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Ken Babstock, Airstream Land Yacht
Toronto: Anansi, 2006.

I really wanted to like this book. Love it, in fact. I wanted to love it like I fell in love with Mean Babstock’s first book. Mean was glorious, it was the way and the light, and as I read it years ago I kept thinking, this is poetry one could emulate, this is poetry worthy of putting forward on the world stage, this is the best book of Canadian poetry I’ve read in years. Mean stuck with me, and it’s stuck with others: it’s the yardstick for a certain generation of poets. I know of what I speak: I’ve asked dozens of poets, in the midst of flagging polite conversation, “But what do you think about Babstock’s Mean?” And the reaction is often one I myself can identify with: unadulterated awe.

Then Days into Flatspin, Babstock’s second book, came out, too soon on the heels of Mean. These poems hadn’t fermented, they hadn’t gestated, and though they still showed the same talent, mind, the same observational consciousness, the same novel phrase-making, well, things hadn’t been pared down, made essential. Anansi rushed the book and the book suffered. So, hoping they had learned a lesson there, I anticipated loving this book, to fall in love again. Did I? A qualified, not an enormous, yes. First of all, Babstock’s almost always interesting. And I think I know why: he’s always observing, and he has a way of capturing scenes and details that’s memorable. What he sees, he transmutes. So if he’s on a train watching an army cadet or if he’s on Signal Hill watching kites–watching, always watching–there’s an interest kindled in the reader by the fidelity of the perception. The other obvious Babstock trademark is his skill with language. Sure, he’s got a sublime eye, but this would be nothing if he didn’t have the chops to express himself. And whole poems read like virtuoso technical pieces, poems like “Windspeed” and “Tarantella” that play with form, with end rhyme, off-rhyme, and internal rhyme. A brief sampling from “Franconia”: “We passed homes half-sheathed in Tyvek, / new model King Cabs guarding the lawns, / their taillights turned to the coughed-out wreck / out back on breeze-blocks. Vermont’s gone, gone….” Babstock’s poems quite literally play: the skill on hand here calls to mind a particularly dainty flourish by a pianist interpreting some traditional piece. (In “Found in a Sock Monkey Kit,” Babstock himself says “Sometimes making is play, only that.”) For example, in “Tarantella,” one gets the idea when Babstock rhymes “Bordatella” with “fella” and “tell a” and “Nutella” and “Danny Aiello.” These choices are as if to say: look at what I can do! And one does look. And acknowledge: they’re fresh, they’re unexpected. But eye and language aside, I must confess to loving–if loves should be quantified–this book less than Mean. First of all, all the danger is gone. Babstock writes a much more comfortable poetics, a less hardscrabble universe, and some of the violence that permeated Mean set his poetry aflame, caused it to lift and crackle. There was something transgressive, something angry about Mean, whereas Airstream Land Yacht is more contemplative, more world-weary, more overtly philosophical. (After all, it’s not mean, it’s a yacht!) It also does tend to go on. (If I may go on: there are too many itinerary poems, mere what-I-did-today compendiums. A few poems are slight one-offs like “The Lie Concerning the Work” that should have been culled. And the philosophy that is in the book seems to be grafted onto the poetry. But these are mere spats in a prolonged affair; still, I wished that Babstock would write about something more important from time to time.) I am sure this is just a matter of taste–whether young or mature love is more to your liking. And, it must be mentioned, the love poems in this book are a real accomplishment.

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