I don’t know why I was surprised to learn that Robert Priest is now as old as I am (71). I suppose it’s the fact that his poetry is still as energetic, audacious, and wild as it ever was, a fact reaffirmed by If I Didn’t Love the River, his most recent collection. Consulting his Wikipedia entry reveals diverse and enviable accomplishments as a songwriter/musician, playwright, poet, and radio personality. He is also a notable and prolific children’s author, at his playful and profound best in A Terrible Case of the Stars (1994).
What the writer of the Wikipedia entry does not mention is the episode in his long literary life that first brought him to my attention: The Three Roberts. Consisting of Robert Zend, Robert Sward and Robert Priest, the trio read and performed their poetry at a variety of venues, most notably at Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto (and another Tavern, Major Roberts, primarily because of its name). Three publications came out of this collaboration in the mid 1980s (Premiere Performance, The Three Roberts on Love, and The Three Roberts on Childhood). My copy of the second collaborative collection features a photograph of the three poets mimicking the famous see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, and speak-no-evil monkeys (Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru). It is ironic that Priest is the first of these wise monkeys, for his strong social conscience has allowed him to see and often satirize a wide variety of evils in his own insouciant, irreverent, and sometimes absurdist way. That is not to say that If I Didn’t Love the River is all dark satire, for the poems are just as celebratory as they are censorious.
In that sense, this book offers what I come to expect of Priest, especially his love poems, those about the universality of love, like “Love Has Nothing to Do” and the title poem itself, as well as the more personal and erotic ones addressed to his partner Marsha Kirzner. On a sadder note, there is a moving elegy for Eitan Lebo, a young boy who died of cancer at the age of 8, this accompanied by a song and musical notation.
Those familiar with Priest’s work for both adults and children know that he has become famous for his poetic aphorisms. They will be delighted to find typical examples here in “Enlightenment.” Three stanzas are worth quoting:
“Of all the materials used by the ancients to ensure the longevity of their edifices it is the glass ceilings which have best withstood the test of time.”
“Not one person with a properly controlled mind has ever complained about mind control.”
“Poetry is the spell and the magic too.”
Priest is also well known for his prose poems, like the title poem from a previous book, How to Swallow a Pig, which offers mock-serious instructions for doing just that, the point as I see it being how easily people can swallow the biggest falsehoods. In his latest collection, my favourite is “Help,” another mock-serious story of the way in which the word “help” becomes politically incorrect, suggestive of menial servitude and class-based privilege, considered so socially repellent that passersby, hearing the H-word shouted by children in a burning building, cannot not bring themselves to attempt a rescue or phone the fire department and “hurry away in disgust.”
If there is any departure from Priest’s previous poetry, it may be in the more formal structures here. Form in the books I am familiar with, especially in the three-decades-old book of new and selected poems, Scream Blue Living, seems to have been more spontaneous, dictated by the nature of the poem rather than imposed by tradition. But here we have villanelles, sonnets, and ghazals in addition to free verse lyrics and prose poems. Working within the formalist restrictions of rhyme, stanza structure, and length reveals what the poet can do for the form and what the form can do for the poet, as proven in this collection by poems like “On Star Divination,” “Love Lets Love Shout,” and “Go Free and Gentle” (sonnet, ghazal, and villanelle respectively).
In writing this review, I worked with an uncorrected proof of the book, so it is remotely possible that its title could change before publication. It occurs to me that a good collection could be named after any number of its poems as is the case here. I also like “A Toast at Midnight,” “What the Albatross Has Round Its Neck,” and “Keyhole Telescope.” Perhaps it’s a good thing that I’m not in marketing.
Maybe the last words in this review should be those of Priest himself in the form of an unpublished sonnet that he attached to an email agreeing to The New Quarterly’s recent acceptance of three of his poems:
“Turn the bigot magnet on, unleash the storm.
From all across the states let them be drawn.
The riff-raff rabble, dupes, the disinformed
Aroused to insurrection by the con.
Come raise that pop-up gallows to the sky.
Attack! There’s hardly anyone on guard.
Come peasants, wave those pitchfork flags on high.
Don’t worry; you’ll be pardoned if you’re charged.
They smash through windows, swarm the sacred walls
And beat police. They’re sure they’ll win the day.
Some smear with shit their names on hallowed halls
And hunt like rapists their divided prey.
Who whisper, hiding, scared, now in common cause,
‘Tell Trump to stop them!’ frantic cell phones in their paws.”
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