about living, or Hall himself, in the title poem of The Unsaid, writing:
When I have dedicated myself
to silences & death again
when I look at my hands
& think instruments of hopelessness
then I force my thumbs into my belt-lops
& think about Woody Guthrie
in his last years of Huntington's Chorea
thumbs hooked into his belt-loops
so his hands wouldn’t strum in wide arcs
& break against corridor walls
I walk his derailed impulses
& try to engender within myself
his humour & conviction
I listen to him until I regain
my love of the complex squabble
between biology & gravity
all our old pre-legal hankerings for justice
solidarity with the inanimate
For all of Hall's silences, the books themselves contradict those same silences, as Phyllis Webb has written of her own from the collection Hanging Fire (1990), "There Are the Poems," or critic Stephen Collis writing of Webb in his Phyllis Webb and the Common Good (2007), writing "Poetry is language that we notice. That is one place to begin." What is it about recluses, whether accidental or deliberate (see also: John Newlove) that make us want what we can't have? Webb writes in her piece almost accusatory (even as she deflects to "Sharon," possibly "Thesen"):
There Are the Poems
An editor asks me to put it all down: the reasons I write. And I thought 'it' was a gift. Homo ludens at play among the killing fields of dry grasses. Playful woman making a space to breathe. 'There are the poems,' Sharon says, she means, between the critical flash. There are the poems, like fists wearing birthstones and bracelets, her 'roses & bliss'. Or they're like legs running, bounding over the fields of force, momentum, for a quick roll in Darwin's tangled bank. And there are the poets doing what? And why, the editor asks. What does he want? Contributions to knowledge? Civilization and its discontents? Chaos among the order ― or, oh yes, french doors opening onto a deck and a small pool where we can watch our weird reflections shimmering and insubstantial? The proper response to a poem is another poem. We burrow into the paper to court in secret the life of plants, the shifty moon's space-walks, the bliss, the roses, the glamorous national debt. Someone to talk to, for God's sake, something to love that will never hit back.
Or Hall again in his own poem "A Mandelstam in Guthrie Clothing," writing
All an education's gotten me is distance and vocabulary enough to
(maybe) be precise about what haunts.
Storyless, how to proceed? Pastiche is not a procedural heritage of
my class background. Nor is dialectical spoofing.
No pastiche, then. No goofing on voices like or unlike my own.
'When your Dad says money he means another old car on its side
in the yard,' Mom said, & so I'm reluctant to use symbols,
because, equated with lies, they are not the story or its excuse.
Something happened, though. (Always does.)
I ran. Full tilt into books. The forest they are; the city they are.
The me-not-home they are. The me at 40 they are becoming
as dreaming at lucid dawn I hear (last month) an internal critic
refer to me as 'a Mandelstam in Guthrie clothing.' (Osip, of
course; Woody, of course ― my durable, unlikely godparents.) I see
what that inner-critic means:
I am becoming more hermetic and more populist at the same
Here he writes a precursor to his "folk-hermetic," writing statements as poetics as poems in a collection rife with such, hidden there as poems, much like the Phyllis Webb piece. What does he keep hiding, or is he in plain view the entire time? The complex structure of Hall's Hearthedral: A Folk-Hermetic (1996) opens with a number of pieces, including “You will know when the poem begins / but reading shan’t accomplish this alone” and the page preceding, writing:
from willseed sprout
Blind Pew vaulted archway
above ladders chamois
circling inlaid domes
this mortarsinew chorus
The most overtly structurally complex of his collections, the book has a number of openings, introductions and starts, but the first page before the first section is where the real poem begins, as in his “Introductory,” writing:
Iroquois, etc. & Steam, etc.: these lists are borrowed from ‘Spadina Line,’ a
public-art installation by Brad Golden and Norman Richards. Comprised of
‘switch-post’ lights & metal words, this work runs along Spadina Avenue
north of Dupont Road in Toronto. (We must, of course, credit Golden &
Richards with the intrinsic poetry that exists in the lists themselves.)
An official lamp lighting ceremony for the installation took place on
September 21, 1991.
These lists suggest developments from wild to rural to urban Ontario
land; they also echo the small, long-gone railways that used to service
mining towns & villages to the north.
In this poem these lists accrue parallel, private words & meanings from
wild to rural to urban, and in so doing become word-girders for a catheral
of low sorts.
A funeral is underway: the will has died. Pipes play the pibroch.
As David Jones says in his introduction to The Anathemata: ‘to make a
shape out of the very things of which one is oneself made.’
Canada is also dead. When nationhood is lost without resistance,
hermetic & idiosyncratic chapels of selfhood may still be worthy of defence
and maintenance – toward (however covert and puny) some other
Built of hearth units between list pages, and culminating in central spires
of longtall parts, this poem aspires to a structure – a possible section scheme
of which is:
5 5 5 5
4 4 4 4 4 4
3 3 3 3 3 3 3
2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2
0 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 0 0
Thanks to the City of Toronto Archives,
Phil Hall, Cabbagetown, 1992-1996
The collection works a wonderful interplay not just with writing but with reading, quoting not just lines and works from authors, but their characters as well. It even elicits a response from Richmond, British Columbia high school librarian Willa Walsh, in her review published in the Manitoba Library Association publication cm (Volume 5, No. 2), writing:
This collection of poems would be largely inaccessible to most high school students. The strange vocabulary, with the intentionally misspelled words and combinations of words would need an extensive glossary to illuminate the meaning. It is similar to reading Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Newly coined words, such as “squalled furbs” and “helexi” (p. 95), abtruse metaphors, esoteric references and obscure diagrams, along with cryptic bits of word-poems, add to the complexity.
Some poems are more explicit (p. 25). Some are very funny with their unexpected comments on life, e.g. “cakewalking thru’ the universe” (p. 42) and “the optimism of AM radio” (p. 55). Many are irreverent and graphic. Words are thrown together like a collage or arranged in lists - juxtaposed to give meaning or perhaps, no meaning. These are adult poems and require sophisticated readers. “whatever words meant has filigreed & transmuted” (p. 83). So true!
An interesting, if skewered, response to Hall's writing, she actually touches on a number of strengths of the collection, even if she considers them weaknesses; comparing the collection to James Joyce, for example, as a bad thing, and suggesting that the text needs a glossary. Is the notion of art supposed to include how quickly a disinterested high school student can enter? Hall's is a poetry that has the reader learning as the writer does, moving through his exploration of the world, through what is going on inside him, in the larger world, and through the language itself. You can't provide shortcuts for that. Otherwise, Andrew Vaisius seemed to have a much better time in the collection, writing his review of the collection as part of a triple-book review in an issue Prairie Fire (summer 1998):
Almost from his first lines Phil Hall insists on a revaluation of words and the community of words we know as language. "[T]his mortarsinew chorus / will succeed" of the introduction merges into a "mortarsinew chorused" at the conclusion, and this collective future grows in the sprouting, bifurcation and uplifting of those willseeds we recognise in our Hearthedral—the heart, hearth, echo of cathedral and vestige of the geometric hedral of the title supply the internal warmth—mortared with the Amy Coshes, Schlomo Goldhabers, bluegrass pickers and others whom Hall pens in order to speak for us in individual voices stripped of self-serving and manufacture. His poems may protest ("living ministries," "to evoke Amy Cosh") but they are not polemics. Hall is busy creating a new context with his hard packed lines, his word blends, puns and plays, and his radiant imagery. This is fortifying, and sometimes gloomy, writing (if only to remind us that gloom is being human, too). It is writing brave enough to encounter despair and walk away piping a pibroch of enlightenment about our common ground of joys and sorrows. I hear F.R. Scott's wise poem "Dancing" in Hall's own take on parenthood, playing a balance game with his young daughter:
I am walking on the thread of my daughter's safety
faltering as I proceed
if she falls into the net her eyes will open
to the dangers of the net
if I close my eyes & dance will I ever find her?
Some lines are lambswool in pointe shoes: "I who am a mess & a failure / at everything words refer to // believe in absolution / by exactitude of usage," and "hope is work do not be ashamed"; while others are the gravelled shoulder of the Transcanada Highway: "nailzedded barnboards / on white grass & cutworms" and "their deaths bequeath dilapidated pride & vacuity / ― a dustball compost for my credence / who was not born to serve hands-on silently." Hearthedral is a dowsing and a drilling and a cold uprushing from depths—it's a masterwork by an accomplished poet.
His collection Trouble Sleeping (2000), which was short-listed for the Governor General's Award for Poetry, is written as a haibun (a Japanese form of interwoven journey-prose and poetry), a form worked previously by such Canadian poets as Fred Wah, bpNichol and Roy Kiyooka, but used by Hall as a single long poem very specifically talking about family, fathers and sexual abuse during his childhood in Bobcaygeon; writing his roughneck past as rural Ontario "white trash." Unlike the long poems of McKinnon, which work up to a central line in the first half of the piece and then away from that line, Hall's Trouble Sleeping works up to its ending, writing as its final two lines "If I knew more / I'd say less" at the end of a two-page closer that also includes another echo of the double, writing:
the whole story is not my father
to disappear up lumber trails
that lead to a khaki Trenton
findable only two fingers at a time
until tracheotomy sprung him
narrative won't solve this
that is not 'archivally sound'
the whole story is not just mine
to unearth by pageantry ― is a multiple
common held in trust ― is what
& the silence between the versions
is where the reverence holds
The story is not just the beginning, but how it's played out, and how the story continues to be written through his combination of tellings, under- and over-telling, providing an unrelenting tension that holds the whole book as a single piece; in poems that struggle through variations of Hall's central concerns of the individual "I" walking through a series of personal histories, high art merged with the common folk song, and the capacities of violence, whether physical, emotional or sexual. In a review of Trouble Sleeping in The Antigonish Review (No. 127), Crystal Bacon writes:
Like many novels, Hall’s haibun happens as much in the interstices between pieces as it does in the writing itself. It requires a suspension of disbelief, a trust that the peices will coalesce, and they do. The world portrayed in these poems - because even the “prose” is really poetry - is harsh and beautiful. It’s the world we all inhabit, but seldom see unless we have been cast out of the snug circle of the “fortunate.” Our gain is also our loss, however, as Hall shows in his ability to transcend the larger culture’s perceptions of his “kind” by using the broken pieces of dreams, families and opportunities to reflect back a thing made more beautiful by its fragmentation:
Spearing pineapple rings from a can with a stick
piqued by the moment’s tenacity - its appropriation of
the wrecking yard around the epiphany
I have unfolded the road map of the axhead
& found even in its wagon ruts & foot paths
the same devotion to flung balance - the same hierophany
a tree displays in its cold twigs & seed tips &
unfullblown asymmetrical ornament-hammered gasket-
(Father a serial killer of pets
Mother a falsie shielding a prone tick) (27)
Once the violence of Trouble Sleeping becomes and comes out, a thread becoming wider and more overt throughout the whole of his collections, it seems almost purged through the process of this collection, compared to where he eventually goes in An Oak Hunch (2005). Writing of one of the fragments of the collection as a "How Poems Work" column in The Globe and Mail (November 17, 2001), poet Glen Downie writes:
Thus, in a few words, Hall evokes and links family, rural culture, social class, crude sexuality, abuse, violence, alcohol, sentimentality, loneliness, and repressed rage ― all the themes of this book, and of most of Hall's work. Without narrative or even verbs, the piece succeeds because words and names always come from somewhere; they suggest parameters of era, region and milieu.
Pent lilt indeed! The lilt of a word's music, our music, our meaning, is in the words we pen, or pent-up in the words we don’t. Our proximity to sex, violence, anger and affection are all there. Each of us could write such a poem with our talismanic characters. In poetry, the words are who we are.
Despite the fact that the quoted section of Downie's column could refer to a whole range of Hall's writings, here is the actual segment he quotes for the column, from Trouble Sleeping:
Boxer, Tippy, Chico, Sugar, Dobbin
Dobby, Mimi, DeeDee, Princess
Little Johnny-Fucker-Faster, Rusty Warren, Uncle Bobby
Sweet Daddy Siki, Whipper Billy Watson
Wilf Carter, Hal Lone Pine
The weight of Hall's rural Ontario, his backwoods Ontario gothic, obviously, weighs very heavy upon him ("MAN DIES CRUSHED BY HIS OWN ADDRESS," he writes at one point), but through the poem feels much lighter, as though exercised through the process of writing it out, and as a subject, changes in further books. What in this collection writes sparingly almost, and between so many of the lines, becomes more overt in his previous collection, Hearthedral: A Folk-Hermetic, sitting as a reference between other sections, running as a thread tying together all of his books, writing:
because of what happened to me at 5
I can't sleep beside my son or bathe my daughter
innocently ― yet a diaphragm between thoughts & deeds
between lungs & guts
How does that compare to an earlier fragment from Amaneunsis from the poem "Rudolph Hess," writing:
When I was 8 I quit sucking my thumb
climbed down out of the apple tree
and started shooting ― rabbits groundhogs
porcupines starlings raccoons fish
a dog and nearly my sister ―
I choose to worship by touch-study
each day's blunted detail ― and end up wishing
I had fountain-white eye-brows
like him ―
Or, as this untitled poem, one of five included in a 2005 issue of the Vancouver online Forget Magazine, where beyond pain and hurt and guilt he even talks about forgiveness (while referencing the renowned "Woodland School" Ojibway painter Norval Morrisseau, Copper Thunderbird) writing:
Me & Morrisseau were both abused as kids
both drank like carp then sang by hand
of a Canada that deplorably survives
high in the clawed glistening air
Our giant muskrat soul kept falling apart
into butchered townships aflame with primal colour
& the spit of the grease was the shared song
of the brush & the pen slicing through forgiveness
Trouble Sleeping, and what pieces come after, read as someone who hasn’t necessarily escaped his past but survived it, and moved on; survived it, and managed to turn it into something that wasn’t only not bad but something better and even good. Compared to his previous work, An Oak Hunch (2005) reads as a love-poem to rural Ontario; the collection reads as a generous exploration and joy. It reads as something far more comfortable, and, while not without baggage, not overcome by baggage either, through writing Ontario landmarks such as Ottawa Valley historian Joan Finnegan, and the late Ameliasburgh, Ontario poet Al Purdy.
on my oozing stumps
has drummed her wings long & hard
whipped the years' butcher block rings
into crèche shavings
beaten nests of feathered chips
by simulated soar
folded herself into my pages
her desperate ruse of broken wing
has settled into gunwales
her closed cry
a prow's nib
the stumps' roots
I thought destined to be fences
are a mob of keels righting
little brown-speckled eggs
as cloud-shadow swamps fields
the age of flight is followed
by the age of sail (An Oak Hunch)
Written as a series of five long poems as five essays, An Oak Hunch has a wonderful sense of the multi-vocal, whether in his piece "The Interview," dedicated "to Joan Finnigan, her devotion to voices other than her own," the piece "An Oak Hunch: Essay On Purdy," or the last section, "Index of First Lines" (subtitled "an angry mob of basted journals) that Hall talks about in his notes, saying that "This poem is a boiling-off of first lines from earlier books to try to see more clearly the sub-narratives that have keeled the life—a Windex of First Lines, perhaps—a compacted Selected Poems, perhaps." This suggestion becomes interesting considering how difficult it would be to actually compile a selected poems of Phil Hall, with so much of his work produced in longer forms and moving into the book as unit of composition, the way much of bpNichol's writing was. How would you be able to select any into a single volume that represented his entire oeuvre?
FROM PLOSIVE TO DIGRAPH, from willseed to
peregrination, over the peaks of the resolute hills,
through the windows of the tall buildings, I was
alphabetizing the obvious (a chickadee—a minted
toothpick—a crying-at-bingo smell).
Saying the old, chipped words, I liked to think
I was helping them to pray too—words don't know
how to read, books don't know how to read—they need
my weak eyes—I thought, like some missionary to
island lepers—and the words were the missionaries—
I am the one with these stinking wounds in the
palms of my hands—these gifts? —my articulate
hands that can not make straight arrows.
Pity Philoctetes, ye summer boaters, who roar past his
island in your floppy hats, flinging empty beer cans at
his pines—the epauletteless shadow of the blackbird
flies out of your marshes too—its flight a red and
yellow wound, its cry a coffin hinge.
Less on the wounded bird, Phil Hall's An Oak Hunch reads more as an admission of the poet-as-magpie, collecting everything, including himself. You can see it in his piece "An Oak Hunch: Essay On Purdy" that thanks, in the notes at the end, "the Silversides Pioneer Tool Collection at the Rideau Canal Museum, Smiths Falls, Ontario." What the text doesn’t tell you is that the pioneer tool collection he speaks of was donated by the father of his wife, Ann Silversides, and that the un-donated remainder of tools, doorknobs and other bric-a-brac sits in a variety of forms of organization in their cabin, barn and shed near Perth, Ontario, filled to the nearly brim with the kinds of rural Ontario collecting that Hall himself has been doing for decades in his poems.
PITY WHAT IS LEFT OF US & OUR COUNTRY
as we dismantle & burn for cheap warmth
the guy-tropes he brought forward on his back
to get us here & past here
After finally seeing Phil Hall read, in Ottawa in August of 2005 at the TREE Reading Series, it stressed the importance of both ritual and found objects in Hall's writing and reading process. The reading even began with a ritual he has of placing small and otherwise ordinary enough objects on a table beside where he was to perform; if you were visit the family cottage in Perth, Ontario, you would discover the range of found objects that are organized throughout the property, from machine parts to a series of found photographs (one is on the cover of An Oak Hunch), and the collection of two complete decks (so far) of found playing cards. As he wrote in his piece "A poetics essay (rewritten)," posted on The Griffin Trust For Excellence in Poetry website:
I perform when I read. I care whether listeners have a good, provocative, magical time or not, so I try to ritualize & make sacred the time during which I share my work. For this, the text needs not to be sacred. It is a show, not a slide-show of the pages of a book.
Humour; storytelling; fetishism; the long, amateur, oral memory; call & response; repetition; reference to literary characters & traditions; all of those are part of
what I try to offer along with & in among poems and parts of poems.
One of my models for a good show is Bruce "Utah" Phillips who will mix a musical concert with Wobbly history & personal history, blending these with songs (his own & by others) toward a learning & lightening of the assembled group ― a chautauqua.
Such a list of things even appear in the title poem of the collection The Unsaid, writing:
When I look into Neruda's hunger
for collector's items
I see a splashed reflection
of my own magpiety
― not Voltaire's inkwell
or 'the only authentic Sphinx bone'
I starve for ― but folk oddments
my tribe's fetishes ―
half a doorknob, a bird's beak
a VIA Rail coat button, a carved wooden acorn
the vertebra of a Cretan fish
a token good for one loaf of bread
from L. Catlin Bakery
in Revelstoke B.C., 1936, a money clip
concealing a jack-knife & file
How does Hall make a list poem seem more than just a list? Responding to the presentation to the work in An Oak Hunch, poet and critic Ruth Roach Pierson starts her review of the book by writing:
What a complex, many-layered, rich work An Oak Hunch is. Should I confess my sense of inadequacy vis-à-vis this book up front? I think Phil Hall might. When I agreed to review this, his most recent volume of poems (the 15th if one counts the four chapbooks), I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. Initially I was somewhat baffled by the words on the page. But when I heard Hall read at my local Toronto bookstore (Another Story on Roncesvalles), I was captivated by this poet whose reading of his own work infuses it with heart and viscera. Turning off my pedantic 'demander-of-full-understanding brain' I began to hear the muscular musicality of the poems, to respond to their emotions. I was hooked.
After hearing him read myself, it would be very hard not to be hooked; Hall performs a very personal and warm welcome to his audience. For An Oak Hunch, the collection that marked his twentieth year publishing with Brick Books, the press release begins with:
Phil Hall’s aesthetic is like no other in this country. He remains every bit as much a “people’s poet” as Milton Acorn or Tom Wayman, but he loves the arcane and the experimental as well as the plain. His work reconciles these opposites, making him an experimental poet with a populist heart.
Unlike much of his previous work, the book received significant attention as part of the Griffin Prize Canadian shortlist, along with titles by compatriot Erin Mouré and Saskatoon poet Sylvia Legris (who went on to win); a shortlist that was called "risky by conventional poetry standards" by Patricia Robertson in The Globe and Mail. As CBC reporter Barbara Carey wrote:
If Nerve Squall is all electricity, Phil Hall's An Oak Hunch is like the scabby, weathered stump of an old tree, full of what Hall calls (in a typically striking phrase) "treasure knots in wood." In this ninth collection, the Toronto writer reinvents the poetic staple of personal anecdote by digging up the "sub-narratives" of a life growing up poor in rural Ontario. The poems encompass family history ("The Great Hunger had destroyed crop after / crop of my ancestors… I had to eat their stories to know them, had / to plant and plow under their little songs in mine") and tributes to other writers with whom Hall feels a kinship (in a poem about CanLit great Al Purdy, the wind in a cornfield is "the paper applause of an ancient voice"). Hall's poems are no picnic to read. They're densely knotted and halting (as he puts it, "Pain ― the sharpener / has attached a grindstone"). But their stunning metaphors make An Oak Hunch a strong contender.
In the piece "Reading Outside: Phil Hall" that he published in Calgary's weekly ffwd (Thursday, June 22, 2006), Calgary poet and critic derek beaulieu wrote of Phil Hall's still-recent tenure as writer-in-residence at Pierre Burton House in Dawson City, Yukon:
Phil Hall has never really considered himself a Canadian poet ― even to the point of writing that "Canada is dead" ― but his recent residency has partially shaken his "pretty disgruntled" feeling towards Canadian nationalism.
Hall argues that Ottawa forgets that much of Canada doesn’t look south to the United States for inspiration ― an opinion that was reinforced during his four-month stay at the Pierre Berton House (the former house of that most Canadian of authors) in Dawson City, Yukon. "Newfoundland looks to Ireland, and the majority of the films entered in the Dawson City Short Film Festival came from Scandinavia," he says.
Hall wanted to "go north," feeling that Canada needs to integrate a knowledge of its north into its sense of self, so that we are not satisfied to determine simply as "not American." He was embarrassed, then, to find his Canadian nationalism was bolstered when he looked out of the Pierre Burton House to see the former homes of the British-born Robert Service, and the American-born Jack London.
For all the Ontario gothic in the content, can we argue a placelessness in his language? Hall is very aware of language and place, but the difference is, he doesn’t let either of them get in the way, using them both as jumping off points and tools for exploration; to know Hall's references is to know enough to find them in his writing, to read so deep that they can't help but let themselves be found. Referencing the American poets Clayton Eshleman and Robert Duncan, both influences on the poetry of Phil Hall, beaulieu goes on to write:
Eshleman most famously has combined interests in poetry and archaeology into manuscripts that engage in "psychological cave-digging," while "Robert Duncan said that he had a primal base for intellect, not a studied one, and claimed that he had the advantage of starting with no talent at all."
"Eshleman spoke of his writing as a struggle, and his writing has evolved through physical work, psychological work ― his themes have changed and forms have evolved. I am drawn to the idea of poets having a failure book and a wonder book."
Hall is reticent to define his poetry around a single subject. "To base an entire poetics around subject is to enforce a false-ceiling ― its too limited," he says. Hall is more interested in the rhythms and patterns that can occur in self-exploration, which is where the idea of "auto-didacticism" enters into Hall's poetics. His poetry is constantly about trying to educate ― not just the reader, but the poet as well ― and he believes that in order to work on craft, a poet should learn to "listen more carefully."
Readers too, should learn to listen more carefully, especially those who walk into Hall's work with their minds made up, either missing or not comprehending whole threads of his Ontario gothic tapestry; what makes the language of work? Responding to an earlier draft of this piece in an email, Hall himself wrote:
What you say about Lisa Robertson & Tom Wayman is particularly interesting: the double & work writing etc. The double as in "Borges Y Yo" that great prose poem. The double also as in lost twin. Purdy & many other poets have guilt about surviving a twin in the womb, or in the early years. And the guilt makes them sing. As the source of my survivor guilt, I have the alternative me: I was almost named Wayne Aldred. And I was certainly not the son expected or wanted. To educate yourself out of your class leaves an extra body-shape with a void. Exile is a hole with your profile. Shame & Guilt are the names of my two great little speakers, interchangeably bass & treble. Thus Holly Phillips, my name pulled inside out like a glove, with the fingers left inside, phillopian tubes. Thus "a Mandelstam in Guthrie clothing." Thus killdeer & owl… The split focus. Remember in highschool how you had to scratch smoked glass twice and peer through to get the right strobe effect? Those two scratch-lines very close to each other, I see now, were I's: II. Two I's are better than one. Also, my disillusion with "the new work writing" (despite my admiration for Tom's poems & essays) resulted from two issues that gradually niggled. Although Wayman put a lot of effort into promoting his revelation about work as the lost subject for poems, I came to understand that it was personality based, that the subject was his alone ultimately. His converts have all drifted to their own regions, or stopped writing altogether after the work anthologies. Poetics-wise, the logic breaks down for me. To base a poetics on subject. A poem is too "over-determined," & its subject is the event of itself. Subject, I have come to see, is always linked to nostalgia. And nostalgia denies a poem its "first nation," drains it of current & current-ness, makes it a secondary event. If "The Oxford Book of English Verse" is full of secondary events starting with Ballads & Chaucer's Tales, it seems natural that the Double would appear, first as a storyteller acting as the mythic character, proceeding and shapechanging all the way to the dark presence of Lorca's "duende." Perhaps the Double is the spectre of the denied poem that poets have been pointing away from (back to events) down through the centuries.
In the end, Hall keeps two token birds: the killdeer, to distract us, and the magpie, doubling and teaming up against themselves as Hall keeps writing his endless collection of Ontario folk-tales, and working back and forth between himself. In another untitled poem from Forget Magazine, he references birds again, writing:
I'd like a bird to live on me
wouldn’t have to name it
Far from the roots of doors
in a grass-skirt—these same glasses
bestirred together (fromgether?)
by the landing-breeze of its claws
I'd spill food on myself to feed it—& feeding
it would clean me (that might feel good)
My brain the thumbprint on a window high up
I'd not look out from nor in through again
I'd stand & chew in the grip of its orbit
unable to put a face or place to my name
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Carey, Barbara. "Prize Fighters: Sizing up the Griffin Poetry Prize finalists." Toronto ON: April 7, 2006. www.cbc.ca/arts/books/griffin.html
Collis, Stephen. Phyllis Webb and the Common Good. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2007.
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________. An Oak Hunch. London ON: Brick Books, 2005.
________. Amanuensis. London ON: Brick Books, 1989.
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________. Eighteen Poems. Mexico City: Cyanamid, 1973; revised. Toronto ON: Beautiful Outlaw, 2005.
________. email dated February 3, 2007.
________. Hearthedral, A Folk-Hermetic. London ON: Brick Books, 1996.
________. Homes. Windsor ON: Black Moss Press, 1979.
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________. Old Enemy Juice. Kingston ON : Quarry Press, 1988.
________. The Bad Sequence. Toronto ON: BookThug, 2004.
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________. Unison-Light. Flat Singles Press, 1985.
________. “The Killdeer” New Westminster BC: Event – The Douglas College Review. Volume 33, Number 1, Summer 2004.
________. The Unsaid. London ON: Brick Books, 1992.
________. "Tillsonburg," Shop Talk. Vancouver BC: Pulp Press, 1985.
________. Trouble Sleeping. London ON: Brick Books, 2000.
________. Why I Haven’t Written. Ilderton ON: Brick Books, 1985.
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________. "out of narayan to bifrost/the word arresting entropy," Brick magazine, 1980.
Vaisius, Andrew. review of Hearthedral by Phil Hall, The Church Not Made With Hands by John Terpstra and Zhivago's Fire by Andrew Wreggitt. Winnipeg MB: Prairie Fire (summer 1998).
Wallace, Bronwen. Common Magic. Ottawa ON: Oberon Press, 1985.
Wayman, Tom. "Split Shift and After: Some Issues of the New Work Writing." A Country Not Considered: Canada, culture, work. Toronto ON: Anansi, 1993.
________. "Introduction: Ground Work." Inside Job: Essays on the New Work Writing. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 1983.
Webb, Phyllis. Hanging Fire. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1990.