Lift Off review from Elliptical Movements, a blog by Billy Mills (Ireland)

Posted by Billy Mills 06:52 on 25/04/2023

(See the original post)

My education in Canadian poetry continues via a package in the post from Stephen Bett which contained Lift Off and The Gross & Fine Geography: New & Selected Poems which was published not far from here in 2015 by Salmon Poetry, a bit long ago for a review though I will come back to it later.

Lift Off is a book-length serial poem consisting of 45 numbered Lift Offs, each with an additional subtitle. The sequence concerns the break-up of a marriage in the wake of the complete mental breakdown of one of the spouses, Bett's wife. As such, it is rooted in a kind of grieving and regret, but, as the title implies, there is an underlying sense of hope, of the potential for a future beyond both break-up and breakdown. Both threads come together in the recuring image of a bird, battered but stubbornly taking flight:

This bird was
in a cartoon

Feathers blown
out in all
[from 'Lift Off 13: on our own stunned heads']

I am reminded, in some ways, of the Early Irish Buile Shuibhne, filtered through a mesh of American modernism:

I sing of
(old Walt-

Pls excuse me
if all I do
at present
is screech
[from 'Lift Off 5: at present, screech']

Taken loosely, Bett's work fits into the Whitman lineage, although the key influences are William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. He writes out of the mouths of Canadian mothers, so to speak, but with Zukofsky's sense of the musical possibilities of the short line and line and stanza breaks:

I am galled,
I am a gull
for punish

Throw me
your scraps
& I will
dine out
for days

Gluttonous bird
starved for
on the
lost at
from a
[from 'Lift Off 19: half rimed word']

It takes an extraordinary level of care for sound and movement to carry off this kind of minimalist writing, and Bett is a fine craftsman of both. I'll leave it to the reader to pick out the patterns of sound woven through these 'half rimed' lines, the flow of assonance and alliteration that structure Bett's music.

The poem ends with the poet/speaker finding new love. The reader might feel some qualms at the idea of the abandoned, damaged previous partner, regardless of the apparent total breakdown of the relationship, but for Bett, this ending is at one with the sense of honesty that runs through the work:

I am told
that this is
(or something like that)
[from 'Lift Off 42: damn it']

The interested reader will find from an internet search that a good deal of reworking went into the shaping of Lift Off with some sections abandoned and others renumbered as the work progressed. There are also five sections included in the aforementioned Selected, with one numbered 57 which corresponds to the part 42 just quoted. These are positioned as if published in 2014, so as to take their place as the final instalment in a run of books that deal with the same relationship, and just before an excerpt from Breathing Arizona: a journal that tells the story of the new love that closes Lift off, thus creating a logical sequence into which the series under review here sits.

Despite his Irish publication, Bett is a new voice to me, and one I look forward to re-reading. And once again I'm prompted to look for the Canadian women poets I've missed to date.