Existence: It’s a Fact of Life

“It’s about time”. But also about that other thing.

The title of Stuart Ross’s latest poetry collection, You Exist. Details Follow. couldn’t be more self-explanatory. In each poem, Ross distills the reality of existence by cataloguing the minutiae that make it up.  He suggests that the concern with which we become occupied, accounting for the fact that we do exist, causes us to overlook the details that imbue this existence with meaning.

You exist. What follow this recognition are the details that make the statement real for each individual.

Ross’s poems are filled with such double-entendres that undo the everyday significance of stock phrases like “details follow”. There’s a poem entitled “Poem” that reads like the menu of a second-rate oriental-Italian-Indian diner. As we go through the list of generic food descriptions, we suddenly read “Help, I’m being – / 5. Lentil and potato soup.” This encounter with the unexpected is indicative of Ross’s process throughout the book; he wants to jolt us with the immediacy of a revelation at our most quotidian and complacent moments. A poem like “Poem” does this exceptionally well because it performs its meaning through the process of reading. A poem that for this reason can never be read the same way a second time.

Late” may be Ross’s variation on Harold Bloom’s theory of literary belatedness. According to Bloom, a living poet always feels himself to have arrived late in the literary tradition. For this reason, a poet is faced with the prospect of have nothing new to say because everything has already been expressed better and more completely by those who went before. In a typically wry turn, Ross conceives this sense of belatedness as the poet staying up past bedtime, after the other poets have all gone to bed. “Jim Smith’s head is on the pillow”, Ross writes, “[W]hile he sleeps / he is no better a writer than me…/ David Gilmour, he too is asleep…// and he is no better a writer / than me, not right now anyway”.

The title of the poem refers both to its temporal setting as well as to the condition of the poet as a latecomer in the tradition. Although “late”, however, the poet is validated by the idea that, though he may not be better than any of the other poets he mentions, he still has cause to write if for no other reason than that he is the only one left.

…this poem

doesn’t even have to be good

to be better than what my favourite

writers are writing right now, which is

nothing, though it’s possible that Nelson,

who is a minimalist, would contest that,

suggesting that nothing is better than this.

In Ross’s language, this “nothing” could mean both the abstract idea of Nothingness – in which case it is an improvement on anything Ross materially could have written – as well as that this poem is better than anything else that could be (or is) being written right now. Neither is mutually exclusive in Ross’s framework.

With the focus on mundane detail and idiosyncratic imagery that Ross attempts to convey comes a good deal of experimentation and surrealistic liberty.  Where this technique works, the effect is disturbing and revelatory. But in many instances Ross slips into something like a lack of method that passes for surrealism. For example, in “Clouds of the Rich”, I don’t know what to do with his “Disappointment is a spider / with empty pockets / humming under the tactile moss.” The imagery seems on the verge of making a fresh connection in the imagination but thuds disappointingly short of saying anything new.

Of course, such indiscretions are apologized for under the guise of the avant-garde. And I suppose that argument will always be circular. With that said, I love his “Cento for Alfred Purdy” and the way it eschews linear logic in favour of imagination and “the brain’s small country”. “Prayer of Defamation” is a Cummings-esque free-association prose poem that, like “Poem” mentioned above, upends the language of the day-to-day with a barely comprehensible legalese, ending in a solemn, totally decontextualized “amen”.

Ross loves dogs, trees, and poems told from the perspective of children. Leaving behind any universalist pretensions, he encounters from the perspective of the small and overlooked those things that make existence worthwhile as a daily process. The techniques he uses can falter, but his practice of linguistic experimentation is a better devise for dealing with the truly novel in a family road trip, a dog’s bark, or naptime during kindergarten than the means by which we navigate the thousand other moments when we’re not reading Ross, when we live in a world where the details of existence are taken for granted and “nothing [is] weird”.