April 16, 2013
by Jacob McArthur Mooney
Moez Surani's intellectually dextrous second collection from Wolsak & Wynn, Floating Life, is more an extension of the skills that characterized his debut, Reticent Bodies, than a reinvention. His most impactful new weapon is a self-awareness that was just hinted at in his first book. Surani is writing from the centre of many things: Canadian lyricism, male-voiced romanticism, and the travelogue, but the unsaid politics and preferences of those assorted comfort zones wrap subtly around the book and become a sort of running theme. Surani's expository lyricism is insightful but humble, self-confident but other-seeking. The book opens with the short “When I am Reading”, which closes by stating the idealistic desire to “find life”. This is as simple a closing line as poetry can offer: a coy, unremarkable, quest for a non-standard experience. But it's also the readers' first hint to Surani's wider field of enquiry that this poem is placed right at the front of Floating Life, as anthem and motto and taunt, almost daring the works that follow to go under-read and underestimated. They shouldn't be.
Surani is in that point in the evolution of very talented poets where they start to name and confront their biases, and this is the major recurring action of Floating Life. It is no surprise that the first of several long sequences starts with Walt Whitman's chestnut epigraph: “We have had ducking and deprecating about enough.” This quotation lives in the centre of Surani's book as an appeal to both reader and author. It follows an introductory chapter filled with short and shortish poems of diverse concerns, a sort of micro-collection leading into the longer ruminations that follow. Included in this first part are some of the clearest signs that Surani intends to display his skills, but also “duck and deprecate” them. A series of increasingly minimalistic pieces arrive at their zenith with the three-word poem “Barcelona Harbour” which offers only “So many/boats!” Later on, Surani identifies the elephant in the room, when, wedged among several self-possessed meditations on his love life, he offers a poem quite naturally titled “Narcissus Perceives his Echo”. In this new collection, Surani is forever watching the reader follow along, and the poem-placement is expert: working on levels from rhythm-modulation all the way down to clever irony.
I once reviewed Reticent Bodies for another location, and a piece of that rave made its way onto Floating Life's back cover, it reads: “Reticent Bodies arrives on a suggestion that the haze of hangover may be finally lifting from the romantic, the cosmopolitan and the self-consciousness of Cohen’s and Layton’s youth and masculinity.” As I've already suggested, Floating Life is very much an evolution of that initial style, so perhaps it can also be explained with an evolution of my blurb. In the years between that Reticent Bodies review and now, my tastes have soured a little on cosmopolitanism (who needs it? what if you knew one thing into its infiniteness?), but the other great unappreciated possibilities are still there for the taking (romanticism, self-consciousness in lyric poetry), and Surani's work offers a great escape from Canadian poetry’s fallback conversations. His curt lyrical voice can still make those with the necessary memory nostalgic for the disco nationalists, for their verve and their self-concern. What's clearest about that pull-quote to me now is how much Surani's neo-romanticism has grown away from Layton's. The latter's great gift was in the simultaneous performance of apparent incongruencies: sadness and flippancy, impenetrability and woundedness. The difference I'm first to detect in Floating Life is that it manages, at its best, to display the same simultaneous incongruencies without it feeling like one or both emotions are being “performed” in any way. Even Surani’s happier moments seem unforced and without bluster. Their relayed experience plays closer to the bone, mumbled instead of preached, unadorned by extended metaphor or alliterative string. If anything, the thoughtful stoicism that's often found attached to the shorter poems in Floating Life feel like alibies for its truest recurring emotion: great, irresponsible, hedonistic, joy. In Layton, almost every time, the opposite would be true. As an example, here Surani squirrels out of his own mortality with an act of creation that, while still sad, torques the poem with a late surge of energy:
I have been losing certain friends.
They glide off
make themselves islands
with their wives or live-in girlfriend
and gain others
who flip into extroversion
initiating all kinds of things.
In thirty years, which of us
will grieve or invent Helens?
It's very important not to call Surani's poetry Laytonesque (to be honest, I only mentioned Layton because it was the snippet of my Reticent Bodies review that made it onto Floating Life's cardstock). His work isn't Laytonesque, per se, nor is it Audenesque or Les Murray-esque or Rita Dove-esque. These are very different poets, and they're all also only distantly related to Surani's own poetry. They are not his influences: more they are avatars of his personality traits. Like them, Surani can navigate the line between despair and contentment, oscillating between these poles sometimes within a single sentence.
Moez Surani has found a home on the terrain between modernism and post-modernism, the examined life and the examination of examined life. His andante rhythmic preferences and tendency to open into epiphany are confronted quite brilliantly with an actionable understanding of the kind of poetry he is writing, how that approaches the ear and eye of its reader, and what can be done to modulate or surprise within that expectation. It's an exciting skill to see come online for a young poet.
Surani's first collection, nominally a series of poems about falling into and out of love, went to great lengths to prove the breadth of possibility afforded to the meditative lyric. Floating Life cares much less about proving the value of its type. Surani has moved onto bigger things, and his second collection documents that expansion.
Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of the poetry collections The New Layman’s Almanac and Folk.