Priscilla Uppal, Ontological Necessities

Priscilla Uppal made the 2007 Griffin list for this book of poetry, Ontological Necessities. I can see why, because the book's written with great confidence, and Uppal's facility with words and her comfort within the intellectual and literary traditions combine to justify her self-confidence. The translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Wanderer" was especially striking, but there are some other standouts as well. Really, it's prize-winning stuff.

I didn't enjoy this book, not at all, but I can see why it's prize-winning stuff.

Yeah, I guess I did say the same thing about Clara Callan (not once, but twice, and even on CBC Radio) - this one ticks different boxes on different lists, but same effect. Maybe I'm just not as literary as I sometimes think I am. Admittedly, when I type I sometimes have to sweep my eyebrows up out of the way....

Anyway, there's a seriously self-absorbed quality to this volume that's often present in contemporary poetry I don't respond well to. I'm always happy to find a writer with a sense of play, but to me here it reads more as Uppal's delight in the working of her own mind, not delight in the play itself.

"The Poem Can Be Completed By Anyone" is a good example; it relies on the ancient Socratic trope of the know-nothing authority, but the "anyone" is actually a really, really narrow profile - hell, I'm an English prof who deliberately chooses to teach poetry rather than prose, and I don't even see myself implicated in this poem. It ends with open questions broad enough that in theory anyone could have something to say ("What is it you'd like to say? / What do you have to say for yourself?"), but by the time I get there, my eyes are leaping to the next poem, wanting Uppal to say something, maybe even something specifically to me, rather than giving me more of this reflexive (narcissistic?) discourse.

Not that it matters, but I gather that the reliably interesting Zachariah Wells is on board with me here.

Maybe I'm the narcissistic one, looking for myself to be reflected in what I read. Actually no, "maybe" nothing. I'm definitely self-absorbed in my reading (not that I'm alone in that). But a Griffin jury would totally dig this book. I'll read Priscilla Uppal again, because she's got real talent, but frankly I'm not expecting much beyond more prize-worthy predictably unpredictable works.

EDIT: How did I not mention that this is my first title in John Mutford's second annual Canadian Book Challenge, Eh?


John Mutford said…
While I haven't read the entire Ontogical Necessities, I read the 2007 Griffin List Anthology, in which some of Uppal's poetry was featured. I don't remember having much of a reaction to her work, except for "Poodle in the Painting" which I really enjoyed.
richard said…
I liked that poem as well - the first time I read it (and heard it).

The impact lines in Uppal's verse in this book fade over time for me, somehow; they sound good, but my unconscious doesn't find anything deeper as time goes on, and when I go back to the words, I'm not as clear why I liked them.

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