Oddities and ironies

The Surface Of Time

By Carmine Starnino

A review of The Surface Of Time by Louis Dudek

Published on April 1, 2001

The Surface Of Time
Louis Dudek

Empyreal Press
$12
paperback
84pp
0-921852-31-2

I recently got my hands on Louis Dudek’s reading copy of John Metcalf’s notorious 1982 essay collection, Kicking Against the Pricks. Although the book’s margins are rife with checks of approval (Dudek seemed particularly excited – it earned a triple tick-off – by Metcalf’s complaint on page 150 that “We are mired at the moment in hopeless dishonesty about our literature”) the annotations I cherish most are a pair of very small question marks lightly penciled beside two opinions aired on page 167: “Our two most important poets are Irving Layton and John Newlove” and “I suspect that the idea of a ‘major poet’ – one who changes our emotional landscape and recharges our language – is now an historical concept.” To appreciate why Dudek would wrinkle his nose at those ideas, one has to recall that Dudek trusted that his achievements had enough street-cred to vouchsafe his inclusion in any “most important” roll call, and that the grist for those achievements was supplied by the vision of his own perceived authority as tribal elder.

But while I’m charmed by the implied quarrel of those tiny, low-key question marks and by the unguarded way his ego was roused into action during a moment of quiet reading, I must come clean and admit that Dudek’s poetry has always seemed to me to be of the sort which has “gone wrong.” I’ve always been bothered by the platform quality of his voice. Dudek is an ideas man with strong opinions and an unsophisticated ear who writes lines that bang with the tinniness of his assertions. In thrall to the Cantos, he wanted to be – Pound for Pound – the preeminent modernist in Canada. His weakness for intellectual sloganeering, however, overpowered his own attempted epics (after a certain point, stuffing more and more opinions into one’s verse is only an additive process: it does not make the resulting work more profound) and left them suffering from gigantism, and betrayed the fact that Dudek had very few natural poetic gifts.

If The Surface of Time demonstrates anything, it’s that Dudek’s poems are still living off the Cantos. In fact, at 83, Dudek seems, eerily enough, to have reached the same point an elderly Pound reached in his own work: where the familiar persona – standoffish, authoritative, opinionated – has been shaken down by the oddities and ironies of aging. Of course, we still have the pulpit voice with its expectation of an audience waiting to be instructed, but Dudek’s thinking now has a wry, brisk, crabwise movement ( the “waitresslessness” of an empty restaurant, for example) that turns each poem into a tiny trawl for clarity. In fact, Dudek regards these undeceived, dry-eyed, late-at-night thoughts as his “end-game” and as last poems they have none of John Berryman’s horror at “staring down the intolerable years / to the mild survival” or Robert Lowell’s fear of the “sanity of self-deception.” Dudek’s poems are closer to the deep ambivalence of Ivor Gurney’s “farewell to all earth / Save to that six-foot-length I must lie in / Sodden with mud”:

It’ll be so nice
to see me
gone from the world
some sunny morning,

my walking stick left on the hook,
the arthritis
left behind,
that cough, that tottering step:
all those adorable vanities
withered on the shelf
(I cannot tell you the full depth
of my indifference,

even indifference to the indifference —
the indifference of God
looking the other way,
and man looking the other way.)

One could call this defeatist, or death-chastened, or disconsolate if the lines didn’t flex with such serious mischief. “When shall I give up the little ghost?” Dudek asks elsewhere with unblinking – and almost cheerful – curiosity. In The Surface of Time death becomes something neither “whined at” nor “withstood” (to use Philip Larkin’s terms); there is just the impatience to be off, and the dark whimsy of the valediction. Indeed, if Dudek’s book asks to be read as tombstone speculations, the poems exhibit a rather untombstone tone: something at once cagey and acerbic and satirical, all tamped down inside a moving, workaday honesty. Interestingly, although it’s typical for a poet’s abilities to slow with age, the lesser instruments that Dudek has always played with sound rather good in this book; his artless voice suited to the stark sagacities – “Despite the modern technologies / we die the old-fashioned way / when the time comes” – of reporting on what he calls “the theatre of his last days.” mRb

Carmine Starnino is a Montreal poet whose latest book of poems is "With English Subtitles" (Gaspereau 2004).

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