Friday, December 18, 2015

Edward Carson's Birds Flock Fish School

“Something is moving them/into the sky, spreading their wings.”

“Something about what has come/and gone swirls and eddies in our brains, hastily forgotten.”

“something/more than ordinary light,”

“a mark of something largely more.”

“We already understand/something has gone missing,”

“It happens every time we say something about//what’s coming for each of us,”

“Something departs, ambitious, perfect.”

“something/more than knowing what to do, how to arrive,”

“someone might be searching for something else//entirely.”

The last of these nine quotations (in eight poems) from Edward Carson’s 2013 collection of poetry, Birds Flock Fish School, applies to yours truly. So there’s your answer (though Carson hates answers) to at least one particular “something” or “someone”.

Vague sermons dressed up with somber, vatic assumptions (Carson hammers, in most every poem, on the “we” undergoing the experience, a beautifully funny example of the grammatical term, “subjective case”) are a mainstay of an always-popular subset of Canadian poetry, which depresses, in its dime-store translation of timeless spiritual wisdom, with an embarrassingly unsophisticated caress of air. Carson, worse than most followers in this school, gives next to no concrete colorings or imagery which would at least help to make vivid, in relief and contrast and context, the abstractions he finds so important. But it would also force Carson to be far more nuanced and responsible in those pronouncements. It would also show, even more humorously, the pretentiousness “we” find, in lines such as, “One thing beckoning at the edges of another,/we think of things retrieved”, or, “brilliant mosaics of now”, or, “a new opening/opens”, or, “We see the horizon/lingers, speaking in tongues”, or, “In the end, will we find this to be what is here/for us to wonder, what dark embrace we covet, identical as heaven?”, or, “the morning shows the way/to what is meant to be”.

Further to the problem of bastardised content, Carson has only one note. Every poem (but one) shows it, and relentlessly, but here’s a passage from the end of “Symptoms” which best captures his (not our) discovery:

“The day breaks before we know it. Our restlessness
is impossible to subdue. A promise appears, invisible

as light, pushing past the literal, the loosely knit ideas
of what the only thing is on earth to know, to believe in.”

Aside, again, from the arrogant first-person plural, note the tone. The one note in content is matched by a consistency in mood. The voice, strangely, is both grey-green and ridiculous, almost an unintended parody on the foolish spiritual sufferer, meditating for ten hours a day with the familiar patina of woes and minute, finely-tuned turnings of the deluded mind, however calibrated those thoughts may be to an ontological profundity.

And however a reader may approach these thoughts, and downplay any residual meaning (Carson, like others in this school, gets to step away from challenges of content since even the concrete nouns are general: cloud, sky, bird, star, earth, light), the overwhelming focus, as appears in the last-quoted segment above, is on “our” exasperated failure, always just out of reach, of and for enlightenment. I don’t deny this is real, and that it’s experienced by many (it accords with a minority of my own history) but it’s the importance – no, the obsession – he attaches to this experience that finally irritates at least this reader. Life – including meditation, whether formal or spontaneous – is far more various in mood and spiritual insight than Carson lets on. To be brief about it: divinity is in reach, at times, and, opposite, at most other times, even a hint of it is completely foreign.

There is one very good poem in Birds Flock Fish School: “The Force that Keeps Things Afloat”. Here, Carson forgets the script, and a sensitive, extended four-part nature metaphor builds to an affecting consideration on how the past defines us (yes, the “we”, finally, is fitting), but is paradoxically (and optimistically, for a change) lightened by the wind (forgetfulness? or superseded by joy, however brief?). No matter on the takeaway. These lines are good for the mind to roll around in, and the language here is devoid of easy mystification, instead letting the reader luxuriate, however briefly, in the sensuous contact of, “The force that keeps things afloat takes note/of what it is to be the falling leaf, imagines//the tension of its balancing, face up, against/the water pressing back.”

The last poem in the collection is titled “First and Last Things”, and whaddaya know, a second human finally appears, in itself giving the narrator a human (if generic) element. But, and despite the success of “The Force that Keeps Things Afloat”, it’s much too little and too late. The weight of spiritual fatalism smothers all (the book’s worst, “Flying Formation”, schools us with, “[the clouds] describe what turns out to be the rising//shape of our fear”).


Brent Raycroft said...

I'm sure many would object that this review is unnecessarily negative (or simply unnecessary because negative), but I want to express my thanks for another entertaining example of your uncompromising constructive criticism. I can rely on finding pithy descriptions of both the admirable and the not-so-much-so in your reviews. Here it's the exposé of "arrogant first-person plural" and "vague sermons dressed up with somber, vatic assumptions." As you say, these are aspects of "an always-popular subset of Canadian poetry ..."
I'm one of the (probably many) people who have read every poetry critique on your blog, not because I always agree, but because this kind of criticism is almost nowhere to be had otherwise.
I read a few poems from Birds Flock Fish School at the local book store and felt the same impatience with the style and tone as you describe. But beyond justifying my first impression and my subsequent laziness (ie my not reading the book in its entirety) your review more importantly sends me back to Carson's book with curiosity -- by finding a good poem in the mix.
I don't expect this to be posted as a comment -- no one seems to do that these days, and I wouldn't want to be the first.
Brent Raycroft

Brian Palmu said...

Thanks for the kind words, Brent. I used to get comments, but (perhaps) since I put a restriction on anonymous entries, it's been dust 'n' tumbleweeds in here. Funny, that.