A major challenge for any kind of writing is getting a payoff that justifies reader attention and effort. The challenge is major because often what makes work interesting to a writer — formal tricks and wordplay, intertextual references, plotlines tiered like wedding cakes — is identical to what makes work boring and aloof to readers. The harder your stuff is the better it’s got to be, the so-called physics of reading that is, ultimately, about being honest regarding your motivations for writing a particular way. Stuff that’s obscure and dense will never be accused of pandering, whoring itself to simple minds, but also never risks serious emotional connection, opens itself to genuine interest and love and sadness. What makes us human also makes us vulnerable, the reason great art’s not just glorious but courageous.
Poetry, I’ve always thought, takes up this challenge with a handicap. Its formal weirdness, restrictions on length and meter, enjambment, are known intimately to the writer, but are much more difficult for readers to parse, decode, understand the reason for. There’s built-in distance with poetry that demands not just good writing but a close match between subject and structure. A poet must make sure what they’re writing about is amenable to poetic description, that their form’s obtrusiveness enhances, illuminates, augments whatever experience — humanity– they’re trying to depict and share.
It’s precisely this kind of artistic judgment that makes Mathew Henderson’s The Lease such a sneakily brilliant, beautiful work. The collection of 50 poems, most of which are one-half page or less, describe Henderson’s life on the oilfields of northern Alberta and Saskatchewan: laying pipe, moving rigs, feeling lonely. Hard men, harder women. The collection’s full of little details, turns of phrase that you just know other writers are going to try and steal: “quiet,/ liquored fucking”, “hung up his husbanding boots for good”, the character sketch clipped for this review’s title. And while writing this good easily repays your attention and patience, what marks Henderson’s book as an extremely good work of poetry is its marriage of subject and form: how the stuff Henderson is writing about is structured in a way that poetic expression seems uniquely suited to capture, decoct, accommodate.
To see why, you have to know something about the territory from whence these poems. Saskatchewan and Alberta comprise two-thirds of the Canadian prairies, with virtually all of Saskatchewan and a good chunk of Alberta being table-flat, vast, biblically proportioned. Highways pitch and roll imperceptibly, the sky’s hem almost invisible in every direction. Most oil work happens in the north and during winter, when the earth is frozen hard enough to support rigs and trucks, some of which are house-sized. Earth that’s overcast with ice and frozen ground but even in summer, still, “always/ the sky is just another dead prairie above you.”
So the setting for these poems, the physical space involved is just too large, expansive, to countenance all at once. Working in the prairies means working amidst space that transcends perspective and exists primarily in your imagination, wrapped around by sky. An instance of the sublime, the bulk of which largely unknown — physically, directly — yet still there, amassed and edgeless:
At three a.m. there is no world but what’s contained
by the flare’s domed light. A great dark glass over
an insect; you are the only thing with feet and hands
on a flat and dying moon. A man trapped twelve hours
in the caves of the opened land with no one
searching for him, no one to know he’s gone.
Also the particular work being done, an oilman’s relationship to this:
There is earth below your earth, a deep room where
gas and oil, rock and stone, circulate like slow blood
through a body.
Notice how the structure of this physical space mirrors precisely the structure of the poetic form. How the importance of all that’s not said equals what can’t be seen or felt, known in any direct, tangible way. Your relationship to the text of The Lease — its language terse, precise yet allusive, lyrical — ends up being identical to the relationship between Henderson and the land on which he worked and lived, verily made a living. Language as picture of reality, of the lived experience Henderson’s trying to communicate, limn, transfigure.
Poetic structure in space but also time and memory, weirdly compressed, telescoped by imagination. Henderson’s poems recount a number of seasons on the oil patch, the course of his interaction with place that’s ancient: oil rigs harvest time and past life, the substance of this. Henderson’s poems don’t just recount but represent, or conjure, as all stories do, but here the conjuring’s emphatic, the result of poetry directing so much attention to what’s off the page. Is it too hokey to say between the lines? That’s at least how I feel, hokey, reading most prose fiction attempts to compress time and experience: those tight, digressive overtures to show what the author’s just told. A different kind of formal convention that pales, corpse-like, next to poetry like this:
Everything you remember lives inside
the chicken-farm homestead
with its back-broken frame and that reek
of old water sitting still. At night the house breathes
with open windows, swells at the seams.
At sunrise, it exhales a dust so fine
you think of bull hearts, dried and ground.
When it’s gutted of furniture you find imprints
in the carpet: four beds, two dressers, a shelf.
And from those years when no one kept it,
from before the oil and the oilmen came, the mark
of where the deer walked in, lay down and died.
Whether you write it or not, there are good reasons to read poetry, nearly all of which are exemplified in The Lease: precision, imagination, patience, but especially the use of formal ingenuity to enliven. The best kind of artistic transfiguration feels not just appropriate but necessary, singularly apposite to communicating the artist’s heart and mind. I read quite a bit and don’t often feel this way, even about prose, good writing notwithstanding. (And to be fair, Henderson’s writing could, at times, be harder: imagine Cormac McCarthy without the uptown vocab, panoramic allusion.) What’s remarkable about Henderson’s book — the reason to take a chance on a 27 year old’s first work from a small press — is its demonstration of artistic judgment, what this looks like and why it matters. Writing that’s meant to be read, like light through ice, hard and clear and true. Try not to shield your eyes.