Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Nervous City - Chris Pannell (Wolsak & Wynn)

Today's book of poetry:
A Nervous City.  Chris Pannell.  Wolsak and Wynn.  Hamilton, Ontario.  2013.

It was after I had read several poems.  It was a certain feeling, a particular sense of the familiar.  But I could not put my finger on it.  Then it occurred to me, Chris Pannell and I are the same age, we were both born in 1956.  And now it all makes sense, Chris Pannell is a GOM, just like me.  A grumpy old man tired of almost everyone and everything but still in love with it all.

The Snowmen of Suburbia

with their blowers
roaring in the winter sun
make clear
what has been obscured of the old asphalt world

meanwhile new talking heads
expand like balloons
and burst upon the topic of the new world
post-concrete, the new austerity, the new wealth,
the new style of getting things done
of dropping things off
for someone else
to do

haziness must surely be the fifth element
the eleventh commandment
the last mangy dog catcher of the apocalypse

the end of all old things
announced through the cold megaphone
of the way things
used to be


A Nervous City is built on a strong narrative drive, these poems are stories that we have all been through, things we have all seen or heard - but filtered through Pannell's voice we get to observe small moments of beauty in the rush of things, little victories that make the everyday tolerable.

The Three Fates

at ten minutes past moonlight
on Jackson East:  one squats and holds
a dingy white mutt                                on a long leash.

A second cocks her head over a cellphone
and paces, her skirt fluttering in the light on the corner.

The third:  on a city bench
rubs a vein in her arm, a discarded syringe glints -

She stares into the middle
distance, waiting for the bliss
to kick in.


And the defeats that haunt us all.

Pannell's world is populated with real people, being human.

I always love a good hockey poem and Pannell's twist on a chance meeting between his mother and the legendary Toronto hockey God Darryl Sittler is a good example:

When My Mother Met Darryl Sittler at the Supermarket

Hockey not being her hip check
or forte, and only because my sister was, at the time
extravagantly smitten with the sporting god of the day
my mother stayed calm when she saw Darryl Sittler
at the local IGA two weeks before the playoffs were to begin.

Cool as a goal judge
and a pound of butter in wax paper the only thing at hand -
she stickhandled her way up the aisle
around the tower of toilet paper on sale
the abandoned carts in a scrum
(Mom was a strong skater
a bit of elbow, some interference there -
she could always see a play before it developed.)

At last, in a shower of ice chips
she confronted the Leafs' captain
and handed him, as if he was the ref
the brick of butter, as cold as a puck.

Could you hold this for a sec?
while she rooted around in her purse for a pen.
Could you sign this for me please?
as if the heroic Sittler had become
the Dairy Department Manager
who could validate her parking
It's for my daughter actually.

              and that's where the story ended -
the butter was eaten
the wrapper kept, the Leafs lost in the playoffs -
except that in June, as my sister cleaned out her school locker
I heard her bragging to one of her linemates
about how she'd met Darryl at our house
the night we had all been
on a first-name basis.


A kind and gentle, even loving poem, with a sharp human twist at the end.  The exaggeration of the sister so purely played out you can hear the high school locker clang shut, the chatter of voices in a school hall between classes.

Chris Pannell is doing nothing new here, there is little in the way of experimentation, and for some that is cause for less serious attention.  I would argue the opposite.  Because these are strong narrative poems and easily accessible, immediately understood, I would contend this is poetry of the highest order.

I love it when the reader can fully engage in the text without fear of being ridiculed.  These poems are strong and unapologetic.  Mr. Pannell, who has published five previous books of poetry, gets my thanks and the final word:

A New Poem

is pristine, like a spring flower has colour
and life, not just potential

you all said you enjoyed what we did
call it a life, full of disputing
but agreeable
we stayed all night, past the dawn

drinking up words like beer and writing with our fingers
on any flat surface, crazy with vision

we wants novels
about the man in the armour
not his herald and standard-bearer, who are details merely
but ah, the innards
break open a poem, eat the nut like a bird

this is the writing life, as Annie Dillard said
take it or leave
the new poem behind for the sweeper
it's still yours.


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