Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christian Bok's "Eunoia"

I recently finished (for the first time) Christian Bok's Eunoia, the lipogram that takes a straightjacketted unfortunate, then adds to his predicated predicament a series of medieval foolproof padlocks, a Victorian corset too tight for Twiggy, and a demand for the remanding of stray vowels into a fetters' prison, the 'Get Out Of Jail Free' card unavailable for $50 or 50 stiff drinks.

First up: a belated congratulations to Bok!

One never knows in what way the putative 'avant-garde' wishes to have their work experienced. Bok's friend and poetic brother, Steve McCaffery, states that any response to his (McCaffery's) work is equally valid and valuable as that of any other. But (disingenousness?) Bok has forcefully challenged, with careful and rational counter-arguments, criticism of Eunoia, even going to the defensive pre-emptive length of deriding those critics in the text itself: "I dismiss nitpicking criticism which flirts with philistinism." (p. 50). Of course, the severe constraints Bok has imposed on his experiment render this passage technically correct, though exposing it as a glib non-sequitur. (Bok may agree with this assessment: he chides with "Isn't it glib?" several lines up, but the 'avant-garde' loves eating its cake while also permanently displaying the ten-tiered gooey monstrosity for all to salivate over. Pick any angle, and you lose. C'est la vie.) I'll take McCaffery at face value, and proceed.

The overriding fact, concern, hub of Eunoia is not its much ballyhooed single-vowel (with additional) strictures; the elephant in the study is the musical monotony of the text, which, when voiced, amplifies the jackhammer-at-asphalt madness of its emotional dysphonia. The only vowel which branches out semi-successfully is the middle surprise of "O". Because of the (sound AND sound) morphological diversity of "O", there's a more pleasing and affective mix of reverberant music: "Brown logbooks show how scows from Norfolk go from ..." (p. 66). But with the swiftly accumulating 'ah's and 'i's, the unpleasant comparisons are unavoidable: it's like fucking with the same stroke for two hours; like playing the same F and F# on the piano for an entire etude or concerto; like eating a meal of potato skins, potato pulp, potato soup, and black potato eyes, with potato pudding for dessert; like walking up and down the same claustrophobic back alley -- however beautiful -- in Venice without exploring the rest of the city. I suppose it's an aesthetic predilection, and that's that. Whatever floats your punt. But I'd rather free up the parameters, where decision-making becomes more perilous with the increased internal responsibilities of emotional and technical and content-driven puzzles, instead of the practically painful but artistically bankrupt feat of mastering a Rubik's cube constructed by a grand chess master.

I suppose Bok would counter the "artistically bankrupt" charge by saying all verse is a technical, metapoetical game. I disagree (it can have those elements, but not exclusively so) , and again, all one can do at that point is to disagree on poetics and go separate ways. But it can't exactly end there. Because however one sees the content of Eunoia (I'm annoyed, ya!), the narrative, such as it is, still makes "sense", at least on a surface level. Even here, though, I have reservations: "The hemp, when chewed, lessens her tenseness (hence, she feels serene)" (p. 37): the parenthetical conclusion isn't a given. A lessening of tenseness also often results in depression, a far cry from serenity. But Bok's characters, if we can even inflate them as such, have no context, no personality, no idiosyncrasy, no grounding in experience or reality, so what he says of them doesn't matter. Without complexity, responsibility vanishes. But what I found funny was a gathering comparison the breezy, scattered voice of the book's narrator conjured up: it reminded me of those second-rate (pick a language)-to-English handbooks with their awkward, no-context conversational sentences: "Pepe likes to go to the restaurant at one in the afternoon when the birds eat the crumbs left on the table by Pedro." This is "content", and it is definitely a voice. Content, voice, music: three main poetic elements, at least in my understanding and enjoyment.

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