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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

"Ashland" by Gil Adamson - book review

originally published in Prairie Fire Review of Books (here revised)

by Gil Adamson
Toronto: ECW Press, 2003, ISBN 1-55022-576-6, 79 pp., $16.95 paper.

Gil Adamson’s Ashland is one of the best poetry books I read in 2003, if not the best. Gripping and furious, the poems resonate with a mythic power, invoking the spectre of the old American west. Although Adamson hails from Toronto, and nowhere in the book does she situate "Ashland" in any sort of geography, Ashland occupies an imaginative space in the mythology of Puritan America, a landscape stalked by gunslingers, the ghosts of their victims, and other, older things which are far more terrible.

The book opens with a number of prose-poems, and throughout the poetry feels like prose, each piece possessing its own narrative drive. Ashland feels more like fiction than poetry at times, having more in common with the work of Faulkner, Morrison, and above all Cormac McCarthy, than with any of Adamson’s Canadian or American poetic contemporaries. Each poem in the book contains enough character and story to base a short work of fiction around, and Adamson uses this concise, compelling style to great effect. Although each poem is a separate beast, the disparate works are bound by the writing style and the tone which pervades the book. A good example of this can be seen in the first poem from the collection, "Vigil," which sets up "Ashland" as both a place and a mood, a doomed land where the living and the dead are separated by thin divisions:

"Mrs. Dumont has slashed herself across her withered thigh. Two young people recently married are now indifferent to one another. The oldest trees on our main street are dying, all five together. Half the mines are closing due to extreme cold. The men cry over their starved children, bludgeon their wives for sheer pity, bury them in barrels and pillow cases."

"No man or woman is so dear that Ashland will suffer for long or that the townspeople will be convinced to think as one. Vigil as you like; old age takes care of itself, violence does the rest." (3)

Adamson combines this prose-like style (here clear prose) with the poetic device of the list to great effect. In quick bursts, Adamson calls up strong images of place and character, allowing her to build, tell, and end a story in (for the most part) less than 30 lines. The brevity of each piece is astounding, considering the vividness of the images conjured and the sheer power of the storytelling.

Adamson creates memorable, if mythic and therefore at times one-dimensional characters, in the same fashion. In one of the best poems of the book, "Finally," Adamson creates a demonic preacher, who, though no multi-faceted character in his own right, represents another facet of the character of Ashland itself:

He had a huge biting dog
that went everywhere with him,
and a nasty glass eye that seemed to disagree
with whatever he said.
[. . .]
We understood his secret lesson,
that God had been free of us once,
and would be again. (47)

Though the preacher is a stock character to a great degree, the fatalistic terror which he imparts to the townspeople fleshes out not only their characters but the character of the place. Ashland is indeed the book’s main character, a dead, haunted realm, its inhabitants cursed for eternity to reenact the events which led to their damnation. A hellish place, Ashland is an oppressive presence in the book, always on the periphery, colouring each poem and providing a great sense of unity to the book which not only strengthens each separate poem but makes for a more compelling read than the average collection. An impressive writer with a great sense of story, Gil Adamson possesses a singular vision and an immense talent.


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