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book review

Phil Hall, Canadian poet

If you came to be a fan of Phil Hall through his Governor-General's and Trillium awards-winning (not to mention Griffin Prize-shortlisted) book Killdeer, it's likely you'll be a bit surprised at, and perhaps tempted to put down, his latest book, The Small Nouns Crying Faith. The title itself hints at a more difficult book for the average reader, and even the jacket copy, a space normally reserved for saying pleasant things to sell the book to would-be readers, is difficult – reading, in its entirety: "Nut hatch piss-mire wirb." Translation: Put your brain's muscle shirt on. That said, perseverance will pay you richly if you decide to stick with it, and maybe reread it a few times.

Hall has long been a darling of the experimental set, but attained mainstream fame last year by taking home top prizes both provincially in Ontario, and nationally, through the G-G win and Griffin nomination. Furthermore, he did this with the support of the spunky experimental press Bookthug, which has jumped from producing only small art volumes to professionally produced and widely distributed mainstream trade books in only a few short years. Yet even in trade books, Bookthug's aesthetic still centres on the sensual nature of the book as a fetish object – jibing nicely with Hall's latest collection, in which words and lines are fetish objects.

Where Killdeer was a literary memoir in verse that took the voice of an affable traveller through the history of CanLit, telling the sort of charming stories a wild and crazy uncle might while bouncing you on his knee, The Small Nouns Crying Faith seeks to restore some of Hall's experimental street cred by playing with the movement and disintegration of language in strange and compelling ways; making it read like the same wild and crazy uncle, but perhaps coming down off bath salts.

Lines are long and hoary still, making for a wider book, and pocked with caesurae (gaps) that replace punctuation and hint at vocal rhythms. The sense is of stretching out, of riffing, in a jazz-like way, the words falling where the breath drops them. Take the opening line of Fletched: "A flower no I mean one who unplucked flows the o as in holy not ouch."

Besides the blissful sound bonding, there's the slow disintegration of language taking place, with "flower" being "plucked" to "flows" and the "o" in "holy" and "ouch" being examined in a childlike way, as wings "plucked" from a fly.

Hall is a surrealist, or "surruralist" in his own coinage, and he works in language the way a sculptor might work in mixed media, combining words and ideas in sometimes jarring, sometimes surprisingly elegant ways. In either case, Hall is after the sublime as a byproduct of play.

Take this section from Plevna (named, coming as it does in a section titled Rural Pen, for the tiny town in Ontario):

Ah research now there's the ear's coffin
If you win your earnestness means more each epiphany a bronzed mite
but failure tumbles effulgence until Anonymous muddles true

What does that even mean? Well, do what it says: your research. Google Plevna, read the rest of the poem, muddle it out. I'm betting your guess will make him as happy as his.

If you are having trouble following the gist of his lines, try for a moment forgoing the literal understanding of the words and allow yourself instead to experience the words in your mouth, the way you might with a Dr. Seuss book for a child. I'm betting there will be passages you'll have to practise saying over and over because the consonance and assonance (percussive hard sounds and softer vowels) create a sound that is both English and Hall's own language.

While Small Nouns does retreat here and there into chatty voice from Killdeer, it often returns as tool for the poet to comment on the poetry, as in the sectional poem, Remnant Road: "There was a time when a man like me/could sit down & draft a competent poem in an hour or two."

This is really the crux of my own problem with Canadian poetry, and one Hall is unintentionally addressing in this hybrid book: While competent poems are good enough for grants and publishers, is "good enough" good enough? I guess you have to decide book by book. Certainly this book strives to reach beyond "good enough."

George Murray's latest book is Whiteout. He lives in St. John's.