Thursday, April 13, 2006

Prima Materia

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy.

The Feast: Prose Poem Sequences by Walter Bargen.
Kansas City: BkMk Press, 2004.
115 pages. $13.95 paper. ISBN 1-886157-39-1.

Walter Bargen often takes on the persona of the biblical Jonah in his volume of prose poems, The Feast:

No one notices even on days when he stands in the cashier's line at Wal-Mart, holding a water-filled plastic bag with bright swimming things[,] that he is a man who lives inside a fish. Actually, he lives in a house he carved out of the inside of a living fish.

Not only are the Jonah poems consistently the better in the volume but they give it a narrative coherence that is not common.

It is not clear whether Bargen is aware of the Jungian psychological literature pertaining to the old prophet inside of his fish. In the words of Jung himself:

The golden haze of childhood memories arises not so much from the objective facts as from the admixture of magical images which are more intuited than actually conscious. The parable of Jonah who was swallowed by the whale reproduces the situation exactly.... The 'mystery' he beholds represents the stock of primordial images which everybody brings with him as his human birthright, the sum total of inborn forms particular to the instincts. I have called this 'potential' psyche the collective unconscious.

This is a volume to prove the point. It contains all the adaptable honesty of crisis, the effluvial dissonance of neurosis. There is a general sense of oppressiveness, living inside of a fish:

If it was years ago, then the tide has continued to rise and he's now awash in a cataclysmic flood, on his last gasp, treading water.

It is an oppressiveness shot through with ironic flashes of enlightenment:

He knows that it is only those of us who can't swim who will save ourselves.

Again, in the words of Jung:

Regression carried to its logical conclusion means a linking back with the world of natural instincts, which in its formal or ideal aspect is a kind of prima materia. If this prima materia can be assimilated by the conscious mind it will bring about a reactivation and reorganization of its contents. But if the conscious mind proves incapable of assimilating the new contents pouring in from the unconscious, then a dangerous situation arises in which they keep their original, chaotic, and archaic form and consequently disrupt the unity of consciousness.

Bargen describes this experience from the inside. While he is clearly in command of his material, it is not so clear that the command comes simply from reading psychological literature. Between a psychological text and a contemporary quotidian description of regression to extreme neurosis there yawns an immense chasm. The innumerable small details that span that chasm are well portrayed throughout the Jonah poems.

What Jonah does not give us is a denouement. There is no coming out the other side. He remains in his fish and there is no indication that he will ever emerge from it. He has himself and what he imagines to be his wife, Jessie. At least in his mind, they go on much like a perverse variation on William and Catherine Blake. They, too, live deep within a crumbling world of symbols and apparitions, however much their apparitions are more tortured, those symbols no longer coherent.

It might be expected that the poems which don't address Jonah's experience would be pale in comparison and they are. Several shorter sequences are interspersed throughout The Feast. The poems that compose them never approach the level of the Jonah poems for more than a few lines. They are more obviously literary. Occasionally, they are highly suspect.

In the poem "Delphic Chicken," for one particularly egregious example, Socrates has asked Crito to satisfy his debt of a rooster to Asclepius. This refers to the well-known scene from The Phaedo, in which Socrates, who has drunk the hemlock, and is slowly growing cold, turns to his young disciple and says: "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?" Crito answers that the debt will be duly paid.

In Bargen's poem, Crito finds Asclepius getting drunk at a local pub, and, disgusted, releases the chicken. The poem imagines the fate of the chicken after its release. In the end, it becomes an oracle:

In Delphi the capitals at the tops of marble columns are scrolled chicken feathers.

All of this is blissfully uninformed of the fact that Asclepius was the Greek god of healing. The worshipper went to the temple of Asclepius to pray to be cured of some affliction. If he recovered from the illness, he sacrificed a chicken at the temple. (One prerequisite for being a priest of Asclepius must surely have been a taste for chicken.) Socrates, elegant to the last, was saying that life was an affliction and death the cure. He asked that a chicken be sacrificed to the god in thanks for his recovery.

While it may be said that there is room for more than one Socrates-chicken story, the original is so much more evolved, so much better, that "Delphic Chicken" suffers in comparison. The post-modern, anti-aesthetic aesthetic of the poem not only does not save it but is itself revealed as severely limited. The poem "Either/And," with its caricatures of Kierkegaard and Hegel, only barely avoids the same fate.

Walter Bargen's Jonah poems represent remarkable work on a theme that is rarely handled well. Alone they would perhaps have amounted to an exceptional volume of poetry. As it is, The Feast remains a volume well worth reading. Jonah is enigmatic, at risk, strangely familiar. Not only is he troubled, but his recognizable humanness argues convincingly that being troubled may be a viable response to such a world as ours.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy's work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); The Georgia Review; Grand Street; The Pedestal Magazine; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Orbis (UK); Eclectica; and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His Hyperlinked Online Bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Cosmic I.

Present Company by W. S. Merwin
Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.
140 Pages. $22.00 cloth. ISBN 1556592272.

Mere months after Copper Canyon Press has released Migration, W. S. Merwin's selected poems (and recent winner of the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry), the volume is incomplete. Merwin’s latest, Present Company has appeared, and the poet, a fixture on the literary scene now for over 50 years, begins yet another phase.

It is evident from this most recent volume that Merwin is aging gracefully in his nature sanctuary on the Hawaiian island of Maui. His once vaunted "sustained line," while not altogether given off, is less and less in evidence with each succeeding volume. He has grown more comfortable with himself with the passage of years however much he remains skeptical of our cultural ideas of "self."

The poems that comprise Present Company are elegies, of a sort, dedicated "To..." the various people, places and things that have graced his life. The only tension that informs the book is that between the normal 80-ish desire to speak of "the greater verities" and the long inculcated post-modern reaction against there being any such thing. The result is some 100 poems of sustained interest regularly punctuated by flashes of unusual insight. The reader will not have to be approaching 80 in order to recognize the sentiment of these lines "To Lingering Regrets":

O lovely and mournful
with downcast eyes
appearing to me as
you are turning away
to stand silent and late
in a remembered light
touched with amber

Some verities would seem in fact to be greater and "regrets" are among them. Surely those who claim to have none suggest that they somehow have not grown to achieve their full humanity, a problem which these lines, among many others, prove Merwin does not share.

What is not in the least universal is the persistent animism of so many of the poems, in Present Company, each addressing a cherished companion. The recipient of the poem "To Grief" is as much a being as the recipient of "To Paula," "To the Corner of the Eye" as "To the Next Time." Merwin is Odysseus and his departed teeth are those companions who did not survive the Odyssey. He and the few who remain sit beside the hearth. Sitting there he addresses another companion in the poem "To Smoke":

you have always been warning
us too late and only
as you were leaving

As for Merwn himself, he would seem to be the most tenuous of the existents, as evidenced by lines such as these from "To Myself":

I am sure you
were here a moment before
and the air is still alive
around where you were

The implication (especially in the context of his life's work) is that the poet W. S. Merwin is more a cosmos than a person. Over his nearly 80 years, the abstractions, habits, emotions, identifications, observations and material components that have populated that cosmos have matured to achieve their own independent identities. All of them are alive in their own right. By process of elimination, almost, what is left over is the true self, numinous and ungraspable.

Be a poet cosmos or individual being, or his experiences separate existents or not, he is sure to have few thoughts about the nature of writing itself. While Merwin is no exception, he is surprisingly restrained on the topic, and prone, as always, to address it from his own private dimension. It speaks even more highly of him, then, that what he has to say "To the Story" is so insightful both for writing and life:

as it passes before you what you will
never manage to remember later
the missing key

to the present and its unrepeated
life and so you will have to make it up
as plausibly

as you can out of odds and ends of what
someone wrote down or you may remember
if memory

serves you or you will conjure from those same
elements and selves summoned out of some
other country

The narratives of pen and life are both problematical and absolutely essential. The poet of Present Company has lived a life wrestling with "the story." So intensely so that he has come to understand that the reticence of a few hard-won words can say more.

Present Company is not among W. S. Merwin’s three or four best volumes. All the more eloquent, then, the fact that it must be lived in for a while before all of its nooks and unique corners can be fully appreciated. More impressive still, it teaches us that even in these harried, careening times, that so often leave one behind long before one has had the chance to grow gracefully older, it remains possible with a little luck and a lot of honest questioning to have a bit of wisdom to pass along.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy's work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); The Georgia Review; Grand Street; The Pedestal Magazine; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Orbis (UK); Eclectica; and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His Hyperlinked Online Bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Vulgar Tongue

Churlsgrace by William Hathaway.
Gainsville: University of Florida Press, 1992.
97 pages. $12.95 paper. ISBN 0-8130-1126-4.

In a previous incarnation, I wrote a bi-weekly book review column, called "On the Shelf," for an arts tabloid out of Albany, New York. I was not the only one who found it astonishing (for reasons that will momentarily become clear) that the column lasted some six months (from 1992-3). There is nothing so attractive to a group of local poets, however, as a column in which their names might appear at any moment -- or the names of other local poets of their acquaintance. "On the Shelf" was surprisingly popular.

The sponsor of the column, however, soon began to press me to review a particular book. The shelf referred to in the title of the column was the "Local Interest" shelf of his independent book store. I imagine he only felt that, given his sponsorship, his favorite book should receive notice.

At first I fended off his imprecations. I had perused the book more than once during my stops at his shop, looking for books to review, and each time had returned it to its place. My idea had been to review no book that I felt had no redeeming qualities. Every review would present a bit of yin no matter how much yang.

When I could no longer stave off the gentle pressure -- which had pretty much grown into a demand -- the stage was set for the end of my column. I left the shop with the book determined not to alter my opinion of it one iota in order to please an advertiser. I would have to hope that my impression of it was mistaken. The profound ethics of tabloid book reviewing were at issue.

As fate would have it, the book was still worse than I had thought. Saddened, I set about writing a review that may have gone down in Albany literary history. The staff had grown out of the habit of checking my copy. The review went to press. I was called upon the carpet by a disheveled, unshaven, slightly trembling editor with bloodshot eyes. Advertising revenues were mentioned. Several days later the advertising associate mistakenly set the dog on me when I walked in the door of the office/editor's apartment and I was quite badly bitten.

The review the reader will find below was the review I turned-in following the above events. It was to run in two consecutive issues thus the parts 1 & 2. I will spare the gentle reader a description of the state of the unfortunate bit of copy when it appeared. Perhaps he or she will understand when I say that there is nothing in Stephen King to compare to it. A brief exchange of telephone calls ensued that only extended the comparison. There remained nothing to do but to resign.

Happily, a regional magazine, The Eye on Saratoga, scooped me right up. The Eye was a spiffy little fashion magazine which was looking for a features writer and a wider scope. It was even a paying gig! But fate intervened yet again. There was a very pretty assistant editor and a Hunter Thompson inspired piece on opening day at the flat track. Six months after becoming ace reporter I once again saw the wisdom of resigning. Never did get paid for the flat track piece. But then that's another story.

So then, William Hathaway's Churlsgrace still being available in the publisher's stock, and in distribution, I take this somewhat belated opportunity to present it to the readers of Eclectica. (Does anybody have a calendar? I haven't been reviewing here for six months yet, have I?)


The Vulgar Tongue: Part 1. In which the reviewer all too briefly surveys the history of profane literature by way of setting the stage for a review of William Hathaway's volume of poetry Churlsgrace.

Sometime about 1285, Dante Alighieri wrote a sonnet ("A ciascun' alma presa e gentil core...") requesting that his fellow poets provide him the interpretation of a dream he had concerning his beloved. On and off during literary history it has been customary for poets to have challenge matches upon a theme. This was the reason the poet wrote asking for interpretations: a pretext to compose a group of poems on a given theme (then called a Tenzone).

Among replies from the high names of the Stil Nuovo (this poetic cadre referred to theirs as the "New Style"). Cavalcante and Cino da Pistoia sent sonnets finding good omens in the symbolism of the dream. Among the names history has largely forgotten, another Dante replied. Dante da Maiano—a respected elder statesman—included his own sonnet in which the following lines are found:

...­che lavi la tua coglia largamente,
a ci¨o che stinga e passi lo vapore
lo quale ti fa favoleggiar loquendo...
Even scholarly works on Dante, claiming to provide literal translation of texts from the time, seem incapable of getting the point of these lines. Explanations from the finest minds inevitably settle on them as a description of some medieval medical practice on a par with bleeding the patient with leeches. A quick prose -- and actually literal -- translation makes clear that the notion is ludicrous:

...wash your balls liberally, until you grow pale and a vapor is emitted, the which will make you babble like a fool...

Da Maiano has told the immortal Dante that the cure for love-sickness is to jerk-off. He uses medical terminology to enhance the joke, and goes on to say that, after the cure, a young man gains a wiser perspective upon just what is this thing "love."

Since the time of Aristophanes -- the Greek playwright -- we have a continuous record of this brand of literary realism. His play, The Frogs, opens with the god Dionysos and his slave Xanthus discussing Xanthus' threat to defecate in the middle of the road if not relieved of some of his load. Dionysos asks to be spared the spectacle because he does not feel like puking at that particular moment. All of his plays are filled with this kind of exchange.

Diogenes -- one of the great Greek philosophers of the generation after Aristophanes -- was, for much of his life, a panhandler on street corners and perennial houseguest. Legend has it that he directed that he be hung up for a scarecrow after his death (or maybe he just wasn't all that popular and the story a lame excuse for dumping his carcass in a field). In a Guy Davenport translation, from the book Thasos and Ohio (1986), Diogenes boasts:

When some strangers to Athens asked me to show them Demosthenes, I gave them the finger, so that they would know what it felt like to meet him.

Our common picture of the Greeks obviously glosses over a few things.

Chaucer -- in the one Canterbury Tale not in your modernized high school text, "The Miller's Tale" -- shows us a picture of the common man of the time in such lines as "...this Nicholas was risen for to piss..." and "...Absolon hath kist hir nether ye...," etc. In one of the finest jokes in literature, Nicholas hangs his "ers" out a window where a clerk, expecting his beloved in the dark, proclaims its sweet aspects. But, then, Chaucer tells the tale best:

This Nicholas anon leet flee a fart
As greet as it had been a thonder-dent...

The Canterbury Tales were a favorite after-dinner entertainment with the nobility of the time. No one recounts to us that the ladies were asked to leave the room before this one was told. This kind of thing was a normal component of life.

The film versions of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels are family fare. Few are aware that the author is perhaps the most scatological writer in the English language (to be fair, it probably was a sign of encroaching syphilitic dementia). The actual Gulliver's Travels is filled with sweat (bathing had yet to become commonplace), flatulence and excrement.

In chapter 5, the "Voyage to Laputa," Gulliver describes the Academy of Lagado "wherein the Professors employ themselves." It may be a lampoon of the Royal Academy of Science then newly created in London.

One professor had discovered a treatment for "the Cholic." A bellows with an eight inch nozzle was inserted into the patient and used to inflate the intestines. Then, the doctor "clapping his Thumb strongly against the Orifice of the fundament," the trapped gas would make its escape. The method was demonstrated upon a laboratory dog, and:

...the animal was ready to burst, and made so violent a Discharge, as was very offensive to me and my Companions. The Dog died upon the Spot, and we left the Doctor endeavouring to recover him by the same operation.

The names Villon, Rabelais, Skelton, Shakespeare and Twain bring to mind hundreds of other hilarious and well-written examples of profane realism -- of profanity. Other names are less well known.

In Shakespeare, ordinary peasants are portrayed in brief scenes to provide relief from heavier themes. In the old English dialect such people were called "ceorls": freemen without rank. In the Old French ceorl had become "carl" and then "charal." The English eventually borrowed the French version of the word, during the Middle Ages, as "churl."

The playwright saw the freeman as a combination of intelligent and ridiculous. He could not read or write or reason properly. He was nevertheless somehow -- while he rolled about in the piss and mire -- loveable and at times smarter, in his own way, than "his betters."

Today's churl has a public education to make him more or less able to reason, less comical. He may achieve the rank of nobility through capital investment and luck. The impressive trappings are within his reach and held out to him as positive reinforcement to produce.

William Hathaway, however, has done well to title his latest book of poetry Churlsgrace. While other trades have advanced, the poet is still a "freeman without rank" and the butt of humor. Moreover, Mr. Hathaway loves an Elizabethan style of low poetry and makes it modern excellently well.

The Vulgar tongue: Part 2. In which the reviewer explores William Hathaway's normal humanity and various and sundry bodily excretions and awards him a bronze-medal in regular poetry.

William Hathaway's connection with the profane is like Eliza Doolittle's to her cockney past. He has received a solid education, and, though still a churl at heart, there is no way to go entirely back.

Often the poems in this volume are written from the perspective of a young boy. "For the Hell of It" draws an interesting parallel between the schoolyard and the Chanson de Roland. "Looser Talk" is a flashback to an innocent childhood lived on the heels of World War II.

Others are from the perspective of a blowsy poet and professor of literature, which is to say, an overgrown, cherubic man-child. "O My Soul" and "Below Houston" -- from among the longer poems at the end of the book -- are in this vein.

"Critical Theory" is another such poem and one of the finest in the book. It is about the testiness of men towards women, which, were we entirely superior to it, we would call "fear." An uncle's humorous ditty is recalled. St. Jerome wanders in and out, until, at the end, he instructs wary young men:

If you should spot a woman ambling up
the path to the grotto where you're
praying, mortifying your flesh against
hard-ons and writing books, you should
run out and chunk rocks at her.

Yet, no matter how decidedly masculine, these poems never take their rampages too seriously. The battle of the sexes is dealt with across a wide range and as an endearing trait of a hapless race. St. Jerome is amusing. We can imagine him being played by John Cleese in some Monte Python film.

In most of the poems there is this sense that the human race is blissfully unaware of its foibles. Even in "The Rising Sun" the executions of Chinese dissidents are not taken too seriously. It is a telling statement that he has foregone drawing a wrenching portrait for us. He has taken pictures of the normal places and remembers the ching-ching of the bicycle bells as riders try to clear a path.

Hathaway is capable of only normal angst. He knows that all of the world does not lie in the balance of most men's quarrels, least of all his own. This gives him human dimensions and a correspondingly unheroic body. He can hardly leap up to the high style without, in the next stanza, wallowing in correction. His bravado is always self-deprecating.

Within a real-sized life, love is fumbling and frustration. With a body of flesh, sex is bulbous and a little flabby:

...­My swollen
genitals ached in pegged jeans,
straining to unfurl monstrous petals...­

The shameless loss of self-control which slaps together sweating bodies and elicits groans and farts is "seeded in fecund muck."

The poem "Below Houston" is about pulling over to the side of the road to empty his bladder of beer. A drunken, and very human, poet (Who can be heroic while urinating?) reflects on life. Both he and a Venetian character from Shakespeare, we learn, are circumcised. In defense of his breach of decorum, he tells us:

I've also seen girls
squat in uric beams squinting up at black
Guy Davenport, in another of his books, Every Force Evolves a Form, informs us that it was Noah Webster whose dictionary erased the body from our language:

I still can see him only as Uriah Heap sniffing out naughty words in the Bible, deleting them, and congratulating himself on being more genteel than God.

For nearly one hundred and fifty years afterwards, literate people did not answer any of natures calls (a painful situation, one supposes).

Predictably, the reaction to so unendurably protracted a constipation was a shit-for-shit's-sake spree which is powerful still. The author of Churlsgrace gives us a welcome moment of just being regular. A respite in which life is no better or worse—no more crude or repressed—than life.

An overgrown man-child, a collector of scraps and literary anecdote, a literary mongrel: these are the characteristics which make this churl almost "Elizabethan." Mix in a little mucous and spittle and the picture is complete.

Yet this is an educated -- a displaced -- churl also, and, beside Jake LaMotta we find Jacques Lacan, among Chinese peasants Tacitus speaks. References are scattered throughout to Keats' urn, the biblical Ruth, Hopkins' inscape, Plath's insecurity, etc.

The authors that come to mind while reading this volume are minor figures, from an earlier age, who are today little read, but still impress: Greene, Harvey, Nashe. While the giants roared, they pleased with a normal humanity. He, like they, straddles two worlds. Like they, he tends to moralize and with only normal expectations of the reader.

Throughout Churlsgrace there is this mix of low and high. The more insightful the combination, the better the poem. The game is played close enough to the edge, however, that one misstep can make a poem into a junk-pile.

It has been said of Auden that he wrote many poems that were failures but none that were uninteresting. In this, Hathaway reminds us of no one so much as that craggy-faced don. The image of the junk-pile explains why we value their failures even more, at times, than their successes.

Call him a bronze-metal poet who occasionally stumbles upon a multifaceted image such as the description of running past flowers included in the poem "Close Call," or writes so fine a poem as "Grief in Early Spring" where,

You might say a merry chuckle
in the storm drains is the sun's

Around these occasional moments of grace bumbles a human being intelligent enough to appreciate himself for what he imperfectly is. And that being writes a damned interesting poem.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy's work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); The Georgia Review; Grand Street; The Pedestal Magazine; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Orbis (UK); Eclectica; and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His Hyperlinked Online Bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal. This review first appeared in Eclectica.

The Way of Mrs. Wei.

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy.

The Tao of Mrs. Wei by Hilary Tham
Washington, D.C.: The Bunny and Crocodile Press, 2003
76 pp. $12.00 paper.

Chinese by descent and Jewish-American by marriage, Hilary Tham emigrated to the U.S., some thirty years ago, with a BA in English Literature from the University of Malaya. She has since settled in the greater Washington, D.C. area, published seven books of poetry and a memoir, received numerous grants, served as editor-in-chief of Word Works, Inc., and poetry editor for the Potomac Review. She paints professionally in the Sumi-e style. She is a regular presence at D.C. area workshops for children and the disadvantaged, open-mics, and poetry society events. Her most recent book -- The Tao of Mrs. Wei -- is published by The Bunny and Crocodile Press. Tham is a veritable poster-child for multiculturalism.

Like many other poets she goes looking, periodically, for something new to say in 50 poems, no more than two of which may be over 32 lines long. Such searches are necessarily undertaken poem by poem each appearing separately in small venues over a period of years. On this occasion, the search has resulted in The Tao of Mrs. Wei, the Mrs. Wei in question being an elderly Chinese matriarch created by Tham.

In the first poem of the collection, Mrs. Wei is at the cemetery unpacking a feast she has cooked for her dead father's ghost. Nearby is "An Englishman is visiting his mother's grave / with flowers.":

"When's your father coming out
to eat the food?" he asks.
Smiling, Mrs. Wei answers,
"Same time your mother
come to smell flowers."

The primary goal of The Tao of Mrs. Wei is to be entertaining and the poem is a strong start. Judged by that criterion, and by how well the persona is maintained, the first may be the most successful poem in the collection. Regardless, the criteria are generally met throughout.

The reader is likely to be entertained, in particular, by two traits that are persistent in the title character of this book. The first is her preoccupation with the Chinese spirit-world that accompanies her everywhere. The second is her utter lack of political correctness. The poet uses the persona to shield herself as she contrasts the strictures common to the contemporary poetry world with the straightforward freshness of her protagonist.

This provides the opportunity for any number of amusing, and refreshingly human, moments. At the end of "Mrs. Wei Meets the New Improved American Dream", for example, a fellow emigrant, from San Salvador, tells Mrs. Wei:

he is looking for a woman to marry,
any woman who can get him a green card.

"Better if she is blonde with big breasts," he adds,
holding out his hands to show the size
of his dreams, his hope green as an uncut tree.

While it might not be suggestible for Tham to write such a poem in the first person, her Mrs. Wei is at liberty to follow the conversation to its conclusion without appending an all too predictable withering rejoinder or commentary upon the damage done to the American psyche by the physiognomy of the Barbie Doll. The final seven words are entirely true to Mrs. Wei, and, therefore, entirely appropriate.

In Mrs. Wei's mouth, compliments to America and its way of life can be delivered without the least sense of opportunistic pandering or jingoism. For her, a trip to the grocery store is a wonder even if it is "Too bad American meat have no smell." She finds American drivers remarkably "polite". On the other hand, she can just as unaffectedly be "appalled" at how American cats live so much better than so many people in the world or allow the dissonant humanity of the unfettered desires around her to speak for themselves.

In the poem "Thirteen is Terrible, Mrs. Wei Said", Tham's protagonist reflects that each of her children became dangerously ill when they turned thirteen. The child Men Ya had mysteriously swollen up and the doctor's seemed unable to help him. Mrs. Wei's belief in spirits took her to a temple medium:

The medium said Third Grandaunt's ghost
wanted his soul to keep her company.

So I took a stone from her grave
saying "I reclaim what belongs
to me." Men Ya recovered

after he drank the soup I made
with that stone. I burnt a paper doll,
a boy, to keep Grandaunt happy.

"I believe Mrs. Wei sprang from an amalgamation of my mother and the mothers of my friends," writes Tham, in the author's note, at the end of the volume, and the authenticity of this remedy suggests that she sometimes takes her materials from them whole-cloth. More amusing is "Mrs. Wei the Gambler": a story about visiting the graveyard at night to plead for winning lottery numbers from the spirits and about the fate of poor Mr. Sung who paid dearly for acquiring his numbers in this fashion.

All of this said -- and even with Hilary Tham's unquestionable credentials -- there is something that borders upon the Charlie-Chan-ish in a handful of these poems. A handful of others seem clearly to be the thoughts of a highly acculturated Chinese-American emigrant. (In this regard, an exposition on the effects of homosexuality upon Ancient Greece and a grad-school joke -- amusing but entirely out of character -- come immediately to mind.) But, generally, the persona is well drawn and the poems are sprinkled throughout with the common situations of our lives and amusing observations such as Mrs. Wei is prone to make about them.

The poems in this collection were written over a number of years. Some have appeared in Ms. Tham's previous books and it is only recently that she has thought to collect them into their own volume. This (and an occasional self-indulgence) explains the strange discontinuities that sometimes run through Mrs. Wei's personality. On the other hand, Tham's love of the various Chinese matriarchs that have passed through her life explains so much in The Tao of Mrs. Wei that is delightful.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy's work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); The Georgia Review; Grand Street; The Pedestal Magazine; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Orbis (UK); Eclectica; and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His Hyperlinked Online Bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal. This review first appeared in The Danforth Review.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Sex Trek: the Next Generation.

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy.

Sex Carnival by Bill Brownstein.
Toronto: ECW Press, 2000
250 pages. $22.95 Can, $18.95 US.
ISBN 1-55022-415-8.

Two factors changed our relationship to sex in the past century. The first was the introduction of cheap, effective birth-control. The second, market capitalism, has become the unchallenged law of the jungle. The results of these changes are far reaching and labyrinthine. Markets led to the wide spread employment of women (no pun intended), who were available in wartime, and available, war or peacetime, at a favorable wage-rate. Wages led to personal empowerment.

Virtually every aspect of life has undergone market-induced changes -- and it's still happening. Old moral codes, which hindered the fastest possible growth of wealth, began to be referred to as "mere superstition". They were preached against with the fervor of a Baptist tent revival. They were the evil remnants of a world once dominated by aristocracies bent on insidious, internalized control. There are few in the industrialized western world who aren't in agreement with this model to some extent.

Bill Brownstein was instructed by his publisher to "explore the world of sex": the world, that is, of the sex industry. The author was to have a gratifyingly free hand. His only requirement was to "have fun". The result was the book Sex Carnival.

Virtually every one of his potential readers need only walk through the streets of a modern city to observe first-hand that there is little that is fun about most of the sex industry. It is degrading, manipulative, filled with drugs, violence and littered with victims. Books that don't "have fun," however, don't generally sell well. Predictably, Mr. Brownstein and his publisher have decided to look elsewhere in the industry. They have gone where the money is.

Each chapter explores a different city: (in order) Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, Paris, Montreal. The final chapter samples the remainder of Canada. When the author forgets that he is the comic foil -- his favorite character in the book -- the text is solid. Beknownst to him or not (Who can say?), it is also revealing of un-fun facts.

In the U. S. the conversation of the pornography elite is strewn with the crudest language. The "jokes" are heavy and sophomoric. The backdrop is garish. There is a spirited competition for the world-record for the number of sexual partners in a single day. The portrait is of a gargantuan rationalization-fest. No one is getting hurt. Everyone is a consenting adult. They are actually trail-blazers of freedom. They are therapists and a considerable number of them have the university degrees to prove it. They are millionaires: contributing members of society.

The moment the author crosses into Europe the crude language is virtually gone. The jokes are witty. The backdrop is often off-plush, rarely worse than store-front. The members of the profession make a decent middle-class living. Canada predictably falls between the two. But time marches on and takes us all with it.

The clear and simple fact is that, with present technology, market morality, and a 55-gallon drum of industrial strength K-Y Jelly, a liberated woman can accommodate 620 men in a single day, proudly appear in the Guinness Book of World Records under her nom-de-screw, and retire to become a soccer mom. In backward times, on the other hand, if she had sex with that many men in a lifetime she would have 41 children, her sexual parts would be the size of a circus tent, and she would collapse with a tiny inverted puff of smoke out her asshole. Such is progress.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy's work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); The Georgia Review; Grand Street; The Pedestal Magazine; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Orbis (UK); Eclectica; and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His Hyperlinked Online Bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal. This review first appeared in The Danforth Review. different the world has become.

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy.

Mortal Arguments by Sue Sinclair.
London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2003.
96 pages $15.00 ISBN 1-894078-29-2.

Secrets of Weather and Hope by Sue Sinclair
London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2001.
86 pages $14.00 ISBN 1-894078-15-2.

In November of 1920, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to the Princess Maria von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, from Schloss Berg, Switzerland, of his unexpected good fortune:

I live alone in the solid, centuries-old stone house, alone with a housekeeper who cares for me as silently as I silently let myself be cared for; a deserted park opening on the quiet landscape, no railway station in the neighborhood and for the present, furthermore, a lot of roads closed on account of foot-and-mouth disease -- donc, retraite absolue [thus, a perfect retreat]. [1]
A dread outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease had struck the Berg. He was stranded, quarantined. The rare combination of solitude and surroundings he so constantly sought were forced upon him.

Throughout his adult life, Rilke wrote of his search for such retreats. After World War I, during which time a return to live in his beloved Paris was impossible, due largely to unfavorable currency exchange rates, the search became more urgent. The years were slipping away. The grim experience of wartime Munich had collapsed into "a confusion of anonymous fragments which the individual finds himself unable to piece together." [2]

Even after the chaos had subsided, he realized that the world had changed. The change brought with it one effect, in particular, that oppressed him, as he confided again to the princess:

I believe that all aesthetic observation that is not immediate accomplishment will be impossible from now on, -- basically impossible, for example, to "admire pictures" in a church, [...] You would not believe at all,[...] how different, how different the world has become, the point is to understand that. Whoever thinks he can live from now on as he was "accustomed" to live, will find himself continually facing the sheerest repetition, the bare once-again and its whole desperate unfruitfulness. [3]
Life had become a continual round of daily maintenance. There was no leisure, no opportunity for reflection, no time to appreciate art. In the new world there was no provision for interiority.

The publishers of Sue Sinclair refer to the poetry of Mortal Changes as Rilkean. While it is a dangerous comparison -- suggesting the kind of hyperbole which belies the general condition of small press publishing -- what is shocking here is the fact that it is not wholly inappropriate. There is something here and there in these poems which suggests not only Rilke but the best of Rilke.

In retrospect, the signs were present in her first volume of poems, Secrets of Weather and Hope. But only in retrospect. Or perhaps in a few scattered lines, such as these from the poem "Springtime", it was already manifestly on the page:

The day has given up trying to be
anything in particular, imagines itself
in another place and almost believes it.
The Clouds change shape quickly. They don't see
we can't keep up, how much slower
our hearts are.
The strange animism -- the strangeness of which, in Rilke, proceeds from an eccentricity cultivated in solitude -- is there, although the use of "projection," which will prove to be the signature trait of Sinclair's better poems, is unabashed and far more common than in the earlier poet.

The projections in Secrets of Weather and Hope can be decidedly un-Rilkean. There is a marked preference for still life -- nature morte, as it is called by the French. While there are portraits, and even the occasional tableau, they are not as well handled. The title character of "Four Poems for Virginia Woolf" is generic, recognizable only by virtue of a few biographical details: a reference to Leonard Woolf, an epigraph from Vanessa Bell, etc. "Learning to Waltz" could have been written by any number of poets not half so capable.

Only the society women of the poem "Lilies" fitfully come to life with the same sense of investment that we find, for example, in the poem "Red Pepper":

Put your hand on it. The size
of your heart. Which may look
like this, abashed perhaps,
growing in ways you never
While this is an exceptional poem, in its own right, what is to the point here is all that it promises. As Guy Davenport reminds us, in his delightful study Objects on a Table, the still life

has always served as a contemplative form useful for working out ideas, color schemes, opinions. It has the same relation to larger, more ambitious paintings as the sonnet to the long poem. [4]
Surely, size or length do not have to be meant in the purely external sense. The still life is a step along the way to painting more complete canvases.

To read Secrets of Weather and Hope before Mortal Arguments is to read a collection of poems somewhat better than most first volumes, with occasional moments of rare description. There is little that marks it out as being particularly different. After reading the latter collection, it is a book to go back to and to read again. Suddenly the poet is discovered searching for something she knows is there but can't quite find.

Still, most of the poems in Mortal Arguments are not readily distinguishable from the run of contemporary poetry. The book is so considerable an advance over its predecessor by virtue of the greater number of poems that break out, by the surer touch that they evidence. Yet there is a clear sense of the poet attempting so much that it can only come in fits and starts; filling the rest of the book with poems which, no matter how well written, by prevailing standards, can only be a disappointment to her. Natures mortes of vegetables, clouds and other manifestations of weather are no longer sufficient places to look, are no longer sufficient containers for what the poems want to say.

What Sue Sinclair couldn't quite find in her earlier work now begins to be located, even familiar. The heart remains. Light, also. Nature is portrayed with the brief, deft brushstrokes appropriate to a larger canvas. Now windows are everywhere. There are houses, flowers, cars, traffic, a strange connectedness. All that she sought turns out to be the pieces of our daily lives. The same thing that everyone else is looking for but somehow she found them.

Time and again poets seek to portray the quotidian and rarely do they find the inherent magic that the best of these poems reveal. Sue Sinclair takes her own advice:

Loot your own heart, break the
windows, reach in and take everything
because you might not be back.
But this is not your average poetic smash-and-grab. There are no paroxysms, no Dionysian binges. Instead she scrutinizes the objects, turning them repeatedly in her hand until they become mirrors.

As a result, these are not confessional poems. None of the standard categories quite describes them, at least not the best of them. Sinclair is there in them, but we only catch a glimpse of her reflection -- distorted, perhaps, or perhaps not. If the reflection is the point, a distorted image is every bit as expressive or more, is every bit as real or more. There is the eerie timelessness of having left the flesh behind for the image of flesh. The vast majority of the poems are in the present tense. There is a struggle to keep out the sudden heaviness of memory, its implication of time, its inherence in the entire idea of language. Memory almost brings her back, at times, with its terrible gravity, but never quite.

Everything depends upon light. Light carries her to her mirrors, carries her image back. The less light the more she is Sue Sinclair peering into the empty darkness for a reflection. It is almost as if when the image sleeps it dreams flesh. The feeling is so foreign that she speaks to herself in the second person:
An ache in your limbs: you slept too little.
This life of the flesh is so unwieldy that the poems in which it intrudes are generally not among her better. The best images are still of light. Incandescent light, it is a wounded bird:

Flick the switch, and light drops from the ceiling like a bird,
Around it everything is heavy, solid, bathed in shadow. Familiar objects wait poised in stop-action for the next day to begin.

In such a poetry, passion threatens to get free of its restraints. The poems dealing overtly with passion, however, also are not among the better poems in the book. It is too easy to fall short in them. There is so much that must not be in them. Even the possibility of the flesh has a gravity that qualifies their desire. The tiniest misstep is a glaring failure. What remains is the evidence of something that is almost present, a promise.

But there is passion in Mortal Arguments in profusion: in a few perfect lines of a love poem, yes, but far more in the places where its is not sought for. As might be expected in a world of images it is found in longing, in absence. Bereft of the flesh, desire is everywhere one looks:
The maples woo the car, its hood covered in pollen.
Pollen under the windshield wipers, in all the intimate corners.
Sue Sinclair goes about, like some sort of deranged Behavioralist, finding passion wherever she finds its gestures.

If Mortal Arguments does not quite lift Sue Sinclair into the first rank of poets writing in English today, it certainly places her among the most promising. Rilke had written many slender volumes before he was ready to write The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. He was 35 years old at the time of its publication. While we appreciate many of the poems written before that time, it was only with the advent of Brigge that he became the Rilke we so cherish.

From the time he began the composition of Brigge until the completion of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus some 16 years were to pass. The output of these years was so small, in part, because of the accidents of life. Preternaturally sensitive to his environment, physical and emotional, he found it impossible to do original work during World War I. After the war, Germany was a land of chaos and the poet eventually the target of an attack which unsettled him so much he moved to Switzerland. He was more frequently ill, as he grew older, and this also had its effect. The world was abandoning interiority as so much undesirable ballast on a ship that might otherwise bring more goods to market. The normal processes of aging made him even more vulnerable to the effects.

But, equally to the point, he had come into sight of what he was capable of achieving. All of those earlier volumes, delightful as they may be at times, had fallen well short of what was possible. As he completed them he was aware of the fact. He had to make his way through them, through World War I, and through a great many other experiences, before he could arrive at his writing desk prepared for the task.

The objects of Mortal Arguments only begin to be familiar to Sinclair. Whether she will incorporate the accidents of her own life, and let them compel her to even more remarkable poetry, only time will tell. As for the world around her, it is jealous of its prerogatives. Patronage has been displaced by investment. Solitude is not provided for at all. Interior journeys, such as they are, are properly guided now, and guides know too well where they are going before the journey has begun.

The letters of Rilke are filled with princesses and minor nobility, fine old homes made of stone, drawing rooms, private gardens, and, most of all, acts of patronage and shelter. While he was, in his later work, a strangely modern poet, it was this milieu that nurtured him, that allowed him the solitude so essential for such an intense gathering of internal resources.

It remains to be seen whether the present poet will somehow be provisioned for her own journey. Rilke suggests, in the Duino Elegies, the fatal limitation inherent in the 20th century trend toward the poet as hobbyist:

Not out of curiosity, not just to practice the heart,
that could still be there in laurel…
But because being there amounts to so much, because all
is Here and Now, so fleeting, seems to require us and strangely
concerns us. [5]
It would be heartening to discover that there are correlatives available in today's world; that somehow the long, carefully tended hours that will be necessary are still possible. Should it prove to be the case, Mortal Arguments promises to be just one of many remarkable volumes.


[1] Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, transl. Jane Bannard Greene and M. D. Herter Norton. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1948. II, 227-28.

[2] Letters. II, 183.

[3] Letters. II, 220-21.

[4] Objects on a Table: harmonious disarray in art and literature by Guy Davenport. Washington, D. C.: Counterpoint, 1998. 9.

[5] Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke. Transl. J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1963. 73.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy's work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); The Georgia Review; Grand Street; The Pedestal Magazine; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Orbis (UK); Eclectica; and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. More information is available at his Hyperlinked Online Bibliography. This review first appeared in The Danforth Review.