the book of smaller by rob mclennan

With notions of beauty, poetics in fashion, fallibility of technique, and a return to form as starting points, rob mclennan offers readers a study of the prose poem form in the book of smaller. mclennan’s is a textually-reflexive book, intensely interested in ars poetica and compositional theories, written in the company of Canadian poets such as John Newlove, Robert Kroetsch, Nelson Ball, and Gil McElroy, joined by American poets Ed Dorn and Charles Bernstein, among others. Several poets are engaged serially. Within the collection, there are two poems addressing Vancouver poet Adèle Barclay (or are they referring to the village in the Quebec Laurentians; in this context it could be either) entitled “The Sainte-Adèle Variations”; two poems entitled “C. D. Wright, Shall Cross,” conjuring both the late American poet, who died suddenly in January 2016, and her posthumous collection Shall Cross (Copper Canyon Press, 2016); as well as three poems entitled “Anne Carson, Short Talks,” nodding to the poet, classicist, and translator and her 1992 collection of prose poems, Short Talks published by Brick Books.

“mclennan is witness in synaptic snippets, snapshots, and snatches, offering readers “Intricate works. Confession. Fiction a fable, fact” from the perspective of a stay-at-home dad who cares for his daughters and “holds down the house.””

Modern poet Gertrude Stein and her groundbreaking Tender Buttons, published in 1914, which offers language portraits of mundane objects and quotidian subjects, are conspicuously absent from the collection’s foreground. However, given mclennan’s intense interest in subjects of the everyday, the definition of the sentence, and the prose poem form, Stein ghosts his book from the background. There is no escaping Gertrude Stein’s influence when in the realm of the prose poem!

Stein may not have been as interested in using the prose poem form to explore themes of loss, mourning, and reflection as mclennan is. “Every work a hymn,” a lament, or an elegy within this collection, honouring or remembering one who has died—whether a poet, a friend, a teacher or a parent. Many of the poems include appearances and memories of the poet’s parents: “Mother, mother, father”—“Elegies are never simple.” mclennan asks: “How do we remember grief?” His answer: “Transcript, witness.”

mclennan is witness in synaptic snippets, snapshots, and snatches, offering readers “Intricate works. Confession. Fiction a fable, fact” from the perspective of a stay-at-home dad who cares for his daughters and “holds down the house.” His poems are alive with the family’s quotidian, private homelife and the way domestic duties feed or interrupt the writer’s work: “I attempt lawn chair, poetry books, shade. Slathered the children in sunscreen.” Perhaps by virtue of creative necessity, the two roles—father and writer—regularly mix together in the subjects of the poems: “My middle daughter’s wakeful rustle, cry. Syntactical.” Counterbalancing the poems that reveal who the writer is as a father, juggling his familial and creative demands, are a series of six poems entitled “Forty-seventh birthday,” which infer an “annual nod to origins.”

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“Self-portrait, ibid” may be one way to read the book of smaller. However, that’s not the only way to read the collection. When the poems transcend the various trappings of points of view, they become more than “Words arranged as memories”; more than “History: a blanket of dead metaphor.” They become poems, the “subject of erasure.” the book of smaller is the “ghost of fifty failed attempts.”

Then, “Who will be the author?” mclennan, the poet. mclennan the poet is “awake… to sentences,” but the “sentence is always unfounded.” mclennan, the poet, acknowledges the persistence writing requires.

What does it mean to “write our true selves into being”? mclennan’s answer from the title poem: “Say less. Listen. Write.” Despite “the burden of memory,” mclennan “write[s] it all down.”


About the Author

rob mclennan lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with two wee girls. He is the author of more than thirty books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. He is the winner of the John Newlove Poetry Award, the Ottawa Council for the Arts Mid-Career award, and was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour in 2014.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ University of Calgary Press (May 15 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 126 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773852612
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773852614

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