Sunday, September 21, 2008

Steven Heighton's "Stalin's Carnival"

I just read again Steven Heighton's Stalin's Carnival (1989), and again enjoyed it immensely. Historical reflections and creative reenactments, sea poems (I love sea imagery), familial emotion, all of it bracketting a powerful first-person transmuting assault from Josef Stalin.

Why transmuting? Because Heighton -- usually highly creative; note the chances, often successful, he takes with form in this book-- doesn't satisfy expectations (that is) by cranking out a static fusillade of Stalinist megalomania (though that, too, gets its turn). The first entry of the Stalin set is a free adaptation of Stalin's second-ever published poem, in 1895. The tone is highly wrought, yet not without a certain colour and (certainly) vigour. Here are the last four lines:

"I shall tear like paper my silver blouse
And bear my breast to the moon
And with outstretched hands
Praise her who suckles the world with light."

(How much of that is Heighton's transcription, and how much is owed to Stalin is hard to decipher.) But the question that rushes to the fore after reading that date -- 1895 -- is everlastingly fascinating. What transformation --if any -- occurred in the Georgian butcher in the long intervening years -- 22 -- until the Revolution, and subsequent hammering fist? The romanticism never completely left: witness the programme music that Shostakovich had to churn out in 1950, only three years before his (Stalin's) death, to flatter the leader (only the great and complexly sly Shostakovich could still make art out of the awful parameters) and glorify the dream in sweeping vistas of sound.

The real moment in the series, and the book, occurs with "3. On Reading Darwin", and indeed, it's one of the twenty-five best Canadian poems I've ever read. Here it is in its entirety:

"From the shore I watched a cargo of chickens
Spill from a barge into the river.
Trapped in their wooden cages they floated
Momentarily in the freezing currents, then mutant
With fear, attacked one another, turned
Into fighting cocks, quarreling,
Screeching, bleeding as their barred
Coffins filled with water.

From the riverbank I saw the bargemen
Forfeiting profit for a moment's diversion
And laughing at the disappearing birds
I thought of hungry schools
Of fish scuttling through the bars
Like the scoured ribs of drowned sailors
And white wings beating an idle descent
Through an evolving darkness.
From the riverbank I saw the feathers
Form alien words on the face of the waters;
At first I could not read them and I was afraid."

The Seminary, 1896

The chilling "At first" in the last line is a sliding back from the earlier "And laughing at the disappearing birds", but it also contains by unvoiced sequential supposition the change back to that psychotic state.

I'm partial in general to poems that assume other voices, even the voices of famous personages, including those we know little about. Why not? Poetry isn't history, or the recasting of interior objectivity (as if such a thing could exist). There was a big kerfuffle a while back about authors -- often whites who wrote from first-person experience of minorities -- "expropriating" and "exploiting" the lives of others. But to follow that argument to its final resting place, we would have to deny the creative flux of those who wrote in the voice of ANYone from the past, or from out of one's social class or milieu or vicinity-- kings, merchants, monks, thieves, the other sex .... Even Gordimer and Lessing admit that it can be done (as their writing has shown, at times), as long as there's a familiarity with those of whom they write. Robert Lowell wrote an entire (long) volume of poetry -- History -- about specific historical figures, a good chunk of it in first-person, or at least assuming subjective interiors. Let the deconstructionists, with sour glee, pick it apart as "lies".

That Heighton did this with Stalin shows courage; that he succeeded shows that he cleared the iron bar with the notches set a few feet higher.

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