Hanging Fire

By Phyllis Webb

Coach House Press

78 pages

In Hanging Fire, here eleventh collection of poems, Phyllis Webb cites as her epigraph a definition of poetry:

in poetry … sound will initiate
thought by a process of association …
a form of thought that is not rational
but erotic because it works by
attraction.

But Hanging Fire does not live within the terms of this definition (taken from Daphne Marlatt, musing with mother tongue). There is unfortunately little of either the irrational or the erotic in Hanging Fire. Instead, Webb plunges us into the world of “the / death of the lyric poem.” Her poetry is not poetry in itself but simply words about poetry. To write in free verse about he process of poetry and the failure of poetry is not necessarily to make poetry. Nor does such a poetic stance necessarily have a point anymore. It is a very tired tune:

Words. Words

jumping the gun

on soundlessness.

The river flows on,

of course, vile stream

of ever-exchanging platitudes.

Or Webb taps her own temple and “it taps back an undeciphered code.” It is the poet’s function to decipher life and its codes for us. Webb does not do so. Rather, she takes refuge in the trivial:

as the poem records Bach

in invisible margins, neighbour

pruning his shrubs, her baby-

sitter sorting out her own love-

life at Bino’s Pancake House.

Only in one poem does her attention to the trivial and her indulgence in intellectual constructs really come together to good effect — in the long prose-poem story “Paradise Island.” On this fictitious island off the coast of B.C., a woman is shoplifting in a Pharmasave — “toothbrush, tampax, iron pills, flea collar … shampoo, peroxide, garbage bags.” Webb smartly continues:

The mythological proportions of the
story are splendid, if obvious. Eve,
the first woman to be seduced by
advertising and deathwish, is at it
again, agog with superabundance and
enclosure, slightly west-south and
light years east of Eden.

Sadly, this clarity of sentiment and thought are a rarity in Hanging Fire.

A last irritant are the concrete poems that occupy the middle section of the book. An example of these ineffectual baubles is the title poem—simply the words “hanging fire” printed thus four times across the page:
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Do we mind that Phyllis Webb has trouble trapping her muse? No, not really. Only when she goes on about it through dozens of poems/pages about the present impossibility of poetry. In this diffuse book, Webb provides irrefutable support for such a conviction. But then, why go on writing poetry? Why go on reading poetry? Hanging Fire provides scant reason to do either.