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Friday, November 1, 2013

BOOK REVIEW/ INTERVIEW: R.L Raymond Half Myths & Quarter Legends. Epic Rites Press, Sherwood Park, Alberta, 2012 (71 pages).

This is the second poetry collection by R.L. Raymond, a resident of London, Ontario. It consists of 43 carefully crafted poems written in free verse which have a fragmented, pared to the blood & bone feel reminiscent of John Yamrus, the American small press poet. Although the language is deceptively simple, you may have to read the poems slowly and multiple times to allow the complex associations and layers of meaning to sink into your veins. There is an unflinching mystery and understatedness about Raymond’s writing which is difficult to nail down but which is also highly appealing.

The enigmatic title Half Myths & Quarter Legends refers generally to the many stories that we read and hear on a daily basis, but also to the specific myths & legends that we accumulate to explain who we are & why we are here. As Raymond explains in the interview which follows: “The only thing we have are myths and legends. From the stories our parents tell us, to religion, to theoretical science, all the words are really just tales spun for one purpose or another. I thought it would be cool to study a few of these — from Christianity to Paganism, French Canadian Lore to Spanish Folk Tales — in current, daily environments. Why half and quarter? The words never quite tell the whole story. Everyone has to fill in the blanks, add his or her own fears, history, perceptions.”

In the collection, Raymond explores through his narrative poems, appropriated Christian, Celtic, Islamic, Canuck and a variety of folk tales- but always through a fresh, secular and skeptical prism. He reimagines myths & folk allegories to the extent that they become unrecognizable to the contemporary reader. In ‘What the wolf said’, for example, he takes the big bad wolf moral tale and places him in a New Mexico desert where the wolf savagely latches onto the leg bone & soon the rib of the mysterious bone-man.

The cover features a black & white close-up photo by Raymond of a gargoyle he purchased at a yard sale- looking to the heavens in pain- expecting an answer it will never receive. This image bluntly sums up Raymond’s ironic, godless take on existence. 

There are no gods in Raymond’s world. Christianity is largely seen as an outdated and irrelevant institution. The speakers of his poems view religion with disdain and cynicism.

In ‘Littergy’ a lame pun on liturgy, while a boy is waiting for his mother to finish her confessional, he blasphemously tears strips of paper from a hymn book, rolls it into little balls and watches as they ignite in the flames of holy candles. Spurred by glossy ads, a middle-aged couple in ‘They visit’ enter a church, “the stink of incense hangs/ from the walls/ as if nailed there/ centuries back”. They are there to take photos and not for spiritual reasons. In ‘Divinity’ the speaker of the poem catches a cab and notices rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror. The cabbie drives in a careless manner while talking to him. The speaker sarcastically quips at the end of the poem:

And that JC himself
            is in the passenger seat
            running the ghost break

 The title ‘Stations of Jim’ also ironically highlights the absence of God. As the days unfold for Jim, there is sense of helplessness as he discovers that he has cancer, that there is nothing that is going to save him from a painful and premature death. The title is an obvious parody of the 14 Stations of the Cross- a reference to the sacred paintings & scripture scattered around the inside of Catholic churches to represent the key events in Christ’s passion. Using a clever über structure, ‘Stations of Jim’ is also told in 14 sections but is rather focused on documenting the ordinariness of Jim’s family life, his sentence of cancer and his inevitable descent into suffering and death. 

The poems in the collection also interesting in how they describe an ordinary event like cooking a steak (‘This product has been found to cause cancer’), house cleaning (‘Her meaning of quotidian’), waiting for an airplane to depart (the excellent ‘Snowbird’) or slurping on  soup (the Spanish folk tale ‘La bruja) and make it new- as if it has been experienced for the first time. ‘Soft-boiled’ is my personal favourite:


dry leather wrinkles
            at the lips
            under a growl of effort

a butter knife decapitation
            the pure white chunk

yolk blood drips
            down the sides
            to drown the little soldiers

these days he can only chew
             the tepid goo

his knuckles hurt
             when he drops the shell
             with the skull
                         into the compost

(reprinted with the poet's permission)
There are also some fine portrait poems in the collection. In ‘Ad nauseum’ a mentally ill man from a park bench raves to pedestrians that the “son (sun?) is dying”. In ‘Onward on three legs’ a bent elderly man vows he will “never honour” or look into the eyes of his daughters-in-law who are “waiting to drain him” of his wealth. In ‘The respite home’ AC smells of cat piss but continues to write stories in a defiance of his careers & his approaching pine box. 

Like many of Epic Rites books, there is an underlying dark thread in the collection, that lies in wait just below the surface of everything we do-  a lurking, a some-times expected but certain death. In the powerful fragmented, associative poem ‘Pathetic watches and warnings’, the weather and the everyday event of driving a car are juxtaposed with the telescoped cancer diagnosing, treatment, death & burial of Aunt B. The tone of the poem is deadpan, matter-of-fact- highlighting the commonality and the bleak & utter finality of death:

Pathetic watches and warnings

the sheetmetal threatened
they pulled under an overpass
wondering  how the beefsteak plants would fare
then about Aunt B’s knuckles
swollen as she fought
the aspirin bottle

‘moth ball’ would be a description
on the weather network that night
apt in colour and size
covering the pavement
the odd hailstone plinking
the hood or the trunk


‘golf ball’ was the description
on the medical report

the first image that came to mind
was death
             all grim
             all reaper
with one iron
the club even god can’t hit
teed up high
            lined at Aunt B’s head
                        and not a ‘FORE’
                                    to be heard


after the meltwater evaporated
under whipping winds
they drove off
thankful their car was untouched
when they passed others
dimpled and dented


 tomato juice had spilled
on the marble countertop
pills pebbled on the floor
around her body
            dropped and crumpled
                        cooling by the window


rain soaked
             the course was closed for the day
            the plot was easy to dig

no hail
no gusts
no storm

just a procession of freshly washed cars
and a body lowered amidst chatter and platitudes

(published with the permission of the poet)

Death is represented as a certainty but also as an inconvenience to the living in ‘Death brings certainty’ in which an aunt dies intestate. The surviving relatives don’t really give a shit about the deceased. They are more concerned about what they can get out of the dead aunt’s estate for themselves. In a dark, ironic tone, the speaker of the poem shits out the line, “but nothing prepares them/ for the backyard/ unkempt/ ravaged” to have to exert an effort to clean up the property for sale purposes.”

‘Dead End’ provides another original perspective on death. In the poem the battered body of a deceased homeless man is hurriedly removed and safely disposed of to “once again” shield “the coffee shop patrons” from the grim reality of death.

In Raymond’s world things are only partially observed and only temporarily understood. Simple events are not always what they seem to be on the surface. Matter is finely perceived and luminal in increments. The reader is awakened to the ordinary anew and then in a penumbra of inner consciousness, shifts once again.


Q: Can you provide some background detail for your readers on the processes involved in getting Half Myths & Quarter Legends published through Epic Rites Press?

There really wasn’t a process per se. I was introduced to Wolf Carstens at ERP by John Yamrus who’d dug some of my poetry online a few years back. Through talking, exchanging ideas, reading each others stuff, Wolf and I realized that ERP was the perfect home for Half Myths & Quarter Legends. The poems are pared down, to blood and bone, and have a certain darkness based in reality that Wolf respects. It was a dark horse that fit the stable. 

Can you clarify what you mean by your title? 

The only thing we have are myths and legends. From the stories our parents tell us, to religion, to theoretical science, all the words are really just tales spun for one purpose or another. I thought it would be cool to study a few of these — from Christianity to Paganism, French Canadian Lore to Spanish Folk Tales — in current, daily environments. Why half and quarter? The words never quite tell the whole story. Everyone has to fill in the blanks, add his or her own fears, history, perceptions. As for the cover, an image I took, it fit the concept pretty well: a gargoyle, a regular, garden-variety gargoyle, looking up at the heavers in pain. Summed it up. Something mundane, from a yardsale, trying to look like something else, staring up for answer it’ll never get. Ok, that’s deep enough… I just though it looked damn cool. 

Are your stories usually grounded in real experiences?

Love this question. Of course some of the poems are loosely based in reality (“Marbles and skipping ropes” is a nod to my Mother, and “Coyotl” has a ‘real’ base in local news), but mostly, they are made up. People seem to think that ‘poetry’ — their word — always points to catharsis, ‘soul’ searching, capital T ‘Truth.’ That’s crap. Poetry is just the vehicle I’ve chosen to tell stories. And that’s what they are: fictions, made up, artifice and lies. When someone asks “Wow, wasn’t it hard writing about your daughter/son/etc that way?” they can’t believe when I tell them it’s not about me. I’m a writer, not an autobiographer. 

Several of the poems are explicitly connected but is there an overall pattern to the way the collection has been sequenced?

I try to follow a linear chronology that makes narrative sense. Within that, there are ‘sections’ in HM&QL representing different religions and situations. Moreover, if you read Sonofabitch Poems, Weakdays, HM&QL, and the new one, you can find long overarcs. It’s important to have voice, and to have cohesiveness inside a collection and inside a body of work. I can’t stand ‘collections’ that seem to be a jumble of poems or thoughts without connection. Maybe it’s the formalist in me, or the inherent mathematician — I like patterns. 

Where do your poems come from? 

Poems or stories all stem, for me, from an image. Maybe something I spotted or overheard, something tucked back in the ether of my subconscious. But it's always something concrete. 

(published with the permission of the poet) 

"To Vagary" came from a backyard rustle one day. A squirrel (probably) that became somewhat Lovecraftian. Nothing more to it for me. For a reader, I hope it invokes a feeling from childhood, or maybe a place he or she was in but shouldn't have been. 

In writing poetry what do set out to do? 

That's easy: tell a story that makes the reader laugh, cringe, feel or think. A story worthy of a reread. 

How would you describe your writing style?

Describing your own style is tough and sometimes comes off as pompous. I'll throw a couple of words out there that I think work: simple, pared down, narrative, formalist, imagist. Of course I'm a writer and I make stuff up, so take it all with a grain of salt. 

Do you have set routine each day for writing?

Can't say that I have the discipline I'd like to have. I probably do take notes and pictures and jot down points daily. When it comes to putting it all together, I wait until I have a pretty complete story in mind and I write it down. Luckily, I can usually pull off piece quickly without needing incessant rewrites. I've been known to spit out a poem in the first draft. Not always but often enough. That's the beauty of writing down notes and ideas all the time. And I take a lot of pictures. 

What advice would you offer talented young writers?

Read. Read more. Write. Edit. Edit more. Find something interesting to say and say it in your own voice. There are so many people writing in a style that is so blah that it's impossible to identify the writer. Develop your own "thing" your "schtick" and nourish it. Copy folks while you learn; copy no one when you write. And I can't say it enough: don't be boring. A good fart joke is better than a bad poem. 

I enjoy reading the e-books on PigeonBike. Whats the background to the latest Trees or Jobs? (2013):

There is a woodlot in my city, with a wetland, that is slated for development. A lot of people, including local poets and writers, want the development stopped. My issue is more pragmatic: what are they putting up? Big box stores and more crap we don’t need. We need jobs in this city (London, Ontario) and industry that will attract new people, new skills, new jobs. In my opinion, the proposed project would not only destroy the woodlot, but would bring no meaningful advantage. That is my issue. And instead of just jawing about it, or writing a poem that no one will read, I decided to put together the broadside, and the electronic version. A city councillor brought it to council, others were posted, given to libraries, etc. I wanted to do something concrete, not just artistic. So I put my money, design, and a piece behind it. I’m not an activist, but I want my opinion heard. The whole project is still up in the air. 

I notice that your book publishing wing of PigeonBike is now sleeping. Whats the latest? Do you intend publishing again in the foreseeable future?

The pigeon is sleeping and the bike’s put away. I have no immediate or even mid-term plans for PigeonBike right now. I’m proud of what we did to this point. I know in the future I’ll probably resurrect it again, but for now, I’m letting it rest its weary feathers. I’m focusing on my writing.

Do you have any up & coming projects?

I’m currently looking for a home for my latest poetry collection “Needle shadows through the pines.” Although it continues the ‘narrative’ arc I’ve set out to tell, the collection also dives a little deeper into the man vs woman vs nature / pathetic fallacy realm. Some fun ‘stories’ in there, as well as some dark ones people have come to expect.
Aside from poetry, I’ve been resharpening my fiction pencil. I’ve written a few stories, some floating around in submission land, others waiting for a home in print that I am not at liberty to disclose at this time. I’ve decided to take the next logical step: add a little flesh to the themes and images from my poetry, all to expand them and give them more life. Somewhere, buried in my notes, is a novel, or at least a collection of short stories.
And I’m taking lots of pictures…



R L Raymond lives and writes in London, Ontario, Canada. He holds a Master's Degree in English Literature from the University of Western Ontario. With poetry, fiction, photography, and painting, Raymond just tells stories. Read his narratives in three poetry collections, and in dozens of literary publications around the world. For more information: 

Sonofabitch Poems - PigeonBike Press
Weakdays - Corrupt Press
Half Myths & Quarter Legends - Epic Rites Press