Peter Jaeger is one of my favorite Canadian poets, partly because in every book he seeks new ways in which a poem can be written. Family Time is ‘about’ his three children but is also a poetics lesson in various possibilities for constraint poetry.
You’re unlikely to find this little book in a Canadian bookshop – over time, it’s likely to be a scarce item. But one of Britain’s bigger book dealers, The Book Depository, has it available on-line, including through Amazon.ca.
Last week I looked at George Bowering’s thematizing of constraints in his new collection of short fiction, 10 Women. There are hints of that in at least one of Jaeger’s poems. In “The Rurals / Ruckles Park,” written on Salt Spring Island while his partner was pregnant with their first child, each prose stanza begins in a perception about gestation biology, marine biology, or woodland botany:
announcing how our lives will hold.
Sorry but I have no idea what to call these leaves or fungi growing here between
an amniotic sac and rattles of the chest is all.
Long green lane where the crow won’t fly and free range children play at
trampolines and junipers and sky.
The ‘rules’ evident here in the composition are also the biological ‘rules’ which govern human, other animal, and plant reproduction. The ‘birth’ and development of the poem parallel those of the child.
The title poem of the chapbook, “Family Time,” is based on a very simple rule: all of the text has to have been said within the family at a documented time. It begins:
7:36 Put some maple here! 7:36 And the other reindeer? 8:04 You can have your
croissant soon! 8:16 Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the King? 8:21 It’s not
prickly you just go in there and there’s space – lots of bits of space! 8:27 Mr. Popadom
Egg Rodent! 8:27 She has snake hair! 8:47 Dad, look at this! 8:47 Dad! 8:48 I went all
the way here! 8:48 Seriously! 8:48 Now you have to do this one! 8:48 That’s easy for
me! 8:49 I’ve got a cricket! 8:49 What? 8:49 I’ve got a cricket! 8:49 Where? 8:49 It’s
actually a fly! 8:50 Silas gave me the wallet to hold! 8:50 In my hand! 8:51 He has a
little hole to break through! 8:51 That’s him! 8:51 I think I should give him back to
Silas! 8:51 Do you want to hold the guy? 8:52 Did you say yes? 8:52 You can put your
hand like this and write! 8:52 Is he quite tickly? 8:53 Really tickly? 8:53 Can I hold him?
8:53 Now he’s hurt! 8:53 Can we just let him go? 8:53 Because there was a leg broken
off him! 8:55 Why can’t you hold him! 8:55 Or we could put him in your glasses! 8:55
Put him in your hand and tell me if you want him! 8:55 Someone left a Lego box here!
8:56 Dad, U want o get on a swing! 8:56 I can do this backwards. 8:56 I’ll show you. 8:56
Ready! 8:57 I’m hungry! ...
The social of course is inevitably a constraint in that interactions such as these evoke actions and responses that would not have occurred otherwise, and divert a person from others. Much of parenting is the teaching of some of the ‘rules’ of the social.
In “Silas Flying” Jaeger models his lines on the koans of 13th-century Buddhist master Dogen Zenji, riffing on how the master used the figure of ‘flying’ to debunk misunderstandings of loss, absence, past, and presence. If a bird flies ‘away,’ it doesn’t vanish or fly into the past; it is simply present in a different but no longer visible ‘here.’ ‘Flying’ in Jaeger’s lines denotes both the energy and exuberance of a child and Dogen’s continuous present. The constraint of Dogen’s koans not only limits – and complicates – the imagery of the poem but reinterprets paradoxically the limitlessness and timelessness – the timelessness of Dylan Thomas’s “time let me play and be golden” – experienced in childhood. In fact Jaeger’s “Silas Flying” can be read as an answer to Thomas’s “Fern Hill” – as a denial of its assumption that time holds one “green and dying.”
Only 30 pages, but Family Time is a rich little book.