‘Montreality: B-Sides & Rarities’ and ‘Wordwards’ — By Stephen Cain
Alessandro Porco reviews Stephen Cain’s work for Matrix Magazine
Since the release of his last trade collection, 2005’s American Standard / Canada Dry, Toronto poet Stephen Cain has kept busy, releasing two beautifully-made chapbooks that also happen to be excellent reads: Montreality: B-Sides & Rarities and Wordwards. The former is a mish-mash of poems composed between 1997 — the year of Cain’s debut, dyxlexicon — and 2005; the latter chapbook highlights Cain’s new visual poetry, which borrows a visual rhetoric from safety instructional signs. Montreality: B-Sides & Rarities is framed as a 45rpm disc, featuring lost or forgotten Cain “tracks” culled from unreleased “basement” juvenilia (e.g. a 60 matrix Tzara-influenced cut-up titled “A Dada Poem,” from “circa 1992”) to one-off poems that appeared in magazines but not full-length collections (e.g. the surreal-influenced poem “Loop,” from an early issue of the now-defunct Queen Street Quarterly). The book’s structure continues Cain’s exploration of and engagement with popular music, which began with dyxlexicon, a book that includes Stein-influenced prose-poems aiming to represent in language the experience of listening to an entire album. The “tracks” in Montreality show Cain experimenting with a variety of forms, though of a less numerological sort than is typical for the poet. It includes, for example, the self-reflexive epigram “To Epimenides:” “Don’t read this / And I won’t write it down,” a response to the Cretan’s philosopher’s famed paradox of the same sort, “All Cretans are liars.” “Initial Sequence” is a series of couplets made up entirely of authorial initials: the couplet effectively puts one author in conversation with another, such as “F.R.” Scott and “D.C.” Scott — “Initial Sequence” recalls Cain’s “dix mots pour rien” (from dyslexicon), wherein the poet imagines conversations between various poets. There’s also an abecedarian, “Alph-Bites,” which works through the alphabet using literary character names (“Frankenstein & Gatsby & Heathcliff & Ishmael,” etc.). Overall, while the poems in Montreality may not be equal in quality to Cain’s trade collection poems, such as “American Standard” or his “detector” series, they nonetheless serve as a nice historical supplement to Cain’s work over the course of a eight-year period. Of the two collections, Wordwards — published by derek beaulieu’s No Press in a limited edition of 30 — is more recent and more captivating. As noted above, Cain’s ten visual poems borrow their rhetoric from safety instructional signs; that rhetoric is used to tackle especially literary concerns, ranging from mainstream newspaper’s disinterest in poetry to the complicated relations between emergent and consecrated figures within any literary community. Cain addresses the latter, for example, in a poem titled “Do Not Engage with Senior Poets:” a Godzilla-esque figure is shown breaking a tiny plane in half. By using safety instructional signs as a template for his visual poems about the literary community, Cain is suggestively revealing just how what we deem to be “literary” and of quality in this country depends on nothing less and nothing more than adhering to the socially-informed instructions and correspondent values shared by a given set of people in positions of (relative) power. Something to always keep in mind.