Stuart Ross has been writing poetry for a long time. According to his bio, he “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 I wrote him and asked if he had anything he wanted to say about his latest book, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent. The only point he might make, he said, would be that 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, and we’ll talk about that a bit later. But “accessible” is highly subjective. I really love this work, soaked in quirkiness as it is. Does its quirkiness make it accessible or not? For some readers the idea of “accessible” means the work has less value, while for others “accessible” means the work 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, while for many others it is energizing. In these poems Stuart Ross engages a Dickinsonian idiosyncrasy, projecting the real world through the lens of his imagination. Like Dickinson, Ross trains this lens on the big questions of death and immortality. So, accessible perhaps, original and strange definitely. I went back to Stuart on this and he agrees that while probably his most cohesive work, A Sparrow Cam Down Resplendent is “still pretty wonky”.
Consider the poem “Doxology.” It’s 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 the last part of the poem shifts diction, level of weirdness and moves the poem towards a type of ecstasy implied by 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 as a starting point to move towards something bigger and surprising. Buying a suit from a lower end chain-store called Moores from a guy named Al is the subject of the poem “Moores.” Moores is a well-known Canadian chain. 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.
Ross is also situating the reader in a smaller suburban city setting, not the big urban, not some high-end location. The reader immediately warms 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 up-selling like at 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 brings us along.
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 a hint that the poem might be going to be dealing with death. He then goes on 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 the grandfather wearing a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, with Al. And as the poem develops further this exploration of Ross’ and his grandfather’s history he brings Al in again at the end 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.
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’s so masterful here is this exploration of death and the dressing for death that just naturally flows out of the material within this narrative. What appears to be an everyday description of a retail transaction turns into something much more, a meditation on images and rituals surrounding the speaker’s own death. The poem has taken us a very interesting and surprising ride while luring us in with the everyday.
Quirky, sure. Surreal, a touch, but not as much as in some other poems. And that’s 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 some lines are taken from Stephen Crane poems. “We saw a man pursuing the horizon” is from 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.” Ross doesn’t include 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 its own, but the intertextuality adds to the effect if you are aware of it.
This poem does echo the tone of the Crane work referenced, also short strange free verse poems. Ross is using poetry written by a fascinating young man, who died at 28, described as the foremost American writer of his time, the 1890’s. Though he’s not known as well for his poetry as his prose like The Red Badge Of Courage, his poetry was later recognized as ground breaking for the time and said to establish the foundation for the Imagists who followed years later. An interesting choice for Ross to focus on and interesting for a reader to research the references in the poem.
Stuart Ross brings in other poets and their work routinely throughout the book. And he does this in many different ways. In a title he echoes Frank O’Hara with “Oh Cy Twombly Please Get Up;” he directly mentions the Canadian poet David McFadden’s influence on him, Oscar Williams (the famous poetry anthologist) who died in 1964 appears to young Stuart Ross in 1974 in the very entertaining poem “And Oscar Williams Walks In;” and several poems take their first lines from other poets’ poems. The purposeful referencing of others’ work adds to the effect of the collection, illustrating the interconnectedness of literature as well as Ross’ own generative processes and influences.
While taking us on some fairly wild flights of imagination Ross also has some very personal work. It is elegiac and nostalgic, exploring the death of parents and memories of his grandfather. The poems also reference pop culture 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 said in her Poem 809, “Unable are the loved to die for love is immortality”, Stuart gives us that same thing in the a about his mother’s dying, “Pompano.” Ross is never overly sentimental but genuine and honest.
and palm trees sway in the hot breeze
and butterflies called daggerwings drift past
and sand skinks swim through millions of grains of sand
and I – I am a pompano
I am this fish and I search
for that letter in my mother’s hand
beyond the Atlantic coast
Despite his Canadian heritage many of the literary references Ross makes are American. His poetic sensibility seems influenced by American poets like Kenneth Koch or James Tate. I asked Ross about that and he agrees. He feels his absurdist sense of humour is seen as more permissible in American poetry. Canadian poetry tends more to the clever when going for humour.
I’m a year younger than Ross and grew up close to some of the neighbourhoods he talks about. The book has a personal appeal for me. 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.