Taut and Dark - poetry of Guy Ewing

Coffee in a cup, mirror,
taut and dark, sky
broken by soundwaves,
our voices pushing
across the sea, gone.

Pick it up.
Put it down.

That's from "Four Poems In Three Movements" published in Hearing, and answering with music by Guy Ewing. It's a book of poetry I got as a gift from distant friends.

I like the "Pick it up. / Put it down." which is probably about the coffee or something mundane. To me, it sounds like somebody working, wearily, with pencil in hand... writing and wanting to rewrite but not sure....

The pacing and structure of
Coffee in a cup, mirror,
taut and dark, sky
leaves open the possibility that it is the sky that is dark and taut. It also suggests the surface of the coffee (the mirror) can be a microcosm of the world (the sky).

I don't understand the next bit

broken by soundwaves,
our voices pushing
across the sea, gone.

I just like it. Like the texture. Wonder what earlier drafts looked like. But I wonder why I think the wind was blowing. Why do I think there was dirt in the air?

I don't know Guy Ewing from Adam. The back cover of his book says he got his Ph.D and then went to work in literacy - kind of working his way down the social scale. (He'll be a traveling musician next.) That might be true, but Ewing is a poet and so not to be trusted. At least, not if you hold to Bringhurst's view of poets (These Poems) - blokes who'd say anything about their wife and kids just for the chance to say it well.

Some things he says very well. Everybody writes about the sky in the coffee cup. He's the first one I've seen call it "taut". I was immediately jealous. The phrase "scarves of clouds" stuck with me all day. The poem Above the Lake is about a great deal more, but I mostly just kept re-reading that one line.

There is a poem called Hard which I did not enjoy reading and will not read again. Sometimes poets need be more careful with their words. People can cut themselves plunging forward unawares.

Guy Ewing is an interesting sort. He told somebody at IDM (health promotion and population health) about teaching a "course called Knowledge, Literacy, Power." "In the dominant culture knowledge is associated with power and literacy with knowledge, " he said. In the course, "This notion is questioned." He also warned that "Best practices is a process rather than a particular set of how to do things."

You have to put the process in place and what you do will evolve for the better, because of the process and because of changing conditions. Best practices can be a trap - if you codify ways of doing things so they don't evolve that would be bad.

I'm not sure people inherently want recipes and lists but in environments where those become the basis for evaluation and the way the organization operates of course they want lists. The organization has to create an environment where people are freed up a bit - create a framework that's helpful without pushing people into stupid lists but a creative process, a process that has integrity.

There's a way in which you need a list though, because you forget things that you meant to address. That happened to me recently when doing some transcribing. The pieces that I transcribed lost track of certain questions that we wanted to look at.

Of his poetry he said, "I've been writing poetry seriously lately, after a long period of not writing poetry."

It's something I've now been able to do because of not being in an administrative job, which is quite draining and takes up your head space and doesn't allow for expression. A lot of administration and even advocacy work doesn't allow for expression, it's articulating and negotiating things on behalf of other people.

I think that's really interesting.

In another context he said, "Having worked for many years in adult literacy programs, I am struck by how difficult it can be to take ideas out of one discourse (mode of discussion) and put them into another." He gives then examples of well-educated professionals having difficulty communicating with adult learners who didn't share their vocabulary or background knowledge. But it made me think about the discourses of poetry vs. the discourses of administration - or blogging, for that matter.

"One has to have faith that robust ideas can be communicated in plain language," he writes, "and that, even without education, most adults are capable of complex thought."

That might be wishful thinking - that whole, most adults are capable of complex thought thing. Still, I appreciate his optimism. It's the same optimism that shows through the story behind his poem Teachers.

He'd had occasion to ask himself if there was a teacher or a mentor who might be proud of his work in literacy, and came up empty. It seemed to him that his stubborn hopefulness, his "belief that the love and hope that I share with my colleagues in the literacy movement is a powerful force in the world would have seemed naive and childish" to the teachers of his youth.

I wanted to tell them that they were wrong, that the dreaming naivete of children that they tried to stamp out of their students was wiser than their "manly" approach to life. I thought that they might understand if I used a dramatic piece of evidence for the power of love and hope, the story of a group of children in a Nazi concentration camp who lost their parents but who were able to survive, both physically and emotionally, by loving each other and keeping their collective hope alive. So I wrote this poem to my teachers, a few days after the workshop, to affirm the belief in the power of love and hope that has been an essential part of my experience as a literacy worker.


Under your tutelage,
I left the dreaming places
of my childhood,
became a man.

But I have
gone back.

How childish,
you would say,
to think that,
holding hands
with those I love,
I can surround
the darkness,
make it shrink until
its sides rejoin,

that songs
can silence fear.

If you were
still alive
I would tell you
how six children
of the Holocaust,
holding hands
in the dark
loving each other,
singing songs,

kept each other

died in old age,
dreaming of childish hands.

I'm not sure what I think of that poem. For me, the darkness does not seem to shrink. In his other pieces, there are many images of lake and forest and river and birdsong field, but the poems more often end in a dark alley or room or a broom closet or something. At times, the darkness has a luminosity:
Cold air, colder
fires of streetlamps
calling to stars.

The phrase "in a dome of shale" in Resurfacing stopped me completely. Resurfacing is an extraordinary poem. But often there is a closing darkness in the poetry that does not invite me. Or maybe Ewing's just braver than I. At times, re-reading, I skipped the last few lines.

Once in a while his ordinary, trustworthy, slightly evangelistic side shows through. The poems Learners and Wondering are familiar and charming, but also pulled me out of the book and back into my day job. The sentiment is real, but, just for a moment, the music faltered.

He also writes like a poet of the Toronto - Montreal corridor... all those voices Judith Rudakoff taught me to hear and copy and disdain and finally enjoy. His poems are sparse - more Mike Ondaatje than Leonard Cohen - and often too subtle for me. I like best the ones built oddly of workaday words, like a greenhouse tacked together with plastic and old slats.

On the beach,
two-by-fours lie criss-crossed,
lattice fallen onto a garden
of shells and stone.

Effective poems are like that - near accidental things piled beside the path that stop us for a moment. Makes us wonder something or nothing about us and the garden and the world.

No comments: