Review of Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets in Arc 61

Alessandro Porco

Zachariah Wells, ed. Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets. Montreal [sic]:
Biblioasis 2008.

Another century, another anthology. Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets is a
beautifully-designed anthology that brings up to date Lawrence J. Burpee's
A Century of Canadian Sonnets, published in 1910. Jailbreaks
has scope, with sonnets dating as early as the late-19th century. A good
chunk, though, is composed of more recent work from poets such as David
O'Meara, Stephen Brockwell, Evie Christie, Elizabeth Bachinsky, and Suzanne
Buffam, to name a few. As with any anthology, there are a few head-scratchers
included, sure, but also some jaw-droppingly good eye- (and ear-) openers.
The mid-century contributions by A.M. Klein and Anne Wilkinson are my
favourites (with W.W. Campbell's "At Even" a close third). Klein's
unmistakable "Sennet from Gheel" begins: "And these touched thunders, this
delyredrum / Outbrasting boom from shekels of cracked steel / Arrave the
whirled good [sic] dapht, as zany in Gheel!". The poem's "lunasylum" point
of origin explains the topsy-turvy lexical bazaar. Wilkinson's "School of
Hygiene" is cooly rational (subversively so) in its dealing with the very
excess of rational thinking that would curiously insist on a qualitative
relation between healthy (read: clean) living and good poetry. But such
hygienic aesthetic imperatives are in danger of making poetry overdone
("meat that has been ten times bled") and poetry readers ("pallid diners")
starved. Accompanying each poem in Jailbreaks is an explanatory note.
Notes include instructive explications from Wells; laments for neglected
poets; short vignettes; apologias; and occasional polemics. If length is
any indication, the more extended notes on Kenneth Leslie's "By Stubborn
Stars" and Peter Van Toorn's "Mountain Tea" [sic] suggest Wells's particular
affections. Also a note on Wells's ordering of the contents: every so often,
he creates thematic or subject-based clusters. For example, there are three
sports-related sonnets from pages 101-103. A cautionary note: any proper
consideration of major historical occasions of sonneteering--in particular,
I'm thinking of Petrarch and Dante, and later Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare,
and Donne (who master and make smooth Wyatt's and Surrey's early striated
translations), and even later George Meredith, and more recently John
Berryman--suggests sonnets best realize their idiosyncrasy and habit, and
best gain polyvalence and emotive punch, when part of a larger sequence.
Indeed, contributions to Jailbreaks by Robert Allen, Kenneth Leslie,
Daryl Hine, and Wayne Clifford, for example, are better read in the context
of their original extended sequences. The sequence enables heterogeneous
relations and opacity, of which the selected excerpt is denied and the one-
off sonneteer--without "historical sense"--altogether represses or, worse,
willfully ignores. Lack of context marks Jailbreaks in another way,
too. History, politics, geography, gender, race, class--these componential
particulars of meaning-making are deracinated and cast aside. Conflicting
poets and poetics are instrumentalized, and homogenized under the rubric of
"sonnet," which, according to Wells, signifies a "basic unity of human
experience and identity." I'm uncomfortable with that Universalizing gesture.
Like all poetic forms, the sonnet's a site of contestation, not of
"essence." It should be treated as such.
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