“Killdeer” by Phil Hall

Are Canada’s poets getting old?  I feel like so many poetry collections I read lately or nostalgic ruminations on the poet’s development.  I’m certainly not complaining – I enjoy a good Prelude as well as anyone – I’m just making an observation after reading Phil Hall’s wonderful GG Award winning Killdeer: Essay-Poems from BookThug.  These poems, most of which have been published in some form elsewhere, collected together constitute a reflection not only on Hall’s development in life and poetry but also a sensitive consideration of poetry and life in Canada today.  In turn the poetry is painfully honest, haunting and heartbreakingly beautiful.  Killdeer is a wholly remarkable work.

The opening poem, “Adios Polka” left me mildly perplexed. I promised myself I would return to it after the rest of the book.  Are the lines phrases to be selected to produce interwoven sentences?  No, although there is something to be gained such active engagement by the reader.  I’m seeing it now.  It is a settling down the writing place to compose poetry – it is a composing for composing.

“There is nowhere to go off
but wordward” p. 11.

The second piece, “Bess & Lloyd”, the tale of a widow and her alliance with widower and and later her aging brother is worth the price of admission on its own.  The image of the bleeding deer in the swimming pool is eerie and haunting.

The remembrance of a visit with Margaret Laurence in section A of  “Becoming a Poet” is achingly moving and beautiful.  In B we are offered an earthy remembrance of Irving Layton.  Joyous.  Joyous and Nostalgic.  Breaking off the section before Hall receives the rejection slip is perfect.  In C, Canadian poets sing.  It has a bit of a feel of a Dennis Lee poem for adults, bad teeth and all.  What is it about bad teeth in Hall’s poems?  And D:  Arrival.  Exquisite!

“Becoming a Poet” does tell of the Growth of a Poet’s Mind, but it also is something of a Prelude to what strikes me as the meat of the collection, the lament for the poetry that was and the poets that were.  This lament is at the heart of virtually all the rest of the poems, perhaps nowhere more passionately than in “Twenty Lost Years”, an ode to the memory of Bronwen Wallace which will make you weep.

Hall next displays for us something of a poetry open stage – warts very visible – in “Dubious” and then a charming book collector named Drumbolis in “77 Florence”:

“In light of such atrocities [the burning of Iraq’s National Library] – Drumbolis’ s preservation instinct means – to catch the glowing ashes – & save them – so the world-as-book can be – if not rebuilt – at least remembered – intensely” p.54

Memory is at the heart of these quiet laments and the memories flit through the poems in the form of allusions to bits of literature and literary history remembered by few – until Hall reminds us.  “Disclosure” is virtually all reminder.

And then, “She Loved the Ocean”.

Confronting memories of childhood abuse as a couple, but being divided by separate ways of confronting.    He flees.  She returns to the place.  They both crouch.

He escapes her place of abuse by fleeing with a doe and her fawn into the scrub outside.  Is this the doe from the swimming pool in “Bess & Lloyd”?

In “The Small Sacrifice” (originally titled “A Blunt Garde”) Hall returns to poetry in Canada and it is all about hype, marketing, the sales pitch, the jacket blurb.  Hall doesn’t seem too pleased about this fact:

“I don’t believe in myself that much anymore”

There is criticism of Irving Layton:

“This line is theatre – not truth”

And more general:

“There are many ways to enact sincerity”

The Avant Garde now has “Scab Hollowness”.

Hall seems to ask, Has poetry exhausted it’s linguistic possibilities?  Is Hall arguing for a poetics of what feels “right”, be it shock, care or anywhere between or outside?

In “The Bad Sequence” Hall expands on a Poetics of the contemporary Canadian poem, defining a good poem by what it is not – a bad sequence.  But it is not completely clear that “bad” in “bad sequence” is a negative.  On p. 91 the Good sequence is given some definition.  It is being tortured by priests.

And, quietly invoking a sort of Muse: “Sometimes a poem just happens to a person like a long illness.” p. 93

Something which struck me:

“Half of the book’s budget will be spent on the colour cover – the biggest editing concern will be choice of font” p. 94.

For the record, at the end of the book we are told that Killdeer is

“Typeset in ITC New Baskerville and John Sans.  New Baskerville is a font family based on a type design created in 1724 by John Baskerville of Birmingham, England.  A historically important font, Baskerville helped bridge the transition from Old Style to Modern typefaces.  John Sans is a new grotesk developed at the Storm Type Foundry in Czech by type designer František Štorm.  John Sans is monolinear in character with fine shadings and softenings that benefit both its legibility and aesthetics.”

More gems:

“Poetry – a light – silence turns off & on – by forgetting & remembering” p. 96

“The bad sequence is not so bad
Who cares – it’s not evil” p. 96

“A Thin Plea” introduces  the killdeer, Hall’s totem bird.  This poem is the personal heart (or perhaps  the Mother Poem of the collection as described on p. 89 in “The Bad Sequence”).  Here Hall links himself both to the mythical Greek warrior Philoctetes and one point hints that his own skin ailment constitutes stigmata of a sort:  “If I put cream on my hands each day – the holes close up”.  “A Thin Plea” is poetry as therapy in a way, a therapy which produces results: by the end, a new totem bird has arrived and eaten the killdeer.

“Praxia” and “Verulam” are rich meditations on action and place.  Read them: they say more than I can.

The collection ends with the brief  “Envoi”

My notes the night I read it:

Departure on the river

The end.


Buy Killdeer.  Read it.  A lot.

2 comments on ““Killdeer” by Phil Hall

  1. An extraordinary book. And what a generous reading you’ve given it.

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