Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review I - A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Draft)

Need to clean up a bit still, provide references etc. But the content of what I want to say is mostly there. 

Stuart Ross’ A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent

Stuart Ross has been writing poetry for a long time. His bio says “Stuart Ross published his first literary pamphlet on the photocopier in his dad’s office one night in 1979. Through the 1980s, he stood on Toronto’s Yonge Street wearing signs like ‘Writer Going To Hell,’ selling over 7,000 chapbooks.” He is now the author of 20 books of poetry, fiction and essays. In preparation for writing this review of his latest book “A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent” (Wolsak and Wynn 2016) I wrote him and asked if he had anything he wanted to say about this book.  He said that the only point he might make would be he tried to write a book that is more accessible and personal than much of his previous work.  

I’ve been thinking about that.  The work is definitely personal, we’ll talk about that a bit later.  But “accessible” is highly subjective.  I really love this work.  But it is soaked in quirkiness. Does that make it accessible or not? For some the idea of accessible means it has less value for others it means it has more interest.  I’ve had this discussion with people about Emily Dickinson’s work, how her imaginative take on the world is difficult for some to enter, for many others it is energizing. Stuart Ross has Dickinsonian quirkiness in these poems as he also is a poet who creates poems that project the real world through the lens of his imagination  And Dickinson and Ross train this lens on the big questions of death and immortality. 

So accessible perhaps, quirky definitely. Consider the poem Doxology, which contains the line that provides the title of the book. as a good example of what I am calling quirky. First of all the title means a short hymn of praise to God.  In this poem a fireman swallows a string dropped from a sparrow’s mouth.  An odd subject but the writing comes across as mostly narrative until when he last part of the poem shifts diction, level of quirkiness and elevates to match the title. 

sparrow had said unto him
he remembered the sparrow 
saying they abide and they 
endure carry a piece of their
nest within you don’t fuck
things up like you usually
do like how your wrecked
your family and the fireman
held out his palm and the sun
shone upon it and many
baby birds did there appear. 

Besides the quirky Stuart Ross loves the quotidian and also loves to raise up the poem using it.  For example, buying a suit from a lower end chain of stores called Moores from a guy named Al is the subject of the poem Moore’s. Moores is a well known Canadian chain and most people in Canada know it.  But that doesn’t mean you have to know it to get the poem.  Ross situates the reader immediately and you get to know the store and the merchandise with the entry to the poem 

Al at Moores menswear store in Ajax,
Ontario, is a pretty good guy. Not just
because he found me a nice Italian suit
for $199 ($270 with tax and alterations) 
but because he found me one below my budget
instead of trying upsell me
like the guy in the Cobourg mall. 

But Ross is also situating the reader in a smaller suburban city setting, not the big urban. Dealing with a suburban mall not some high end location. And also warming the reader immediately to Al.  At the same time we are getting a measure of the speaker who is comfortable and looking for a deal, not to be the subject of upselling like that other mall. A lot of background has been provided in a very short space and with a conversational voice that helps warm us to the speaker as he warms us to Al. Ross has us with him. 

Ross goes on to complicate and elevate this daily material.  He mentions “Al looks good in a black suit and not like an undertaker”.  This is the first hint we might be going to be dealing with death.  He then goes on later to compare Al when he chalks the speaker’s sleeve cuff to his own late grandfather. 

marked my sleeve cuff with a sliver
of white chalk just like my grandfather
Sam Blatt, used to do, a tape measure
draped over his shoulder like a tallit. 

Ross conflates for the reader the grandfather  wearing a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, with Al.  And as the poem develops further into this exploration of Ross’ and his grandfather’s history he brings Al in at the end of the poem in an unexpected way.

This suit is for my wedding. I won’t 
need a suit for my funeral. Al will 
wrap me in a plain
white shroud —Tachrichim
and he’ll suppress the impulse
to find me a matching tie. 

So in the end Al has become someone preparing the body of the speaker for death, despite an earlier assertion that Al was not an undertaker.  This imaginative moment also ends on a note of humour.  What is masterful here is this exploration of death and the dressing for death that just naturally gets inserted. So what starts with what appears to be an everyday description of a retail transaction turns into something much more, a meditation on the images of rituals surrounding the speaker’s death. The poem has taken us a very interesting and surprising ride while luring us in with the everyday. And it is accomplished through the use of humour, engaging language and mashing up of characters and images within a 39 line poem. 

Quirky sure.  Surreal, a touch but not as much as in some other poems. And that is another wonderful thing about this book.  Ross shifts gears often.  Sometimes a surreal poem, sometimes a torqued narrative like Moores, or sometimes an absurdist poem like this short one, August 2008

I arrived with a jar of pickles. 
The town was small. 
We sat on your porch. 

We saw a man pursuing the horizon. 
The water in our glasses was crystal. 
You read me a poem by Stephen Crane. 

I read you a poem by Stephen Crane. 
and I said: “Is it good, friend?”
Now this is the strange part:

You leaned toward me
and the sky turned red.  What then?

You don’t have to know that the some lines are taken from Stephen Crane poems. “We saw a man pursuing the horizon” is a reference form Crane’s poem I Saw A Man Pursuing The Horizon, “Is it good, friend” from a somewhat gruesome scene in Crane’s In The Desert , “Now this is the strange part:” from A Man Saw A Ball Of Gold. and “What then?” from LCVI . And Ross doesn’t mention this in the notes to the book, the mention of Crane’s poetry twice in the short poem can be considered sufficient to drive a reader to Google and down a rabbit hole of research into Stephen Crane and his poetry (where I spent last evening).  But it doesn’t matter, the poem works as absurdist work on it’s own, the intertextuality just adds to the effect if you are aware of it. 

It is interesting  to know though that the feel of this poem does echo the tone of the Crane work referenced., short strange free verse poems. Here is one of the referenced Crane poems. 

"I saw a man pursuing the horizon" 

I saw a man pursuing the horizon; 
Round and round they sped. 
I was disturbed at this;   
I accosted the man. 
“It is futile,” I said, 
“You can never —” 

“You lie,” he cried,   
And ran on. 

Ross is using poetry written by a fascinating young man, who died at 28,  described as the foremost American writer of  his time in the 1890’s. Though he is not known as well for his poetry as his prose like The Red Badge Of Courage, his poetry ended up being later recognized as ground breaking for the time and said to establish the foundation for the Imagists that followed years later.  An interesting choice for Ross to focus and this short poem has added depth when the sources are researched.  And like the  other work in this book this nominally accessible work also has surprises.

Stuart Ross brings in other poets and their work routinely throughout the book. And does this in many different ways.  In a title echoing Frank O’Hara with Oh Cy Twombly Please Get Up, direct mentions of the Canadian poet David McFadden and his influence on Ross, Oscar Williams (the famous poetry anthologist) who died in 1964 appearing to young Stuart Ross in 1974 in the very entertaining poem And Oscar Williams Walks In , several poems taking their first line from other poets’s poems.   The purposefulness of referencing others adds to effect of the collection, illustrating the interconnectedness of literature as well as Ross’ own generative processes and influences.  

As to the personal.  While going on some fairly wild flights of imagination Ross also has some very personal work.  It is elegiac and nostalgic.  Accomplished through exploring the death of parents, memories of his grandfather but also through pop culture references from the 1960’s and 1970’s.  You don’t have to know anything about the sixties like the TV show F-Troop to understand and appreciate the poems, but if you happened to grow up at the time you’ll feel the nostalgia come through even more.   And the deep emotions of some poems also are available to readers. Dickinson famously said “Unable are the loved to die for love is immortality”, Stuart gives us that same thing in the very first poem about his mother’s dying. Ross is never overly sentimental but genuine in truthful emotional content. 

I’m a year younger than Ross, grew up close to some of the neighbourhoods he talks about.  The book has a personal appeal for me on that level.  But for other readers the poems will also resonate with skillfully written poetry, literary depth and an adventurous movement through form and subject.  Quirky, personal with just the right amount of accessibility. A great book. 


  1. Ross, I just stumbled upon this as I was putting together a writer-in-residence application. Thanks so much for all the thought you put into this book! You wrote one of the very few reviews of a book I thought would be my most-noticed. Really appreciated your exploration of Crane and also noticing the conflation of characters and other things that happen in my poems, and pointing out something I hadn't even noticed. Gratitude. — Stuart Ross

  2. Superb review. Ross is one of the brightest lights in Canadian poetry these days. Loved this book.