By John Newlove. Edited by Robert McTavish. Chaudiere Books, 251 pp, $22, softcover
Shy and sly are words often used to describe the poet John Newlove, and they indicate the dualities at work in a new collection of his writing aptly titled A Long Continual Argument. This vast array of poems, written between 1961 and Newlove’s death in 2003, demonstrates an intense engagement with language by a writer many have called difficult and brilliant in the same breath.
The book, edited by Robert McTavish (who has also produced a new film about Newlove, called What to Make of It All?), presents the “argument” in poems such as “Autobiography”: “I just live in this world,/I don’t know much about it”. Clearly, this is kind of a lie.
Newlove continues in “Apology for Absence”:
Now I think that I am only trying to model tiny bits of a
world too wide and too various and too frightening to be
comprehended by anything but lies.
I love words and therefore I am a liar.
Except that this is kind of the truth.
Newlove’s work is also very much concerned with place. Images of the city, especially Vancouver, figure not as descriptions but as products of his thinking about them. And in the afterword, Vancouver poet and critic Jeff Derksen discusses one strain of Newlove’s work as “the project of contemporary Canadian literature imagined as”¦sort of a national structure of feelings.” A good example of this might be his quintessential poem, “The Weather”, which shows how connected desire, the body, language, and feelings can get:
I’d like to live a slower life.
The weather gets in my words
and I want them dry. Line after line
writes itself on my face, not a grace
of age but wrinkled humour. I laugh
more than I should or more
than anyone should. This is good.