Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gary Geddes' Swimming Ginger

If I could have any one poetry blog-review of mine redone *, it would be last July's assessment of Gary Geddes' Falsework. Though I haven't changed my mind about it's uneven construction, I vastly underestimated its powerfully etched character studies and psychological perspicacity.

These are the dangers of reviewing a book fairly soon, even after several readings. Good books tend to grow on one, while the bad books become even more irksome if they're engaged with again.

Geddes' 2010 poetry collection Swimming Ginger, also a re-enactment of historical record in multiple voices and perspectives, consolidates the strengths of his previous Second Narrows Bridge narrative while avoiding the more egregious stumbles of cadence and syntax in that book. That said, the creative energies transferred to these imaginative Chinese characters still have the look and process of mere reportage, at times -- ("In pre-dawn hours a traveller was stabbed/near West Gate, a dispute over money/or a woman" from "Silk River") -- but the fullness and motivation of the monologues win out.

Part of the problem with detailed narratives in poetry is that an author usually tries to shoehorn fascinating tidbits of information into a vessel not always amenable to the operation. Geddes, though, much more so here than in Falsework, has allowed himself to create enjoyably disparate stories out of the speculation on those shadowy figures in the Qingming Shanghe Tu scroll from the (assumed to be) 12th century. Though knowledge of the inner lives of these people is obviously more of a challenge -- linguistically, culturally, temporally -- Geddes has the benefit of speaking for a wide cross-section of the roiling masses as depicted in the scroll. And it's here that a cohering thematic is most fascinating, stitching these differences under an umbrella of quietly subversive class warfare, Geddes typically giving voice to those otherwise unheard, and hence, unknown. The book is saturated with people struggling to make a few (what today would be called) yuan, while simultaneously attempting to keep their sanity. Sometimes it's to comic effect ("his wineglass extended. Drink up, I say,//pouring the liquid on his head, I take pleasure/where I find it, too." from "Magpiety") ; sometimes it's for unassuming pathos ("chock-a-block/with bric-a-brac, I'm at a loss for words." (from "Knackered").

When many reviewers talk about a return to narrative in contemporary poetry, they often just mean a turn towards more elaborate or transparent anecdote. But Geddes isn't afraid of telling a story, complete with (shock!) political and historical context, and doing so without simply using it as a background excuse for ideologies of any and all corner(s). Others draw from that well, too -- Asa Boxer comes to mind -- but where suggestion is concerned, it's delightful to have it linked to a breathing representative of this amazing globe, even if the emotions imparted to him or her are conjured and assumed.

* I find it despicable and cowardly that some bloggers find it no great shakes to alter or even delete entire posts for various reasons -- image; cultural correctness; political positioning; correction for abuse of facts -- when doing so invalidates anything they may say in the future (will this post be "edited" when propitious for the author?, the reader rightly wonders). Some may counter that poets themselves do this when they revise and publish alternate versions of some poems or even entire books. There's a huge difference: the original efforts by a Robert Lowell or Marianne Moore are forever on display, and the revisions, sometimes decades after the fact, as often as not serve to highlight the inferior work (not transcend or obliterate it) just as much as causing us to forget about it altogether.

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