GUEST POST: James Bader Explores Cohesive Narrative in a Fractured Manner in Leon Rooke’s Rank Songbirds

Rank Songbirds is the latest work by Canadian author Leon Rooke, and its structure is unlike any I have encountered before. The work is comprised of a series of poems of varying lengths, and it ends with a sonatina, which to me read like a short story. What I find unique about this is that Rooke manages to form a cohesive narrative across the pages of all the individual poems, including the sonatina at the end. It took me reading through the sonatina itself to come to this realization, which cast the previous poems in a new light.

Rooke opens with a series of longer poems, and immediately introduces the reader to some of the main imagery and themes that recur across the work. Love and the anguish of love, pastoral descriptive imagery and Christian religious imagery such as fallen angels all play large roles. These first poems have our poet longing after a woman, providing a picture of her to the reader. The poems then become incredibly short, going from page length to merely four lines with no warning. The underlying theme of passion is still present, but the swift change seems to act as a cesura for readers, allowing us a moment to breathe. He then returns to longer poems, continuing to play with the idea of love and the expression of it. I personally enjoyed, in this middle stretch of poems, the woman who renames herself Cassandra (after the figure in Greek mythology who is cursed to be a prophet that no one listens to) and the piano that only plays specific music.

It is here in the mid-section of the book, that hints of the cohesiveness of the work begin to show. Rooke keeps his poetic format of longer poems broken up by very brief ones, allowing the reader that necessary time to ponder his words, but I began to notice recurring characters alongside the recurring themes. Cassandra and the unnamed piano both make multiple appearances. I found myself looking for these as I continued to read, using them as guideposts to track the movement of the narrative I was starting to see. Personally, the piano that so stubbornly plays only one thing for its owner was the real indicator that these were not simply individual poems but rather pieces of a larger whole.

scholar sitting at writing desk and gazing out the window

In the third section of the book, Rooke increases the frequency of short poems. None are more than a page in length by this point, and perhaps my favorite piece from the whole book, which is a mere two lines (Oh, bad day, huh, / So sorry to intrude.), makes its appearance. Again, I interpret this as a sort of prolonged cesura, the poet’s way of allowing the reader to consider, breathe, and regroup before being presented with a very dense sonatina that will close the book.

The sonatina took me many days of pondering post reading to come to personal conclusions about how I interpreted it, how it affected my reactions to the previous poems and whether I was satisfied by it. In the end, I think the sonatina is the key to the poems that come before. The poetry that leads up to this moment is centered around key themes and at times may appear separate from one another, but at other times closely related. The sonatina follows a man and his lover (the lover from earlier, in my interpretation) as they live through varying stages of a relationship and experience the turmoil and anguish that come with it. Here the narrative is most present. While Rooke conveys much by omission here, we get a more in-depth sense of these characters’ desires, lives and flaws. Yet, just as with the earlier poems, there are many breaks in the text, cracks in the narrative and gaps in the information provided to us. The narrative is fractured, but the reader is given just enough to understand it and imagine the rest.

The entire book operates in the same way as the sonatina, which is why it was not until the sonatina that I missed the overarching narrative. The reader is given glimpses from various perspectives into the poet’s mind, the lover’s reaction, and the pastoral world that they embody, but we are never told that these events are connected. The end result is a collection that is constantly playing with how the reader interprets the previous poems and shows how powerfully one can present a narrative when it has been fractured into pieces.

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James Bader has a Masters of Arts in Classics from McMaster University.

Our thanks to James for enlightening us with his exploration of Leon Rooke’s new poetry collection Rank Songbirds. Copies of this issue are now available in print and digital formats via our website. Or, don’t hesitate to ask your favourite indie bookseller to order a copy!

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2 Responses to GUEST POST: James Bader Explores Cohesive Narrative in a Fractured Manner in Leon Rooke’s Rank Songbirds

  1. Pingback: The Porcupine’s Quill

  2. Thank you James Bader and Porcupine’s Quill for this review and a book I look forward to reading. I’m particularly interested in poems that stand alone, but that take on extra potency when read as a whole. The idea of the sonatina at the end is fascinating.

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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.