Thursday 19 December 2013

Meta- Meta-:
On Guri on Guriel

I think Jason Guriel’s review of Alice Oswald’s Memorial is mostly very good, and this is why. First, he gives those of us who haven’t read the book a good sense of its structure. He describes, for example, how the seven pages of columnar names that begin the book “accrete to form a kind of concrete poem and war memorial” (which actually serves as both description and deft critical interpretation), and goes on to detail how “following the opening roll call, Memorial alternates between what Oswald calls ‘short biographies of soldiers’, which tend to be violent, and Homer’s nature similes, which the translator tends to repeat” (which again nicely combines description and analysis). Crucially, he quotes examples of both the biographies and the similes, thus allowing readers to directly sample Oswald’s work. Second, he explains the revisionist impulse behind Memorial, acknowledging that “while Homer's poem dwells on the parrying of patriarchs – heroes packing spears – Oswald's zeroes in on many of the wasted lives: the grunts on the receiving end of the spears; the small print on the slab in the park.” Is his reference to our contemporary understanding of The Iliad as being about “a scapegoat and her oppressive patriarchy” a “snide” one, as Helen Guri suggests in her compelling essay “Processing Negatives: A Big Picture of Poetry Reviewing”? Perhaps, but it may also be just a sly nod from someone who holds a PhD in English towards a postmodern theoretical climate with which he no doubt has considerable familiarity (and a climate with which Oswald herself seems to be engaging). Finally – and not without telling his readers that “You should certainly give Memorial a chance” and citing examples of some of its “memorable formulations” – Guriel gives us a thorough sense of what he sees as the book’s shortcomings, beginning with a subtle jab at its ready consumability: “you can read it in an hour” and it might even convince a “young ward” ignorant of poetry to temporarily leave aside his World of Warcraft and Game of Thrones. In other words, Guriel implies, this revisionist exercise is also conveniently crafted, in its brevity and extreme violence, to appeal to short attention spans. He communicates his other problems with the book with similar economy: “the aura contrived by unused space”; the effect of “willed breathlessness” produced as Oswald “proceeds to drop commas, run sentences together, go for the gross-out”; and the way “the run-ons and lack of punctuation” seem like “the sort of easy, go-to solutions a poet will grab for when she's after some violent spontaneity” – all substantial analytical gestures to the book’s formal properties that both further our sense of what the book is like and communicate the critic’s opinion on it. 

I’ve provided this selective recapitulation of Guriel’s review in order to highlight how much critical substance in the form of description, analysis, and yes, evaluation (and I certainly haven’t covered it all) is contained within its 1200 words. This is very difficult to achieve, as anyone who has attempted it well knows. While Guriel does often choose to communicate his insights sardonically or even sarcastically in a way that no doubt chafes at some readers (and has chafed at me on occasion, especially when I didn’t agree with him), one would be hard pressed to find many reviews that combine description, analysis, and insight with such economy as this one does.

I’ve written the above because although I can agree with much of what Guri says in her essay before her analysis of Guriel’s review, I find the analysis itself almost violently distorting in a way that leaves me wary. I don’t want to get into rebutting Guri’s feminist reading point-by-point, but I’ll take for example Guriel’s reference to Memorial as “Anne Carson-lite,” which Guri uses to spin off into an ingenious but problematic meditation on the cultural politics of female body mass. Guriel follows his characterization with half a paragraph on “how Memorial updates the classical world with but a touch of the weirdness that is often attributed to the not-very-weird poetry of Carson.” Is his reminder here of his well documented disdain for Carson’s poetry a bit gratuitous? Perhaps – but by offering examples of Oswald’s seeming borrowings from Carson’s aesthetic universe, he makes sure that I as a reader am left knowing exactly what he means by “Carson-lite”: anachronistic references to “parachutes,” “god’s headlights,” “astronauts,” Hector’s motorbike left running, etc., all doubtless tinkle little bells for anyone who has read Carson, and so with the marketing word “lite,” Guriel is suggesting that in our post-Carson-enshadowed poetic landscape, Oswald’s use of these anachronisms smacks of influence verging on imitation (and perhaps for market-driven as much as aesthetic reasons).

Overall, the crux of Guri’s criticisms of Guriel can be found in her claim that his review embodies a “seeming lack of interest in presenting the poet as a coherent actor with credible motivations.” Here Guri strikes me as just wrong, as (and this is what I’ve tried to show above) Guriel’s criticisms of Memorial are quite firmly rooted in his distaste for the choices Oswald has made in constructing it. Tellingly, Guri’s meta-review declines to tackle this passage of Guriel’s, which quite explicitly casts Oswald as “a coherent actor”:

The problem is not just that Hector was a convertible man; it's that there's something predictable, even calculated, about Oswald's choices. Of course the book is subtitled “An Excavation of the Iliad”; archaeology would be the appropriate metaphor for a post-Foucauldian project that seeks to recover a subjugated narrative – that “bright unbearable reality.” Of course Oswald describes her “approach to translation” as “fairly irreverent” and that she's “aiming for translucence rather than translation”; what translator today is declaring her goal a stuffy, cautious fidelity? We're supposed to be irreverent now, aren't we?  

This is sarcastic, yes, but it also demonstrates a sophisticated theoretical understanding of what Guriel sees as Oswald’s motives (i.e., her reasons as a conscious actor) for constructing Memorial the way she did. What seems to bother Guri (despite her protestations to the contrary) is that Guriel expresses disdain for these motives – that he finds them clichéd – but rather than simply admitting this, and constructing a counter-argument in praise of a book she admires, she instead undertakes the (rather easier) task of deconstructing the rhetorical situation of Guriel’s review, citing the details that fit her ideologically motivated argument and distorting or discarding those that don’t. That actual writers have characterized Guri’s essay as a “close reading” boggles my mind, and leaves me frankly reluctant to write further criticism myself.

As a fellow critic I find Guri’s penultimate paragraph especially troubling:

Memorial and reviews of it are involved in a dance I’ll call Getting Past the Gate (allusion to Troy only partly intended). The presence of even the shortest clip of music from this dance, the sound of even a few of its steps, should signal to a reviewer, especially a white male one, to tread carefully, acknowledge aesthetic affiliations and biases, substantiate criticisms concretely and without whimsical or sarcastic flourishes (though at other times such flourishes can be nice), spell out, not imply, any perceived lack of worth, and err on the side of caution when using language that has sexual or racial implications.

This paragraph could only have been written by someone who doesn’t write very many reviews, so eager does it seem to further circumscribe an already delicate, difficult, unlucrative, and mostly thankless occupation. First, let’s acknowledge that if there is a “Gate,” Oswald is much more firmly embowered beyond it than Guriel is – which is why Guri’s implication that Guriel ought to have better contextualized Memorial within Oswald’s career strikes me as absurd. Most readers of the PN Review will know full well who Alice Oswald is, and if they don’t, that’s not Guriel’s problem. One could readily argue that his choice to focus strictly on the book in question (i.e., rather than wasting a couple hundred words paying homage to Oswald’s eminence) is a gesture of respect, not dismissal. Second, I don’t understand how Guriel’s aesthetic affiliations and biases aren’t perfectly obvious to anyone who reads his review (at least as those affiliations and biases relate to Memorial), as they will be in any review of substance. To demand that they be more explicitly articulated seems like blind dogmatism. Third (and as I’ve pointed out at some length above), his criticisms are more concretely substantiated than in the vast majority of similar-length reviews. Fourth, no whimsy or sarcasm? Perhaps we should set up a Panel of – oh, I don’t know, let’s call them “censors” – to whom will be entrusted the task of ensuring that all such “flourishes” remain firmly on the side of “nice.” And finally, regarding “language that has sexual and racial implications,” Guri has not shown convincingly that the implications she highlights in Guriel’s review are anything more than emanations of her own ingenuity.[1] Those who want to bask in those emanations will presumably continue to do so, meanwhile ignoring and/or misrepresenting (as Guri does) the considerable descriptive and analytical work performed by reviews like Guriel’s. This is not to deny that the literary world in Canada and everywhere is fundamentally patriarchal (as our societies are) and that this fact should be railed against. I think it’s entirely probable that Guriel derives his pose of authority (and I mine in writing this) from a sense of white male privilege to which we are so firmly acculturated as to be almost oblivious. But I do not think it at all helpful to misrepresent his or anyone’s critical efforts so (and yes I do stand behind this) violently. Most basically, I would rather have seen the poet-critic Helen Guri use her evident talents to actually review one of the “too-large proportion” of books she loves that “don’t get their due in the public sphere.” But again, this comes from me thinking that the biggest problem in Canadian poetry culture is lack of discourse – especially lack of discourse on more than a handful of books per season – not the tenor of it. On the other hand, I’m utterly glad that Guri wrote what she did; as much I’ve found to disagree with in it, there’s no denying that it set me thinking (and writing!) unlike anything I’ve encountered in recent months.    

There will no doubt be those who choose to interpret this as ‘closing ranks’ – as another white male rising up indignantly to guard the entryway to the ‘boys club’ of the critical ‘brotherhood’. Many of those people will do this no matter what I say, but I’ll take a stab at pre-exonerating myself anyway. I’ve never met Jason Guriel; we’ve exchanged two brief cordial emails in the past, and that is the extent of our acquaintance. We are not friends. By contrast, I do know Helen Guri personally; I admire her work and like her as a person. I’d say we’re at least friendly acquaintances, and I have no desire to wound or alienate her. Nor is this an attempt to silence or intimidate her (on the contrary, I’d love to read more reviews from her). Put simply, this isn’t personal. And yet in writing that last sentence, it occurs to me that part of what disturbs Guri about Guriel’s review is the note of the personal – or at least the paternal – that creeps in, for example, in a male reviewer’s smug characterization of a female poet’s “willed breathlessness” – which conjures a whole misogynist tradition of men dismissing women’s concerns as ‘hysterical’. I see this, and I can see how Guriel should have “tread” more “carefully” here. Amid her hyperbole in evoking Fabio, Guri makes a good point, and this causes me to interrogate my own work. Could the sexualized language I deployed in my review of Nyla Matuk’s Sumptuary Laws, for example (including the potential innuendo of my title, “Hot Button”), be construed as an enactment of gendered oppression? I used such language very consciously in response to Sumptuary Laws’s strange air of luxuriance – a compelling facet of a book I greatly admire – but is it possible that in doing so I could have made Matuk herself (i.e., rather than her book) feel sexualized or objectified? I certainly hope not: but the fact that I’m asking myself such questions points to an important success of Guri’s essay.

And yet as a critic I feel it my responsibility to maintain a primary fidelity to the text – a fidelity from which Guri’s essay too often strays. Of course, perhaps the major insight of the theoretical revolution in literary analysis is the inseparability of text from context (whether social, racial, sexual, or whatever), and this forms a part of my fidelity. Guriel’s and Guri’s critical texts both distort, but at different degrees of magnitude. One might mount a valid argument against Guriel’s sarcastic tone, characterizing it along with a few of his word choices as reflective of a certain white male privilege (but in doing so one would best acknowledge that he employs a similar tone in discussing male poets as well – a review of Seamus Heaney jumps to mind). One might.[2] But Guri hasn’t done this successfully because her essay relies too heavily on evasions, omissions, and ingenuity over honest analysis. If Guriel’s review is like a warped mirror held up to Oswald’s Memorial, Guri’s critique of Guriel is like a magnifying glass so riddled with cracks that it can hardly be seen through, yet retains its power to incinerate. It is context from which the ‘text’ has gone too much missing, leaving mostly ‘con’.[3]

-Stewart Cole

[1] Notches (for arrows) and spears appear everywhere in The Iliad, for example, and so Guriel’s recourse to such imagery is more illustrative of the rigour of his engagement with Oswald’s project than of a pervasive phallogocentrism – though of course the works of Homer do stand rather like a huge oppressive dong at the centre of Western literary culture.
[2] Though one would be hard-pressed to show that his sex or gender identity played a greater role in determining his pose of critical empowerment than, say, his social class or ethnic identity (neither of which, incidentally, I know anything about).
[3] On a lighter note, I couldn’t help wishing while writing this piece that my last name was Gu, so that I could title it “Gu on Guri on Guriel.” Then if someone wrote a response to me, they’d have to have no name at all – a reflection perhaps of the many online Anonymouses who creep in from the margins to offer their faceless insights amid such debates.

Sunday 29 September 2013

A Review of Mary Dalton's Hooking

Mary Dalton
(Signal Editions, 2013)

Reviewed by Patrick Warner

The Dalton Interview2
[snip] "The cento, according to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, is a poetic creation made of passages taken from some major poet of the past, such as Homer or Virgil, and woven together as a form of tribute. In the 4th century A.D., Ausonius, himself a maker of centos, laid out some rules. He stated that the passages could be from the same poet or many. Among poets whose works have been paid tribute to through centos are: Euripides, Ovid, Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Goethe. In recent centuries there have been humorous centos. R. S. Gwynn wrote a rather lugubrious one about his own aging, entitled “Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry.” Online, I discovered something called CentoBingo and some rather underwhelming constructions called “Cento Mash-Ups.” I found out that the Empress Eudocia, the wife of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II and an influential Christian in the 5th century A.D., had constructed a 2500-line cento out of Homeric passages in order to tell Biblical stories. The cento began to have a whiff of the circus about it for me. [snip]

In making these collages, then, I felt connected to the activity my mother and aunts had engaged in in their childhood and young womanhood, when goods and money were scarce and chilly floors needed warm mats. But there were, of course, other motives, other satisfactions. It seemed to me that the cento, as I came to know the form, was one way to respond to what often appeared to be drearily earnest and misguided pronouncements about appropriation and originality. There, says the cento, what do you think of me? There is not a single original line in me, yet can you deny that I am something new? [snip]

I think of the lines I’ve excised from poems as material, as strips of words. Each line, the hooking of these words into this particular sequence on a line, is the creation of its individual author; the sum of the lines in each cento, the way in which these syntactical fragments have been hooked together, is my creation. These pieces are at once mine and not mine." [snip]


What was it again?
Death by avalanche, birth by failed conception?
See-saws. There have been a few of them.

Irksome and moody, the early traffic whizzes by.
And you’re face to face with history,
the draining board, its dull mineral shine.

The pitched grey, gull-swept sea,
the badly behaved crowd—
each blade, for once, truly metallic.

Nothing that doesn’t have to moves.
The weatherman tells me that the winter comes on
because it wants to. Never that. Because it must.

Against each wall, a lame hope waiting,
without the certificate,
and doubly bold.

The Carey Review4
[snip] “Newfoundland poet Mary Dalton makes radical use of an age-old form in Hooking [snip]. The cento is a kind of patchwork poem made up of lines from other poets; it’s meant to pay tribute to the source material, and was popular in Ancient Greece. Dalton imposes an added condition on herself: each cento’s line has the same position in the original poems, so “Gauze,” for instance, is composed of the fourth line from work by writers as varied as Sylvia Plath and Leonard Cohen. (All the sources are listed in a section at the back of the book).

Dalton’s stitch work is very fine: it makes for some strange juxtapositions, but they are often as evocative as they are enigmatic. In effect, the collection as a whole is a celebration of creation, and subtly links writing to other products of human making, such as cloth, braids, lace, filaments and thread, all of which are mentioned in the poems. At their best, the strung-together lines and phrases have a new, arresting beauty.[snip]”

Jason Guriel on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry5
[snip] “Language poetry, which took shape in the 1970s, is poetry that calls attention to itself as language. In fact, it’s sometimes spelled “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry,” an act of masochism before the era of copying and pasting. Still, if you had to type them out, the equal signs, like speed bumps, would have slowed you down and maybe even gotten you thinking about the materiality of words, letters. Note that those equal signs aren’t plus signs: Language poets aim to thwart our yen for language to add up to some larger point, to provide closure, takeaway. (These dubious satisfactions, they point out, can already be had in the offerings of what Charles Bernstein calls “Official Verse Culture.”) [snip] And the fragments are intended to be “nonabsorbable”—Bernstein’s coinage for disruptive writing that “prevents an initial / ‘illusionistic’ reading.” [snip] Language poets also lineate their fragments. [snip] Who is the speaker? What point is he or she trying to make?[snip]

But what’s so bad about kicking back with a poem that conjures the illusion of a speaker serving up a clear message in a linear way? (What’s so bad about a good read?) And why do these curious folk, the Language poets, want to take the reader by the lapels and jostle her so? I have a hunch the French are to blame. In 1968, Roland Barthes declared the author dead. I think he got the Language poets to thinking. Like those characters on The Twilight Zone who emerge from a coma only to find themselves in a comatose world (a suburb, say), the Language poets seem to believe they are awake to the fact that the rest of the populace is asleep. They want the reader to wake up already and see that words aren’t windows to the author’s soul. Poems are socially constructed. They are the expressions of a society, its ideologies. You don’t curl up with Robert Lowell; you curl up with humanism.

Maybe by writing in a fragmentary way, then, Language poets are trying to break the illusion that poems are people talking. They are trying to land one on the chin of humanism and, while they’re at it, the kisser of capitalism. After all, if the reader can’t figure out what the author is saying, then she can’t affirm the author’s existence as an individual property owner (the property being the poem’s meaning). Once roused, the reader can take back the language from the clutches of the patriarchy or Corporate America or what have you. [snip] Instead of feeling like a frustrated consumer, the reader can endeavor to make her own meaning out of the fragments. In fact, she can explain to her sleepier peers why Language poems need to be so fragmentary; she can become a graduate student.

Surely, though, there are readers who share the Language poets’ philosophical assumptions but don’t want to read writing shot through with disruptions. And surely there are those who aren’t much startled by the disruptions, having encountered them before. They might not be able to distinguish a Language poem from, say, the automatic writing of the Surrealists. But they know a poem that jerks a thumb at itself when they see one. [snip]

Here are some more questions. How does a Language poet know when her poem is finished, or at least ready for the typesetter? (It strikes me that a non-linear and non-representational poetry of fragments that resist closure could go on forever.) Does a Language poem end where it does because its author got winded and, well, a poem has to end somewhere? What does her revision process look like? [snip] Why couldn’t the lines be shuffled into a different order and still enable the reader to come up with the same point about the wobbliness of words? And if the lines can be shuffled into a different order, why should the reader read the poems at all?” [snip]

Minims (shuffle)6

The pitched grey, gull-swept sea,
the draining board, its dull mineral shine.
The weatherman tells me that the winter comes on.

Death by avalanche, birth by failed conception,
because it wants to. Never that. Because it must.
Against each wall, a lame hope waiting.

Nothing that doesn’t have to moves
without the certificate.
See-saws. There have been a few of them.

Irksome and moody, the early traffic whizzes by.
And doubly bold
the badly behaved crowd—

each blade, for once, truly metallic.
And you’re face to face with history.
What was it again?

Carmine Starnino: Steampunk Zone7
“In our mashup-mad era, we yearn for unpigeonholeability. We don’t want to be different. We want to be weird. We want to be total category-killers. As a result, it’s hard to find a poet – free-versifier and formalist alike – who doesn’t believe at heart that he or she is far too heterodox to be trapped in existing definitions of traditional and experimental. Contemporary poetry now comprises a vast invented form: the godknowswhat.[snip] As a result, more is going on in Canadian poetry than ever before – more sonnets, sestinas, flarf cycles, centos, erasure poems, plunderverse, uncreative writing, concrete.[snip] But, just as often, Canadian poets don’t play the odds as much as stack the deck. As more of them keep one eye on the lyric tradition and one eye on whatever comes next, they increasingly try to force a breakthrough by splitting the difference. The result can be too perfect, as if it were the winner of a contest to compose the ideal hybrid poem. [snip] Indeed, the dominance of the steampunk aesthetic, the easy availability of its procedures, has led to a growing uncertainty about how to discuss such linguistic lab work, or even whether anything meaningful can be said at all. The entrepreneurial spree of poets patenting new forms, and the feeling of optimism and copiousness that accompanies it, overwhelms taste. When every poet happens to be writing exactly the kind of poem he or she set out to write, and every poem embodies exactly its theoretical intent, it becomes harder to say which poems are good, and why; how one kind of recombining and estranging differs from another; what books are truly counter, original, spare, strange. [snip]

There’s a lovely image in William Gibson’s novel Count Zero (1986) of a sentient computer deep in an abandoned space station, creating beautiful Cornell boxes out of junk. The boxes make it into the hands of admiring art dealers on Earth who are unaware of their provenance. In the same way, Canadian poets generate, as if on automatic, wonderful contrivances from disparate materials. These are poets who care about their poetry and work hard at it. Like watchmakers, they build machines out of the minutest parts; unlike watches, these machines are full of beguiling generosity for errant incidents. But too often we are faced with an artificial intelligence, simulated for believability, not an actual style. Style is what happens when originality becomes indistinguishable from the poem itself. It’s a way of mingling the unfamiliar ‘new’ and the still-compelling ‘old’ so that we can no longer separate them. Style is therefore the result of a voice so grounded in its subject, the effect is not a self-regarding newness but a newness absorbed into the poem, a newness riening into something effortlessly manifold and available. Such poems may not be the sort fusionists like, but they are the sort real poets write.”

1 [Snip] refers to the cut-up method Dalton employed to make the poems in Hooking. In the context of this review, [snip] indicates where lines have been excised from the texts used to make the review.

2 “Like the Star-Nosed Mole: John Barton in Conversation with Mary Dalton on Her Cento Variations:” The Fiddlehead/Malahat Review. Sunday, October 21, 2012. (online)

3 "Minims," p.26 (Hooking)

4 Carey, Barbara. “Poetry Book Reviews.” Toronto Star August 2, 2013. (online)

5 Guriel, Jason. “Words Fail Him: The Poetry of Charles Bernstein.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review. Accessed on September 2013. (online)

6 Minims (shuffle) is the author’s attempt to answer Guriel’s question “Why couldn’t the lines be shuffled into a different order and still enable the reader to come up with the same point about the wobbliness of words?” It’s the author’s opinion that the shuffled version of the poem is no better or worse than Dalton’s original. The author applied the same test to Ted Hughes’ "The Jaguar." See "The Jaguar (shuffle)" below, followed by the original.

The Jaguar (shuffle)

The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun,
lie still as the sun. The boa-constrictor’s coil
is a fossil. The eye satisfied to be blind in fire.
The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut

as a child at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged.
Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion
like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.
Cage after cage seems empty, or

stinks of sleepers from the breathing straw.
It might be painted on a nursery wall.
But who runs like the rest past these arrives
on a short fierce fuse—not in boredom—

at a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes

more than to the visionary his cell.
His stride is wildernesses of freedom.
By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear—
he spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him.

The Jaguar

The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.
The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut
Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.
Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion

Lie still as the sun. The boa-constrictor’s coil
Is a fossil. Cage after cage seems empty, or
Stinks of sleepers from the breathing straw.
It might be painted on a nursery wall.

But who runs like the rest past these arrives
At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized,
As a child at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged
Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes

On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom—
The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,
By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear—
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him

More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.

7 Starnino, Carmine. “Steampunk Zone.” Lemon Hound, Apr 17, 2013(online)

Friday 21 June 2013

What They're Saying about the Poets:
Donato Mancini's You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence

You Must Work Harder To Write Poetry of Excellence
Donato Mancini
(BookThug, 2012)

Reviewed by Darren Bifford

The title of Donato Mancini’s You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence is an ironic misnomer, as Mancini’s concern is less with poetry than it is with the state of poetry reviewing in this country. Poetry reviews in Canada, according to Mancini, have especially lacked in their treatment of postmodern poetry. The guilty parties are identified early on as “conservative critics” shackled by an ideologically crippled critical paradigm. With their dimmed and inflexible vision, these critics see merely what they want to see in all that they might profitably see, if only they worked harder. And it is not merely poetics which are at stake, but also politics. Mancini agrees with what seems to be a truism among some postmodern writers, and assumes that a poet’s (or critic’s) commitment to literary tradition and so-called traditional forms entails that he or she is also, even if tacitly, sympathetic to conservative and generally right-wing political agendas, while postmodern commitments, whatever they are, are allied with leftist ones. Carmine Starnino is thus declared an “arch-conservative” (though it’s unclear whether that title denotes solely an interest in formal elements of English prosody or an interest in lower taxation, or both), and George Woodcock’s “nostalgic reviewing […] writes its way willy-nilly into neo-conservative values, however “liberal” or “left” or even anarchist its departure points.” The dominant Canadian poetry review, then, tells us more about its author’s various poetic and political assumptions than it does about the poems it criticizes. These assumptions turn out to be embedded in a series of tropes—the common reader, accessibility, craft, tradition, meaning, the human heart—which lurk like a sickly mold beneath the surface of our typical reviews.

The stakes are high. Mancini suggests that there is a kind of war-of-poetry going on, with “innovative” or “progressive” Canadian poetry generally on the defensive. [1] 
Mancini asks us to consider, for instance, David Solway’s ruminations about the reading habits of his neighbor. Solway writes that he’s unable to “frankly conceive of any intelligent middlebrow reader spending an evening with Anne Carson or Jorie Graham in a way that my neighbor, a retired engineer, reads Houseman and Hardy and listens to recordings of Dylan Thomas”. No doubt the truth of David Solway’s thought experiment will be obvious to people who generally resemble persons named David Solway; and it is, Mancini rightly notes, an irritatingly dumb generalization. (For instance, my own neighbor, an unemployed alcoholic, spends his evenings reading Jack Gilbert.) But how about Mancini’s response? “The poets [Solway] rejects are US and Canadian women. The model poets are white, gentile, UK men: A.E. Housman, who writes eroticized war propaganda; Thomas Hardy, who writes misogynist social criticism; and Dylan Thomas, the hard drinking, womanizing, troublemaking, bad boy romantic”. I’ll grant Mancini his suspicion of the gender and cultural disparity but his reductive dismissal of Housman and Hardy and Thomas is just as weirdly righteous as Solway’s.

The most useful and entertaining parts of Mancini’s book—and, as it happens, the most problematic—consist in critical analyses of those above mentioned tropes, which are often clustered together throughout the course of a single review. Since Mancini’s book is about the rhetoric of dominant Canadian poetry reviewers, it’s really important that the examples he offers of those dominant reviews are both sufficient in sample size and typical. If not, then Mancini’s argument loses a great deal of force, and what he attacks merely a series of straw-men (and women). So what then to make of Mancini’s method? He begins by citing a more or less brief example of a what he offers up as a typical poetry review that errs in exactly the way he proposes it to err. For instance, Solway’s retired engineer neighbor, busy reading his Hardy, is evidence on Mancini’s analysis of that Common Reader who often emerges in poetry reviews. This is the reader for and to whom the reviewer often speaks, either to recommend a book of poetry or to warn against its consumption. The reviewer, in this capacity, assumes him or herself a member of “the common sense police” who defend not poets and critics but “also their readers who are members of that hard to please but demanding clique: the general reading public. Voracious but impatient, the general reader reads to understand and to be pleased.” The assumption of this trope thereby tacitly allows the reviewer to reject poetry that doesn’t fit into his preconceived mould. The reviewer’s “discourse,” says Mancini, “[is thus a] sign of [his or her] difficulty lining up the dominant ideolect [i.e., the way a class of critics usually talk] with the aesthetic imperatives governing the actual book under review.”

Mancini’s survey of the ambivalent reception of his own poetry book, Ligatures, is characteristic of his method. The reviewer writes that it is his “pleasure to report that Mancini mostly […] com[es] off usually like a bright Martian inquiring into this thing humans call language, and only occasionally like a grouchy Marxist who has read 20,000 books and got tenure the year Foucault died.” Randall Jarrell this is not; but no matter. With citations from the questionable review now on his operating table, Mancini attempts to show that this review is not in fact revelatory of any feature of his book but again only of its reviewer’s dominant ideolect, which in this case relies on the trope of accessibility. Whether Mancini’s final analysis is convincing is another matter. Mancini sees in his reviewer assumptions that “Erudition is ‘degenerate;’ subhuman […] Because very little in my book signifies either writerly toil or Accessibility, to protect Ligatures from hostile criticism Neff turns me into phantasmic Human shield for myself […] The Common Reader is advised against braving this book.” Indeed, says Mancini, the reviewer has in fact turned his book into “a rarified piece of work, a cunning and esoteric thing, built for connoisseurs,” with the implication that those “who could like my book” are in some way “arch-perverts.”(To be fair I should say it takes a reference to Zizek to get him to that unusual final statement.)

Mancini applies the same method to reveal (or not) other tropes. In almost all cases he seems to equivocate his discovery and analysis of the aesthetic values embedded in a reviewer’s tropes with their refutation. On the one hand, it’s worth asking, as Mancini does, what exactly a reviewer might unwillingly imply by the following sorts of assertions, (all made by different reviewers about different poetry books): it is a “bland book [that] isn’t meant to make you feel or know anything”; she is “a better and more human poet now’”; “Failing to appreciate the subtle depth and force of blert may require you to consult your mouth or heart for a pulse or feeling.” It’s easy for me to sympathize with the very general claim that one of the ways poetry reviews must work harder is to avoid the lazy kinds of hypostatization that Mancini discusses. The common reader is indeed no reader at all, and Mancini is probably right to say that such invocations often function as empty receptacles for the reviewer’s own ideological predilections. He is probably right to say that the specter of accessibility or humanity or craft or tradition can simply be a way for the reviewer to reify his or her ideas about what poetry is—and isn’t. Thus what I think most useful about Mancini’s argument, i.e., that it makes a case for the necessity of more imaginative critical practices in order to negotiate the very broad range of poetries that have developed in this country over the last sixty or so years. If that’s the case, the terms by which those postmodern poems are to be engaged by critics and reviewers ought not be identical to the way we might, for example, engage a book of sonnets. Likewise an appreciation, say, of Arnold Schoenberg would be obviously impossible if I believed that music must be tonally conceived; any atonal work would be, by definition, not music. (And I would be, almost by definition, a cultural boor).

I am, however, suspicious of Mancini’s method in its specifics. What he gives us are psychoanalytic-like redescriptions of the surface features of what is claimed to be a typical review. Yet the same problem holds for this procedure as holds for psychoanalysis in general: it offers an interpretation the strength of which is almost entirely conditioned by its acceptance as strong by the patient. If I fail to see the implication, for example, of an arch-pervert hidden in the unconscious of the connoisseur, then Mancini is simply left with repeating his interpretation. Or it’s as if Mancini offers us a series of jokes. Whether they succeed as jokes depends entirely on whether they make us laugh. If one does not, there’s little use saying it again. Moreover, I wonder whether some of these tropes are not far more useful than Mancini believes. Take the tropes of craft and tradition, both of which Mancini goes to lengths to dismiss. I agree that when taken as static fetish-like ideals, they may be less illuminating than otherwise. But when I praise a collection for its author’s attention and attainment of a high level of craft and of interestingly engaging with the English literary tradition, it seems possible—indeed, good critics show that it is possible—that I’ve used those tropes to point to actual features of the work of art as such. Of course these are not neutral categories; but it takes more than pointing out that fact to give us grounds for rejecting them. Furthermore, it seems to me that root metaphors—like craft and tradition—can be invoked to deal with a range of poetries. Again, no good critic would limit his or her discussion to the terms these tropes set beforehand; and he or she may wish to reject them for some artworks. Mancini will take issue with the very idea of “a work of art,” and claim to the contrary that these tropes are “inadequate to all poetry of any type.” To praise or simply engage a poem at the level of craft is then a kind of bad faith. Here, I feel, our disagreement runs far deeper than reasons comprehend.

What is a review for? What does a critic do? What a critic does not do, on Mancini’s view, is offer normative assessments. Those reviews which do so are characterized as “mercantile,” and are reduced to capitalistic tokens. Shane Neilson, for instance, is dismissed for evaluating poetry according to a normative checklist—intelligibility, meaning, emotional expressiveness—and rejecting poems which fail those criteria. I doubt Neilson would agree with this charge; nonetheless it is, on Mancini’s analysis, what he’s really doing. (Again the influence of psychoanalytic interpretation). Neilson, says Mancini, is representative of the critic-as-angry customer who merely wishes to return a product that he is unhappy with. Instead, Mancini endorses Frank Davey’s prescription that “textual criticism [be] informed by transnational creative and critical influences, one that attempts to meet language at its material bases, and to meet poetry at the site of composition […] What Davey envisions are poetics, rather than mercantile review criticism of imperative value judgment.” I won’t pretend to understand all the terms Mancini invokes. I’m not sure, for example, what is meant by the material bases of language, nor whether by transnational creative and critical influences Mancini means simply non-national. In any case, Mancini contrasts Neilson’s assessment of Kiyooka’s work—e.g., “it is difficult to pick just one offence against style and taste; Surrender is a repeat offender […] Indeed, confusion is a constitutive experience when reading through the whole book”—with Al Purdy’s reading of one of Kiyooka’s earlier books. Purdy describes Kiyooka’s poems as “creat[ing] an energy vortex in which all things turn inward and circle to an end inside the poem without question. The poem answers any implicit questions in process of asking.” The worth of Purdy’s description will naturally depend on our own acquaintance with the poetry in question, and I’ll assume here that Purdy’s statement is at least apt, if not illuminating. Mancini praises the review in the following terms: “without academic training in cultural theory, Purdy is perfectly able to read the effects of the form of Kiyooka’s poetry” in terms contiguous to those which the poetry itself asserts. He is “not fixated on poetry’s meaning […] representation or message.” I’m not sure if this example is sufficient to show the sort of textual criticism Mancini finally advocates. I take it, however, that Purdy’s critical attention is nonetheless lauded because he extends beyond his own poetics and inhabits Kiyooka’s work—albeit without, as Mancini notes, knowledge of critical theory.

It’s possible to disagree with Neilson’s rhetoric. And it seems equally possible, though a distinct activity, to disagree with Neilson’s opinion of Kiyooka’s poetry. It’s not obvious to me, however, why judgment and assessment of any kind is either precluded or opposed to the sort of hermeneutics Mancini calls for. It’s thus easy, again, to distrust the strong dichotomy Mancini asserts. In art, as in life, we do well to encounter strangeness with curiosity and an open mind. Even that supposedly conservative critic, T.S. Eliot, disparages the “dogmatic critic, who lays down a rule, who affirms a value.” Such a critic, Eliot continues, “has left his labour incomplete […] but in matters of great importance the critic must not coerce, and he must not make judgments of worse or better. He must simply elucidate: the reader will form the correct judgment for himself.” Critics and reviewers are just those partial and fallible readers who publically articulate their responses to texts as best as they can. A good critic’s evaluations are always tentative; he or she knows very well the risk of attempting to judge a work of art. He or she will acknowledge that evaluation is never neutral and no perspective is from nowhere. Good critics, in other words, wear their aesthetic biases on their sleeves and, like Nietzsche remarked, match the courage of their convictions with the courage to challenge those convictions.

I’ll end with the acknowledgement that there’s much more in Mancini’s book that I would have liked to discuss: his ideas about aesthetic conscience take up a good portion of the work, and will be of interest to those interested in the link between moral psychology and aesthetics. Also, I’d have questioned more explicitly Mancini’s use of critical theory and the jargon which comes with it. This is a book wherein you’ll encounter, for an extreme example, statements like this: “[t]he poet activates polysemy on the formal level of parataxis, and activates it contextually with indexical signs.” I’ve provided no context for this quote but, truth be told, there isn’t much context to add. Mancini offers this remark almost out of nowhere as a clarification and extension of the sort of criticism he believes adequate to distinctively post-modern texts. Elsewhere, citing an example Stanley Fish’s use of Derridian theory to deconstruct a Dirty Harry film, Mancini seems to seriously ask: “If Derrida’s ideas are good enough to write about the films of Clint Eastwood, why not about contemporary Canadian poetry?.” This is an odd rhetorical question. I don’t believe any serious critic, by which I mean a person with a broad and generous cultural sensitivity, will say that Derrida’s or Hegel’s or Marx’s or Foucault’s or whoever’s ideas aren’t “good enough.” The question, I assume, is whether those ideas are useful and illuminating when applied to contemporary Canadian poetry. And the answer is probably, yes, in some cases. In this connection, and at a more basic level, I believe it worth defending yet another trope Mancini dismisses: that of the non- (or anti-) academic critic: the strong distinction between those in the university and those not beholden to the university. Mancini’s text proves to be an unusual attempt to extend the concerns and categories of the former to the critical practices of the latter. That by itself makes this book an interesting read, especially and even if chiefly to those of us who have suffered both within and without the academy. Nonetheless, the expectation, often encountered in the 1990s in literature departments and ubiquitous in Mancini’s book, that a front line of progressive politics is practiced in the seminar room seems to me extremely dubious. Without reifying aesthetics and politics into separate spheres, we still do a disservice to both by collapsing one into the other. So too I wonder whether the influence of critical theory, with its roots in Hegel, Derrida, Lacan and co., is not merely a more recent example of Plato’s desire for the philosophers to tell the poets what they’re really doing. And, as in Plato, those who agree with Socrates nod their assent while the poets (and, probably the critics), then as now, imperfectly carry on.

[1] I suspect this combative rhetoric here, and in the literature at large, is largely nonsense. The only audible conflict is between those who feel it necessary to shout about their aesthetic preferences. I take it as obvious that it’s far more common than not for a single poet to be interested in many kinds of different poetry, even if he or she writes more or less formally (or more or less postmodernly). I know Carmine Starnino (again) and Christian Bök don’t much like each other’s work and once had a cage match but, really, shame on them both for agreeing to take part in such staged idiocy.

Thursday 2 May 2013

The Poet, Inturped:
A Review of Peter Norman's Water Damage

Water Damage
Peter Norman
(Mansfield, 2013)

The last poem in Peter Norman’s debut collection At the Gates of the Theme Park (Mansfield, 2010), entitled “Judgment,” provides an apt entry point into the work of this remarkable poet. I quote the full poem:

I saw a girl begging for change.
I gave her change, for she was beautiful.
But nothing shifted: next day she was there
still beautiful and begging. And the eye
she cast was cold, its judgment terrible.

My boss returned the annual report.
I’d written it. He’d circled things in red
that needed fixing. So I fixed those things
and sent it back. He sent it back again.
A dozen circles blotted every word.

Three storks delivered babies to my door.
The babies made much noise and ate much food.
What can you do? What else would you have done?
I fed them food and bore the noise
and one by one they crawled to better homes. 

As throughout Norman’s work, the plainspokenness here conceals great linguistic and even (for lack of a better word) philosophical depth. Notice, for instance, how the first stanza collapses the two definitions of change—i.e., as money and as alteration—to reveal the disconnect between them: the speaker gives the girl small change when she seeks a more thoroughgoing one, and so he returns the next day to find “nothing shifted.” Motivated in his gift primarily by her beauty (“for she was beautiful”), he returns to find her gaze turned back on him and coldened, “its judgment terrible”—a reflection of his sense of culpability in paying for her as an aesthetic object rather than meaningfully engaging with her disenfranchised humanity. This speaks to one of the key elements of Norman’s worldview: his speakers never try to occupy a moral high ground, instead acknowledging themselves as creatures of folly, eternally culpable. In the often-hapless way they shunt from incident to incident, they can remind us of the Everyman of medieval morality plays, running his gauntlet of tribulations. But Norman never allows this sense of anonymity to lapse into a false universality; though “Judgment” alone may not convey this, taken as a whole his work makes clear that the sorts of quotidian worlds portrayed in this poem—as stanza by stanza it moves from the sphere of society to that of work to that of family—belong not to every man but to a specific kind of white middleish-class Western one. Indeed, Norman’s work derives great power from its continual acknowledgement that to occupy such a subject-position is in some sense to be always already guilty. This can be seen in the last lines of stanzas two and three above (“A dozen circles blotted every word” … “and one by one they crawled to better homes”), which achieve their surrealistic impact by amplifying this pervasive sense of guilt to almost terrifying degrees.

Technically speaking, there is much else to admire here. Notice, for instance, how the archaic twinges of “for she was beautiful” and “made much noise and ate much food” evoke a Biblical context of judgment. Or how frequently and subtly Norman falls into perfect iambs, using music to sell his difficult twists of logic. Or, more generally, how the plainness of diction and syntax work in tension with the surrealistic imagery to produce a tone poised ambiguously between humour and inner turmoil—a technique used to great effect in the best work of his editor, Stuart Ross, and indeed a central element in what has almost become Mansfield Press’s ‘house style’, though Norman imbues it with his own peculiar brand of mastery. I know it may seem odd to qualify “mastery” as “peculiar,” but this near-paradox captures the weird variousness of Norman’s work: he seems capable of writing anything he wants—ranging in his two collections from brilliant sonnets and rhymed quatrains to fragmentary free-verse narratives and prose poems—and yet every display of metrical virtuosity or musical uplift seems counterpointed by a moment of bizarre incompletion or even just silliness. Put simply, Norman is a master whose suspicion of mastery leads him to self-sabotage, and—and this is the kicker—rightly so, for in continually emphasizing our fallibility, the worldview embodied in his work depends for its persuasiveness on the poet’s showing himself to be fallible. Thus, in addition to exemplifying all the fine qualities I’ve named above, At the Gates of the Theme Park also presents itself as a catalogue of lapses, and it is all the better for it.

This is not to fully excuse Norman’s occasionally too-high tolerance for triviality and non sequitur: several of the least effective poems in At the Gates use asterisks to link their disparate sections rather than the figurative connections he proves so adept at building elsewhere, and several of the shortest pieces read like anecdotal sketches rather than fully drawn poems. But for the most part even the least substantial pieces contain some glimmer of off-kilter insight, and overall At the Gates of the Theme Park coheres because rather than in spite of its lightest moments, while still containing poems that, in their thoroughness of development, tantalize us with what a Peter Norman less consistently suspicious of his own mastery might achieve. Witness “Recursion”:

I fall awake alone. Outside,
nocturnal rain ascends.

Alarms rage, summoning a thief
who hurries to the store,
unpacks his duffel sack,
replaces items on the shelf.

Morning. The plane dispenses you.
We enfold each other,
celebrating your undeparture.    
Tears scroll up your cheeks,
nestle into ducts.

Last night we wake
sweat-soaked and sated,
breathe flame to candlewick
and fuse, hips coaxing sheets
to smoothness.

Years ago, our meeting is unmade.
My life hurries back into ignorance,
days spent unrolling snowballs,
being chased by the ice cream truck,
gathering bread spat by ducks
beside a cool lake.

We will never disentangle
at the baggage check.
You won’t be tugged from me
by announcements,
gates, corridors, customs.

I am three years old.
I urge spilled milk into a jug,
right it on the table.
My mother’s alarmed eyes
flash calm.

Outside, a robin
cocks her head,
feeds worms
to the hungry soil.

“Recursion” constitutes a feat of defamiliarization on par with Craig Raine’s classic “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home,” transcending what might be dismissed as its ‘gimmick’ through the way each verse paragraph serves both to advance (or, rather, claw back) the narrative while also functioning as a little imagistic prism through which our desire to turn back time is warped to reveal its laughable poignancy. Everything here is apt, as each few lines reveal a fresh figuration of the essential futility of the enterprise, until in the penultimate verse paragraph the poet even finds a way to reinvigorate the proverbial “spilled milk,” before ending on the startling image (a perfect example of what Jonathan Ball has referred to as Norman’s “soft surrealism”) of a robin feeding worms to the “hungry soil.” It’s a brilliant ending to a brilliant poem—you can see how adjectives fail me—as that closing image functions not just as a surrealist depiction of a carnivorous earth, but more generally as an evocation of the grave that will swallow us all, the universal refutation of the poem’s animating impulse. “Recursion” is one of those poems that makes me see the book around it in a more vivid light—a kind of beacon newly illumining the essential seriousness (not to be confused with solemnity) of Norman’s funny, smart, imaginative vision.

Norman’s recently released second collection, Water Damage, finds this vision both intact and expanded upon. Whereas the longest poem in At the Gates—the very fine “Sentences”—ran four narrow pages, Water Damage contains two much longer and bulkier poems, “Dr. F. Attends a Show” (in which the last word of each line mirrors the corresponding line in Margaret Atwood’s 1966 “Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein”) and “The Flood,” both of which find Norman deploying his talents for narrative emplotment on the one hand and surrealistic shifts on the other to poise the reader between vividness and incomprehension, suspending us in a kind of impressionistic supra-clarity. “The Flood,” in particular—as its speaker weaves together an account of his troubled marriage and his clerical duties, “sift[ing] through pages of reports / filed by those requiring recompense” after his town is struck by a catastrophic flood—reads like the bastard child of Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” and Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual,” achieving a tonal and metaphorical range new to Norman’s work and largely successful. Though consisting of varied, amorphous verse paragraphs—and so not thoroughly illustrative of the poet’s formal skill—it finds ways (as his poems often do) of justifying its form through its subject matter, as in the following verse paragraph from near the poem’s midpoint:

Those who came here afterward
to cash in on cheapened real estate
never really dug the flood's extent.
Wrecked lots were scoured flat,
subjected to construction. One by one
the porches filled with barbecues and bikes
and lawn chairs folded anytime it rained.
Newcomers found their powers ailing here.
A softness in their joints, a squashy sloth.
Emerging from a troubled sleep,
they’d sense that something fluid caked their eyes
and everything they saw looked somehow warped.

How could such a poem—which elsewhere describes how after the flood “the old stream flowed / as it always had, but / thicker, muddied, snarled with all our lives”—be written in anything other than its amorphous verse paragraphs, which warp and flow along with the convolutions of the speaker’s mind and the flood that occupies it, evoking the dual blank-verse traditions of epic and remembrance while also making space for a more postmodern sense of lineation reflective of the psyche’s inherent fragmentariness? Content-wise, this passage enacts many of Norman’s typical gestures: an alertness to socio-economic realities (“cheapened real estate”), a nod to the workaday world of the Western white middle-class male (“barbecues and bikes / and lawn chairs”), and then the distorting, abnormalizing, undermining gesture, thrusting the reader into contingency (“something fluid caked their eyes / and everything they saw looked somehow warped”). Indeed, perceptual confusion or uncertainty—not just visual, but across the senses—is one of Water Damage’s signal motifs, as even a brief list of titles can illustrate: “What I Meant,” “Dried My Eyes,” “Everything Arises from the Sound,” “Nothing Arises from the Sound,” “Sometimes Hypochondriacs Get Genuinely Ill,” “Sorry If You Feel I Misspoke,” “I Helped Them Draw Your Picture at the Station”…and so on. This motif is inaugurated in the collection’s opening poem, “Up Near Wawa,” the first verse paragraph of which reads:

Up near Wawa, where the 17
was lightning-lit and slicked
with flagellating rain and hit
repeatedly with hailstones;
up near Wawa, weary
of the pummelled 17, we saw a buck
self-mortify on an advancing rig.
I say self-mortify, which is to say
in fact it ran, confused or mad,
straight for the grille, the brights, but like
atoners and their sniping whips perhaps
it thought the sins of herbivores,
or just its own, or those of every deer,
might gather in its blood and dissipate,
run guttered on the gleaming grate,
spatter on the road and disappear.

Perhaps the most immediately forceful thing about this passage is its sonic heft. Many threads of alliteration, assonance, and consonance can be traced through it; for example, the thread of “lightning,” “lit,” “slicked,” “flagellating,” “hit,” “with,” “self-mortify,” “rig,” “grille,” “whips,” “sins,” “herbivores,” “dissipate,” “disappear,” which provides a sonic analogue to the patter of rain and frantic wipers, as well as the figurative whips of the “atoners.” This dense sonic patterning, combined with the predominantly four- and five-stress lines, evokes an Anglo-Saxon poetic context of exile, loss, and (returning to one of Norman’s signal themes) guilt. Beginning in a Purdyesque descriptive mode, with the speaker glorying in the tribulations of Northern Ontario car travel, the paragraph undergoes a shift around the word “self-mortify,” which leads the speaker down a trail of self-relflexive clarification, bizarrely personifying the deer and comparing it through simile to “atoners and their sniping whips,” leaving us to wonder what “sins” any deer might feel warranted suicide. None, of course: we already sense the speaker projecting some guilt of his own onto the deer. This act of projection is signalled formally, as what begins in sonically woven free verse resolves itself into a rhymed quatrain of iambic pentameter that serves as a kind of code, as if the poet is saying, “Here I am! See how I just alerted you to my artifice at the very moment that I spoke of the dissipation of sin? I’m trying to tell you that this is my sin, not the deer’s, and that absolution, like the coherence sought by poetic form, can only ever be snatched at and missed, can only ever gild failure.” The second and final verse paragraph reads:

But wait.
I got it wrong.
There never was a buck.
Or moose. No elk, no lowly mole.
The rain was real as hooves for sure and kept
the frantic wipers set on highest whine
and lightning really lit the way
with winking glimpses of the broken line.
Up near Wawa, yes, the 17,
and rigs for sure, their bright relentless chain,
and yes, there was this one oncoming truck
with high beams, nearly croaked us in the rain.
The rest, I guess, was wrong. There was no buck.  

Norman isn’t interested in self-disclosure, but in exploring language’s capacity to veil as much as reveal—in exploring the way that, in attempting to disclose ourselves through language, we often end up confronting our own opacity. This opacity is encapsulated in the last line’s “The rest, I guess, was wrong”—as though the speaker, in exerting his poetic faculties upon the incident, is by the end of the poem somewhat unsure whether he has in fact fully created this incident of self-mortification. And in a sense, I think, he hasn’t—I read this as partly a poem about being gripped by the fleeting compulsion to swerve one’s car into oncoming traffic, and then displacing that compulsion onto an invented deer—but in another sense—and again, as both verse paragraphs’ resolution into rhymed quatrains serves to highlight—the poem is pure artifice, a verbal event whose biographical roots are entirely beside the point. Neither of these angles in itself can do the poem justice, however: it’s important to the poem’s impact that Wawa is a place that many of Norman’s readers will be familiar with, but just as important that we accept as (fictional) fact that “There was no buck”—that it was invented purely as a poetic emblem. Seen in this dual light, “Up Near Wawa” is about the agony of artifice, the artistic impulse to experience one’s life as ‘material’, the delicious sin of supplanting life-and-death reality with made-up junk.

This act of supplanting is also often illuminating, however, as the artist’s outlandish fabulations serve to reveal hidden aspects of the quotidian. Take “Letter from a Creditor,” for instance, which uses its surrealism to dredge up the often-catastrophic undercurrents of our fears of financial precarity:

Dear Mr. Norman:
We have not received the payment due November 1st.
Within three days, reply to this notice
or your service will be cut off.

We strongly advise you to pay these funds
without delay. We’re loath
to terminate this service.
Please don’t make us do this.

We know there are circumstances.
We’re sure you’ve had a painful day
and something roams behind your brow,
a lost fly trapped by a pane.

We can surmise the state of your surroundings.
Yes, we figure we can see you now,
slouched and weeping in the tattered chair
marked with stains from when you lost control.

It’s clear you lost control.
Control took leave at a date unspecified
before November 1st. That much is plain;
the rest we’ve merely guessed.

Enclosed please find a sheaf of charts
delineating what you should have paid and when.
This info will not help you, but the sheets ensure
a fanning-out of papers at your feet

as you sob and let them drop.
We hear the termites moving in your walls
and sense their hunger hollowing the planks
beneath your seat. Please pay the fees

outstanding. Insect bellies fill
with floor. Your chair will plunge
straight down and ever down. How far you’ll fall,
we’re sad to say, is way past our surmise.

Again, and like most of Norman’s poems, this exudes linguistic skill: in the way it falls into subtly perfect iambs at just the right moments to offset its apparent plainspokenness, for example (“This info will not help you, but the sheets ensure / a fanning-out of papers at your feet”), or in its deft appropriation and creepy amplification of bureaucratic cadence (“We can surmise the state of your surroundings”). Like “Recursion” from the earlier collection, it is also a masterpiece of pacing; Norman doesn’t feel the need to load every line with metaphoric and sonic tension, instead allowing the first seven lines to flow straightforwardly, even blandly, until the sinister twist of line eight (“Please don’t make us do this”), and from then on gradually amping up the menace, stanza by stanza, building to the alarming shift to the immediate present in the climatic “Insect bellies fill / with floor.” Also like “Recursion,” “Letter from a Creditor” serves as a sort of anchor poem which holds in its orbit the lighter pieces that surround it. A superficially silly poem like “In Praise of the Top Three Cellphone Manufacturers, as Determined by Global Market Share in 2010”—which begins, “O Nokia. Noblest of providers, number one / by far in market share”—though in one sense trivial, is revealed by its proximity to poems such as “Letter to a Creditor” to comprise yet another aspect of the collection’s undercurrent of engagement with the colonization of our collective consciousness by power, whether corporate (as in “To Staples,” an apostrophe to the office supplies vendor), political (“On the Occasion of Her Majesty’s Passing My House in a Boat”), medical (“Dried My Eyes,” “In the Clinic,” “Dr. F. Attends a Show”), educational (“School Day”), or religious (“Tracts”). More generally, “Letter to a Creditor” also represents one of the most lucid instances of an apocalyptic current that runs through not just Water Damage but At the Gates of the Theme Park as well, identifiable at least two dozen poems, with Norman’s surrealism serving to illuminate—and, through its frequently quirky tone, conceal—a genuine horror at what we allow ourselves to mistake for normalcy.

I must be careful, however, not to misrepresent Norman’s work by shoehorning its more purely funny or whimsical elements into this serious framework. On the other hand, I must admit that once I latch on to his apocalyptic sensibility, it becomes difficult to not see almost every poem arising out of it. Take “The Turnips,” for example, perhaps the most overtly comedic performance in Water Damage:

The turnips ooze a juice just visible on his chin.
Etiquette-bereft, the cad inturps the conversation I was in.
In the urn’s pit, ash accumulates: mortality’s pith.
A tin spur goads moans from the lover I lie with.
Poking the proxy doll with a rustpin makes for anguish.
Don’t stunrip the ne’er-do-wells. Just let ‘em languish.
Pit urns fill with spit-out pits of fruit.
Baffling ritpuns offend the ruling brute.
Punstir the ticklish for a ribald effect.
A nut rips when the razor swipes. Your denim won’t protect.
On the suntrip, bronzed-up tourists tipple plonk.
Untrips are offered. The unship’s waiting at the dock.
Writhe and spin, rut and grunt among the scented sheets.
Runspit in thickets like a rabid boar in heat.
Pitnurs leave me stumped. From a small stump I orate.
Runt, sip that rancid wine. You’ll find it tastes of acetate.
Bail out the punt, sir, or the ferried souls will drown.
Your turn: sip the sugared venom, force it down.
The tip runs off on tipsy legs, leaving the servers broke.
Turps in turpish venues tell the filthiest of jokes.
            Spurtin’ depravity, he mounted the stump—and spoke—

It’s utterly typical of Norman’s brand of mastery—and of what I’ve said about his suspicion of such mastery—that he should reserve his most virtuosic technical performance for his most ostensibly ridiculous subject matter. Each line of “The Turnips” incorporates the anagram of the word “turnips” from the corresponding line of bpNichol’s “Historical Implications of Turnips” (“turnips are / inturps are / urnspit are…”) and the result strikes me as—I don’t use this word lightly—genius. Not just for the way it incorporates each anagram, whether semi-familiar compound (“The tip runs off on tipsy legs, leaving the servers broke”) or coinage (“Turps in turpish venues tell the filthiest of jokes”) into an utterly appropriate context. Nor for its formal virtuosity, with each rhymed couplet forming a ballad stanza (by each individual line following a four-stress/three-stress pattern) and thus lending the proceedings a folkish orality. But for the way these linguistic and formal felicities build the illusion of this being spoken from another dimension, somewhere both antediluvian and postapocalyptic at once, possessed of a language both primitive and futuristic, akin to the “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. As I finish the poem, I imagine the depravity-spurtin’ figure mounting the stump to deliver a prophetic lament, ragin’ at the loss of an old world and drivin’ us towards the new. There is a sense in which “The Turnips” is one of the most serious poems I’ve read in months, if by “serious” we mean committed to language as both aesthetic and social material, traversing past communicative horizons to probe out new ones. This may sound far-fetched; but Norman’s work across both At the Gates of the Theme Park and Water Damage lends itself to far-fetchedness on the reader’s part: it is smart, funny, skillful, and various enough to tug our imaginations in all sorts of strange and contradictory directions. Read both books the way you’d listen to one of the great double albums—plugged in for the long haul, prepared to see any apparent inconsistencies as in the service of the whole—and let them subtly stunrip you.