Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Collection as Companion:
A Review of Darren Bifford's Wedding in Fire Country

Wedding in Fire Country
Darren Bifford
(Nightwood, 2012)

A disarming sincerity suffuses Darren Bifford’s debut collection. Or perhaps I should say
respecting the proverbial distance between poet and personaa disarming illusion of sincerity. In the case of this book, though, such hedging is hard. Much of Wedding in Fire Country takes no pains to distinguish the voice of the poems from Bifford himself, so that one continually feels witness to a young poet’s struggle to transfigure his richly lived experience into memorable art. The biographical details the paratext gives us—Bifford originally hails from Summerland, in the Okanagan Valley; he is married to a woman named Iris; they currently live in Montreal—end up informing our reception of the poems because so many of them take such facts as context, and thus encourage us not only to care about the poet’s life, but to invest in whatever degree of artistic distance he manages to achieve. Some poems initially read like merely skillful anecdotes, while others effect quite startling shifts into the surreal, and it is the interplay between these two poetics – earnest anecdotalism and searching aestheticism – that defines this collection: Bifford tells stories about his life while striving, as an artist, not to bore us with stories about his life.

The title poem succeeds at this in subtly stunning fashion. Its opening lines illustrate several key elements of Bifford’s poetics:

We pretend the water bombers are buffalo
bellying the lake, which they slurp sloppily.

Sloppily we suck at our beers and cut into
my father’s steaks. The fires in the mountains

are at first far enough away we don’t notice them.
The smoke they issue is barely distinguishable

from the white clouds, except by the way it gathers
instead of dissipates, as clouds will do after storms.

I am here and you are comfortably beside me.
We’ve flown to our wedding and everyone is coming.

In a Canadian poetic milieu increasingly enthralled with surface flash, this is refreshingly understated, with odd touches lifting it above the quotidian: the disjunctive comparison of water bombers (aircraft that take on water to fight forest fires) to buffalo (land animals), the appropriately sloppy repetition of “sloppily,” the minutely observed distinction the speaker makes between smoke and clouds. And yet the poem remains firmly rooted in experience, exhibiting a social warmth that radiates from the collection as a whole, a calm conviviality that lets us know the person behind these poems isn’t afraid to speak as himself, doesn’t feel the need to lacquer his work with artifice. Bifford places himself in a long line of writers—from Frost and Williams, to Kerouac and O’Hara, to someone like Charles Simic today—whose artistry partly consists in concealing their artistry, in fostering the illusion of straight talk.

This isn’t to say, however, that Wedding in Fire Country doesn’t sometimes lift into a more self-consciously poetic register. In fact, the moments when it does so stand among the book’s finest, effecting tonal shifts so gradually and subtly built up to that their arrival leaves us not only thrilling at their unexpectedness, but admiring Bifford’s skillful, restrained sense of pace. As the fifty-odd-line title poem continues, for example, the backdrop of encroaching forest fires casts a looming sense of menace over the titular wedding; rather than drift into darker territory, however, the reprieve of a summer shower (“Look, it’s raining! / This is a fine thing, considering the fires. Under the umbrella / you are huddled in your white fine dress”) exalts the speaker into a rapt inhabitation of the celebratory moment (“and our friends / are throwing wet confetti, and see!—there is my father / and your father joyous with one another”), leading into an absorbing poem-ending meditation on patrimony, matrimony, and the elemental nature of love:

I am the son of my father and you are the daughter of another.
There is a difference between us that is distinct from the troubles

of mountains and deer. Now here I am talking about deer.
We are distinct from the deer, who are the siblings

of the slender trees that are courted by the wind,
and when so courted, do not totally resist its ravishments.

The wind is close in kind to the breath of the sky,
which is all the extension but not the progeny of anything

other than itself. For the wind is the fury and the author
of the way your hair flirts by not staying in one place

but flits above your eyebrows and ears. I wish at this time
to be the courter of your hair and the comforter

of your whorled ears. For tonight we’ve sojourned
close in that place where the fire’s herd freely roams.

For a poem that begins almost prosaically to end so convincingly in the vatic mode is a feat in itself, but it’s the gradualness, the naturalness, with which the speaker comes to adopt the voice of seer that so impresses here. The sense of occasion Bifford builds through telling details over the poem’s first two-thirds makes this closing shift to a Shelleyan communion with nature feel, however improbably, earned. The poem convinces us that a man at his wedding, surrounded by loving family, apostrophizing his bride as forest fires smoulder, partly quelled by rain, in the distance, would utter these thoughts—or at least this man would. And yet for every element that asks us to take this seriously as a meditative flight—the copious alliterative repetitions (daughter/ difference/distinct/deer/distinct/deer, wind/wind/wind) and pairings (flirt/flit, courter/ comforter), the lush diction (slender, courted, ravishments, whorled, sojourned), and the animistic personification of nature (“the breath of the sky”)—there are aspects that undercut this Romantic seriousness: the way the long lines stilt the visionary momentum, for example, or the stiff phrasings their length seems to encourage (“There is a difference between us that is distinct,” “I wish at this time”), or the speaker’s second-guessing of himself, as if half-ashamed of his rhapsody’s indulgence (“Now here I am talking about deer”). Here and frequently throughout the collection Bifford keeps us intrigued as to whether he’s impervious to postmodern irony or subtly embodying it.

The book’s longest pieces—especially the title poem and “Near Coral I Listen for Trains” (one of a strong trio of poems selected over at Joyland Poetry)—are among its clearest highlights, with their wide loping lines allowing Bifford the space to effect the subtle conceptual and tonal shifts at which he is already so adept. So fascinating is the mind on display in these longer pieces that I could readily imagine this version of Bifford producing a book-length meditative poem along the lines of A.R. Ammons’s Sphere or Garbage. (I’d read it.) The shorter lyrics in Wedding in Fire Country present a different Bifford, one less given to the absurdist turns and metaphysical speculations that lend the longer poems their moments of greatest uplift, yet at the same time a more focused and intimate poet. This sense of intimacy arises not just out of so many of the poems’ apparent biographical sincerity, but out of the warmth and intensity with which they dialogue with other writers. Bifford has clearly studied his craft with reverence, and like many debut collections, Wedding in Fire Country teems with intertexts; authors cited in epigraphs, apostrophized, or otherwise referenced include: Robert Lowell (twice), Walt Whitman (twice), William Faulkner, Robert Kroetsch, Charles Simic, the Beats, and most crucially, Czeslaw Milosz—who is addressed at length in the nine-poem epistolary sequence “Letters to Milosz,” the first of which illustrates Bifford’s short-lyric technique at its most forceful:

A circus swaggers into town. Its tents
flop down like the lopped-off ears of giants.
Stink smears the air, spreads like a rash:
elephant shit and elephant skin, smells
of lions and tigers in crated dens. Shriners
go dwarfed under red dummy hats,
trace circles around the stage in their golf carts.
All’s a bestiary parcelled into tricks and danger
for a kid’s vacant imagination, who stares
and slops hot toffee into his mouth.
Smoke pilfers a darkening purple sky
and disappears through a hole in the sky.
What isn’t here for you, Milosz? Either
we despair or we forget about it. Forget about it.

This poem leaves us with pregnant questions, most immediately: Why does the speaker turn from this circus to address Milosz? Is the circus an extended metaphor for the carnivalesque human condition amid a culture of spectacle, environmental degradation, and interspecies exploitation? Is Milosz, then—whose poetic reputation is inextricably bound up with his perceived status as a moral authority—being appealed to by the speaker as someone with the capacity to perceive what is missing from this empty extravaganza? At no point in the sequence is it ever entirely clear why Milosz in particular is being addressed, but like the above example, all nine poems impress with their imaginative vividness, their descriptive precision, and the speaker’s authentic-seeming confrontation with feeling existentially bedazzled by the world’s crush and clamour. Which is not to deny that I find certain of the poems’ aspects problematic. In the above piece, for example, I can’t fathom why Bifford chose to end two consecutive lines with “sky,” except perhaps to prepare us visually and aurally for the repetition that ends the poem. In that latter instance, though, the fact that “forget about it” registers in two different modes—first declarative, then imperative—makes it incredibly effective, while the repetition of “sky” just feels clunky. On the other hand, anyone who has read Wedding in Fire Country in its impressive entirety will trust that Bifford knows this, and that for some thought-out (but inaccessible, at least to me) reason, he consciously chose to risk that clunkiness. 

I could offer similar caveats to most of the reservations I may have about the collection. Take the poem “Late Summer,” for instance:

Once in a kitchen I was most of the night
at the refrigerator stacking beers and the party
kept going on. Thus, early in the morning,
I also was dancing. That August
would not stop being exactly itself: turning
back around and stopping at the house for dinner,
always the same dinner: chicken, steaks, peppers
grilled well in olive oil, plus beers so that now
when I think about things it’s blurry
what we did and where we were. Tennis,
sure, and I’ll continue to be very poor at playing
against you as the great dusk north of the city lapses
our last serve, volley, and its all-night again
and everyone is staying in.

To paraphrase Randall Jarrell’s criticism of Auden’s later work: the poetic pressure here is not high. This poem is anecdotal, lacks sonic torque, and contains virtually no figurative language (though there may be an implicit personification in the “lapsing” of the “great dusk”). On the other hand, there are only a few such poems in Wedding in Fire Country, and they all serve to pace and diversify the collection, relieving the tensile energy of the many more forceful metaphoric and rhetorical performances—as if the book were a body in motion, muscles contracting and relaxing in necessary rhythm. My initially indifferent response says as much about the poetic milieu in which I am entrenched as it does about the quality of “Late Summer.” Just as I agree less and less with Jarrell’s ungenerous assessment of later Auden, I find myself more and more wary of how transient parochial fashions influence my own critical sensibility. In other words: Does the "poetic pressure” always need to be “high”? Many Canadian poets of Bifford’s generation and younger (it's my generation too—he was born in 1977, I in 1978) have been tending to favour a kind of surrealism-lite: wry, off-kilter, never too serious, clever rather than strictly intelligent, favouring associative leaps over sustained development, often wedded to sonic strategies that virtually fetishize a Hopkinsesque coiled sonic tension, and rarely favouring a common word when a baroque one can be rooted out. This line of development has produced some excellent work (and will doubtless continue to do so), but we’re approaching the point where what may have once been innovation risks ossifying into mere fashion. We can’t ignore the fact that many of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century—Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Moore, Millay, Riding, Auden, Bishop, Layton, Page, Merrill, Walcott, Ashbery, Hill, Plath, Heaney, Muldoon, Duffy (to rattle off a quick and incomplete personal canon)—often pursue virtually opposite aesthetic strategies to those listed above, and still have an infinitude to teach us. This touches on part of what so distinguishes Wedding in Fire Country, and makes it one of the most refreshing and interesting books I’ve read this year: it is resolutely unfashionable, presenting instead a young poet mapping out and bouncing off his own personal canon, one that includes some important voices—Robert Creeley, for instance, or even Jack Kerouac—that are resolutely out of vogue among our younger poets, especially in the eastern half of the country. Now I’m not claiming that “Late Summer” is a particularly strong poem—in fact it’s probably the least strong in the book—but I’d never describe it as “weak” either. Besides its pacemaking function, it does have its virtues, managing to convey quite lucidly a particular stage and style of living without lapsing into saccharine nostalgia, and exhibiting the same refreshing attention to friendship, food (plus beer—a man after my own heart!), and simple human enjoyment that also enlivens many of the collection’s more powerful pieces.

I’ve repeatedly emphasized the impression of sincerity, authenticity, and intimacy one gets from Wedding in Fire Country. Though this is accurate, it’s not the entire story. Along with the many epistles, apostrophes, and slices of biography that make up the bulk of the collection, there are a solid handful of dramatic monologues, including the poem that first introduced me to Bifford, “Wolf Hunter,” which won the Malahat Review’s Far Horizons Award for poetry in 2010, and served as the title poem for his Cactus Press chapbook later that year. It’s a remarkable poem which, though it wavers slightly in voice somewhere between the colloquialism of the hunter (“Fuel runs low / and we gotta be back before dark”) and a more self-consciously poetic speaker (“time like a room we enter / together, a second or so before I pull the trigger”), convincingly thrusts us into the unsettling (and increasingly unsettled) perspective of a man hunting a helpless wolf from a plane. The companion piece, “Wolf Hunted,” though just as deft perspective-wise, fails to fully convince because it is written in virtually the same voice as “Wolf Hunter.” I find it difficult to accept, for example, that while frantically running from the “relentless stutter” of a looming plane, a wolf would observe with such equanimity: “The treeline, possible / cover, thick lodgepole pine (where I aim this sprint), / is like dark water stood on end.” On the other hand, that last simile is one of many smart, arresting moments in the poem—so what I’ve identified as its shortcoming is more an aesthetic choice I fail to relate to, one which raises theoretical issues about the dramatic monologue as a genre that extend well beyond Bifford’s work. For me, the pleasure of reading the form’s master practitioners, from Robert Browning to Carol Ann Duffy, largely derives from witnessing them not just inhabit a exterior perspective, but adopt a voice to match it. “Andrea del Sarto” sounds nothing like “Caliban upon Setebos,” and for good reason: one is delivered by an eloquent Renaissance painter wracked with professional and erotic jealousy he’s trying to suppress, while the other issues in a guttural first-person-pronoun-less spew from a subhuman creature musing on his monstrous god. Even Ted Hughes in “Hawk Roosting” (perhaps the most immediate forebear of “Wolf Hunted”) uses vocal poise not as a default, but to ironically convey the utter yet deluded assurance the hawk feels in its own supremacy (“Nothing has changed since I began. / My eye has permitted no change. / I am going to keep things like this.”). In “Wodwo,” on the other hand, Hughes adopts a much less rooted voice for his nosing forest creature (“Do these weeds / know me and name me to each other have they / seen me before, do I fit in their world?”). If I seem to be holding Bifford up to an awfully high standard here—and it’s not just him: I had a similar issue with the monologues in the first section of Amanda Jernigan’s otherwise amazing debut Groundwork—please know that I’m doing so because his writing warrants such respect (as does hers). Furthermore, Bifford proves himself more than capable of deft ventriloquism elsewhere in Wedding in Fire Country: in a series of three poems spoken from the challenging perspective of Faulkner’s Dewey Dell, for instance, or more subtly in the eight-line gem “Nightmare”:

What is that knocking, mother?
It’s the wind’s knuckles rapping at the window, my son.

What is that squeaking, mother?
That’s the procession of the mice within the walls, my son.

What is that rotting in the basement, mother?
Those are harvest apples in a bucket, my son.

Who are the men crouching at the door, mother?
They are my friends, my son. And they’re coming.

Not until we reach the end of this deliciously sinister poem do we realize that the “mother” is in fact the “nightmare” of the title, and that the “friends” who are “coming” are likely monstrous manifestations of the terror such bad dreams bring. But Bifford isn’t just giving voice to a fearful abstraction here; he’s ventriloquizing a whole tradition of macabre call-and-response poems, from the anonymous Early Modern ballad “Lord Randal”—

“O where ha you been, Lord Randal, my son?
And where ha you been, my handsome young man?”
“I ha been at the greenwood; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I'm wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie down.”

—which ends with the young lord poisoned by his lover, to Auden’s “O What Is That Sound”—

O what is that sound which so thrills the ear
      Down in the valley drumming, drumming?
Only the scarlet soldiers, dear,
          The soldiers coming.

—which ends with the first lover abandoning the second to execution by the soldiers who will soon burst through the door. That Bifford’s entry into this tradition feels both deliberate and utterly at home in Wedding in Fire Country testifies to how skillfully he has paced and ordered the collection so as to allow it to accommodate a great diversity of approaches (a diversity to which I cannot do justice even in this fairly lengthy review) while somehow feeling all the more unified for its scattershot approach. If urged to explain this paradox, I’d say that Bifford’s engagements with so many forms, voices, and traditions rarely feel programmatic—that is, they rarely strike one as abortive “experiments” but rather as considered, mature, fully realized undertakings—and so one is consistently left with the impression of authenticity to which I’ve so often alluded here. Reading this collection, I feel communicated with, and indeed, carrying it around for several weeks to dip into during my spare moments, I came to feel companionate towards it, as though the poems’ frequent depictions of people enjoying each other’s company had bled into my consciousness, tingeing my worldview with its sociability. I suspect that Wedding in Fire Country will have a similar effect on anyone who spends some real time with it, and I heartily recommend doing so.