The Gross & Fine Geography/New & Selected Poems. Stephen Bett. Salmon Poetry. Cliffs of Moher, County Clare. Ireland. 2015.
"At 180 pages and in the fluorescent coat of many colours - in this corner, author of 20 books and counting - Stephen Bett, linguistic gymnast and parable prognosticator."
This is heavyweight stuff. Bett comes out of his corner swinging. These poems are the onslaught of a simply unrelenting force.
You can't pin Bett down because he comes at you from all angles. These poems start on a terrain that might have employed the beautiful ramblings of an Allen Ginsberg but before you blink the carved in stone and coming straight ahead voice of Today's book of poetry hero Saint Raymond of Carver.
Preparation for a Gift
How true it is that we need to be
close to the brink of language when
we speak now. I recall saying to you
at the time I read them
how acute John Ashbery's remarks on
Pollack were. That the 'excitement'
lies with the 'very real possibility'
of the work coming to nothing (the 'random
splashes of a careless housepainter').
I watched on film how he would
tack his unstretched canvas on the ground
and walk around it choosing from various
cans of paint; not systemically, it seemed,
and certainly not according to the fixed laws
of ritual -- or even chance (that being an art
both the body and will surely deny). But simply
because a particular color was at hand
to what he was doing; whereupon the
success or failure must lie right
at the heart of his having chosen
to do it that way at all. It cannot be
done over. And seeing that, he must have had
a tremendous faith in his materials to go a-
long with his own equally determined and supple
contortions. I mean the ability of the paint to
fall where it will find least resistance, and of
the canvas to absorb it there. (I wanted to call
such faith "ambition," and -- if it could be
divested of the vulgarity of systems --
relate it to a program for language.
Then I'd offer it to you
in place of tedious conversation;
difficult to rely on, perhaps,
but significant in its intractable resolve.
Of course Today's book of poetry is working with a limited palette of descriptors. Of course Bett is nothing like Ginsberg or Carver except when he is. "Preparation for a Gift" pretty much says it all about Stephen Bett's intentions. This poem starts off The Gross & Fine Geography/New &Selected Poems, a statement of purpose writ large. Then Bett puts his foot down and steamrolls us through thirty-one years with his gargantuan and generous voice.
Bett is never confined to one particular style or form. His engine runs on whatever fuel is handy.
The Gross & Fine Geography
The gross & fine geography
of our hearts
Bett knows how to be a sweetheart and a lovely jazz rat, his tribute to Bobo Stenson touched our hearts here at Today's book of poetry. We'd like Bett to know that today was a Dexter Gordon day in the Today's book of poetry offices. Any collection of poetry that contains poems about/to Pat Metheny or Bill Frisell is going to win hearts and save lives at Today's book of poetry.
The Gross & Fine Geography is a book worthy of all your attention. Bett has published a zillion books in that under the radar style so many Canadian poets have been forced to embrace but this book should address that. Bett burns with the best.
Back Principles (58):
more than life itself
Your breath like some
kind of long
wind on his
Shake him closer
The christ love
& buddha love
Get him there
You say to him
I love you more
than life itself
It is miracle
The Divine lives
here, call it
what you will
Though we are in-
the path just
Grace, music and beauty along with a few moments of quiet desperation, The Gross & Fine Geography changes gears more than a few times and it is an exciting ride all the way through this rambling taster from Bett's previous 19 books. Today's book of poetry is convinced it is a menu you will enjoy.
ABOUT THE AUTHORStephen Bett is a widely and internationally published Canadian poet. His earlier work is known for its sassy, edgy, hip… caustic wit―indeed, for the askance look of the serious satirist… skewering what he calls the ‘vapid monoculture’ of our times. His more recent books have been called an incredible accomplishment for their authentic minimalist subtlety. Many are tightly sequenced book-length ‘serial’ poems, which allow for a rich echoing of cadence and image, building a wonderfully subtle, nuanced music. Bett follows in the avant tradition of Don Allen’s New American Poets. Hence the mandate for Simon Fraser University’s “Contemporary Literature Collection” to purchase and archive his “personal papers” for scholarly use. He is recently retired after a 31-year teaching career largely at Langara College in Vancouver, and now lives with his wife Katie in Victoria, BC.
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