Monday, August 06, 2007

Why I'm Not So Sad!: David W. McFadden's Poetry


I was up late last night reading and writing. My sons were also up late, watching Trailer Park Boys. It's the kind of series that T.S. Eliot would have written had he lived in rural Noval Scotia in a mobile home, assuming his friend Ezra woke up and got out of his car and helped him with plot.

I was also reading the extraordinary Why Are You So Sad?, David W. McFadden's selected poems, edited by Stuart Ross. (The link is to Amazon, right now, the Insomniac website doesn't seem to be working.) This book astounds me with the range of its invention, humour, humanity, compassion, description, self-aware sentimentality, insight, fun, and ability to take the form of the poem to surprising and startlingly creative places. I feel a mixture of joy, wonder, bemusement, sadness, incredulity, delight, exhilaration, recognition, and inspiration when reading McFadden's work.

When I think of formal invention, of exploring what language and the poem can do, I think of these poems: I see them as deeply inventive, as formally innovative, and structurally rich and surprising as anything I've seen in the traditional 'avant garde.' The formal structure is an important part of the 'meaning' of the poems. These are poems that are completely aware of their tone, imagery, structure, and their construction of place and persona and use even that awareness to deepen their philosophical, psychological, and emotion insight.

The selection ranges from all over McFadden's career, though it seems, less of the more recent work. Whenever the poems were written, they are startlingly fresh. They leap off the page with jaw-dropping humour, emotion, and insight. This book (and McFadden's poetic project as a whole) is a major achievement in Canadian poetry. He should be a shoe-in for the GG's, Griffin, and indeed the Drummer General's Award. We ought to notice a writer such as him.

You could say that I like this book.

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It’s hard to know which of McFadden's poems to cite here. Some are beautiful, some wicked, some funny, some clever, and some take you on a wild ride of invention. Or all of the above. I’d like to quote the entirety of a longer one, especially to show the play with structure. However, that’d require typing. Here are four shorter ones.

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I love how this first poem is able to be funny and compassionate at the same time. The guy in the poem is a nutcase but yet has very human yearnings, yearnings surely like the poet’s hope for his poems, or our own hopes for ourselves.

THE SEARCHLIGHT

He was well groomed and well dressed
and he stopped me on the street
and asked for a quarter.

When I gave him one he said:

I can draw power
from the ground
up through my legs
to make my heart
shine like a searchlight.


McFadden is a master of the fruitful leap from one stanza to the other. In his poems he often wishes for a pure path, a carefree release, a delight in the mystery, beauty, and it’s-so-simple-ness of the world. Yet of course, he’s self-aware and knows that it’s not so simple. The pleasure and simple joy of wishing is a pleasureable and simple joy in itself. Look! his heart shines like a searchlight!

LOVE’S GOLDEN SPLENDOR

A woman is reading a book called Love’s Golden Splendor
on the bus heading down to Pape station
and I look out the window and see a young man
pushing an old lady in a wheelchair, quickly,
for it is about to start raining.
Later, on the subway, there’s another woman
reading Love’s Golden Splendor, and a young
African woman, fashionably dressed, sits by herself
unself-consciously singing Billie Holiday songs.

My verses are subtle yet unschooled, amateur but never
didactic. The twentieth century means nothing to me.
This could be ninth-century China for all I care.
Everything is a myth. I’ve wound up all my affairs
and am about to put all my possessions in a boat
and push it out in the bay and sink it. We have never
taken a step out of eternity. I think it’s time
for you to come with me. Let’s just go
and let’s not know or even care where we’re going.


This is a beautiful poem which nevertheless, with a kind of complicated and bittersweet humour, reflects both the power and futility of art and memorials to stop actual events (in this case, war). Again it is a greatly compassionate little poem.

It also is a commentary on the poet’s (artist’s / person’s) wish to help, to believe in the power of art, and despite how little he can do, embodies his ability to inspire and to broaden our vision through his words, compassion, and humour.

IN HONOUR OF THE WOODY GUTHRIE MEMORIAL

Jan 20/68

At this moment in Viet Nam
as I write this the clear moon I imagine
shines down on one peaceful scene.
It’s night and the village sleeps.
Everything is quiet as the universe.
The moonlight lies everywhere
illuminating chance corners.

There was about to be an attack
but I’ve deflected it with this poem.



This last poem is a joke yet works on many levels. It pokes fun at Hardy's famous poem. It plays with McFadden's persona. It addresses the tiny funny revealing details of daily life. It is self-referential -- McFadden did call attention to this child's actions. And readers will remember McFadden. Not because he would notice the child's action, but that he would comment on it and comment on his observation of it with his particular wit. How are we going to be remembered after we die? We have our very human perspective, our point of view, our wish to be remembered for great things. Our wish to be remembered. Even this little poem, using the persona of 'McFadden' the writer, views the human condition with a droll and accepting compassion.

AFTER THOMAS HARDY’S “AFTERWARDS”

After I’m dead
& time
continues on without me
much as it did before I was born

a child will pick up
a piece of dog shit
& taste it

& someone will say Look!
McFadden was a man who
would have noticed that.

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