Robert Lowell’s quote from the poem Epilogue “But sometimes everything I write/with the threadbare art of my eye/seems a snapshot” might be a suitable prologue to John Oughton’s chapbook Vertex/Vertigo published by Big Pond Rumours in 2016.
The chapbook gathers poems written after the publication of the author’s last collection, Time Slip.
John Oughton’s literary career spans decades and occupies a special place in the Canadian literary landscape.
Born in 1948 in Guelph, Ontario, John Oughton attended Glendon College where he completed a BA and MA in English at York University. He studied with Irving Layton, Eli Mandel, Miriam Waddington and Frank Davey.
The writer’s work includes a mystery novel and five poetry books, several chapbooks and hundreds of literary reviews and articles.
Vertex/Vertigo opens with a high impact poem: Rock/Star.
Rock/Star uses the deceptive framework of what appears, at first glance, to be a short narrative; its metaphors sketch a link between the terrestrial ambient and the far-off cosmos:
“This warm round rock
maybe the exact image of one face
of a minor moon of Jupiter
or one circular slice of the universe
from a place we can’t see yet.”
As if brought forward from a painting of the Group of Seven, the immensity of the universe adumbrates the verses in Aurora Borealis:
We finger the fake lace
curtain, search flat grey
sky for signifiers
Unseen Northern Lights
their phosphorescent curtains”
and Grey Sky:
“The sky slowly ripples,
admits light, barred clouds
roll west like chorused nays.
It’s the same old world, and we
are no better
than yesterday. “
The poet’s sense of humor erupts to the surface throughout the chapbook, balancing out somber overtones with an inherent ludic propensity and amusing irreverence.
Thus, in the poem O My, we are met with some memorable lines:
“O my foolish heart
What lies beneath
Item – She gave me her second country,
but not her secret bower.
Item – her online description
was romantic fiction.
John Oughton’s gift for improvisation takes us into a whirlwind of associations in the poem Why Are You So Drawn?” which echoes the title of the chapbook:
vortex of vertices –
Dash it all, with verdigris
Which way to the stars?
What is the royal road to knowing
nothing at all –“
In Vertex/Vertigo, the musicality of words is a vehicle for constantly expanding the poetic universe.
In a format that reminds us of jazz techniques, alliterations allow for creative insets, as is the case of the poem Precipitation:
“When I sit at my last table,
Right by the kitchen of Les Presques Morts,
I will order winter dishes
Since snow, in its effortless slide,
Its susurrus of silent sss
Is closest to death. “
Death, in John Oughton’s poem is a space of hushed memories, which are part of everyday existence:
“So, a toast to the dead –
Their city of silence,
Soft presence on the air.”
(from the award-winning poem Drinking With The Dead)
As the counterpoint to death, love remains one option is John Oughton’s verses:
“makes me blue
makes you gold
weaves of us that
tartan of circumstance
the theory that we
somewhere over Manitoba.”
Vortex/Vertigo is a it is a poetry collection that should be read and re-read, with the understanding that each reading may be conducive to more forays into John Oughton’s poetry.
Vertex/Vertigo by John Oughton
Big Pond Rumours, 2016 ISBN: 978-0-9780201-5-6 $10 + $2 shipping