Friday, January 25, 2019

Aaron Giovannone's The Nonnets

The cult of personality was outsized during Canadian poetry’s centennial heyday. Pick your favourites or denounce them – and there were many – but you couldn’t go three volumes down a bookstore shelf without encountering a front cover mug shot of an author setting his face (and they were mostly men) to the appropriate takeaway – tough, bemused, bewildered, laughing, or grim. Al Purdy gets blamed, unfairly, for starting the angle. (Most of his covers were faceless.) You could also point the finger at Frank “I do this, I do that” O’Hara. But they didn’t get the ball rolling. After gathering snow, that ball finally froze, motionless, at the edge of a sewer drain during the 90s when personality meant transparently autobiographical jokey or tender anecdotal blathering. Enter the brilliant new millennium. Personality, if present in any recognizable manner, was sublimated, or at least at the service of craft and narrative force. But the cult of personality never went away. New practitioners were clever enough to mask their foregrounded selves with greater layers of irony and wit, disjunction and ambiguity. Tone was fluid, which, in practice, meant provisional, confused (and confusing), overriding. We now have a spate of current CanPo titles that tweak 90s jokey or tender into jokey and tender. Aaron Giovannone’s The Nonnets is among those collections.

The Nonnets refers to Giavannone’s own form, nine-line poems which split evenly into three stanzas. Any other formal constraint, though, is an add-on, if present at all. For example, the author employs rhyme, end or internal, at times. As for organic development, that’s either not on the menu, or is subverted. Since an example is impossible without full quotation, and because the poems’ brevity allow it, here’s one entry, in full (all poems lack titles):

I say, I’m late for a meeting.
This is the meeting.

Just to be here’s amazing.
I’d like to thank the many people
who believed in me.

That was your first mistake.
A silver maple with twinkling leaves.
Just kidding. There’s no tree.

This poem’s fairly typical in procedure. Introduce one scene, sever that completely in the second stanza, then refer obliquely, even obscurely, to the first stanza in the wrap-up. The language is banal, the sentences or sentence fragments are short and often declarative, the poem references itself implicitly (and in other poems, explicitly, with the “Dear Reader” address), the tone is floating. The effect on the reader is of being in the audience where a magician keeps hinting that multiple and endless rabbits will, eventually, be pulled from hats. Unfortunately, in all but several poems, there are an awful lot of hats and very few rabbits.

When Giovannone drops the casually practiced and ineffectual comic shtick, his efforts can stick. He’s much better when at his most directly vulnerable. Here’s a terrific nonnet, fifth from the final poem:

on the highway’s shoulder.
Hazards flash in the gallery of pine.

Is anyone here afraid of bears
or of that blue pickup
parked at the edge of the woods?

Because we’re alive, we’re growing
a moustache, at least its wispy beginnings.
Dead, we will be too.

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