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The Gross & Fine Geography/New & Selected Poems by Stephen Bett reviewed by E. E. Nobbs

Nick Laird in a March 2017 Guardian article  [https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/17/donald-trump-poetry-nick-laird-don-paterson-zoo-of-the-new] reminds us that …

[r]eading poems, embodying in words a chain of apprehensions, is to know something of a particular writer’s way of being in the world. It says, “And there’s this.” We experience some part – lexically, chemically, electrically, emotionally – of what the writer felt. What knowledge could be more consoling – or more difficult to bear in mind?

And that’s how I feel about Stephen Bett’s big 178 page collection. It covers many years (starting with poems from 1983), and includes poems from over a dozen of his previous books. It’s an impressive showcase of how Bett writes about human conundrums and modern life. The book’s title with its multiple puns suggest a broad swath of possibilities —and that’s what Bett gives us , using a wide variety of poetic techniques and an ironic, self-aware sense of humour.

bett

 

Check out Bett’s home page [ http://www.stephenbett.com/ ] where you will find out more about him and his many books. He’s a West Coast Canadian who has “read and written poetry for over 50 years”. He was also a college English teacher for over 30 years. Here’s an interesting 2015 interview with him about influences, methods, likes & dislikes and opinions on the poetry world.
[ http://www.stephenbett.com/chin-wag-at-the-slaughterhouse-interview-with-stephen-bett.shtml ]

The speaker(s) in Bett’s poems often feel like the voice of the poet himself – they are strong, candid and frank in sharing their views on our society’s weird techno-times and their place in it.

A lot of the poems are first person, personal and close to home. There are family poems which address children. A daughter. A son. These are heartfelt, with a parent’s concerns, and the situational irony of life

Many poems are about love and marriage situations – (mis)communications, frustrations, the breaking down of a long-term relationship, and the building of a new one. Bett uses long sequences effectively – the method acts a metaphor for life, life as a journey, a car trip, a journal, how life and relationships never stay the same and how we need to keep our eyes on the road! There is lots of wry humour and “sass”, (a term that Bett likes to use), but also genuine emotional investment. The speaker uses his ability to laugh at himself, and situations as a way to help him get through them. But he doesn’t sugar-coat. In the poems that involve the breakdown of a long term but relationship, the speaker makes no bones about his anger.

But then, the wonder of a new love, how it develops into a new marriage is presented as a kind of miracle which the speaker eventually accepts as reality. And as a reader, I shared in the surprise, relief and the happiness. There are some extremely minimalist poems.

You

You

— just

you

just

there

Do

Such a poem is a bit odd to look at if considered by itself, but gains significance, as a part of sequence. It is preceded by the not quite as minimalist, stand-out titular poem of the collection:

The Gross & Fine Geography

The gross & fine geography
of our hearts

Big sweep
tight corners

I reach
for you

For you

Geographies
that desire

As another example of how a poet can share his world – what’s important to him –Bett writes about his passion for jazz with a series of poems in homage to jazz musicians – who are presumably well known for those who are in the know (I am not one, but now he’s got me wondering what I am missing). Again – it shows Bett’s versatility and I liked the way he used quotes and other source material, and formatted the poems to suggest the riffs and improvisation of the music. And I smiled at the repeated use of “gorgeous”. I got the happy mood even without being an aficionado.

I admire Bett’s use of minimalist poems in sequences, but the piece in this book that I keep coming back to and re-reading, has more conventional rhythms & form, and was the single piece with which he started the book. It feels like an offering.

My reading of it is that — life is strange, but doing the work, making the effort, living as fully as possible in this world — is what life is “about”.

The first poem in full:

Preparation for a Gift

How true it is that we need to be
close to the brink of language when
we speak now. I recall saying to you
at the time I read them
how acute John Ashbery’s remarks on
Pollack were. That the ‘excitement’

lies with the ‘very real possibility’
of the work coming to nothing (the ‘random
splashes of a careless housepainter’).
I watched on film how he would

tack his unstretched canvas on the ground
and walk around it choosing from various
cans of paint; not systemically, it seemed,
and certainly not according to the fixed laws
of ritual — or even chance (that being an art
both the body and will surely deny). But simply
because a particular color was at hand

to what he was doing; whereupon the
success or failure must lie right
at the heart of his having chosen
to do it that way at all. It cannot be
done over. And seeing that, he must have had
a tremendous faith in his materials to go a-
long with his own equally determined and supple
contortions. I mean the ability of the paint to
fall where it will find least resistance, and of
the canvas to absorb it there. (I wanted to call
such faith “ambition,” and — if it could be
divested of the vulgarity of systems —
relate it to a program for language.
Then I’d offer it to you
in place of tedious conversation;
difficult to rely on, perhaps,
but significant in its intractable resolve.

Stephen Bett is a mature, experienced poet, who uses language in a wide variety of ways. He has serious things to say, but says them with a sharp wit. His poems deal with the contemporary. They are pertinent to the lives we live, and have much to offer. I am glad for the chance to review this collection and be introduced to his work.

.

E.E. Nobbs lives in Prince Edward Island, Canada. She won the Doire Press Second Annual International Poetry Chapbook Contest (2013)  which saw publication of her first collection,  The Invisible Girl  which is available here.

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