Review: Impossible Books (The Carleton Installment) by Stephen Brockwell

[Originally published at Ottawa Poetry Newsletter, 24 May 2011]

Impossible Books (the Carleton Installment)

Stephen Brockwell

Ottawa: above/ground press, August 2010.

Stephen Brockwell’s “Impossible Books project” (this above/ground book is its second installment) is an ongoing series of individual poems that are presented as excerpts from imagined “impossible” books. The impossible books of this installment range from Prime Minister’s Nursery Rhymes for Insolent Children, to the Evangelical Handbook for Engineers, to Metonymies: Poems by Objects Owned by Illustrious People, and Pindaric Odes to the Objects of Science, among others. This brief collection of ten poems is imaginative and surprising on every page.

“Animal Crackers,” from Prime Minister’s Nursery Rhymes for Insolent Children, is ripe with the pride, violence, and fierce control of image and language that are recognized now as markers of Stephen Harper’s Canadian Government (a newly-majority Government since the publication of this book):

Shrikes impale mice on barbed wire.

Weaning calved keen.

Wild male chimps murder babies.

Silverbacks preen.

The political edge of many of these poems is unsurprising from Brockwell, who co-edited Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Holiday Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament with Stuart Ross during Stephen Harper’s second prorogation of Parliament. The sorts of biting, angry, but smart and focused critiques offered in these poems are vital today, and will be increasingly so over the next four years of Harper’s current majority.

Another recognizable bent in Brockwell’s work is his interest in interrogating the seemingly cold language and images of science for available (and potential) emotional currency:

At least one molecule of you in me

passed through the body of some great person,

in the urine of Josef Stalin, say,

on an October morning in his youth;

it may be one I am passing on now

as a drop of saliva flies from my tongue

over this paper. (from Pindaric Odes to the Objects of Science)

 Where language overlaps with the body is a fruitful site for Brockwell:

It is after all a word,

the tongue on the teeth,

the open mouth,

the teeth biting the lips,

until they bleed. (from The Love Poems of ____, Serial Killer)

At these intersections (language/body, language/science), Brockwell points at a handful of the small manners in which people are connected physically, if inadvertently.

The two most exciting poems here, to my ear, come from The Archives of Ministry of Spiritual Ascendance, in the form of two applications for the position of God. In these two poems the reader is offered modest acts of growth and selflessness mixed with fatigue:

1027-3F, December 12, 2024

Dear Ministry of Spiritual Ascendance,

I believe I should be accepted for God

because I have never eaten meat.

I cultivated tomatoes at my window

from a pack of ancient seeds.

I nurtured them to the size

of vitamins with water I filtered

from the rain. That Saturday morning

I prayed for the Sun as I am sure

so many do every day but I prayed

for others not for myself

and the Sun appeared for at least

one minute through the smog.

All my life I have shared the gifts I have received.

But I am so tired – please accept this

application for God.

The success of this book rests in its brevity. None of the “jokes” overstay their welcome, with only one or two poems from each “Impossible Book” presented. These are serious poems that rise above the humour and novelty of their initial idea(s). The first installment of the series was given at the Olive Reading Series in December 2007. I’ve not seen that chapbook, but I imagine in hope that Brockwell is sitting on further installments that we may be lucky enough to see in print someday.

Northern Comfort (Commoners’ Press: Ottawa, 1973)

[Originally published at Ottawa Poetry Newsletter, 23 April 2011]

In November 2010, I published a bibliography of William Hawkins through my own Apt. 9 Press. In my brief introductory note, I wrote “this bibliography will likely be out of date upon the day of its publication. I imagine, and I hope, that once it is in people’s hands it will spark new discoveries of “lost” Hawkins work.” Before the folio was formally launched, rob mclennan wrote a review of the Folio that pointed already to further available material. Specifically, he mentions “that magnificent anthology Northern Comfort, the transcript of a reading in the Byward Market hosted by and dedicated to Hawkins.” This note is to discuss and describe that anthology. I intend to return to this space over the coming months and describe further items that have come to light since that initial bibliography was published.

Northern Comfort Cover

Northern Comfort was published in 1973 by Commoners’ Press (Ottawa). The title page elaborates on the function of the book: “being a reading of poetry by various people, given in the back yard of the Victoria Hotel 18 Murray Street, the Byward Market, Ottawa, on the evening of June 29th, 1972.” The text was transcribed from recordings provided by “Peter Lamb of Coon Hollow Films and Mariea Sparks of Ottawa Living Radio.” It was transcribed by “Monk Besserer” – two streets in downtown Ottawa.

An introduction by Neil Whiteman explains that the reading was organized by Peter Geldart, Alyx Jones and Bill Stevenson. The three were co-ordinators of “Market Projections,” a group of artists who primarily did work “of the “happening” variety.” The reading, or at least the book, is dedicated to the loss of the Victoria Hotel Building (built in 1962 at 18-24 Murray Street) as well as to “MR. WILLIAM HAWKINS.”

Northern Comfort Title Page

The text of the book is a transcription of the readings that took place on June 29 1972. The list of readers, speakers, and musicians included: William Hawkins, Alyx Jones, Robert Hogg, Marius, Kociejowski, Christopher Levenson, Neil Whiteman, Jack Nathanson, George Johnston, Ronnie Judge, “Unknown Reader,” David Andrews, The 47 Argyle Street Band, Christopher James and Bill Stevenson.

The charm of the book lies in its apparent faith to the recording. The transcription includes the speakers, the banter, the introductions, comments from the audience, as well as a generous selection of photos of the event. Hawkins, in addition to reading, hosted the evening.

Hawkins: The whole concept of reading poetry is…is rather a strange one. Uh…it sort of got a renaissance or a start back in, I think, ’58, when all the crazy San Francisco…like…Kerouac and Ginsberg, started reading. But, you know, really, when you get down to it…it…

Voice: Southern Comfort!

Hawkins:…it’s a very, very funny thing. It’s somebody talking about what they should feel very personally about and what they should not really want to talk  to anybody else about. That’s the way I feel about my poems…and that’s why I don’t read very often. Because…um, they’re private. So I’m gonna start…I got this book you can’t buy at your nearest bookstore…

                        (Scattered applause. Drumbeats)

because…uh…freaks like Whiteman have already put it out of print.

Hawkins reads some of the early poster poems (including “King Kong Goes to Rotterdam,” and “Two Short Ones”) and Ottawa Poems, as well as reading five new poems. In my own reading and research of Hawkins, I’ve not found these poems or lines elsewhere in his published work. (Please contact me if you have!). After several readers, Hawkins returns to the stage and reads “Willful Murder,” which was printed as new material in The Gift of Space: Selected Poems 1960/70.

Hawkins biography modifies his own history: “William Hawkins, 33, lives in Mexico at 182 ½ Dalhousie Street. In 1967 he was voted one of Ottawa’s Finest Young Men.” The reference to Mexico touches on the poems he wrote on a Canada Council Grant in the late sixties and early seventies. The “Finest Young Man” Award was actually an “Outstanding Young Man Award.”

William Hawkins reads from The Gift of Space.

The historical study of literary readings is difficult to undertake. Readings are, by nature, ephemeral. While today we increasingly see detailed audio-visual records maintained by many reading series, it is difficult to reconstruct readings that occurred decades previously. Rather than authoritative texts of events, we have fragmented production and reception histories, primary details, anecdotes, memories and other forms of unreliable evidence. We can find manifestations of audience response and interaction in the wake of events, but we cannot return to the events themselves.

Northern Comfort occupies a unique position in these respects (at least so far as my own reading has turned up). While the text initially appears to offer an unadulterated transcription of the reading in question, numerous editorial comments, as well as an introductory note, make clear that this is a fragment rather than a whole. However, what is most interesting about Northern Comfort is that it was produced in the immediate wake of the reading, rather than at a later date and further distance. It was transcribed and published within one year of the reading. The effect of this, in my opinion, is to create an object that shares the spirit and intent of the initial reading. It is not total narrative, but rather a strange, bizarre, wonderful book-object that mirrors the described strange, bizarre, wonderful reading-event. The fidelity of Northern Comfort is not to the reading, but rather to the spirit of the reading. It is a baffling book but also a “magnificent” one, as rob mclennan described it. It is a nearly-forgotten piece of Ottawa’s literary history that is firmly embedded in the moment it was attempting to describe.

Some Notes on the Print History of William Hawkins’ Ottawa Poems

[Originally published at Ottawa Poetry Newsletter, 14 May 2009]

“Give this meaning as you may, or must,”

William Hawkins, #27 (from Ottawa Poems)

Ottawa Poems Front Cover

I’m a newcomer to Ottawa poetry, but by no means a newcomer to Ottawa. I was born here, and raised, and am presently on the verge of completing my “higher” education in the city. I’ve been working to catch up on our literary history, as well as present, and am fascinated by anything that makes an effort to write Ottawa in the way that other cities seem to have been written with greater regularity. Naturally, the first time I came across the title, Ottawa Poems, I set out to find and read it. I’m not going to attempt a critical reading of the poems here. Suffice to say, I love the book and think its poems wonderful. My concern here is with the bibliographic history of the book, and the various incarnations of the poems in Hawkins’ published books. I think that these are fascinating notes from the perspective of book history, and I will resist drawing conclusions from them. I think the print journey of the poems themselves more than justifies a brief account here.

The book was published by Nelson Ball’s Weed/Flower Press in July 1966 (and reprinted in 1967). Weed/Flower had been created the previous year, 1965, and ran for the following eight. Jack David wrote an annotated, descriptive bibliography of the press that was published in Essays on Canadian Writing (Number 4, Spring 1976). According to David, Ball purchased a “pre-WW II mimeograph machine […] for $35” (34), and proceeded to mimeograph everything produced under the name. Along with Hawkins, Ball published the likes of George Bowering, bp Nichol, John Robert Colombo, Victor Coleman, John Newlove, himself, and a score of others.

Like many others produced by Weed/Flower, Ottawa Poems has a wonderful cover design by Barbara Caruso. A series of overlapping, thick black lines look like poorly laid out streets, and two hands offer the only recognizable point of reference on a thick, brown cover stock. The interior pages are mimeographed from a typewriter proof onto brown paper. Hawkins is credited simply as WM HAWKINS.

Ottawa Poems Back Cover

The book is a set of twenty-eight relatively brief lyrics in a mere thirty six pages. Roy MacSkimming, in his introductory essay to 2004’s Dancing Alone: Selected Poems, writes “because they belong to a loosely linked sequence, these are more abstracted and discursive poems than the tighter, imagistic, self-contained pieces in Hawkins. And perhaps because they often look outward to the surrounding society, they’re also more anxious and fearful, occasionally a touch paranoid” (15). This sequence is disrupted and broken differently in all future appearances of parts of the book.

His first selected poems, The Gift of Space (new press, Toronto, 1971), would reprint only twenty four pieces from the book. The twenty four retained would be renumbered sequentially, suggesting a new, coherent and complete edit. The pieces removed were #8 (POEM IN RED INK), #20 (THE LAST POEM FOR PEOPLE), #24 (CHARACTEROLOGY), and #26 (ALMOST A POEM). Interesting, if accidental, #21 (SORRY, THIS IS IT) in the Weed/Flower edition is printed 19th in The Gift of Space, but numbered 21, only to be succeeded by a second #21 (HELLO FROM THE SHADOWS), #23 originally.

A further iteration of the poems comes in 2004 in Dancing Alone: Selected Poems (Broken Jaw Press, Fredericton, Cauldron Books 5). In this edition the original numbers are restored, and the excised poems are left as gaps. This time twenty two poems are printed, removing six. Those cut are: #8 (POEM IN RED INK), #9 (A STUPID CANASTA POEM), #13 (So much of me is not), #20 (THE LAST POEM FOR PEOPLE), #24 (CHARACTEROLOGY), #26 (ALMOST A POEM). The four removed in The Gift of Space are still absent, #9 and #13 have been freshly cut.

As has been widely documented, 1966-67 were landmark years in Hawkins’ publishing career. On top of Hawkins (Nil Press) and Ottawa Poems, he was anthologized in Raymond Souster’s seminal New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry (Contact Press) as well as in the A.J.M. Smith edited Modern Canadian Verse (Oxford University Press).

New Wave Canada came first in 1966. Hawkins appeared in its pages alongside early work from Michael Ondaatje, Daphne Marlatt (then still Daphne Buckle), Robert Hogg, bp Nichol, Fred Wah and Victor Coleman among others. Hawkins’ biography in New Wave Canada appeared in quotation marks, and is reproduced in its totality below:

What’s to say in a biography? All my life I’ve worried about the propriety of our definitions. Because the times are as they are I’ve lived in fear, movies my only escape, economics keeping me from more drugs, booze & girlies than I was able (meagre, really) to steal. I have stolen every single idea I have heard, transposing them into my own terms. A wife & two children share my scene & seem happy. I write poems because I like to.

Living now in Ottawa. (171)

Whether selected by Souster or by Coleman (who aided Souster in the editorial choices of the anthology), Hawkins is afforded 11 pages in the book. The poems included are drawn from Hawkins and Ottawa Poems. However, reproductions from both are marked by changes in numbering. For example, from Hawkins, “Mysteriensonaten” #1, #3 and #4 are reprinted as #6, #10 and #7 respectively. In the case of Ottawa Poems, #5 (how can I describe the anger) is reprinted as #7, #11 (your hair electric) is reprinted as #17, #13 (so much of me is not) is reprinted as #24, and #16 (“BEAUTY WILL NOT WAIT”) is reprinted as #25.

New Wave Canada itself has a convoluted print history (see Bruce Whiteman’s “Raymond Souster’s New Wave Canada: A Bibliographical Note”). His appearance in New Wave CanadaModern Canadian Verse did not reprint any of the Ottawa Poems, but did print three from Hawkins; “Spring Rain”, “A New Light” and “The Wall.” directly resulted in his appearance in Modern Canadian Verse, when A.J.M. Smith “happened upon the page proofs [of the book]” (MacSkimming 15) as a result of Coleman’s work at Oxford UP at the time. These poems are listed as “uncollected” (xxi) in the acknowledgements.

Some of the poems also saw periodical publication before the book proper. #24 (CHARACTEROLOGY), often excised from later versions, was printed in 1966 in IS one, edited by Victor Coleman in Toronto, and signed “William Hawkins, ‘WM’ ”. #26 (ALMOST A POEM) was printed in Volume 63 (edited by Nelson Ball), number 5 (Summer 1966). This is approximately coincident with the publication of the book. Interestingly, in both these cases, the poems are not numbered but rather stand alone, resisting any allusion to the larger sequence. Volume 63 also printed 5 of the “Mysteriensonaten” poems in the Winter of 1965, numbered up to 8, suggesting that a larger sequence existed prior to the edited four poem set that appeared in Hawkins; this potentially solves the problems posed by the “Mysteriosonaten” poems in New Wave Canada discussed earlier.

#5 (how can I describe the anger) was printed as #7 in issue 19 (July 1966) of the magazine El Corno Emplumado, published out of Mexico City. It appeared in a group of thirteen Canadian poets in the issue (alongside George Bowering, Fred Wah, John Newlove, Nelson Ball, Daphne Buckle and Red Lane among others).

Alphabet, edited by James Reaney, apparently printed one, or some, of the poems according to the credit in the book itself, though I have not been able to find the excerpt(s) in question. However, I did find the wonderful ad below for “Poster Poems by the Fabulous WM. Hawkins” that appeared in Alphabet number 5 (December 1962) before a selection of four “King Kong” poems.

Alphabet (December 1962)

I do not have access to WEED magazine, stopping me from chasing down that reference as well. If you do have a set, or know which poems appeared, and when, sent me a note ( and I will amend these notes. Equally, any information relating to other editions of these poems would be very much appreciated (for example, did any of the Ottawa Poems appear as Poster Poems?)

I think that these sorts of incongruities and inconsistencies make a strong case for the need to pursue bibliographic work on modern Canadian poetry. I think that they make clear the greater arc of a poem, or book’s, life. Certainly, the Weed/Flower Press edition of 1966 is the authoritative printing, but later editorial choices, as well as earlier little magazine publication help to illuminate the development of the poems over a span of forty years. I think that this is especially true in the case of book-length sequences, or longpoems, where small changes alter the whole. The Ottawa Poems did not end conclusively with their first collected appearance. Hopefully they’ll continue to be read and won’t end anytime soon.

Works Cited

David, Jack. “Weed Flower Press.” Essays on Canadian Writing 4 (Spring 1976): 34-41.

Hawkins, William. Dancing Alone: Selected Poems. Fredericton: Broken Jaw, 2004.

–. The Gift of Space: Selected Poems 1960-1970. Toronto: new press, 1971.

–. Hawkins. Ottawa: Nil Press, 1966.

–. Ottawa Poems. Kitchener: Weed/Flower Press, 1966.

Smith, A.J.M. Modern Canadian Verse. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1967.

Souster, Raymond. New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry. Toronto: Contact Press, 1966.

Whiteman, Bruce. “Raymond Souster’s New Wave Canada: A Bibliographical Note.” Papers of the Bibliographic Society of Canada XX (1981): 63-65.