Poetry Review by Robert G. May

George Stanley, North of California St.: Selected Poems 1975-1999 (Vancouver: New Star, 2014). Paperbound, 192 pp., $21.

Born in San Francisco in 1934, George Stanley was a part of the San Francisco North of California St.Renaissance of the 1960s, the influential coterie of avant-garde poets that was initiated in large part by Kenneth Rexroth and included luminaries such as Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, and Robin Blaser. Stanley’s first few poetry books were published by small San Francisco-based presses such as White Rabbit, Open Space, and Dariel, and they quickly earned him a reputation as one of the most exciting new figures on the San Francisco poetry scene. After attaining a BA from San Francisco State University in 1969 and an MA in 1971, Stanley moved to Vancouver and became associated with New Star, the press that emerged from the work of a group of writers and editors at the alternative newspaper The Georgia Straight. New Star published several of Stanley’s ensuing collections, including You (1974), Gentle Northern Summer (1995), and At Andy’s (2000). The latter two books, along with Opening Day (published by Oolichan in 1983) and Temporarily (a chapbook published by Gorse-Tatlow in 1985), mark the beginning of Stanley’s Canadian phase, and his coming-of-age as a poet. Unfortunately, however, all four books are now long out of print.

North of California St., also published by New Star, is a selection of fifty-one poems that originally appeared in these four books. It includes some of Stanley’s best-known works, such as “Mountains & Air” (originally collected in Opening Day), “Sex at 62” (originally collected in At Andy’s), and, of course, “San Francisco’s Gone,” Stanley’s sixteen-part long poem (originally collected in Gentle Northern Summer) that culminates in the beautiful and oft-anthologized “Veracruz”:

I wish I had grown up in San Francisco as a girl,
A tall, serious girl,
& that eventually I had come to Veracruz,
& walking on the Malecón, I had met a sailor,
a Mexican sailor or a sailor from some other country—maybe a Brazilian sailor,
& that he had married me & I had become pregnant by him,
so that I could give birth at last to my son—the boy I love.

The title of the collection, North of California St., is taken from the dedication to “San Francisco’s Gone,” and alludes to one of that city’s major thoroughfares, beyond which Stanley would have to travel, up into Canada, to reach his artistic maturity. Rather than republish these poems by original date of publication or by broad themes, Stanley has arranged them in geobiographical order, beginning with San Francisco-inspired poems (such as “Icarus,” the collection’s opening poem), proceeding to Vancouver-inspired poems (such as “Easter Sunday ‘75” and “Vancouver in April”), and ending with poems inspired by the northern British Columbia city of Terrace (such as “At Andy’s,” the collection’s closing poem), where Stanley spent fifteen years as a teacher of literature at Northwest Community College. Also included are travel poems inspired by his excursions to Scotland and to his ancestral home, Ireland (such as “Arklow” and “Coolgreany”). Arranged this way, the collection becomes a spiritual autobiography in poetic form, allowing readers to trace with Stanley his maturation as a poet as he leaves the familiarity of his home town and strikes out into the unknown north.

It is not Stanley’s usual practice to include prefatory comments in his collections, preferring the poems to speak for themselves. However, North of California St. begins with an introduction entitled “George Stanley’s North” by the poet and critic Sharon Thesen, who is also the author of the article “Chains of Grace: The Poetry of George Stanley” (1986). Thesen provides some biographical material about Stanley for readers who may be new to his work, as well as some critical insights into his oeuvre. She also devotes a portion of the introduction to describing the concept of “Aboutism,” Stanley’s reaction against the theoretical abstractions of the language-poetry movement:

Stanley has more than half seriously promulgated the poetics of “Aboutism,” his rebuttal to the excesses of the “language-centred” … poetic avant garde. Stanley’s “Aboutist” methodology is apparent … in this volume, exemplified in [poetry] … which concerns itself with its unfolding content: ideas, thoughts, locales, occasions, persons, and words.

Poetry, in other words, should be about something, a consideration too often obscured, in Stanley’s view, by language poetry’s verbal pyrotechnics. Stanley’s best poems have more in common with the sharp, precise clarity of imagist verse. Take “In Scotland,” for example, a poem whose tight but evocative four lines could have been written by William Carlos Williams himself: “Necropolis behind / Glasgow cathedral, // Scottish boys /  with soft close cuts.”

North of California St. will be most useful to newcomers to Stanley’s work, readers who may have missed the publication of the four out-of-print books from which this collection is drawn. Thesen’s introduction helps place this selection of poetry in the context of Stanley’s larger career, as “a retrospective reading” of Stanley’s first few Canadian decades. By bringing this work back into print, Thesen hopes the collection will turn renewed attention upon a poet too long neglected in Canada, and on whom too little academic attention has been paid. While North of California St. may not inspire a wholesale critical reawakening in Stanley scholarship the way a full collected or critical edition of his work might, it’s an excellent start.

—Robert G. May

As in The Malahat Review, 190, Spring 2015, 84-86