Days into Flatspin by Ken Babstock: “A Poetry Book Review”

Days into Flatspin is Ken Babstock’s extraordinary second collection and it reveals a poet in full flight, fearless and technically brilliant.

Diving into and then beyond what is seen, or the “coma of looking” as one poem calls it, Babstock veers into the inner core of things, animals, and places through portals that exist all around us…. And these are always entry points, always a means by which to go forward and further into… (cover overleaf).

The first time I read Days into Flatspin by Ken Babstock, the words rushed through my mind and over my lips: they raced. They carried a voice, dramatic and theatrical. It was easy to imagine Babstock, like poetry slam writer Taylor Mali, performing the poems (see May 2018 review: The Whetting Stone). I was carried by the force of words and rhythms and was left feeling disconcerted. Then I read Days into Flatspin again.

Reflecting on Babcock’s choice of words, I thought of Ursula LeGuin who wrote that words “transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it” (The Wave of the Mind). Babstock’s poems brim with energy and they clearly fed energy to me. But that addressed only part of my dilemma, which led me to Jane Hirshfield (please see Ten Windows). Hirshfield notes that “a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over….”

In Babstock’s second collection, his mastery of these skills – words that create action/energy and words that leave the door open for a remaining question – is clear from the outset. I looked closely at Babstock’s word choices and the work they were doing together.

The first poem titled “Carrying someone else’s infant past a cow in a field near Marmora, Ont.,” ends:

…What was I shown that I haven’t retained?
What peered back long before the cracked
bell of its name

This unknown (unknowable?) is also apparent in the second poem “Bottled Rabbit,” in which Babstock describes an image seen, alludes to a charcoal sketch by Cézanne, a CBC interviewer in Gander, Newfoundland, a play by Pinter, and his great-aunt’s kitchenette. But suddenly, the scene shifts: “The word wore down, thinned to a film on the air in the ear. Morning ate its hinge.” Once more, after the carefully constructed images and linkages Babstock provides, we leap into something surprisingly different from where the poem ostensibly was taking us. He draws us into what is seen but also unseen, what is felt, unknown, unsayable.

My favourite poem in Days into Flatspin, “The Painting on the Cover of Otherwise,”  seems to explain a bit about what drives so many of the poems in the collection toward unsettled feelings.  He begins with an image:

A small pond dug
into a footpath that bisects
a French garden. The neat
hedgerows bent, obey.

And then, he identifies what is missing, things like “wind…litter, heel-scuffs…a sparrow, anything.” Perhaps, like me, you will come away from reading the collection with a new awareness of the dichotomy between what is seen – how we often idealize it – and what is more deeply experienced through what lingers after the immediacy of the moment when we ponder the place “where hard edges slip…unclipped…beyond the vined wall that darkens the middle distance.”

This unfocused middle distance of mystery is what Ken Babstock discloses through a turn, a surprising glimpse that doesn’t provide an answer to our questions, but draws us to a deeper, elusive potential.

The writers among us will have heard Emily Dickinson’s instruction to “tell it slant.” Many will know LeGuin’s advice about making every word a choice; particularly poets will know that every word must work. We have probably also been told to reward readers for reading to the end, to provide a surprise, a twist, something that illuminates. Hirshfield’s suggestion to create a disconcerting disequilibrium is another consideration that pushes boundaries and borders.

Days into Flatspin achieves this triumvirate of advice. The poems begin with what we may each have experienced, but they take us beyond images, sounds, emotion into deeper, surprising places of heart and mind.

57 Days into Flatspin

In addition to Days into Flatspin (2001), Ken Babstock has published Mean (1999), Methodist Hatchet (2011; Winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, 2012), and On Malice (2014).

Available through your local bookstore or online: Days into Flatspin

Two Landscapes (The Cave by José Saramago)

Cipriano Algor is “A lover of proverbs, adages, maxims, and other popular sayings, one of those rare eccentrics who imagines he knows more than he was taught, would say that there’s something so fishy going on here, you can even see the fish’s tail.”

To say The Cave by José Saramago is brilliant would be mimicking others, as would saying it is a magical allegory, a unique story by a master storyteller (Nobel Prize for Literature winner), an insightful commentary on society’s shifts and the changing values placed on creators and those of commerce. It’s also an intimate story of one man’s life and dreams and the things he loves: his pottery; his daughter; his son-in-law; and a run-away dog called “Found;” his late wife; and (he has trouble admitting it) a widow he meets in the cemetery. The novel is witty and wise, brimming with aphorisms and wisdom; it made me smile and feel deeply for Saramago’s characters and the situation of their lives.

On the surface, we have a simple story about a generational pottery where utilitarian tableware is made using traditional techniques, where a drying rack and stone meditation bench stand in the shade of a mulberry tree on the outskirts of a rural village. The pots that Cipriano Algor creates are transported in an aged van to “The Center,” a walled full-service complex (residents never have to leave) beyond the rural village and a no-man’s-land of crime-riddled shanties, an industrial belt, and a so-called “green belt, which is not green but a wasteland of greenhouses. An artificial place cut off from nature. Saramago presents readers with two opposing landscapes.

Cipriano Algor does not want to move to The Centre, although circumstances weigh against him. But there are people who want to live in the spreading and towering complex where Cipriano Algor’s son-in-law, Marçal Gaucho, works as a security guard. Marçal’s parents are among those scheming to live in The Center. Tension develops as his promotion as a resident guard looms and the family’s move to the shopping-apartment complex becomes imminent. But other themes beyond the family’s dilemma—a socio-political-philosophical vein—runs through the story.

In The Cave, José Saramago explores—through the lives of this small group—what it means to create in a world that prefers plastic over pottery, a world where appearance is accepted as reality. It is a story of beliefs and humanity, of knowledge and feelings and how village values and life differ vastly from the narrow rigidity, the blindness of those we meet in The Centre and the impact of advertising and commercialism. Inside, reality is simulated. Residents find the artificial landscapes and “experiences” better than reality. As in Plato’s story of the same name, shadows are what people see and accept. Our protagonist, Cipriano Algor, ponders this blindness:

They say that landscape is a state of mind, that we see the outer landscape with our inner eye, but is that because those [citizens of The Centre] are unable to see these factories and these hangars, this smoke devouring the sky, this toxic dust, this never-ending mud, these layers of soot, yesterday’s rubbish… .

What we see (or don’t see), where and how we live, influence values and actions.

Saramago shares clues as to how complex and totally believable characters are created. He gives us a narrator to love and characters that experience contradictions, especially those contradictions between feelings, thoughts, and actions. This becomes clear when Cipriano Algor faces the widow Isaura Madruga, a distressing situation for both where time stands still and neither character speaks. Here, the narrator enters:

Something must be done. Yes, something, but not just anything. We could and should violate the orderly logic and discipline of the story, but we must never ever violate what constitutes the exclusive and essential character of a person, that is, his personality, his way of being, his own, unmistakable nature. A character can be full of contradictions, but never incoherent, and if we insist on this point it is because, contrary to what dictionaries may say, incoherence and contradiction are not synonymous. A person or character contradicts himself within the bounds of his own coherence, whereas incoherence, which, far more than contradiction, is a constant behavioural characteristic, resists contradiction, eliminates it, cannot stand to live with it.

The silence between the couple is broken and we are left with an enigma. For those “reading as writers,” we can enjoy a few clues to apply to our own thinking and stories from a master storyteller.

36 The Cave

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Cave