Life, according to Shane Rhodes
In his new collection, Ottawa poet tries to unshackle poetry from the high brow
In an increasingly fragmented world that often suffers from historical amnesia, life is often, as Ottawa poet Shane Rhodes writes, “a story, like most, built by absences and fleeing.”
In The Bindery, Rhode’s new collection of poetry, he examines these themes through both literal and mental travel. “Chunks of the book germinated from my travels in Mexico, India, across Canada and in Argentina,” says Rhodes. “Other parts of the book came from a more complex thinking of travel — what travel means now, how travel is linked to colonization, the history of places and the subjective surface living that travel necessitates.”
In the first part of the book, Rhodes writes from Mexico and Argentina. The poems dash back and forth between the lyrical and the historical as Rhodes weaves the personal and public, fusing the romanticism of the past with the reality of the present.
In “A Note from Zacatecas,” Rhodes moves through a painting of Saint Francis in a convent in Zacatecas, through the rich history of the convent itself to its barren present where “ bells continue to ring … gathering what remains of the faithful.”
“This is one of my main concerns in the book,” says Rhodes, “living within a continuous present where historical depth impacts and is part of the here and now. Certainly this is true with art and the art I refer to in the poems — I am fascinated that we so often, in our consumption of art — do not regard the historical landscape in which they were produced and the mesh in which they fit.”
In “A Picture of Brueghel: Landscape with Icarus Falling,” Rhodes uses the famous painting to ask if we are even capable of seeing the truths around us. As Icarus falls from the sky and crashes to the water, slave ships sail nearby. Both actions go unnoticed by a farmer. “Everyone,” writes Rhodes, “sees nothing at least once in the life of a tragedy.”
“Icarus,” adds Rhodes, “is unimportant in the painting both to recall the myth but also because he really is unimportant when you see the historical moment he is falling into. For me, this needs to go beyond surface understanding of things, events, subjects and the lyrical/artistic understanding that has built up around them is vital to better understand where we are in relation to the past that got us here.”
The title piece is a collage of 99 fragments that are reminiscent of the philosopher, Heraclitus (who is quoted in the poem), the Gospel of Thomas, and notebook scribbles. The fragment that perhaps best sums up the poem is #97 where Rhodes writes: “Small pieces of the world snap together fall apart.” Through these series of broken passages, thoughts, and quotes, we experience the world as a fleeting series of moments. There is a sense of longing for a connection as we are drowning in a changing, fleeing tide of absences.
“ The Bindery,” says Rhodes, “is a play, an experiment, a feature on dispersion and cohesion — how fragmented an argument can get but also how an argument can emerge from fragmentation. A weakness of so much literature I read (and art I see) is its inability to invite the chaos in — there is something that happens in highly fragmented pieces that you don’t get with conventional lyrics.”
Rhodes’ writing is also an attempt to demythologize poetry and shake it from the shackles of the high brow. His poems are, as he says, “the jottings of a person living, moving through art, through history, through places, through books.”
They don’t need to be read in cloistered solitude. “It is travel poetry,” says Rhodes. “It is also poetry to read while watching TV — those useful numbers helping you so you don’t lose your place (and even if you do lose your place, so what?) and so you can also easily eat your TV dinner.”
Chris Robinson is an Ottawa writer.