Rob Winger is a talented poet, a steely imagist with social conscience, political irony and acute intercultural awareness. In The Chimney Stone, he may also be a poet too easily seduced by the resonating lines of others. Attempting to wring clarity from complexity—personal, public and artistic, Winger incorporates song lyrics and memorable phrases from Adrienne Rich, John Thompson, Emmylou Harris and Dylan, to name a few. His book re-visions the ghazal—that flexibly favourite form embedded in the lyric traditions of Arabic, Persian Turkish and Urdu. The Chimney Stone is divided into four sections, “Iron John” and “Bloody Mary,” which deal with gender, and “Idiot Wind” and “Blind Date” with various global issues. Many poems (particularly in the second and third sections) arrive whole and complete, achieving an integration that sets them free. All sections contain gems—cut precisely to radiate meaning, shed new light—but also stubbornly unyielding chunks of rock. Ideally, each two-line unit of the ghazal makes its own statement while connecting to the rest of the poem.
Winger’s process is complicated. “Ghazal for Cash,” (as in Johnny) begins with hard realism caught in a frustrated plea to the singer: “Damnit, John, I’m trying to write a poem, here. Your June, your Hurt; / six decades on the hard disk. Bass E. No books.” We know who June is. “Hurt” (an endnote reminds us) is a song. The phrase “I’m trying to write a poem” is borrowed from Phyllis Webb’s 1965 collection, Naked Poems. The next line reads: “The thesaurus as species, as fossil. Pure Memory,” the italics a contribution from Christopher Dewdney’s 1973 collection, A Palaeozoic Geology of London, Ontario. So far, it’s a busy, stimulating combination. But then we move to “A tumour the size of a football, cut.” Imagistically, the poem then takes us to a grandfather’s knife, then to shattered glass. The logic of these ghazals’ images becomes erratic at times, even for the genre; elsewhere, lines catch and hold: “in the sunroom, his wife crushes wasps / with her thumb,” Winger encapsulates; the final cryptic question / statement is both philosphical and wry: “Are there enough stones cast in this river to jump across? / I’ve pulled a muscle.”
Many lines are quirky, momentary invitations to alternate ways of thinking, and being, like fragments of stained glass, like tesserae in a mosaic—sometimes representational, usually abstract. In its reverence for immortal lines and its fear of filling in, in providing endnotes that are richly exhaustive rather than consecutively clarifying, The Chimney Stone is eager to trade context for an intertextuality that perhaps inhibits the fullest range of Rob Winger’s own abilities, or perhaps, like particles drifting in the ether, these ghazals at once shine, shift and flare, and illuminate also the fading: “in your book, they’ve underlined, in pen, / all your lost illusions.”
Patricia Keeney is the author of nine poetry collections and one novel. She is a critic and editor, and an English and Creative Writing professor at York University in Toronto.