John Lent composes in long loping lines, often in mellifluous sentences, rather than breaking his lines on phrase, or against the grain of his syntax, though he’ll also narrow down the line to a pneumatic drill on occasion too, or let it eddy and pool at the edges of the things he sees like phagocytic print shadows swallowing up suburban lawns in late afternoon. He’s attentive and patient and canny. And Thistledown has done him justice with a wider format and smart design to accommodate the wide net of his narrative reach.
Reach he does too, whether it be accretive, through stream of consciousness narrative, or via more deliberate, meditative narrative, running a riff (image, anecdote, memory, or incident) to ground or through motif changes. He doesn’t reach for a big mallet to hit the bell of deep image, though the rich green carpet of the grass is studded with beautiful things he happens to observe adeptly. Rather, he starts from whatever is at hand — the raw materials of his everyday experience: driving to and from his job as a college professor; noticing the difference to the biome and events if he happens to set out twenty minutes earlier or twenty minutes later than he would travelling the same route any other day; the task of fixing a dilapidated bird house, and what it teaches him about keeping the domestic world in order; kicking around the house or listening to Lightfoot on the highway; improvising in chordal or modal fashion on a riff; the surprise of happiness attached to little deeds and habits; the importance of examining, reflecting on, capturing the moments; how we unwind skeins of narrative as we contextualize our lives around goals, disappointments, happenstance; create, narratize, rather than find our lives. How patient observation can be rewarded; how the tendency to anthropomorphize our will on the wild can undermine it.
It’s traditional enough meditative narrative poetry perhaps, but wholly conscious of new narrative — not just plotted or epiphanic. I especially like the ordinary language vocabulary, the mastery and fluidity of the syntax; the voice is capacious, kind, observant, but not self-congratulatory. I feel I can trust this poet. If he doesn’t take the corners at a clip, indeed, when he slows down, I find myself smiling in recognition of the scenery. I’m grateful, settling into the language like one of those old bench seats in a ‘57 Buick Special.
The skills John Lent has learned writing stories, songs, and novels are well-honed here and it’s nice to see his poetry again. — Richard Stevenson
John Lent's first full-length book of poetry, Wood Lake Music, came out in 1982, followed by Frieze in 1984; the small press, short Black Horses, Cobalt Suns in 2001; and now Cantilevered Songs in 2009, with just 30 poems. I cannot call Lent prolific by any stretch of the imagination, but he is worth the wait. His modus operand'} is to go from the particular to the grand, from the singular to the various. He revels in the connectivity of things. I'd call him a self-effacing Canadian Whitman without all the Os and exclamation marks. Give him a moment and he will tell you what he's doing, why he's doing it, what it means to your life and how far along the road to learning you both are. He can neatly transform the singular “I” into the collective “we” with no hullabaloo. Cantilevered Songs derives its title from the physical look of the poems on the page. Most mimic the supporting bracket or projecting arm you've seen holding up a balcony, or bridge spanning a river. The lines start out rather long — 16 words or more — and taper down to about five at each poem's conclusion. Occasionally, he writes a monolithic-looking stanza into a poem that reminds me of the massive reinforcement at the base of a cantilevered bridge. Even if the poem does not take the visual form of a cantilever, it invariably conveys the sense of long-reaching support in its sentiments. This particular form effects an acceleration as the lines shorten, creating an urgent forward motion. The major motif these poems obsessively stalk and circle is light and darkness. Lent mines and examines contrast and gradations, but also the co-existence of light and dark in our lives repeated as foregrounds, backgrounds, metaphors and the very canvas of these poems: “a deluge of perfectly thick / white”; “a monstrance / waiting for the sun to bleach into a safe invisibility”; “a Byzantium / of white to what lies beneath it, / what is always waiting / at the end of seeing”; “all this under the black rim / of my Archibald Lampman hat / in the noonday heat.” Lent's repetitions of speech border on redundancy—”things to be done, things to be / finished.” His common-man voice makes his lines read like parts of a casual chat over the back fence. But Lent is sly. He will as soon shake his fist at his Catholic childhood God on a morning walk as improvise, with jazzman Bill Evans in the background, while he marks his students' semester compositions. In his poems, we find John Lent in the fuss of habit and in the haunting recollection of his brother 1000 miles away, under the same night sky: “But here we are in this black fugue, / alive and wondering, two sets / of blue eyes staring into Eden, gauging it, wary.” Lent understands dichotomy and unity, a raccoon's murderous impulse with sparrows, driving into a Canadian winter, how to repair a deck, music, lots of music. All find their way into his fine and observant writing. — Andrew Vaisius
Driving the Okanagan in first snow, music (Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Lightfoot), teenage memories, college level teaching, birds and birdhouse, neighbours and mentors, the seasons—the lanky, easygoing musings in John Lent’s Cantilevered Songs are reminiscent of unrushed conversations with old friends.
In this work, the Vernon-based college administrator and jazz vocalist is fascinated with joinery. “. . . . this mystery / of joining, of intersections, corners, fits, so / damn important in everything we do, each small jazz symphony we might construct. . .”
So it is that Lent explores corners and intersections of things architectural, linguistic, spiritual and material, “cantilevered cathedral of stars and nebula.”
Artfully constructed on the page in cantilevered shapes, Lent’s lines, though not cliffhangers, are not without risks. Philosophical but not intellectual, these longish prose poems speak of contentment and appreciation. Though not mystical, they are religious in the best sense of the word; awe, awareness and gratitude.
Lent nods to his (now relinquished) Catholic upbringing, “How to accept this vessel of flesh and bone, this home… this incarnation we are, the word made flesh, a molecular cathedral straining within itself…” — Hannah Main-Van Der Kam
Writer/musician John Lent of Vernon, B.C., sings an honest, down-home ballad to the self in his eighth book, Cantilevered Songs (Thistledown Press, 69 pages, $17).
Lent's poetry transcends "the usual stuff" of everyday life into epiphany. These highly musical, spacious poems (both in content and in form) consider the polyphony of self — at once reflective, relational, transformative and dreamed.
In Listening to Lightfoot on the Highway, Lent writes: "As I turn the key off in its / ignition sleeve I wonder what self / observes me in this instant, what music / surrounds me, some dark further grace / some song?"
This is a moving collection that plays the music of the ordinary and the particular — the dog walks and exam supervisions of the day.
It is here, in the present moment of life, that Lent sings out with a voice so refreshingly raw: "Why can't I simply be this thing I have so carefully / concealed, the best part."
— Jennifer Still
I’m making a tradition of recommending poetry for The Fix’s Green Issue: Alison Calder’s Wolf Tree for 2008, Sheri Benning’s Earth After Rain for 2009, and now John Lent’s Cantilevered Songs for 2010.
John Lent lives and writes in the Okanagan, and has been publishing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for thirty years. He’s no novice, and his poems carry a relaxed confidence that comes with experience. Lent’s poetry captures the profound in the simple, the extraordinary within the everyday.
A note at the back of Cantilevered Songs informs readers that by printing the book on chorine free paper made with 100% post-consumer waste, Thistledown Press saved 1 tree, 675 gallons of water, 41 pounds of solid waste, and 140 pounds of greenhouse gasses. However, that’s not the only reason this book lends itself well to this green issue. Green imagery permeates the book reminding readers of the seductive pull of the wild and the lessons to be learned there. In “Winter Blues,” spring is a “yawn of green that almost makes/ you pass out, gives you a fever,/ forces you to your knees.” In a poem called “Home,” the speaker imagines a wilderness behind the blinds and cul-de-sacs of his neighbourhood, a wilderness that “opens up for miles and simply/ miles of a thick green, moist confusion,/ another kind of everything.” Again, in a piece called “I Must Lie Down Where. . .,” you the reader are torn between the natural world and the constructed one. One moment you are running through a field “of long green brome” and “you begin to inhale the green/ endlessness before you, and the animal/ muscle naturalness of it,” but just as you get used to that, you find yourself clothed in silk walking through a bound cathedral made of oak. As soon as you find comfort in the “relieving solidarity” of that world, you’re back in the field “running against the sun and moon/ in the gauze-strewn blue air/ of the heart.”
In the dreamlike, hazy reality of these poems, we swing between the manmade world and the wild one, unable to rest comfortably in either, unable to even know for sure where one ends and the other begins. In one poem, the speaker studies trees until he is “overwhelmed by green” and seems to become a tree himself: “still/ ringing, still/ enfolding/ myself for/ and against/ the wind.” There is no distinction between humans and nature, Lent reminds us, because we are nature. Or, in his own words: “you are here as planted/ and as green as everything else: that is the gift itself, that/ communion of air, of earth, of water.” Lent continually merges wild landscapes and human consciousness, and his originality stems from the way he accomplishes this fusion with an ever present sense of reverence and awe.
Really, I want quote from Lent’s poetry rather than review it. I want to say: Look at this! Listen to this! Feel this! I want to read aloud from “Intersections,” my favourite poem of the collection, and let you hear its clear-sighted wisdom. See, I want to say, See?
Copyright © 2010 by Angie Abdou, Ph.D.
The poems in this collection, whose title evokes both the "song" of its Latin root "canto" and the architectural term for "a beam or girder supported at one end" used in bridges and balconies, focus on the ordinary with a lyricism that draws on imagery from carpentry and architecture. Along with this celebration of the everyday, a reverence for tradition, whether in architecture or literature, becomes evident, with nods to writers as diverse as George Ryga, Sylvia Plath, Richard Ford, and Tim Lilburn. The subject matter ranges from an appreciation of ordinary activities such as banking or washing a car to an abhorrence for fanatics and bureaucrats who, in Lent's view, defy what is reasonable and humane. Lyrical moments in Cantilevered Songs include the speaker's glimpsing an eleven-year-old's joie de vivre, his understanding the delight of a neglected dog when it is finally taken for a walk, and his nightmare about a school friend who died suddenly during his adolescent years.
The poems typically unfold in a free-verse form and often includes colloquial asides with the confidential tone of one person talking to another. Frequently, the poems end on a diminuendo, a shortening of the lines, when the urgency of the moment has worn itself to an end.
In "Weightless," the speaker talks about driving "around the city like everybody else" while he does his chores. Like everyone else's car, his is sometimes a "mess," but he envisions that he has the power to change this situation and to create a "brand new world / of car in an hour." These are simple delights of the modern everyman, but the poem does not end here:
. . . I walk past the enamel-painted frames of the windows leading into my favourite café and order the usual the usual the usual, lugging my take-out coffee onto the charcoal streets, squinting into the afternoon sun, gripping the steering wheel with real hands, real flesh, drop by the bank, take money out, pay some bills, put some money in, all the usual stuff, all the usual stuff, ( 11)
The repetition of "the usual, the usual" and "all the usual stuff, all the usual stuff" strikes a perfect chord in its painstakingly clear evocation of our own lives. Furthermore, this "day in the life" prepares the reader for the joy of the speaker looking into the eyes of his "loyal dog" and for his meditation about resigning himself to the eventuality of becoming "dust."
"Gabrielle, Jumping for Joy" looks into an eleven-year-old niece's excited eyes after a road trip when she is too preoccupied to give the details of her journey. The poet comes to the conclusion that the world she perceives may not be the same one he sees, even though he looks off into the distance to where she appears to be looking. The speaker comments that he is
. . . happy to have been there to see her and be dragged by her into this fiercer world we sometimes forget to find, even though it is at the heart of the one we see (12)
Here, as often in Lent's poems, the outpouring tapers to a final point (like an inverted tornado!), both modest and penetrating in its ecstatic/celebratory approach. One of the pivotal poems is "Molecular Cathedral," in which Lent discusses the philosophical problem of self-interest, that it may be described as the origin for all human actions, even altruistic ones. In characteristically down-to-earth colloquial style, Lent refers to this concept as "scary":
How can the poem resolve selfishness and connection to others and the brutal green limits that gird these fields of time and matter? How can we accept this vessel of flesh and bone, this home, and not destroy it and allow it to turn in a bright field of other dancing bodies, occasionally intersecting, touching, alive in a primal presence and a longing past safety and hunger, for replication, yes, but for something more, too, something not anticipated maybe, always a surprise, (22)
Lent creates an iconic view of human relations with the construct of a "molecular cathedral," and concludes that a focus-on-self must be interpreted as a "pledge" of self-love from which other love emanates in an ever-expanding structure.
The speaker in "Morning Walk Backwards" considers how a landscape may look different if travelled at another hour or during another year, and focuses his attention on a school friend who unexpectedly died. He talks about their shared adolescent experiences, "eyeing up the girls from the other schools" and "hanging out at The Chinese Grocery" before "plopping [their] bikes down / on the smooth lawn off Saskatchewan Drive," the mention of the "fat brown river" ominously connected with his friend's end.
. . . the myth coursing through our childhoods, the true length of our bodies, just lying there yacking, before there were shopping malls, before everything got processed, before it all got weird: those great eyes you
had, Ron, your easy laugh, your freckled good looks and will, your difficult, early exit from all this, your death (26)
He remarks that at the time they "didn't have the language to bring [him] back/ or comfort [themselves] even," and in a graceful image talks about accepting "the swish of a door closing / quietly." Although I would have suggested that this superb poem should end with this image, it continues in terms that verge on sentimentality--though not quite, since we have come to trust the speaker's integrity.
Lent's voice is one of realism with lyrical flights that soar above the ordinary he sets out to extol. We begin to see through his spiritually attuned eyes, and appreciate the simple patterns that make us human within a greater "molecular cathedral" of humanity. Lent's is a generous and wise verse that somehow combines William Wordsworth in its celebration of the everyday and Gerard Manley Hopkins in its spiritual exuberance (if that combination does not sound too preposterous).
— Gillian Harding-Russell
Gillian Harding-Russell lives, reviews, edits, teaches and writes in Regina. Her latest collection of poetry is I forgot to tell you (Thistledown Press, 2007).