Friday, October 26, 2007

Poetry Friday/ Reader's Diary #305- Susan McMaster: Uncommon Prayer (FINISHED)

My taste in poetry has baffled even me lately. How can I praise experimental poets like Christian Bok, yet turn around and say that I'm a big fan of narrative poets like Al Purdy? Or go, with little difficulty, from reading e. e. cummings to an anthology of form poetry? No, I don't think I'm just ridiculously easy to please.

Finally, I think I've put my finger on it: as long as the poet is having fun, I'm happy. This doesn't mean I want all happy poems, I just want it to appear that the poet tried something creative, something personal perhaps but not too much so. This means that poems that are mere attempts at showing how much Greek literature the poet has read are out. As are those with subtle references to an unidentified tragedy involving certain people behind the you-know-where.

Whew! With that sort of a wind-up you must be wondering how Susan McMaster's Uncommon Prayer fares with me. For the most part, fine. She didn't commit any of the above offences and was usually pretty creative. Most fun for me were those that kept on a theme of prayer, especially for inanimate objects (ex. "How Chairs Pray", "How Computers Pray" and veering cleverly away slightly with "How Dandelions Prey"). She personifies them enough to express human desires, frustrations, and so forth in novel ways without giving the poem completely over to metaphor.

Asides from those, perhaps my favourite was "Out of the sleeping body dreams erupt" which takes its title from bpNichol's Martyrology. In it, she feels Nichol's ghost "slip kindly into" hers- and not in a sexual way either, but more as a costume of sorts:

shrug me on like a coat
hands reach into my sleeves
fingers sheath mine like gloves
Oh, you just have to love imagery like this, don't you?

Asides from that, I did think she went a little too far with the sentimentality at times with such phrases as "fear takes flight" or "I had to believe/ as you plunged behind the stars". Interestingly, I think she was most guilty of this when writing more personal poems than the ones in which she infused life into furniture! Still, I enjoyed the book a great deal.

The Old Man’s Chair

My lap yearns for your heat,
arms curve to reach you,
rigid joints relax
only when your humidities
fill the air around me,
sink damply into my fabric,
grease my back with sweat and oil.
When at last your jittering heels
have rubbed away my sheen,
flattened my nap,
scrubbed through to my supports –
Then, shabby, creaking,
I am finally fulfilled.
Embodied, I gleam.

From Uncommon Prayer (Quarry Press) © Susan McMaster, 1997.

From her website "Please feel free to use this poem in any personal, educational, or non-profit context." For this and other Susan McMaster poems click here.


Sara said...

For what it's worth, your "wind up" was like a poem for me. I'd title it "Behind the You-Know-Where." :)

McMaster's book sounds uncommonly interesting.

Anonymous said...

I love the chair poem. I'll have to check out more of her work to see what she's all about.

Heather said...

I can picture that chair in all its old man glory!

Andromeda Jazmon said...

This is a great find. I'll look for this book!

tanita✿davis said...

I love, too, that it's sensual but not sexual -- the imagery of being enfolded, both in the chair poem and the little snipped about the ghostly inhabitant. Really intriguing.

jama said...

Thanks for pointing me to a new poet. I'm going to sit in all the chairs in my house today, just in your honor.

Allison said...

Love that chair poem as well. Going to check out her website now.

John Mutford said...

Sara: That could be a fun poem to elaborate actually. You have my wheels turning.

Kelly: Her most popular book (and cd) seems to be Until The Light Bends which is still in print (Uncommon Prayer is not as far as I could find).

Heather: It occured to me as I reread it just now, that there's a little bit of transference going on in the poem, isn't there?

Tadmack: That's a good way of putting it.

Jama: I'm not sure if anyone's done that in my honour before. Thanks (I think).

Allison: There are other poems of hers available here.

Anonymous said...

John -- What a pleasure to come across this page (through fine and playful poet Max Middle) -- both the insightful review and the comments. Story: I wanted to entitle the whole book "How Chairs Pray" -- note the floating chair painting on the cover by Pat Durr -- but my publisher thought that was too obscure. I may reclaim the title though for a Selected Poems which should be out in a while from Black Moss Press. (For now, for books no longer available, I have my secret stores and am happy to sell direct at *very good* ((poet, that means)) prices.) And an interesting comment about "sentimental" lines in my tribute to Bronwen Wallace: you are quite right; I continue to revise that poem exactly in order to try and find the balance between emotion and metaphor that takes it into a more powerful space. I'm glad you like the bp poem "out of the sleeping body..."; there, I think I managed to do it.

John Mutford said...

Susan: I'm so glad you took the time to read and even respond to this. Knowing that an author might read one of my reviews is always a little nerve-racking! And for what it's worth, I think you were right about the original title.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I actually would have been sufficiently intrigued by a poetry book entitled How Chairs Pray to pick it up. I agree that Susan should go with her instincts on the next one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the feedback. I'm just starting to pull the Selected together, and will take your advice and group the How Chairs Pray poems together under that title. John, do you write poetry; have you published anything yet?

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Looks like our advice was taken to heart.

Susan: I'm really looking forward to the selected poems.

Oh, that question makes me nervous. Yes, I do write poetry and I've only published one. To be honest, I'm more than a little nervous (and lacking in confidence, I guess) about submitting anything. So, since you asked, any advice would be appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Hi again John, sorry to take so long to reply, just checked this site again today. I'd be glad to give advice; if you mean, on publishing, ask me specific questions. You might start with the League of Canadian Poets publications and advice for novice (meaning just beginning to publish) poets, available on their web site,, I think, or google it. Or, if you want other kinds of advice, let me know.

Anonymous said...

Oh, one other thing: I've been checking availability of my books on-line, and they are all available (except Dark Galaxies) from me, and more cheaply. Just email me,