Ross, Stuart, Espesantes. Ottawa, above/ground press, August 2018.
ISBN 978-1-988495-80-4. 41 pages, $5.
Espesantes contains three dozen poems, each beginning with a line or word from Sarah Moses’s equally minimalist chapbook as they say, released in 2016 by Socios Fundadores publishing house, which has the following titular homage in Stuart Ross:
as they say:
demolish the temple
to save the pebble
it’s a pretty
This pebble serves well as a symbol in conveying the common sense stoicism of Stuart Ross’s verse. With a bit of imagination, it speaks to the idea of reinvention. It’s a cool line (demolish the temple/to save the pebble), sure, but specifically because its confidence is unassuming (it’s a pretty/good pebble); the lack of comma splices and capitalization lending themselves here as a form of anti-establishmentarianism.
There’s a palpable sense of delinquency at play that engages the reader to reflect on his words as though they were nothing more than Torontonian graffiti. However, the poem speaks for itself and the engagement is inevitable – reading Stuart Ross really requires you to engage with your self.
One stunning component of the poems in this chapbook is the rhyme, appearing here and there, giving them lyricism and conviction, in spite of their generally surreal and minimalist nature:
I did not know Schmitt.
The roots of a birch tree
strangled my shapely ankles,
pulled buffalo nickels
from my nostrils before
licking gnats off my
as per his orders.
There’s resonance in the imagery here: the birch perhaps signifying earthly wisdom; ankles, a weak spot; buffalo nickels, easy for counterfeiters to alter and pass off as five-dollar coins, a rare numismatic joy; and, the nostrils and lapels drawing the visual up from the feet to the head, where gnats have gathered, a symbol of torment to bison and Ontarians alike. In fact, the blackfly of Ontario is in other parts known as the “buffalo gnat”.
The rhymes here exist between ankles, nickels, nostrils, lapels, and even orders, because each iamb ends in a liquid consonant (four laterals and a rhotic). This leads to a deeper sense of credence, each rhyme in succession rolling off the tongue when enunciated like a solid aphorism. This literary device is easy to grasp, which makes the next part of the analysis of this poem emphatically more resistant to interpretation.
I do not know who Schmitt is or what he could possibly represent. Being, as it is, the opening line of this page’s poem, he is something that requires Sarah Moses’s chapbook perhaps to deconstruct further. This sort of hard and fast irony playing against the reader’s sensibilities to deduce the identity of the character Schmitt is one of those elements characteristic of Stuart Ross’s work that intrigues me most.
Perhaps this vague personage appears intermittently throughout the rest of Sarah’s and/or Stuart’s poems in order to provide a reasonable understanding of agency for what’s going on in the sparse narrative taking place between the lines. The name appears a few times throughout his collection without fully incorporating the man with the role of protagonist nor antagonist.
The obscurity of meaning is a deceptive kind of style that I appreciate when reading Stuart Ross. It not only keeps the engaged reader on their toes, seeking out textual hints, but defies conventional goals of reading.
With any sort of novel or short story, you might expect it to conclude with a moral to the story, a message, a lasting anecdote or final scene to fulfill your appreciation or comprehension of the text. On the contrary, with Stuart Ross’s poetry, and sometimes his prose, too, you come to realize that meaning, signifiers and signified, symbols and rhymes, all this may amount to nothing more than the evidence of form.
Yes, the use of language is certainly poetic, but its surrealistic integrity belies this poetry, reinventing meaning. To put it another way, undermining meaning itself is one of the chief successes of his particular brand of surrealism, leaving the reader to their own devices to understand his work, on a deeply personal, individual level.
At times, there’s an unmistakable implication that as much as we like to read into literature, talk about literature, and pride ourselves on it, each reader has to lead their own private life, that’s got nothing to do with politics, nationality, or education.
I smear myself a lot
with colloquial sentiments,
climb into a shopping cart,
and wait for someone
to cash me out.
That’s exactly the kind of phrase I’m referring to, colloquial sentiments. Taking it back one line break to unbox the word choice smear, you get the metaphorical sense of smearing a reputation, if not the literal interpretation that the narrator is covering his (or her) body with these vulgar, everyday feelings.
Sentimentality sells and the I of this poem isn’t shopping. Instead, the narrator commodifies himself for the consumer, climbing into the shopping cart and waiting for them to cash him out.
The agency (or valency) within the word choice here is significant, since the author himself used to joke about “selling out” despite dedicating his talents and efforts to the small press industry. You can’t buy that kind of irony. Perhaps I’ve gotten lost in reflection, but after reading this poem, it’s clear to me which is more meaningful for the artist between selling out, willingly, and getting cashed out, subject to the whims of a buyer’s market.
Stuart Ross, poet, novelist, essayist, editor, publisher, educator, mentor, organizer, collaborator, and so much more, has been on the scene in Toronto since the eighties, renowned for having hawked his poetry in the streets. He’s also known for his editorial work at Mansfield Press, with imprint a stuart ross book, between 2009 and 2016, and at Anvil Press since 2017, where he launched his imprint A Feed Dog Book. His own micropress, Proper Tales Press, will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2019. His 2016 poetry collection A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent, published by Wolsak & Wynn, won the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Poetry in 2017; likewise, his 2012 collection You Exist. Details Follow., by Anvil Press, was celebrated in 2013 with the Exit Through the Giftshop Award from l’Académie de la vie littéraire au tournant du 21e siècle in Montreal. The list of accolades and roles he’s filled goes on; most noteworthy, above all perhaps, is his co-founding the Meet the Presses Collective in ’08 which hosts the Indie Literary Market and gives out the bpNichol Chapbook Award every year in Toronto. Nowadays, Stuart lives in Cobourg, Ontario.
Jay Miller is former co-founder, editor, and contributor of Literatured, a literary criticism blog dedicated to contemporary Canadian literature that was active between 2011 and 2016. Having graduated from Queen’s University in 2015 with Honours in Linguistics, he has since spent his time living like a poet, reading like a novelist, and writing like a lumberjack. He’s currently working as a medical translator and freelance copywriter. Jay lives in Montreal.