Tuesday, May 15, 2012


rob mclennan Reviews

Killdeer by Phil Hall
(BookThug Department of Critical Thought No. 4, Toronto, 2011)

Our national bird – for years – was – as A M Klein said –
the rocking chair

I don't know what our national bird is now – but my totem bird is
the killdeer

Its names – odd mannerisms – & cry – explain bits about me – in
            “A Thin Plea”

Published as a collection of “essay-poems” as the fourth title in BookThug's Department of Critical Thought comes Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall's Killdeer (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2011), which went on to win the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. In an essay a few years ago, published in my subverting the lyric: essays (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2008), I talked about the thread of the Killdeer that wanders through some three decades of Hall's poetry, so the fact that Hall would admit the Killdeer as his “token bird” in this collection is an interesting thing, taking the bird from a trace to a focus. One of the features of the Killdeer, a medium-sized Plover, is its deception, distracting predators with a fake “broken wing” away from hidden nests. Hall might not be working deception, but distraction, perhaps, writing poems that require strict and careful attention, so as not to miss an essential point, distracted by an otherwise line of broken wings.

Since moving back full-time into rural Ontario from his Toronto base a couple of years ago, Hall's poetry has evolved to re-embrace the positive about rural spaces, looking positively in both directions, and far less dark than some of his previous references to rural spaces. His rural evolution has come through the books, working from the Griffin-nominated An Oak Hunch (London ON: Brick Books, 2005) through to White Porcupine (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2007) and The Little Seamstress (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2010), with the latter seeming to be his first Perth collection. The shifts in his writing seem even deeper, when one recalls the dark content of childhood abuse in his collection Trouble Sleeping (London ON: Brick Books, 2000), to the opening lines of the first poem of Killdeer, “Adios Polka,” that writes, “Whenever I get lost / Ontario does not wound me.” At the same time, what could be read as distance between two points, could simply be nothing contradictory in the least. It was in fact Ontario itself, which never wounded him.
When Layton says – in the last line of The Bull Calf – I turned away
and wept

He is flaunting an emtional – sexual – poetic – & political

He is pointing to his own larger – freer – feeling – the line is
theatre – not truth

We may think we have broken through the sentimental – into a
raw & beautiful truth

The unsayable zinger feels like health – transgression is vitalizing

Startling – quotable – epigraphic – but the truth is always more

Or sight-to-the-blind simple – as in Basho

Plop – or cow plop
            “The Small Sacrifice”

Killdeer exists as a collection of sequence-essays, twelve in total, with smaller pieces bookending the pieces, writing on becoming a poet, visiting the writer Margaret Lawrence, on Nicky Drumbolis' infamous Letters Bookshop, Bronwen Wallace (for a conference on her work), Daniel Jones and Libby Scheier, as well as numerous other threads, directives, insights and passages that meander along almost folksy byways. A number of the pieces have appeared previously over the years as, among other places, an essay for AngelHousePress, and chapbooks through above/ground press and BookThug, reappearing here in much altered forms. Much like Prince George, British Columbia poet Barry McKinnon, Hall's response to any request for an essay or other writing is to compose a poem, and both writers have slipped such pieces throughout their poetry collections, so it becomes interesting to see Hall become more overt in his admission of just what these pieces include. It's an idea Hall shares with his friend and contemporary Erin Mouré, that poetry and essays don't need to be separate entities, and can often be their best thinking form.

Many forget that Hall and Mouré started out in Vancouver as “work poets” alongside Tom Wayman and Kate Braid, both now part of a consideration of “work poetry” that might not include the straight narratives of Wayman (I've seen essays by Wayman that rail against “language” poetry, even as he proclaims the worthiness of “work writing”), but include, instead, a healthy blending of both “work” and “language” writing, forms also explored by west coast poets including Jeff Derksen, Stephen Collis, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Peter Culley and Aaron Vidaver.

There is a comfortable ease and delightful curiosity to Hall's writing, generally, moving slowly through a dozen provocative essays in his considerations of how one exists in writing, amid friends, influences and contemporaries, and in the larger world, each circle larger than the previous. In many ways, Phil Hall might be Canada's only worthy “folk poet,” encompassing the best of what folk art is meant to be, self-taught and working-class, as he carves poems from a collage of phrases, lines and stanzas, while still managing to produce a highly-crafted “high” art.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

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