Killdeer by Phil Hall is poised for a hat trick: it’s won the Governor General’s Award for poetry and is a finalist for the Griffin Prize and the Ontario Trillium Book Award. That amount of acclaim shifts the lens of the review from standard to panoramic. It becomes somewhat of a given that a book with so much acclaim has many merits—and this one does. So the question expands: in the realm of so many great books, why has this one captured the imagination?
The publisher BookThug has established expectations of experimental writing. Phil Hall does play with language and form—his unique use of sentence fragments (what he calls “essay-poems”) and his use of dashes as the only punctuation shape the reader as a breathless confidant. Hall challenges the uses of language, too, by confronting the intersection of social class and the arts, admitting that “coming from a bookless home—I have never gotten over an innate suspicion of text—even my own.”
The title, Killdeer, makes use of a universal poetry trope—the bird as metaphor for the nature and style of poets and/or their poems. A killdeer’s most compelling trait is the way it feigns a broken wing to keep predators away from its eggs, startling the interloper and perhaps eliciting sympathy. Similarly, Phil Hall admits “there has always been a thin puppetry to my whining… I have—like the killdeer—made vaudeville of my pain—to distract my enemies—and this has distracted me too.”
What was less expected were the conventional and canonical elements. In a departure from BookThug’s edgy repertoire, and calling to mind dominant mid-century poetry, Killdeer is essentially confessional, speaking candidly about family issues, alcoholism, abuse, and marriage. Additionally, Hall describes a number of encounters with those course-adopted “Modern Library” Canadian writers, including Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, and others. Although I was surprised by this nostalgia for tradition, these poems were in equal turns moving, illuminating, and amusing.
Many pieces involve Hall’s youthful aspirations to “become” a writer, and his honesty is both uncomfortable and endearing. After Margaret Laurence encouraged him to send his poems to a journal, he did, with the note to the editor name-dropping the novelist’s endorsement. He received a jaded rejection letter that read, “Well, I want Trudeau to like them too.”
The portraits of Phil Hall’s close friends and family are the most intimate, such as “She Loved the Ocean,” “Praxia,” and “77 Florence.” These pieces are written with such honesty and empathy that it is impossible to read them and not tremble. They capture everything Hall is trying to reveal and protect.
It is this distinct mixture of experimentation and reverence for tradition, along with Hall’s self-aware growth as a writer, that resonates so deeply. Many of these pieces use the personal I in a balancing act with the lyric I, and the melodrama of the writer “limp[ing] across” the page is all-too-relatable. And it’s true: alongside Hall are “so many astounding readers—and forgotten writers—persisting.”
Reviewed for Arc Poetry Journal
Posted on Arc May 29, 2012 and forthcoming in print edition