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Surprise the Muse
In his poetic statement for Side/ lines: a new Canadian poetics, Stephen Cain writes that his personal metaphor for the poet is that of ‘cultural recombinator.’ Noting the ‘deluge of stimulus in late industrial capitalistic society;’ he suggests that the poet’s role ‘is to filter the gold from the dross and recombine the immensity of information into new aesthetic forms’ (52). Tom Conley, reviewing an earlier work by Cain, refers to him as a ‘mix master’ who ‘retains focus on the cultural background noise’ (Conley 104). What passes through Cain’s own poetic filter and cultural focus, is an intense intermingling of pop songs, advertising slogans, movie and literary references. Cain’s toying/ punning and love for the mix of high and low culture makes for transparent poems that can be mined over and over for meaning and sound.
Cain’s earlier works include Torontology, an idiosyncratic view of Toronto in the vein of book #5 of bp nichol’s Martyrology; and dyslexicon, a re-working of Gertrude Stein’s seminal poetic work Tender Buttons. His latest book American Standard/ Canada Dry uses the referencing typical of his work to consider the state of national politics and personal identity.
Although Cain has been categorized as a LANGUAGE poet by critics (and understands his placement there as an ‘easy short answer’, (mclennan 52)), he prefers to see himself as post-LANGUAGE since he is not as extreme in his rejection of conventional syntax or subject matter. Yet, like some LANGUAGE writers, Cain also imposes constraints on himself as a writer. Paradoxically he sees constraint as a way of ‘freeing up’ his writing ‘— it pushes you to think in different ways than your conventional writing style might dictate… by setting constraints you force yourself to bend to fit those rules and overcome the habitual writing patterns you develop’ (mclennan 53).
Constraints play a strong part in American Standard/ Canada Dry. Cain has divided the book into ten chapters, each containing ten poems in sequence, and within which the poet often plays with a ten lineation and word count. This is a subtle handling of form that is not instantly evident to the reader but successful as a restriction within which the writer can work. Cain is not dogmatic in his application of form; certain chapters do not follow the restrictions he has placed on others. ‘Borderblur,’ for example, consists of seven concrete poems. Cain’s use of constraint had mixed results in Torontology, where his use of movie titles seems occasionally forced. In American Standard/ Canada Dry, however, the formal construction of the book and its contents work, partially because it is a flexibly enforced rule and because with his third book Cain seems to be reaching a maturity. His use of humour points to this maturity.
Both the first and last poems echo the book’s title. ‘American Standard,’ at once humorous and insulting, it alludes to the name of the American-made toilets and urinals that are an ubiquitous part of many public buildings in Canada. The obvious scatological link with America is humorously provocative but the raw emotions that spill out over the ten sequential poems are meant as ‘a Howl style rant in response to increasing militarism’ (mclennan ‘poetics.ca’). The sixth section of ‘American Standard’ reflects Cain’s awareness of and outrage towards America’s violent interference in world politics:
survey sri lankans strip search civilians i object mr smith
wesson remington colt magnum smoke get it between your eyes
a swastika manson monroe so doctrinaire e pluribus gluteus maximus
circus bread sweet from sweat napalm napkins or death squad
ties guatemala to el salvador grenada dominican nicaraguan and cuban
Cain packs a great deal into ten words. As Paul Dutton suggests, Cain uses ‘words as double (or more) — hinged doors swinging in different directions’ (Dutton 26). A good example of this is the third line of the above partial stanza in which Cain alludes to Manson (as in Charles and Marilyn), Monroe (Marilyn again and also the Monroe Doctrine, a document which asserts American control over the western hemisphere) and a final Latin joke that hints at the line from the American great seal and roughly translates as ‘from many into one ass’ (reviewer’s translation). This is a witty and thrifty use of language and makes use of the resonances that each word carries.
Cain manipulates the sound of language as much as meaning. Sibilance, alliteration, beat and song are all part of his repertoire. The first two lines in the above sequence use both sibilance and alliteration in the repetition of s and soft c, and the wink toward the song Smoke Gets in Your Eyes after a short riff on gun names is a creative use of the lyric. Cain is as comfortable with the sound of words as with their double-jointed meanings and this confidence translates into a forceful opening poetic rant.
‘Arcadian Suite’ uses a construct that Cain employed with mixed success in Torontology. Instead of using movie titles as poem titles Cain uses the names of some of the earliest video games such as Pac-Man, Frogger and Donkey Kong. That this sequence wrestles with aspects of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project is clearly set out in the opening stanzas of ‘The Crystal Palace’ with a quote from Benjamin: ‘The arcade is a street of lascivious commerce only; it is wholly adapted to arousing desires’ (29). The poems that follow explore rampant consumerism, greed, and the thirst for violence and destruction that has characterized history and culture in the 20th century.
Each video-game name serves as a metaphor for the ills of society. ‘Pac-Man’ leads into a critique of the 80’s, the era’s gluttony and the need to ‘eat it all up’, whether drugs, money or people. ‘Asteroids’, though it may seem harmless in comparison to today’s sophisticated gaming tales of vengeance, war and destruction, acted as a precursor honing the physical ability of its player to kill or destroy with the push of a button. Cain points to this with word blends such as ‘360 degrees of death’ and ‘Armageddon equally insular’ (35). ‘Arcadian Suite’ is more straight-forward in its approach than some of the other sequences in the book. The lines are more open on the page with a greater use of white space, the language is less dense and playful, and the effect is less powerful, less humorous and less surprising. It would seem that Cain’s strength lies in his ability to play with the sound and flexibility of language.
The chapter ‘Borderblur’ is a delicious homage to the concrete poets, such as bp nichol and the affiliated group The Four Horsemen, that initially inspired Cain’s interest in writing and the visual text. Cain presents seven concrete poems that, respectively, blur the American/ Canadian relationship (‘Black Mountain’); the page (‘Jouissance’); the letter (‘Triptych’); the sentence (‘Window Wavering’); and the word as sign (‘The Anxiety of Influence’). The most playful is the last, which employs a magnified image of a jagged or rough letter A that, when added to the word ‘poet,’ becomes a smooth letter A. This is an inspired way of illustrating the poet’s ability to bring meaning to language, while, at the same time pointing to the impact of a single word. It is a treat to see an artist pay homage to this form with such creative wit.
The last poem, ‘Canada Dry,’ is a double twist on both the name of Canada’s ‘champagne of ginger-ales’ and the term a ‘Canada Dry text’ coined by Paul Fournel. Canada Dry, Fournel wrote, ‘may have bubbles but the drink isn’t champagne,’ as a text ‘may have the taste and colour of a restriction but isn’t a restriction’ (Cain ‘American’ 115). Cain refers to this term in an email interview conducted by rob mclennan: ‘the term ‘Canada Dry’ is, after all, an Oulipian technique in which the pieces appear to be written under a constraint but are actually ‘freely’ composed’ (mclennan ‘poetics.ca’). Why make a poem appear to use a form that it does not? In Cain’s case it is likely another joke on the reader but also a clever means of enticing the reader to re-read a work. Cain makes it appear that there is a pattern in the poem that the reader should be aware of, but when this proves false the poem becomes a puzzle. This forces the reader to reread and rework a poem. More so than other poems in this collection however, ‘Canada Dry’ would appear to be a nonsense poem, a jumble of found language except for the last two sentences:
For whatever else, poetry is free and dumb
And we have acquired the ways of strangers
The final line of this poem is the final sentence of the book, and it resonates with the question, ‘what are we and who are we?’ Who can the ‘strangers’ be in this case, but the Americans? On the cover of the book, the title is presented graphically in the form of an arithmetic equation with ‘Canada’ being the divisor, a red line as a division symbol, and ‘American’ being the dominant word or the dividend. The last sentence in this book plays with this same equation, for which there is no answer.
American Standard/ Canada Dry is the product of a emergent but maturing writer. Stephen Cain makes good use of his strengths, such as humour and love of the pun to celebrate and explore language, its sounds and meanings. In not fearing the usefulness of a poetic constraint and at the same time comfortable enough to throw it off when he chooses, Cain shows his growing confidence as a writer. More than in his previous books too, Cain celebrates the aspects of poetry and word that have inspired him as a writer and artist, such as concrete poetry.
Stephen Cain is always up for a good experiment or collaboration and recently has worked with a number of fellow sound poets such as Jay MillAr and Christian Bök. Cain’s desire to surprise the muse should be applauded, and likewise his wit. As he has said, ‘Experimental poetry without the humour is not worth the exertion’ (mclennan 54).
Bryden, Diana Fitzgerald. ‘Two Reviews — Rhea Tregeboy and Stephen Cain.’ The Danforth Review. 29 July 2005
Cain, Stephen. American Standard/ Canada Dry. Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2005.
———. dyslexicon. Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 1998.
———. Torontology. Toronto, ON: ECW Press, 2001.
Conley, Tim. ‘Cometology/ Torontology/ The Invisible World Is In Decline, Book V.’ Canadian Literature. 178 (2003): 104. 30 July 2005
Dutton, Paul. ‘Review: dyslexicon.’ Books in Canada. 28.3 (1999): 26. 30 July 2005
mclennan, rob. Side/ lines: a New Canadian Poetics. Toronto, ON: Insomniac Press, 2002.
———. ‘Stop and Go Slow.’ poetics.ca. 30 July 2005
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