Sunday, January 25, 2015

Jim Johnstone’s Dog Ear

With its mix of scientific observation and metaphysical questioning, Jim Johnstone’s latest poetry collection, Dog Ear, recalls similar procedures in the poetry of Leigh Kotsilidis. Whereas Kotsilidis accepts the incompletions inherent in fact and fancy, equably so, Johnstone’s speculative conclusions are anguished, the product of a mind obsessive enough to follow the circuitous and repetitive paths of logic, but intelligent enough to know its not likely to offer more than provisional understanding. The titular opener displays this frustrated investigation:

It was years before I learned to call
this prayer: the right-hand corner
of a page turned down to make another
page. I attempted to escape, then return
to the boneyard where I’d removed
an earring from my wife’s right ear—
diamond, the crux of the universe,
contracting to leave a pin-sized hole
midair. In that margin, my words
remain transfixed until she disappears—
proof that while I swore the world
I’d created would double like a hand
beneath my own, it merely stretches
before me in consolation. There, there.

“Dog Ear” also demonstrates Johnstone’s – I want to call it ‘facility’, but that’s not the right word – strange blend of anecdote, metaphor, and fantasy. In isolation, those components don’t provide a vehicle for even provisional understanding, but a readerly  juggling act conjures an organic unfolding, climax, and denouement, classic structures that, in Johnstone’s effort, muddies and perplexes, while closing on an anti-epiphany, the final two-word repetition either compassionate or maliciously diverting.

The metaphysical questing is a constant throughout the collection, and an obsessive trope that supports it is flying/falling. In “Complementarity” (“All that’s lost is given shape -- /a hand crushed under Boeing/fuselage”), in “Inland” (“our company’s shade/lifts likeness from stands of birch, blots/retreating lanes of wind: our pilot”), in “Evel Knievel Negotiates the Fountain at Caesar’s Palace” (I groped around and found myself/unmoored at latitude”), and in “Ariadne’s Thread” (“Our pact: to climb against  winter’s rush --/mad, uncoupled”), the narrator is caught in a tragic fix: wise enough to know of gravity’s inviolable law, but restless enough to want to transcend it anyway, however knowingly futile the attempt. In this, Johnstone’s dilemma (acceptance of entropy vs  spiritual desire for transcendence mated with its infinitesimally small likelihood of  realization) can only be recorded and aesthetically investigated, if not unified.

The biggest weakness of this volume is Johnstone’s over-reliance on the high-toned, even vatic, register. The poems are good enough – and some of them are more than good – so that the tone doesn’t create an unfortunate parody of itself, and I also realize that  existential burrowing isn’t an avocation, but an occasional self-puncturing (“Evel Knievel” ’s “body tossed ass-first/over the gas tank’s hive” a stick-out exception) would be more than welcome.

Monday, January 19, 2015

H. L. Mencken's A Choice of Days

What do H. L. Mencken, Kahlil Gibran, and Thomas Jefferson have in common? Many can ape a starred quote from all three, but few bother to read them extensively. In Mencken’s case, that means an unmeasured adulation for his incisive, provocative, oft-cited epigrams. Mencken plied his chief trade – newspaper opinion pieces – during the beginnings of yellow journalism and working class exposés, so it’s ironic that he succeeded in an era that alternately pandered to, and sympathized with, the semi-literate. (More on that in a bit.) He knew, or wrote at the same time as, Hemingway, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair. Nathanael West also clicked keys in a newspaper office (and readers are grateful – the excellent Miss Lonelyhearts resulted). Great writing, bold opinion, larger than life personalities. Mencken, like the notables listed above, also applied himself to the creative arts, as they’re more widely pegged, though he shelved stories and poems as inferior testings. That’s an important segue into the review at hand.

I didn’t like Mencken’s A Choice of Words, the abridged book of his three-volume autobiography-in-essays. I didn’t like it because I didn’t like the man. In a creative work, that kind of identification of quality with the person who penned it is inexcusable. In a journalistic piece, much less so. Non-fiction reportage – dispassion, wide-focus assertion, external issues, definition by negative reaction – often runs counter to creative endeavour, so it’s doubly impressive the aforementioned novelists transcended those strictures. I picked up this book to see if Mencken would rip off his starched collar, ply himself with a whiskey or three (a semi-teetotaler, he prided himself on working sober), and get personal. Be personable. Vulnerable. Endearing. Investigative, in the deepest sense of the word. No such luck. Mencken’s views are weightless because I didn’t know what animated them, other than aristocratic derision. Southerners or rednecks (or as Mencken liked to call them, “lintheads”) are despised above all other targets, even politicians and religious figures, because the former created the cynical crusading of the latter two groups. Stupidity is Mencken’s constant subject, either in direct attack or underlying core. Many or most of us remember his awesome epigram, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”, but Mencken’s good times are frequently spurred on by mockery, by reactive self-regard.

A Choice of Words brings that out. Mencken’s style is breezily confident, his diction far-ranging and entertaining, and his sentence structures various and tonally even, though every second explanatory clause begins with the jarringly formal “for”, as in, “[They] appear[ed] to have leaned toward Levirate ideas, for when the cousin dies one of his brothers married his widow”. But the emotion – and in what better an avenue than autobiography to explore it? – is stillborn. Lots of bravado (childhood indiscretions) and faux-wonder (condescending observations of “coloureds”, and rabble-rousing drunks), but all of it viewed through a telescope on a cold and sparse-starred night. Even the most traumatic event – the great Baltimore fire of 1904 – is rendered as hectic report. I half-expected Mencken to sign off for a commercial break during problems with burned-out news offices and shifting locales. No ruminations on lives lost, homes and careers destroyed, specific damage, dynamic images. In fact, no acknowledgement that these were issues at all. But Mencken the hero (getting the “news” out no matter the obstacle) carries the day. After recently reading Orhan Pamuk’s beautifully moving, wise, and multi-angled two essays on living through earthquakes in Istanbul, Mencken’s puny offerings are an offensive wasteland of the imagination, strong on the headlines but flatlined on the heart beneath them.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Juan Goytisolo's Count Julian

Much better than his Marks of Identity (as translated by Rabassa), Juan Goytisolo’s Count Julian, the 1970 middle novel in the trilogy, gains that evaluation in no small part from Helen Lane’s fine, lyrical translation. The rhetoric is rhythmically calibrated for emotional shock, metaphorically daring (repetitive insect predation is handled with skillful variation and merciless scientific observation), and tonally sensitive and various. Most importantly, the voice which seemed, at times in the opening novel, pedantic and general, here is sharper. The reader can hear echoes of a necessary rage and mockery. Relentless in its targetted hits, Goytisolo avoids the flippant drive-by which often marred Marks of Identity to first colour his characters with specific tics and twitches in order to more effectively drive juice through the electric chair’s occupied head-and-hand irons. But, though it’s shorter than its predecessor, the pace also fries the reader’s sensibilities just past the half-way point. I’ll be reporting on the concluding book, Juan the Landless, later this year since it’s also translated by Lane.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Juan Goytisolo's Marks of Identity

Works in translation often present acute reviewer-with-pants-down syndrome because that blind and deaf soul can’t rely on the middlepersonhood as a faithful conduit due to the reviewer’s unrefulgent ability in understanding the source work. That problem popped up as often as moles in a whack- ‘em arcade game throughout Gregory Rabassa’s Spanish translation of Juan Goytisolo’s 1966 Marks of Identity, the novelist’s first entry (and first-ever avant work) in his lauded trilogy. Repetitively clunky syntax shifts the reader’s focus from content and image to its unrhythmic means, a dire flaw in an ambitious, multi-modal, complex work where rhetoric registers from passionate denunciation to cool irony. The reader remains tentative on an evaluation since the blunder could emanate as much, or more, from the author, in this instance. Certainly, Goytisolo doesn’t make the interpreter’s job easy. One of the main approaches – the second-person autobiographical punctuationless highly-charged run-on sentence block-paragraphs – creates a heavy slog no matter the translator’s talents, as evidenced by the circling back, the lost referents, the cloudy tones, the mysterious pronouns, the sketchy characterizations. Perhaps and again, this is Goytisolo’s intent – the destruction of bourgeois expectations – because a giant ‘fuck you’ to the reader wouldn’t come as a surprise next to the giant ‘fuck you’ to Franco, Franco’s supporters and minions, communists, fat women, dull workers of state whether in bureaucratic office or on production line, ridiculous Don Juans, haughty and decadent forebears of the aristocracy, the Catholic church, the myth of the honourable virgin, the myth of the heroic knight, Spanish stoicism, tourists, Catalonian complacency, counter-revolutionary simple-Simons, familial imbecility, sexual repression, deceptive ‘friends’, literary log rolling, pop culture, romanticizing traditional Spanish culture, technological ‘progress’, sexual duplicity, sentimentality, the police, democrats, the self, and – above all – the pimping-out of language as moral directive. That doesn’t leave a lot of space for an opposing, positive vision in Goytisolo’s personal revolution other than (in the vaguest of terms) freedom, and (ironically) a romantic call-to-arms for Moorish re-engagement and takeover of moribund Castilian society. If I give this book a plug, it’s more to do with Goytisolo’s audaciousness than a realized (structurally, aesthetically) fictional journey.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Books Read in 2014

Yet another change-up on the year-end retrospective, this time listing every book (with brief commentary) I liked this calendar year. I can't remember better luck in my reading choices. Maybe twenty or twenty-five mild-to-outright duds and flubs, which means an above-50% plug rate. That said, I shelved several only a chapter (or a few poems) in, so, in hindsight, it allowed for far more quality. I've been sliding in that direction for several years now, anyway, and as the years accelerate into worldwide graphomania, it's a damn good policy.

The first ten books are listed in order of preference, the other twenty-seven in no particular order. The [b] designation after publication date refers to a lengthier blog entry on the same book earlier in the year, which can be accessed at the sidebar to the right.

1) Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, (1973). I don’t know why it’s taken me forty-one years to pick up this wayward, psychedelic, manic encyclopedia. The best “new” novel I’ve read this century, its scope and tonal range, lexical extravagance and meaning (reading some of the dismissive reviews on its meaning was discouraging), and prophetic impulse is incomparable. From a trapped bombing victim on one page to the surrealistic trip of a buggered bar patron trying to fish out his mouth harp from an overflowing toilet on the next page, it all works, all 760 dense pages of it.

2) Cynthia Ozick, The Puttermesser Papers, (1997). Over forty years in the making, Ozick’s novel is executed in all facets with a hyper-attached Swiss Army knife. Stylish, lean, big-voiced with an incredibly sophisticated tone both arch and solemn, a fantasia without taking away from the realistic and harrowing penultimate event, wise, metaphysically daunting, meta-fictionally ingenious, structurally and chronologically inventive, funny, funny, and funny. The titular character I won’t ever forget.

3) Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760). Even Sterne wouldn’t have anticipated the irony and hypocrisy of present-day pomos carping about the too-earnest and too-proud certainties of realists and other assorted traditionalists while, themselves, lathering on the arcane and the obscuring, the specialized hush and the snake-eating-its-tail argumentation. I read this novel (or anti-novel) in my youth, but it’s only this year, this reread, that I’ve appreciated it as more than an amusing, infinite digression. (The targets are broader, of course, including other pompous figures, whether in the eighteenth or twenty-first centuries.)

4) James Park Sloan, Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography (1996). With the help of a skylight winch, pulled this from a Victoria, B.C. bookstore in 2007, and it took me seven years of daily weight training to be able to hoist the cement coffin from a bookcase addition. Amazingly meticulous research – not dissimilar in kind, at least, to the work Brian Busby put in on another bio on this list, while separating truth from whopper – in order to get underneath the many layers of fibbing and “image maintenance” of Kosinski’s mercurial personality. The Polish history is fascinating, the involvement with a New York literary elite desperate for “authenticity” revealing, the Hollywood hobnobbing a converging and sympathetic ambivalence, the Village Voice exposé a balanced journalistic overview with riveting biographical detail. Kiki von Fraunhofer must be the most selfless lit-spouse of all.

5) Joseph Heller, Something Happened, (1974). Relentlessly dark, the novel is black and yellow bile served up dry. Heller, after Catch-22, brings the American nightmare home. If there’s a more illuminating floodlight turned on office politics, I haven’t yet read it. The home front gets a similarly detailed psychological exploration. (I seem to have chanced upon quite a few laugh-to-keep-from-crying works this year.)

6) Jenny Erpenbeck, The Book Of Words, tr. Susan Bernofsky, (2004). Impressionistic yet concentrated, the novel gathers force and leaves stunning metaphorical clues as the girl narrator tries to understand her mysterious guardian’s language-perversion in justification of a career in state torture. Mixing folklore with horrific event, the reader, too, is constantly unbalanced. 

7) Anis Shivani, My Tranquil War and Other Poems, (2012). [b]. In a wide range of modes and emotions, Shivani argues with, and touts, an equally wide range of literary lion(esse)s, artists, and political figures, while situating (or implicating) them in cultural clashes and irrelevancies. Many standout poems.

8) Peter Richardson, Bit Parts For Fools, (2013). Richardson deepens his historical fiction monologues in this latest poetry collection, but never runs away from more personal involvement, revealing new concerns in entries of retirement, nostalgia, and specific appreciation. (As a huge Ralph Gustafson fan, it’s heartening to see the corresponding gentle elegy.)

9) Rachel Lebowitz, Cottonopolis, (2013). Shelby Foote complained about most historians whose dry and/or poorly-written tomes detracted from the horrors evoked in source material. Not so in Lebowitz’ stirring poems – found, phrase-borrowed, or original – of the too-easily-forgotten slaves, weaver-slaves, and famine victims of the Industrial maladaptation. Mixing extracts of squalor and beauty in language both vivid and blunt, the book is a worthy reminder that history tends, unfortunately, to favour stories of superhuman battle rather than the more common (and relatable) long emergencies detailed here – even during the American Civil War – of  infection, exhaustion, and disease.

10) Yiyun Li, The Vagrants, (2009). Set in the late 1970s, between Mao’s Cultural Devolution and the ‘Eight Square’ Massacre of 1989 (I use one of the euphemisms to bypass Chinese censors in that country on the slight chance someone there googles this mini-review), Li’s consistently low-key, formal, dire novel records the cultural ambivalences of that brief and hopeful period, when generations clashed over the value of individualism and revolution over respect, collective will, and family obedience. 

John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse, (1970). A delightful Henry Miller-ish creative non-fic place piece, without the inflated metaphysics.

ed. Brian Busby, The Heart Accepts It All, (2013). A wide-ranging selection of John Glassco’s letters which, in their personal obsessions, reveal, perplex, and delight.

ed. Brian Busby, A Gentleman of Pleasure, (2011). [b]. Meticulous biographical research against a complex historical adventure which organizes a psychological study of  dramatic, wise import.

Joyce Carol Oates, A Fair Maiden, (2010). [b]. Grim novella, rich in character tension, not so rich in tonal contrast.

Thomas Pynchon, Vineland, (1990). [b]. Has been called Pynchon’s worst novel. We should all be so lucky. A delightfully paranoid California romp. The author gently slaps the counter-culture while throwing vitriol at apostate informers.

James Dickey, Deliverance, (1970). [b]. Exceptionally tense, with gorgeous rock-cut sentence-descriptions of the river rapids. Dickey doesn’t let up in the quieter character assessments, either.

Bill Gaston, The Order of Good Cheer, (2008). [b]. A colourful bisection where the comparisons are effective only at a stretch. The alternating stories, though, provide a potent one-two combo of whimsy and guilt.

Mona Simpson, Off Keck Road, (2000). It must be hard to compose a novella about three unadventurous women, but Simpson succeeds with interior shading, wise character exchanges, and descriptive subtlety.

Beryl Bainbridge, An Awfully Big Adventure, (1989). Bainbridge’s last semi-autobiographical novel (I believe), the writing is superb: dialogue captures working-class vitality, and narration is crisp and colourful. Humour with a cost.

Martin Amis, The Pregnant Widow, (2010) [b]. A generous dose of typically surprising, astute, comedic Amis-penned mischief.

John Pass, Crawlspace, (2011). [b]. A pretty good poetry collection with vibrant images, disarming humour, and narrative heft. Flagged a bit with emotional overreach.

Dean Young, Embryoyo, (2007). [b]. Excellent surrealistic poetry assault. Provocative linkages which gather multiple suggestions.

Nicole Dixon, High-Water Mark, (2012). The transience of desire, and desire’s reconciliation, usually for the best, characterize many of Dixon’s dialogue-heavy short stories. The traps gnawing at each character stem not so much from grim economic realities or family pressures, but from individuals’ own limitations, largely based on a lack of experience (many characters are young). Pared, immediate, and refreshingly clear of taking sides.

Philip Roth, Indignation, (2008). [b]. I’ve soured a bit on this since reading/blogging it in February, but it still packs a typical Rothian punch of sexuality and identity at near-burst the entire novella.

Alissa Nutting, Tampa, (2013). [b]. Receiving a horrendously reactive critical reception, either for or against, because of its explosive subject matter, the novel isn’t cutting edge or exploitative trash, but a flawed, intelligent first-person study of sex and power.

Will Ferguson, Spanish Fly, (2007). Riveting account of scammers set in the U.S. Depression dustbowl, the novel scores frequent points for humour, drama, plot, and description. The ending fell apart – in believability and force – but that’s a minor point.

Jason Guriel, The Pigheaded Soul, (2013). [b]. A wide tapas table of literary response to a fairly divergent set of authors in several genres, Guriel’s writing is concise and occasionally startling in its phrase-making and wise allusive reach, though I disagree with many of its evaluations.

Shane Neilson, Will, (2013). [b]. In-your-face and angry, sadly contemplative, or japingly satirical, Neilson, in these short stories, succeeds in a variety of tones. Too many noteworthy stories to single out just one or two. They’re all various shades of interesting to exciting.

Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist, (2005). Whimsical, witty, poignant novel of a reclusive poet battling inertia and failure to craft an intro to a poetry anthology. Baker overcomes the potentially dry material by releasing a captivating voice in the narrator.

Martin Amis, Heavy Water & Other Stories, (1999). Much panned and, yeah, some of the inverted conceits (and conceited inverts) are more interesting for the idea than the exposition, but several of the shorts have the stamp of Amis-branded absurdity and bullseye satire. Unlike almost every reviewer, I found the title effort both vivid and moving.

Jerzy Kosinski, Passion Play, (1979). The quality of Kosinski’s opus flags markedly after his first two fiction titles, but there are many haunting passages here of identity crisis and ambivalent nostalgia, as well as stinging descriptions of polo drama and Caribbean intrigue.

Guy de Maupassant, Selected Stories, tr. Roger Colet, (compiled 1971). A much-culled selection of Maupassant’s short stories, including “The Horla” and “Boule de Suif”, Colet’s translation is classically rendered, though dialogue has the force and immediacy of the characters’ volatility.

Orhan Pamuk, Other Colors, (2007). A slew of essays, articles, reminiscences, polemics, literary statements, anecdotes, historical cut-outs, and author retrospectives, capped by his Nobel speech, Paris interview and an original short story, Pamuk’s range is impressive, though that scope is contradicted, at times – I carp – by his obsession with East-West relations.

Zachariah Wells, Career Limiting Moves, (2013). I’d read most of these poetry reviews and essays, interviews, considerations, and ironic interrogations, but not his excellent review – “Disaster Tourism” – of Anne Simpson’s Loop, which he once pointed me to, after I’d reviewed her atrocious collection, Is, (available at the roll call to the right). Lots of quotation included throughout the collection, and assertions are elaborated on from more than one angle.

Richard Greene, Dante’s House, (2014). [b]. The long terza rima titular poem is a standout, neither sagging nor garrulous. Several gems appear in the opening section, too, including the simultaneously gripping and measured “The Idea of Order at Port-au-Prince”.

George Elliott Clarke, Black, (2012). [b]. In a stunningly wide array of moods and modes, Clarke’s characteristic indulgences are superseded by a wealth of lyrical power.

Zsuzsi Gartner, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, (2011). Wallowing in cultural ephemera, this short story collection is nevertheless saved by Gartner’s (narrative, lexical, stylish) joyous invention.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Richard Greene's Dante's House

“I substitute have seen you for will see./Tenses shift and I prepare for memory.”

Those lines, the final in-stanza couplet from “Crooked Eclipses”, Richard Greene’s poem from Dante’s House, capture the backward transitional movement of psychological time, but Greene has consistently gazed over his shoulder, in this collection as in his previous, Boxing the Compass. Even in his personal travel pieces, the past constantly merges with the present, and is often more vivid than reachable church stone or “ten fantini sitting on bareback steeds”. That said, his observational powers are very good. Greene’s mind is equable, and many of the conclusions drawn are doubting, provisional, withheld, or impossible. Unlike instances in Boxing the Compass, there’s more of, “Those roads wind among degrees of sorrow/I cannot imagine” (from “The Idea of Order at Port-au-Prince”), and I, for one, am grateful for it.

The latter poem’s title is in some way a response, obviously, to Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”, which could just as easily have been headed as “The Idea of Disorder”. Greene, then, isn’t indulging in irony when observing the broken political reality and broken men and women that he sees during a Haiti excursion. A narrative poet often drawn to the elegiac mode, Greene’s lyrical skills are rarely virtuosic, though the approach is purposely understated, even at heightened interludes. At times, though, a memorable sequence will make the reader (this one, at least) pause. One example: Greene, in his “The Idea of Order at Port-au-Prince”, agrees with Stevens’ philosophical stance of manpersonwomankind’s rage for meaning, but undercuts it in practical necessity, with “Rebuilding is a matter of cinder-/block and thickets of rebar rising up/the mountain’s steep face”.

The sameness of colour in the first eleven one-to-five pagers – measured, sympathetic, commemorative – makes it more important than usual that content, in isolation, be interesting. This is, of course, highly subjective, reader to reader. I found the two-part “Corrections” a highlight: horrifying mini-studies of doomed prisoners “rip[ping]/open the skin and muscle with their hands.” Greene’s strength, though – (I’ll shortly get to that) – is absent by constriction. The poet obviously can’t enter the troubed lives of these unfortunate men in any meaningful way from a one-visit tour. A lowlight was “Yankee Stadium”, a fond homage to the Yankee “mystique”.  Rhapsodizing over ballooning multi-millionaires becomes, itself, weirdly inflated as one ages and the corporate chess-players shift and pluck from the green board.

The approach and sequencing between Boxing the Compass and Dante’s House is the same. Shorter considerations act as substantial appetizers to the last poem, in this case the titular 32 page travelogue-memorial. So I was surprised to find my evaluations, book-to-book, reversed: “Dante’s House”, after the collection’s uneven first half, knocks it out of any open space, whether Yankee Stadium or the Grand Canyon. The aptly-named poem’s impulse is self-evident. Structured in twenty-nine tercet-descending terza rima stanzas, the formidable formal constraint works astonishingly well. It’s not a boastful marathon exercise. The one-step-back-two-steps-forward foray of the rhyme scheme captures Greene’s often tentative experiences on foreign soil, trying to communicate with strangers in Berlitz Italian, and interpreting actions and dialogue, self-consciously, through a different cultural and historical lens. (For that matter, the backward-forward steps work as fitting image of a Dante troubled by the Inferno’s upcoming, deeper circle.) But the pattern also enhances Greene’s quieter connections between the past as it manifests in the present (Faulkner is useful to think about here), not just in how Il Duce’s sins live on in the shattered lives of victims’ descendants, but in Greene’s own ruminations on his mother’s troubles and ultimate death. His strength in bridging time and geography, others with himself, is utterly mellifluous and convincing. To accomplish that narratively within the demanding long-poem constraints of the form (I only counted one egregious choice – “move slowly past in their pageantry of tum-//ult.” is the end-move to “come” and “drum”) is even more impressive. One reason attention isn’t called to the procedure, like an annoyed and dissatisfied audience member lifting the curtain in front of the hand puppet, has to do with Greene’s prosodic variance. Many readers, even studious poets, frequently belittle rhyme in a free(r) verse milieu, but a far more damning clunkfest has to do with repetitive metre. Gimme ingenious rhymes all day; just don’t dress them up in military iambics.

There are many other elements to trumpet in “Dante’s House”, and though I can’t get to them all, I’d like to point to a few more. Lyricism is enhanced, in contrast to the book’s first half, throughout the long poem. “Bungling shrinks tinkered with her sanity” is the closest Greene gets to anger, but it’s the sounds, not the tone, one remembers. The concluding line of that penultimate stanza – “Love was taken from me, yet I rejoice” – is simple and heartbreaking, a closing benediction on three interspersed sections concentrating on his mother, itself a spur to a spiritual strength which surpasses the milder, received grace of Italian architecture and biography and interaction, though these, too, are noteworthy. Like “The Divine Comedy”, Greene’s scope encompasses all kinds of figures -- political, artistic, religious, and intellectual. Catherine of Alexandria is given thirty lines of stanza twelve, and, typical of Greene’s seamless weaving, he manages to distill complex, provocative and disputatious subject matter into personal wisdom. The future martyr is “a late child among twenty-five,/little wonder she preferred constraint//to bed and breeding.” Conversion, Greene seems to believe, followed more easily, perhaps even as a practical inevitability, from her early experiences, and in that way may not have been the unexplained event, the more sensational miracle. Umberto is Green’s Virgilian guide, and if the author doesn’t mythologize his helpers, he certainly colours them liberally with fond idiosyncrasy, as Umberto “summons dark humour/and blows away his temple with a finger.”  The poem’s length lets Greene rummage, ruminate, travel without conclusion, stumble, misconstrue, prevail, and “rejoice” with “a power to bless”. “Dante’s House” is more expansive and more concentrated than “Over the Border”, the similarly structured long end-piece to his previous volume which won the Canadian Gov-Gen award. This poem is far more deserving of accolades, and I hope he receives them.

Monday, September 22, 2014

George Elliott Clarke's Black

Black, George Elliott Clarke’s 2012 poetry collection from Gaspereau Press, is  reworked from an earlier version from a different publishing house. I’m not familiar with its genesis, but this latest edition may have been not just an editing reappraisal, but also an addendum, since it clocks in at a stout 141 pages, sans end notes. The book is indexed by thematic dividers: Black Ink; Black Eye; Black Ice; Black Light, etc. And though a first impression, here, may gravitate towards unsubtle metaphor, the poems at once transcend racial didacticism. And like his Red and Blue, and against what Clarke’s titles may suggest are colour-specific metaphor, his scope overspills what must be a temptation in jargon-ridden ideological poli-sci students juggling ideas for a Master’s thesis. I say “overspills”, because, unlike the protagonist in Doris Lessing’s masterwork, The Golden Notebook, with its neurotically compartmentalized sections of black, yellow, blue, and gold, Clarke is impetuously integrative. The poems’ many modes aren’t an angled show of workshop chops, but a natural outpouring of complex emotion and vision.

“Natural outpouring” may cause craftspeoplehoods everywhere a wince or three. Visions of Whitman’s democratic acolytes scribbling delightful nonsense faster than a shorthand secretary at a decision on bomb deployment in a hurried State Dept convening. And, again, there’s that flagrantly, even arrogantly, unfashionable 141 pages (though with scattered pics) to consider. To the poems:

In a cheeky personal continuum, Clarke begins with “George & Rue: Coda”, a narrative sequence that immediately raises the pulse, with “Rufus slammed the hammer/ ... into Burgundy’s head”. The second couplet, unfortunately, highlights Clarke’s more than occasional problems with word choice. “Like a bullet bashing the skull” is echoed, in botched image or illogical link, by the later “words flood out”, “eunuchs droning” (eunuchs maintained a high and sweet voice, which was the point in the cut of European castrati), “surge of sun, lemony, cantankerous, warm” (the middle adjective is the worst, and “lemony” and “warm” are analogous to “wet water”), and “little rills slur the frothed river/ ... Bright as tinny, sitcom laughter, drowning/Out every serious thing”. (Sitcom laughter is, by definition, an amplifier, not something that “drowns” or eliminates. And how can a rill – a natural phenomenon – be equated to a human manipulation? The images here aren’t contrapuntal, either in harmony or dissonance.) Other problems? Clarke has always had a compulsive desire to clang rhymes – off-centred and full – like a mischievous schoolboy unattended at five a.m. in a church tower. It’s not that it’s unappealing (a reader who doesn’t delight in “vague ague plaguing” is probably better off reading intergovernmental marketing manuals), it’s that Clarke uses it as an all-purpose lyrical option, like a stuck music box that eventually morphs into a jackhammer.

But for all Clarke’s faults, they pale when remembering (and, dammit, reading aloud!) lines like “I gabble a garrote argot, guttural, by rote,/A wanton lingo, taunted and tainted by wine,/A feinting langue haunted by each slave boat”; “I suffered vicious, viscous visions/Of that Bible-toting tease, that hymn-singing quim,/That wriggle of a woman in a squiggle of a dress”; “a sour, righteous condemnation,/perpetually fountaining, brilliant,/ from the holes in the orator’s chest,/ his multiplied mouths” (the latter from “The Assassination of Malcolm X”, Clarke’s brilliantly shocking life-from-death dramatic metaphor); “A Frankenstein-masked, meeching, elfish ghoul,/Skulking in a graveyard of prime ministers”, (that last from “Jean Chretien”); his “Autobiography (II)”, the “so-called poet/Ink on my hands like bomb residue”; and “Breathless, she inhales leaves, their incensed green/Ebony, dark narcotic chlorophyll,/Then faints at the crux of branches and trunk” from his remarkable “Elegy on a Theme by Gasparini”, itself inspired by Len Gasparini’s exceptional “Elegy”.

I mentioned Clarke’s emotional breadth earlier. Poems here traverse the elegiac, the address to students, lyrical poetics, stinging ethnography, ars poetica,  epigram, anaphora, georgic, confessional and lament, bitter proverb, racial myth, erotic paean, satire, celebrity monologue, economic squib, prophecy, encomium, pasquinade, personal appellative etymology, and soliloquy. In an emotional range reminiscent of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, where the composer resubmits Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” with his own contrasting take on multiple moods, Clarke’s far-ranging modes are what we still refer to as classical, yet they are entirely his own.