The Exile's Papers: Part 2 by Wayne Clifford  

The second work in a series of four that will eventually include 800 sonnets. The Face as its Thousand Ships continues where The Duplicity of Autobiography left off. Clifford maintains a deft ability to work the sonnet form. An exceptional work that functions as both an important cog in a series, and as a stand-alone work of art.

The Exile’s Papers is sonnet-writing on a grand scale. An unfolding odyssey of personal revelation brimming with quixotic ruminations and existential paradoxes, Wayne Clifford’s strapping new collection offers a masterclass on how a single form can assume a protean variety of shapes, sounds and voices. It also confirms the incantatory powers of one of our most unpredictable poets.’


2010—ReLit Award,

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Poetic form is always engaged in a delicate dance with expectation, as the poet seeks an adequate balance between rightness and surprise. Sticking too closely to time-worn steps will find the practiced reader asking, ‘If ‘breath’ is here, can ‘death’ be far behind?’ A version of this question lies at the heart of The Face As Its Thousand Ships, Part II of The Exile’s Papers, the projected four-volume sonnet series that has occupied Canadian poet Wayne Clifford for several decades. Written from the standpoint of late middle age -- of ‘breath’ shadowed by ‘death’ -- these poems explore freedom within the constraints of inevitability. Contrary to the expectations raised by an extensive treatment of a single genre by a poet in his 60s, Clifford’s book shows little concern for conventional ‘mastery’ -- though certain of its poems could easily claim this adjective. Instead, outrageous wordplay, variable rhyme and stanza patterns, and wild tonal shifts act out a continual metamorphosis, eluding the finality that the term ‘mastery’ implies. The sonnet form seems primarily chosen to elicit this drama of temporizing.

The result is a book that can be tedious and exhausting, but which continually impresses with its multilayered wit. Openly indebted to the 17th-century metaphysical poets, Clifford’s work also recalls their 20th-century heir William Empson, both in linguistic density and in its undercurrent of warmth. A representative (though far from exhaustive) range of possibilities appears when one poem begins in a mock formal register (befitting its title, ‘Fate Will Realize The Three Sisters Whenever Possible’), then dips into broad doggerel, before concluding with a complex blend of deadpan and darker tonalities, when the poet’s mother responds over the phone to her son’s complaint about his mortality: ‘Pity. We began in me. You owe / the life you value now. I’ll hold. You cry.’ If hardly a line in the book goes by without serious punning or troping, this shimmering surface depends on a somber background -- a conceit expressed in the recurring image of a window blackened by night, prompting the poet’s resonant quip, ‘the dark’s / what founds reflection.’

These and similar moments -- addressing such difficult subjects as the poet’s first love, his daughters’ departure from home, and his mother’s death -- make The Face As Its Thousand Ships a striking, original collection, abounding in thought. Readers attuned to its distinctive music will not want to miss this series’ next installment.

—Peter Franz, ForeWord Reviews

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‘Clifford’s sonnets span a large trajectory in their play of ideas and relationships -- postmodernism and pirates, origins of the self and of the species (mythical and scientific), parents and children, legacies of words and deeds, dogs and goddesses, love bombs and poets. Most often, Clifford blends language, line and form into a harmony of meaning, but sometimes he makes use of more difficult syntax. ‘‘Proper’’ speech is abandoned for a skipping, tripping arrangement, almost like scat singing. He plays with sounds, exchanging verbs and dancing around grammatical arrangements like a big band conductor. This draws attention to the constrictive nature of the sonnet, blasting out of it grammatically.’

—Heather Craig, St John Telegraph-Journal

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‘Here is love is purified, his worries sublime, his advice what he would call his ‘‘tenderest must’’.... The message is simple: what we wish for is more complicated than just the wishing, and that when we get our wish, we are often left dissatisfied. But what a beauty of expression, the idea that wishes, the stuff of the thinking of childhood, are what we in fact are wishing for all along, that the wishes realized will have their cons. Wishes come true on their own time, no matter how passionate the wanting, and indeed that passion comprises wishes themselves. It’s a poem, mind, and it accomplishes its music and sense concordantly. But reading masterworks like this one, one realizes that there’s something about the female child that unlocks the poet’s expression of fatherhood. He’s unrestrained.’

—Shane Neilson, Wayne Clifford and Fatherhood

Author comments

Ezra Pound, a native son, many of whose jingles have become wisdom, advised his peers to make it new. That Modern man fashioned his exile out of his Idahoan accent, and prestidigitated his charisma into a disguise for what was otherwise a romantic troubadour. Fashion’s, of course, what comes ’round again, and sonnets, especially in sequences (which Ezra wished to make as passe as Chicago’s District Attorney now intends to show is the seigneural capitalism demonstrated so nobly by our very own Connie, Lord VeryCross) have sprouted through the concrete slabs of the mall-mindedness of this continent’s verse.

Since the sonnet was first defined into English by another, more convincing lord -- Surrey -- about 500 years ago, it has acquired turns and springings and enough washings, foldings, stretchings, twistings and shrinkings to have its sizing leak out to the chaos that reclaims us all. As a hairshirt, it’s become as pliant as any vestment for covering an ass in a day busy about money- earning, kid-care, mate-talk, and household chores. Books are again being written about the sonnet, its strategies explained by degreed, tenured and funded experts. Anthologies of its examples are being compiled. Young writers are unafraid to use it. And, because, as form-muse for the responsive craftsman, the sonnet demands clean lines to the thinking it takes in, convincing volume for the feeling it embraces, purity of each whole-at-once ‘Wow!’ that intuition pulls from its commodious sleeve, the making of a sonnet honours a long, an historical, conversation held wherever fine English is spoken.

In his preface to the collaboration with Coleridge, W. Wordsworth (who expressed the need for honest feeling in verse, but would wait for Ez to tell the rest of us ‘Only emotion endures.’) wrote that those willing to be pleased by the poems would likely read them with more than common pleasure, and ‘Those who should dislike them would read with more than common dislike’. Here for your judgment is the first of four sequences of sonnets, many singularities and passages of which require you as reader to step well outside your conception of an ordinary book’s boundaries, and the whole of which is a long, but decidedly not linear, journey. Some who’ve read these sonnets have reported a very much greater pleasure than they’ve had or could expect from a book of poetry written recently on this continent. Some of those, of course, are politely acquainted with the author. And some really hated it. One, who collects lists of clichés from his peers’ work, suggested I cut the collection down to twenty-five. None, thank the fates, have been, so far, indifferent.

I’ll be dead before we see who’s right.

This gathering together of sonnets isn’t a journal, nor a novel, nor straightforwardly a record. It’s a system, closer to what Blake tried in the prophetic books, what Whitman bragged in his inventions, what Pound, it is largely agreed, failed at in the Cantos. And any writing of a group of sonnets after Berryman necessarily acknowledges that raggy man. Any poetry anywhere in any English, after the far-off Eliot, must know its place. Since I’m a Canadian, also a native son, well enough educated to write sonnets, curious enough to see where they take my evolving questions, and far enough outside the organized leagues of the national and other collectives to have very little to lose of celebrity, or prizes, or arts grants, I’ll present to you this exile, who, like Ez, like Thomas Stearns, speaks quite inventive English, and has some things to say of, for, and to his age.

In the uncountry that’s English-speaking Canada on a continent the neighbours claim entirely by referring to themselves as Americans, it’s easy to be exile. But since I’m fully American, too, born in Toronto, North America, and brought to adulthood understanding the long noses looked down all the way from London and New York, then by that peculiar delusion out of which a poet knows the worth of the offering, I am who can understand the exile of Emily Dickinson’s example. Rex Murphy, the CBC’s marvellously opinionated and animate thesaurus, has told me, today, that Connie Black is one of the greatest personalities this country (by which he means my part of the fragmented colonies well away from the Centres of Real Power) has ever sent on to the great stage of the world (meaning London and New York, the Centres of Real Power). The exile’s gone the other way, but the stories of his journey are always the story of each of us about to fall from the friendly acquaintance of the administrators of the polity.

I’ll thank here the many who read versions and by comment or its lack, helped shape the still ongoing collection, and thank those who as models came directly into text. I’ll name none save the dogs and the dead. If the rest can figure out who you are, and take offence, I’ll expect you’ll want a damningly hefty judgment, but ask you, what court can cleanly sort out a composite? For the inhabitants of these poems are many out of many, friends, enemies, friends enemied, enemies befriended, bosses, children, wives, brothers, traitors, tyrants, warriors, beggars and fools. At times the sentence of the exile’s as simple as being condemned to tell their tales, apart from them, absent as God after Eden. If I were a novelist, this would be a novel, and I’d probably earn appreciably more money. What’s more, you’d have an easier read. If I were a dramatist, you’d most likely be watching this as TV. If this were the book for an opera, you’d be in New York, where such markets are still pretended. And if this were fish in nets, then plenty, or zeroes after a one, then a state’s budget. But I still hope to be recognized thru the murk of post-colonialism and post-modernism as poet, so it’s sonnets.

Whereas The Duplicity of Autobiography (1) explores concepts of storytelling, specifically the concept of revisionist history within the telling of our own stories, The Face as its Thousand Ships (2) explores the ideas and effects of relationships. The examination of self cannot be complete without an understanding of one’s surroundings. Clifford explores the personal relationships that come to shape self. Brutally honest and revealing, The Face as its Thousand Ships offers a look into the soul, a complete unveiling, through the lens of the relationships that hurt, help, build, teach and confuse. The substance of story, of life, is matched, only by the substance of structure. Clifford’s use of sonnets emphasizes the qualities of meter, rhyme, and contrast; demonstrates the ability of an artist to take their audience on a gripping ride of anticipation, conclusion, and the eternal questioning that follows.

—Wayne Clifford


Wayne Clifford was born in Toronto in 1944. He studied English at University College at the University of Toronto in the mid sixties during which time he came to be associated with a small coterie of students that included Stan Bevington, Dennis Reid, Doris and Judith Cowan, and David Bolduc. Wayne also remembers Tangiers Al, but not clearly, which says something about the time. While still an undergraduate Clifford won numerous Norma Epstein prizes for his poetry and also one E. J. Pratt Award (1967) that he shared with Michael Ondaatje. (One poet kept the money, the other, the medal. In the end each felt equally cheated.)

Stan Bevington had started his fledgling Coach House Press in 1964 and asked Clifford to acquire a few poetry manuscripts suitable for book production of an experimental sort. Wayne secured early work from George Bowering, Victor Coleman, bpNichol and Michael Ondaatje. At the founding meeting of the League of Canadian Poets (1966) Wayne proposed a Writers’ Anonymous akin to other, similar, twelve-step programmes. Clifford’s idea was not seriously considered. Shortly thereafter, Clifford left Toronto to pursue graduate studies in creative writing at the University of Iowa. Clifford began working at St. Lawrence College in Kingston in 1969, when the College was just new, and was involved in the Creative Writing program and the Fine Arts Program, until both were discontinued in the 1980s. Clifford then joined the General Arts & Science Program (GAS -- and yes, he does enjoy this irony of this acronym) and began teaching remediation in language. He retired in June of 2004. He was working on a poetry collaboration (unpublished) with bpNichol at the time of bp’s death in 1988.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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POETRY / Canadian

POETRY / General

ISBN-13: 9780889843172

Publication Date: 2009-10-01

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 176

Price: $19.95