Phil Hall, Two Works
Guthrie Clothing: The Poetry of Phil Hall, a Selected Collage
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015
86 pages, $18.99
and An Egregore
Apt. 9 Press, 2017
15 pages, $10.
Outlying Lyric Poems & “a Kroetsch homage”: Two publications of Phil Hall’s Assemblage
Rev. by Joseph LaBine
Phil Hall won the 2011 Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the 2012 Trillium Award for his collection of essay-poems Killdeer. Hall typically works in longer forms, weaving intricate sequences, stitching together lines, all towards rural-Ontario, folk-art poetics. This is certainly true of his two most recent trade books, Conjugation (BookThug 2016) and The Small Nouns Crying Faith (BookThug 2013). But Guthrie Clothing his “selected poems” and the recent chapbook, An Egregore, are at the heart of Hall’s assemblage driven artistic practice. In these two publications Hall uses the collage form to meditate on what he calls “outlying lyric poems.” These long poems embody their own assemblage, the writer’s process, as internal history. Guthrie Clothing is a reshuffle, and collage-selection, spanning over forty years of published work. It is comprised solely of fragments from earlier poetry books; but these are used as found materials, pulled apart, and then rearranged. An Egregore probes the singular influence of Robert Kroetsch while inviting the reader into the long form process with an open call. Hall reassembles his poetic lineage in both books as new works of homage.
Guthrie Clothing is a new sequence. Hall reworks lines, stanzas, and poem-fragments, patterning everything into a fresh structure. In this patchwork / quilted sequence, small plays on words and language are sewn in with hard anecdotes. Hard poems about abuse such as “Fletched” (from Small Nouns) appear without titles as part of the one-poem: what rob mclennan correctly refers to in his introduction as “a selected poem” (xiii). The book is still a sample of Hall’s vintage poems and best work: “(Bronwen Wallace),” “My father said,” “If I have to hear one more time / about the light from the star that’s dead,” “(for Men Against Rape)” (9, 4, 25, 2); but these bright embers from previous collections are no longer presented in a linear way. Distance between words, the juxtaposition of new and old material, small groupings of text separated by an x, the image of Hall’s well-loved denim jacket, all enrich the poem by opening it up. Gaps allow for two readings: one that would focus on history, category, and anecdote, versus a second, wider story, leaping from past to present and back with new insight as the reader moves across, up, down, and between patches.
The objective of Guthrie Clothing is to upset order and purpose, and to such a degree, that the reader finds something eternal within the poems:
What the topsoil tells the hand the hand tells a pencil
a pencil tells type type tells a program a program tells brains
brains tell the gods & the gods tell topsoil:
feed the pinch or the swell (32)
The cyclical style of this selected nearly elides all argument and the theses of previous books. Hall is at his most poetic, closest to each fragment’s essential truth.
The collage is a unique contribution to the Laurier Poetry Series. The one-poem is bookended by two musical bluegrass pieces. The book includes two visual “Self-Portraits” (55, 56). And in keeping with the collage theme of the text, the cover is itself a collage Hall has fashioned from the ripped up covers of Homes (1979), A Minor Operation (1983), and Why I Haven’t Written (1985). The short “Biographical Note” and mclennan’s opening essay provide some critical context. Both these efforts leave much room for future exploration and commentary. The afterword contains, “To See It All & Not Be Weary,” a new essay-poem by Hall. Here he argues against irony from a rural perspective that amounts to a defense or Hall’s own ‘art of poetry’, based on four-plus decades of bricolage. He discusses influences, literary and local; irony, form, and poetic philosophy; he writes of rural Ontario:
I rely on internet access here in the bush too
Maybe there is no rural even in the rural anymore
To be flawed-gone utterly into my only into my into only
Hereby to take the old pen-route out of my out of only
Toward the music of us all who-all (66, 67)
The final coda of Guthrie Clothing is musicality (like the music of Woodie Guthrie himself) with emphasis on the sound of words, the use of language, toward the music of us all.
In An Egregore, a recent folio-chapbook published by Apt. 9 Press, Hall ruminates on and demonstrates assemblage art in long form poetry:
The long poem a good parent
is not about perfection but integrity
there are favourites absences
but no losers
This new ten-part poem, written at the 2016 Sage Hill writing retreat in Saskatchewan, is a meditation on long poems, lineage, and self-reflection (was it). Hall writes from his own experience with “the old gathering impulse” (19)[*] in a clear, self-aware style with over 30 years of experience as a collage maker and assemblage artist. He alternates his spacing carefully, as with the Guthrie Clothing patches above, each clump of text is delicately tamped into place.
Borne out of a “collective presence” (the atmosphere at Sage Hill), An Egregore is Hall’s homage to Robert Kroetsch—who is referred to as “K” throughout. Hall says, “I am trying to open-call Process as K does” (11). His tribute includes a beautiful recollection of standing in a parking lot with Kroetsch as they listen to an aging monk recite Alfred Noyes’s The Highwayman. And also this anecdote about reading, which Kroetsch would have (probably) loved:
Just as I underline K’s
the lick, a / stabbing / of my tongue, hungry
I hear Ann downstairs
saying fuck you to her computer
An Egregore is Hall’s best recent poetry. The speaker’s note about “eye dialects,” where eye = I, reminds readers that what we see informs our idiom and vocabulary. The emphasis is always on looking: “look look (eyes is) each letter a ridden scald” (11). Hall’s parenthetical misstep in verb agreement catches the reader off guard. The attention to spacing is brilliant, “I see not revelation,” the line proliferates in meaning, different ways “to see” (11, 13).
Familiar themes persist in new language and excite the imagination. Sleep is still difficult (see Hall’s earlier books Trouble Sleeping and Conjugation). But this time the feathers in the pillows are from “Ancient Roman chickens,” and “A clenched silence called muscle behaves / as if it is vaguely interested […] then a silence called panic waits impatiently each night / while I misspell sleep”—Hall writes as if silence, and not sound, were the objective of the poem (17). Silences are pauses surrounding poetic delivery. Silences enter the poem, breaking the flow of words, but they are still part of Hall’s meditation, the desired calm.
Cameron Anstee makes lovely, hand-sewn chapbooks. An Egregore is a handsome edition of 80 copies done in faded black and brown stock. The type is easy to read. The beautiful titles recall 60s block lettering. The book also includes a map, “Saskatchewan Pool Country Elevator System 1947–1948” a nod to Kroetsch’s map of Alberta in The Home Place.
Joseph LaBine is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, with a research background in Irish and Canadian studies. In 2013 he became the poetry editor for Flat Singles Press. He is currently editing TERMINAL--the collected poems of Niall Montgomery, and lives in Ottawa.
[*] An Egregore has no page numbers. All numbers quoted in the review have been inserted. Blank pages were included and therefore exceeded the original “15 pp.” total indicated in Apt. 9’s publication notice.