by Alessandro Porco

Why Are You So Long and Sweet? Collected Long Poems of David W. Mcfadden
David W. McFadden
Insomniac Press, 2010
240 pages, $19.95

You should be able to see
a poet’s mind turning over,
you should be able to know
what he is thinking at all times …
The Poet’s Progress (1977)

The last few years have been very good to David W. McFadden. He’s become something of a critical darling. Deservedly so. In 2007, Insomniac Press published Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden (ed. Stuart Ross), which earned McFadden a Griffin Poetry Prize nomination. And in 2008 Mansfield Press published a new sequence of McFadden sonnets, titled Be Calm, Honey! That book was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award. Together, this dynamic duo re-introduced McFadden into this country’s literary-historical consciousness.

In Why Are You So Long and Sweet? Collected Long Poems of David W. McFadden (Insomniac Press, 2010), editor Ross assembles McFadden’s long(ish) poems from as early as 1961 and as late as 2003. The book begins with two early forays into the long poem: “The Poem Poem” and “The Ova Yogas.” The former published by Nelson Ball’s Weed/flower Press in 1967 and the latter co-produced by Ball and bpNichol via Ganglia Press’s “grOnk intermediate series.” McFadden’s “Ova Yogas” was the first in that series, and it’s more accurately described as a serial poem than a long poem. But central to Why Are You So Long and Sweet? are McFadden’s major “mythic” works from the late 1970s and early 1980s: “A New Romance,” “Country of the Open Heart” and “Night of Endless Radiance.” Together, the three poems constitute what McFadden calls The Kootenay Sonatas. The Sonatas cover 70 pages of the book. Also included is the heretofore unpublished “Nevada Standstill,” which McFadden salvaged from some dusty drawer, and “The Cow That Swam Lake Ontario” (1983), arguably McFadden’s masterwork.

McFadden is something of an Odyssean figure in Canadian poetry. In fact, Odysseus pops up at the tail end of McFadden’s “I Don’t Know,” described as the poet’s “radiant hero.” Like Odysseus, McFadden is wily, to use that stock Homeric epithet. A mischievous trickster. Quick on his feet.

This sensibility is manifest in a variety of ways. In “The Poem Poem,” for example, he interjects a non-sequitur joke (“Hey did you hear the one about the astrologer”) only to abandon the punch line altogether; in that same poem, he includes a fill-in-the-blank passage: “make / something of yourself // anecdotes about __________ / (fill in name of your choice?)” In “Country of the Open Heart,” he purposely upsets the arch symbolism of the “heart” with a simple yet deliriously fantastic “Hands up those with hairy armpits.” He brilliantly assumes and parodies the rhetoric of the TV newscast and infomercial while, at the same time, commenting on the effects of television as a medium on our spiritual lives:

This is your Empty Lives report
for Monday, May 28 — but first
a word from the bottom of the open heart.
Hello, strangers. Do you sometimes feel
Empty Lives passing through your Open Heart?
Not nice is it? Well, we have the answer.
Take it to the Lord in prayer. This message
is from the Open Heart Poetry Co-op where you
can find the finest in new and used verse,
thoughtless people stomping on tender memories,
rabble-rousing racists raving about recent ravioli,
and incestuous denials of wrong doing.

He plays with the numbering of sections in “The Poet’s Progress.” The poem includes XXII sections in total; but “XVIII, XIX, & XX” are combined into one poem. In his original biographical note to “The Poet’s Progress,” McFadden even describes himself as “being well-known as one of Canada’s worst poets.” And, of course, there are the countless puns, such as “Calvary Stampede.” McFadden’s wily ways undergird his syntax, which has a way of taking the reader by surprise; for example, consider the narrative arc of this grammatical period:

When you come
to the end of a perfect night you’ll find
a Sleeping Princess with tiny naked breasts
and tiny breaths and you say what the heck
and you kiss her and she wakes up screaming
and the cops come and arrest you.

But perhaps the perfect demonstration of McFadden’s mischievousness arrives in “I Don’t Know.” About a quarter of the way through the poem, McFadden tells this gem of a story:

And he gave me chapter two of his
pornographic novel to be read
so I read it and gave him my latest
purest poem to look at

And he read it out to his wife
and several others who happened
to be in the room and he made
several humorous changes
as he went along

and so I read his chapter aloud
inserting his wife’s name
for the name of his porno queen

and after a few pages
of steadily increasing tension
she stormed out of the house
vowing never to return —

The story’s instructive: for McFadden poetry is not about “preconceived notions” of form, genre or decorum. Rather, it’s a method of action in language, producing “steadily increasing tension” that verges on the sublime and has real consequence. And, as the story demonstrates, decorum ain’t nowhere to be found. Furthermore, the poet must have the capacity to respond to the exigencies of any given moment or setting (e.g., reading with the pornographer’s wife present in the audience), to “improvise radiantly,” as he puts it later in the same poem. McFadden wants to be as “elegant” in his solutions as Odysseus. And he clearly wins this particular battle of wits over the pornographer, here a symptom and symbol of the modern age’s vacuity and predictability.

McFadden’s early attempts at the long poem are more reserved compared to the post–“A New Romance” works. By that I mean the poetics of “mindlessness” he champions (“a reliance upon miracle, a surrender … / losing my grasp on the moment / and being grasped by it in return”) is kept in check. For example, in “The Poem Poem,” McFadden explores the somewhat tired correspondence between the creation of a poem and the creation of a life: “the growing / so deep inside me … the cellular growth / of the poem, unseen / point of beginning.” That’s not to say the poem doesn’t have its moments, as in this gentle passage:

keep this

as a

of our

meeting oh so

in a long life
one who loves you …

“The Ova Yogas” — short titled lyrics “written in one long strange afternoon” in 1972 — is an amusing excursion into the realm of nonsense: “Unthirsty asputi / fallspring ego / wole canmelti sno.” Even a poem like “The Poet’s Progress,” which is far more expansive and loose (see especially section XII’s moving description of domestic life), slips into imitative Stein-like phrasing: “Doom, perhaps this / is a doom room, / this room my doom, / this room I see being / a room inside a larger / field of space in which / a moon is hung. // Who hung the moon?” It’s not that these early poems aren’t interesting or significant. They are. But mostly as testaments to McFadden’s historical contribution to the small press avant-garde of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Things really take off with the composition of “A New Romance” (1979), the first of The Kootenay Sonatas. This mature period is signified by three changes. Two of these are formal, the other philosophical. First, McFadden’s poetry is infused by jolts of “mindless” or surreal imagery, as in these excerpts:

Her eyes split your heart in twain and burned
each half black as Plutonian mushrooms ….
Her eyes were inverted nipples flooding
her brain with endless optical milk.


And the moon bobs in an ocean of dirty dishwater
so simple even a child could put it together
and what a child hath put together let no
god prevent the environment from living its life
for we’re all in the same wooden horse.
Inevitably, the moon marks the channel
where talking cats confound romantic sailors
with limited intellectual resources by offering
inexpensive aphrodisiacs.


Apes drowning in a sea of butter,
Lions and tigers in a tidal wave of milk,
Giraffes saved by their long sweetheart necks.


Have you ever seen a fairy funeral?
Have you ever held a palm tree
in the palm of your hand?
Have you ever wandered through a grove
of palm trees forgetting to search
for echoes of yourself, the moon
dripping through the fronds like butter
and the night as firm as a farm in France?


The night moves on familiar horseback
through the hoofbeats of ordinary life
stopping only to comfort the afflicted
and justify the ways of wealth to the rich
as if the heart which knows such fullness
couldn’t bear to bare itself …


The deaf shall inherit the night.
Miscellaneous crowds of apes swarm
in and out of the night like schools of dolphins
crossing imaginary equators, like disappointed saints
disowning their sainthood at the end of their lives,
and the night is a spider who has built a flawless web
in the fork of a branch about to be pruned …

Second, McFadden’s syntax propels these images forward. It makes the images more persuasive than they have any right to be. A formal analysis of his elaborate, ecstatic sentence structures is surely due at some point! His sentences illustrate what McFadden describes as a “language with no grammar but the heart.” And the heart is “wild and strange.” For example, in “A New Romance,” McFadden introduces the story of “a nine-year-old” who “wrote a poem about a kangaroo / that mooed like a cow.” Next, he examines the import of this single poetic act of creation over the course of a 51-line sentence that also contains a meditation on God’s power, the beauty of the ordinary (e.g., a normal mooing cow), a dream sequence and the romance of the “Americas” as a rich and fertile territory.

The third change in McFadden’s work is in its end game. That is, his long poems are consistently obsessed with discussing the composition of long poems. In early works like “I Don’t Know,” McFadden’s meta-commentaries on the poetic process seem limited to, and delimited by, the page. They have no practical value. It’s in this regard that the The Kootenay Sonatas are distinct and, for this reader, far superior works. His aesthetic / poetic meta-commentaries take on political and ethical values. They are guides to everyday life:

And the rules for writing are precisely
the same as the rules for love:
Be natural, be affectionate,
and keep your heart just a fraction
below the point of absolute explosion.

Finally, I’d like to briefly point to what I think is McFadden’s best long poem: “The Cow That Swam Lake Ontario.” It’s one of the shorter works in the book at 7½ pages. McFadden adopts the guise of a traditional storyteller (“A curious story is mine to tell / and I must tell thee of it”). In doing so, he effaces the mannerisms of the Sonatas, and the poem is better for it. McFadden demonstrates how stories still have the capacity “to enthrall us, to remind us / of the unfathomable mysteries of existence.” On the one hand, this particular story deals with an especially determined cow who escapes slaughter and returns to the pasture and finds her love, in this case a loyal black bull. On the other hand, it’s about the narrator’s decision to give in to the moment — and to love. Thus, he follow this cow in its getaway swim across Lake Ontario: “I began to feel a sense of senseless love / towards the cow I was so senselessly following / for I was not following it with the hope / of somehow capturing it and slaughtering it … / but rather I was following it / out of the deepest curiousity.” I won’t tell you how it ends, except to say wily McFadden has a couple of irony-filled tricks up his sleeve!

Editor Stuart Ross and Insomniac Press are to be commended for making all these poems available in a single, affordable edition. The book is a much-needed companion to Why Are You So Sad? Ross has done a great service to McFadden and Canadian poetry at large. However, despite his good will, his editorial decisions are not always beyond critique. For example, Why Are You So Long and Sweet? is ordered chronologically, with two exceptions. The first is “Danny Quebec” (1961). It is an example of McFadden juvenilia, composed by the poet when he was 21. Ross places this at the very end of the collection. The second interruption of chronology has to do with The Kootenay Sonatas, and it is far more perplexing. Ross places the Sonatas in the following order: “Night of Endless Radiance,” “A New Romance” and “Country of the Open Heart.” However, the order of publication is, in fact, different: “Night of Endless Radiance” should follow both “A New Romance” and “Country of the Open Heart.” This isn’t simply bibliographic nitpicking. It matters in terms of our understanding the historical trajectory of McFadden’s work. The poet viewed the composition of “A New Romance” as a “remarkable breakthrough into a purer and more authentic level of my writing life.” “A New Romance,” he explains in a note he wrote on the occasion of that poem’s original publication, is no longer tied to “the conventions of ordinary reality,” which propped up his earlier work. In that same note, McFadden even states explicitly that “A New Romance” is “the first” in the sequence of poems that would constitute The Kootenay Sonatas. Situating “Night of Endless Radiance” first disturbs our appreciation of the breakthrough McFadden describes as well as the overall integrity of the sequence.

The book would have also benefitted from a more rigorous bibliographic and critical apparatus — whether a “Notes” section, an appendix or a more exhaustive introduction. For instance, nowhere in the collection is it mentioned that “A New Romance,” “Country of the Open Heart” and “Night of Endless Radiance” comprise a larger work titled The Kootenay Sonatas. Now, perhaps this is at McFadden’s request; that I do not know. Nonetheless, it’s historical information worth remarking on in an “Introduction” or a “Notes” section. An appendix, on the other hand, is a space in which Ross could have reprinted significant paratexts, such as McFadden’s original “Preface” to his The Art of Darkness (1984) or “To the reader,” the aforementioned note that discusses the “breakthrough” of “A New Romance.” What’s gleaned from these writings? In the case of the former, McFadden explains that all three Kootenay Sonatas along with the poem “Stormy January” are composed using the I Ching:

The compositional process involves the metaphorical cutting and stretching of a canvas in total darkness. Coins are tossed for a number that will represent the number of parts of the projected poem, coins are tossed to determine the number of lines in each part, then the writing begins and everything that is in the air goes into the poem. Revision is endless, or threatens to be. The urge is there to continue revising until nothing is left of the first draft but the basic formal shape: all the ‘hearts’ disappear eventually, go back into the air from which they came. Fresh innocence wants to make a map of the moment but since the map takes so long to draw the moment become decidedly imaginary.

The note places McFadden’s work in a fresh light, putting it in conversation with the work of Jackson Mac Low, John Cage and Steve McCaffery, who have all famously relied on the chance-generating practices of the I Ching. In the case of the note to “A New Romance,” McFadden concludes it by saying

I’d like to acknowledge a couple of major debts. One is to the poet Christopher Dewdney whose arrival in Hamilton in 1976 signaled the beginning of my long-awaited breakthrough. Ten years young than I, he was calmly working away at things I’d long been wanting to attempt. He gave me courage. His book, SPRING TRANCES IN THE CONTROL EMERALD NIGHT, should be read in tandem with A NEW ROMANCE.

Here, we have access to information regarding literary friendship, collaboration and influence, as well as an instruction on how to best read and appreciate McFadden’s poem.

Finally, both of the paratexts allow McFadden to postulate a theory of poetry’s value and function. In the “Preface” to Art of Darkness, he imagines the “ecstatic” production and consumption of poetry as a “civic duty” that functions in contradistinction to the frighteningly militant rationalism of the “arms talks” of the early 1980s. A longer introduction might have also addressed the original publication and performance contexts of the poems. McFadden’s wonderful long poem “I Don’t Know” — discussed earlier and, in many ways, a meditation on the long poem as a genre — was accompanied by a second shorter poem, “1940,” when published in 1978 by Vehicule Press. How do these poems dialogue with each other? (The cover image of the book I Don’t Know is two birds — nightingales, possibly? — on branches, facing each other: an iconic rendering of the relationship between “I Don’t Know” and “1940.”) Similarly, given that the first editions of at least three of the poems in Why Are You So Long and Sad? include prefatory notes that mention the initial public performances of the poems (e.g., from A New Romance: “This poem was given public reading at the Festival of Friends at Gage Park, Hamilton, Ontario, on August 13, 1978, and at St. Lawrence College, Kingston, Ontario on October 4th, 1978”), one inevitably wonders: what is the relationship between composition and performance for McFadden? A line like “Hands up those with hairy armpits” (mentioned earlier) seems to exist precisely for a performance context.

But these criticisms aside, Ross has performed important cultural work here, doing for McFadden what Jay MillAr has done for Victor Coleman and Darren Wershler for Steve McCaffery — that is, keeping these oftentimes wonderful poems in circulation. For that, I am very grateful. We all are.

Alessandro Porco is the author of Augustine in Carthage and The Jill Kelly Poems, both from ECW Press. He writes “In Extremis,” a hip-hop column, for Maisonneuve Magazine online.


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