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TIGER IN THE SKULL: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, 1959-1985.

Lochhead, Douglas.

Fredericton, Fiddlehead Poetry Books/Goose Lane Editions, c1986. 130pp, cloth, $12.95, ISBN 0-86492-072-5. CIP

Post-Secondary
Reviewed by Tony Cosier

Volume 15 Number 1
1987 January


As I go through this selection of poems written over a twenty-seven year span by a distinguished academic, I note a characteristic use of rhetoric. A quick flip anywhere through the text will turn up abundant examples of alliteration, muscular diction, and repetitive endings such as "so close, so close," "a rose, a rose," and "glory, glory/love, love, love."

Lochhead is a keen observer of nature. When he talks about natural things, his language carries excitement. Shells take on a "wedged wildness. . frozen in sandstone shapes." Lochhead sees old battered bridges that have "gone to sleep in the sea's throat" and "pulsing wind-warped poles/and a staked fence saying what fences say." Taken in bits and pieces, by lines, by images, by phrases, these lyrics are satisfying. Too often, though, the sections do not come together.

Though dozens of poems in the book could illustrate the point, I will confine myself to "Hard Statements." The piece is full of poetic virtues. The title suggests authority. The repetition of the title in the opening line reasserts this authority and attaches it to a strong string of images: "the hard statements of bridge and rail/lines of poles and the staggered fences." The expression "staggered fences" on its own is striking. Further on, I like the sound of "unsubtle strictures over the great marshes." A ominous effect comes from "the land is a waiting enemy"; and there is comforting profundity in "it possesses all the lasting virtues." Likewise, "rust runs in increasing rivers" has a good sound. So does "the crash and crackle of trains."

But when I try to put all these effects together, I am baffled. The poem's statement is made up of two sentences. Consider the first, strictly for its meaning: "The hard statements of bridge and rail/ lines of poles and the staggered fences all give the hard edge of man's plotting patterns, of his unsubtle strictures over the great marshes." The second sentence is even more obscure: "Their short lives seem unbelievable but it is a fact, the land is a waiting enemy, it possesses all the lasting virtues, while rust runs in increasing rivers over its Madonna face and the crash and crackle of trains are heard going somewhere, the place is there and it is only a minor question, really." After a half a dozen readings, I am no closer to deciphering this than I was in my initial stab. To make matters worse, the introductory promise of "hard statements" has now descended to "only a minor question, really." I am left with little sense of the poem's significance.

There are some exceptions to this disconcerting pattern. 'The Meeting" is coherent and powerful. "Across the Park My Children Race the Clouds" has a crisp, tight thought. Straight physical descriptions such as "Winter Landscapeó Halifax" and "The Cemetery at Loch End" hold sharply to reality and never lose focus.


Tony Cosier, Confederation H. S., Nepean, Ont.
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