Moose Jaw’s Jim McLean is all over the place – in a good way. He wrote about the CPR in his first book, Secret Life of Railroaders; about growing up in Saskatchewan in Nineteen Fifty-Seven; and he co-authored Wildflowers Across the Prairies. Now he’s turned his poetic attention to that singular composer, Beethoven. Indeed, Beethoven is the title of McLean’s third solo publication in an over thirty-year span; surely a distinguished career with Canadian Pacific Railway and Transport Canada had much to do with the lapses between books.
Beethoven is a lively collection of poems presented in several invented voices, including the composer’s, the voices of the women in his life – though he’s a “poor incompetent/Don Juan“- and that of Beethoven’s tyrannical father, but one of the strongest pieces, “On His Deafness,” concerns an anecdote about McLean’s own aging father, whom the poet is trying to impress with garden “Brussels sprouts/big as fists tenderly/coaxed from the hard/prairie earth” and a well-heeled garage. Silent and apparently nonplussed, the elder man walks away, “humming softly to himself/off key …” This clever merging of disparate elements – ie: nature – with musical references is maintained throughout the book.
In “Scene by the Brook (Symphony No. 6 in F (Pastorale)), the poet provides the music of a prairie afternoon, including “scolding sparrows the meadowlark’s song always new,” and grasshoppers that “chew through the afternoon” beside the rest of the insect “orchestra”. McLean brilliantly writes of “frogs singing from the sloughs/a thousand melancholy cellos”.
There’s much variety here, including a poem in German (translated by the book’s editor, Harold Rhenisch); a sestina; and a humorous long poem in which the poet talks directly to Beethoven, who appears to him in an attic room in Calgary’s Palliser Hotel. The book’s also scored with McLean’s simple but impressive illustrations.
Kudos to the poet for his daring, self-deprecating poem “Alfred Brendel at the Clavier,” in which the poet questions his own ability, and, meta-fiction style, inserts “I tried to get that into a poem/but it never fit” and “Tonight while writing this I learned/the plural of opus is opera.”
McLean claims that he “had the audacity” to write about Beethoven because of his ability – and anyone else’s – to appreciate “beautiful, powerful music”. He internalizes and translates the music, convincing the reader that he does share an intimate connection with Beethoven. McLean writes “the reason I mention Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto/is that he wrote it for me/one cold homesick night/in Winnipeg.”
Clearly much research went into this book, but research aside, the poet again wrestles with his nerve in writing about Beethoven, and perhaps the finest poem-within-a-poem (it’s also William Carlos Williams-esque) is this imagistic shorty:
All I know
is that the Fifth Symphony is playing
smoke rising from chimneys
under a full moon
at thirty below
The egotistical composer’s great repertoire provided all the inspiration the prairie poet (and railwayman) required to wield his pen, and, as happens with talented conductors, fine songs are the result.
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