Ken Babstock. Airstream Land Yacht. -

Ken Babstock. Airstream Land Yacht.

Patrick Warner
St. John’s, Newfoundland

Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2006, ISBN 0887847404

1 IN AIRSTREAM LAND YACHT, poet Ken Babstock builds on the successes of his two previous collections, Mean (1999) and Days Into Flatspin (2001). Readers familiar with his work will recognize immediately the author’s distinctive touch, as in these lines from the poem "Aurora Algonquin":I, or the vodka, stood recalling Mr. Marysak explaining
in Geography, rock’s rust-red tint as proof of iron-rich

seams when the pinned up cowl or hood of stars
didn’t collapse exactly but popped or blew a stitch;
a familiar seepage in weak-lit jades deepened, altered course

to crimson, and fell in successive tides from directly overhead
till that night entire became a darkroom developing
its notion of a thing outside the visible: pure in deed, and fed.

New readers will note his exuberant approach to language, his ease with form, and the vigour and threat in his diction. And yet, in this new collection, Babstock engages less viscerally with the sensory world; instead, he directs his energy toward consciousness and questions of perception. These are poems in which the rubber of thought meets the asphalt of fact, where fact is not what it seems and thought is more fixed than in flux. Time and again in this work, Babstock advances a position and then circles back to take the measure of it. Rhyme is both the anchor and the forward momentum in many of the poems, particularly those in the book’s first half. The poem "Windspeed" develops around a series of half rhymes that ripple outwards from the words "descent" and "air." The poem "Tarantella," an hilarious exercise in brinksmanship, is structured around finding half or quarter rhymes for the word "bordatella." In rapid succession, we get the rhymes, "rubella," "Nutella," "with Ella," "mortadella," "umbrella," "this fella," "and tell a," "l’angoscia delhora della," "Danny Aiello," and so on for another twelve lines.

2 "Sometimes making is just play, only that" says the speaker in "Found in a Sock Monkey Kit," the poem which follows "Tarantella." The converse of this statement is, of course, that play is sometimes more than just play. What Babstock does with rhyme both in "Windspeed" and in "Tarantella" offers a gentle introduction to a more radical technique: the use of spliced narratives and stream of consciousness. In a Nutella shell, he wants to see how far apart he can move the electrodes and still make a spark jump between them. The stream of consciousness he employs in "State Your Needs" shows the author pushing meaning to extremes and running the risk of alienating dedicated readers. As if anticipating their potential discomfort, however, he quickly follows up with a love poem, the beautiful "Marram Grass"; then in quick succession he offers one of the book’s strongest pieces, "Palindromic," in which he takes a chilly New Year’s Day walk while musing on the year just ended. Reading these crystal-clear quatrains, it occurred to me that this is how Joseph Brodsky might have written had he been a native English speaker.

3 Section II of the collection, "Stream," takes the movement established in the first section and drives it harder. After the exhilarating syntax of the opening poem, "As Effected By Klaus Berger’s Haircut, Whose Brainwaves His Father Recorded Inventing the EEG," we get "Engineer and Swan," a sonnet in rhyming couplets that left me scratching my head. He then softens the blow with "Pragmatist," before going full throttle for the next few pieces as he works his way up to "Subject, with Rhyme. Riding a Swell," less a poem than a language experience signalling the onset of a brain tumour. Again, as if sensing he has gone too far, he rounds on himself in an utterly charming poem, "The Brave," which begins as followsThat’s not what we liked. It wasn’t for us.
It was pinned to a stream. Ear-marked.
The arriviste mashed up with the avant-garde.
We didn’t go for that. That wasn’t us.

and goes on to lampoon both potential detractors of his method and the method itself: "Where / was the spit, the spark, the goatish / smell of the real?" "It’s about cutting out rot. About rigour. About / the men in acumen...." I found it hard to read this poem without hearing a broad Yorkshire accent. Change the "us" in the verse quoted above to ‘uz’, and I think you’ll hear the metaphorical Doc Martens of English poet Tony Harrison striking hard on the boards. In the next poem, "The Minds of Higher Animals," Babstock further takes the measure of his approach and seems to admit to exhaustion, of wanting "one end or the other end of this circus dead," a sentiment that reaches its full expression a few pages later in the poem "Ataraxia."

4 As a book, it is arguable that Airstream Land Yacht actually ends at around page 56. This is not to say that the book’s second half is lacking in strong poems. "The World’s Hub" may be Babstock’s finest poem; it shows what he can do when he transcends his self-consciousness about feeling and enters the subject of his poem, unleashing on it the considerable language his ruthless experimenting has won for him. "Hush a Mask" and "A Birth in the Stern" are also noteworthy, as is "The Largest Island off the Largest Island."

5 It is tempting to read the whole of Airstream Land Yacht as a palindrome. If it does function within this structure, it does so only in the loosest sense: the first half driving abstraction hard at the concrete world to watch sparks fly, and the second half reversing the trend and slowly returning the concrete world to its place of primacy. This is not to say that playfulness and experimentation are not present in sections III ("Land") and IV ("Yacht"); they are, but they are no longer in ascendancy. Rhyme is used less frequently as a superstructure. The image making is sharper, and the poet’s metaphors and similes are more closely tied to details of the physical world: "Whale / flukes northeast, once, like greens / spooned from a stew" and "Washers stare like squid from a silted / jam jar" (from "The Largest Island off the Largest Island"); "Sand flea’d kelp wigs blacken; braided / and crisp" (from "Jerome’s Rock").

6 The last half of the book also contains a few missteps: I found the poem "The Materialist" unconvincing and somewhat pat in its conclusions about the metaphysical. As well, perhaps as a consequence of keeping sentiment so much at bay, poems which move toward an embrace sometimes skid unchecked into the sentimental: the conclusions to both "Franconia" and the "Compatabilist" come to mind. On the subject of influence, if the acknowledged father of this collection is Wallace Stevens, another must surely be Paul Muldoon, whose stylistic presence is felt throughout. Sometimes the resemblance is uncomfortably close. Take these lines from "As Effected By Klaus Berger’s Haircut, Whose Brainwaves His Father Recorded Inventing the EEG,"and take up a place
in the burgeoning

of Burgeo, or Burlington,
or some other coven
of bourgeois ease,
where we might both ease

our gripes out to pasture
and await the immanent
blow to whatever
cranial region induces

the shiver that precedes
the blackness
that’s like blackness
in a Greyhound’s

window. No sound, just
the dimensions of that pane
delivering a bust
of you to yourself. "Have made I myself plain?"

Still, in a collection where achievement so often rises to meet ambition, these are relatively minor bones to pick. Muldoon as guide is probably a good choice if you’re going to try to walk on air. Babstock is a poet of such virtuosity that it is easy to underestimate what he is doing in any one poem. The peaks are so high that there is inevitably a sense of letdown between them. Airstream Land Yacht is a mesmerizing read, and it confirms Ken Babstock, once again, as one of Canada’s finest poets.

Newfoundland and Labrador Studies. ISSN: 1715-1430