For as Far as the Eye Can See

By Robert Melançon

Poetry evokes, through the music of its language or through imagery. Its particulars are like small stones dropped in large ponds of consciousness, the ripples spreading out as echoes of other things we’ve heard, or seen, or read.

A couple of poems in to Robert Melançon’s For as Far as the Eye Can See I found myself imagining the cityscapes of the American painter Edward Hopper in the stark linearity of those “mounting tiers of brick houses” and telephone lines, with the “sky ruled off in glass and metal squares.” In Melançon’s lines we observe a “hardened” urban space, almost static, posed. A not-quite blank canvas, a “theatre reduced to almost nothing.” Cars inch ahead, and people trudge past the sightless gaze of shop window mannequins – in appearance, figures nearly as human as the ones outside the glass.

Or was I first aware not of Hopper’s art but of Robert Hughes’s response to it? “A great Hopper,” Hughes wrote, “always emits one moment of frozen time, literally a tableau, as though the curtain had just gone up but the narrative begun. It gives images of quite ordinary things – and everything, in Hopper, is on the face of it ordinary – their mystery and power.”

It is that sense of quiet anticipation within a “theatrically deserted” space that infuses these poems as much as it does Hopper’s paintings. We seem to be looking at an emptiness. Two words are repeated again and again: silence and nothing. Words that, in turn, only increase our feeling of anticipation, of what brushstrokes will fall upon this canvas, or what performance will take the stage.

suddenly this commonplace street resembles
a setting from Italian theatre, like


an infinite perspective in front of which
might be played out, in the failing light,
some tragedy in alexandrines.


All seems to be waiting, motionless –
the houses, people in the street, traffic –
all displays itself, even the shadows.

Shadows. We know what Hopper could do with shadows. And for Melançon too they have a special, almost spiritual significance. In one poem he explicitly likens the world of appearances that Plato held to be delusive shadow play to paradise. His moments of vision (and they are always ephemeral moments, witnessed in a blink and then gone forever) may not be “real” in a Platonic sense, but the real as Plato imagined it is only “a stale whiteness.” The shadows, on the other hand, though perhaps derivative, are magic. (The original French title of the book establishes this theme more directly: Le Paradis des apparences. Essai de poemes réalistes.)

What makes this particular, perhaps only personal, echo so remarkable is that Hopper is one of the few painters Melançon doesn’t include in his eclectic catalogue. The colours, forms, and textures of Friedrich, Breughel, Poussin, Seurat, Hals, O’Keefe, Caravaggio, Claude, Turner, and Mirò are invoked, but Hopper remains a spiritual shadow, his presence unattributed.

Of course the conceit of a poem, and especially a sonnet (the poems here are all twelve lines, “a lesser sonnet”), being a painting or objet d’art, is an old one. Painting, like language, is experienced through time. A canvas has an overall effect, but soon the eye has to start wandering over its surface, picking up details and engaging in interpretation. We can’t see a painting whole, at once, any more than we can experience a poem or a piece of music instantaneously. Melançon plays with this conceit throughout, tracking the movement of the eye as it moves from roofs to branches to telephone wires to snow.

We see chimneys outlined against


a pale sun and spills of undecided
shadow. We see the air’s transparency,
and the hazy dusting of light.

Or watch the eye fall from the sky, and down the page, with “nothing” (note the repetition) to hold on to until it comes to rest on the frame of buildings, and the end of the poem, in the following:

Nothing is happening in the expanse
of blue, so perfectly blue, that has
stretched its canvas above the streets,


nothing but the event of the light as it
fades toward the horizon, diffusing
into a hemisphere without contours,


built up out of nothing. No sooner does one try
to focus on one point than the eye, lacking
an object, seeking in vain for something


to fix on, at once shifts back down
towards the broken line of buildings,
as if to rest against a parapet.

Then remember – the realization comes as a surprise – that what’s being described isn’t a “canvas” at all, but a vision of the street. Such a vision of the street, to borrow a line, that the street itself can never understand, since it can’t perceive itself. It is the eye that transforms reality into vision, into art, into shadow. But only for a moment. Not because the moment itself is fleeting, but because our gaze is. Poetry, in Melançon’s hands, is a way of seeing.

Review first published online June 24, 2013.


By Amanda Jernigan

The word “groundwork” usually refers to a preliminary task, as in “laying the groundwork” for some further endeavour. It’s a good title then for Amanda Jernigan’s first book, as well as a signal of that book’s thematic concerns. In three sections dealing respectively with an archaeological dig in Tunisia, the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, and Homer’s Odyssey, Jernigan grounds her own work in classical beginnings while provocatively flipping traditional myths of origins on their head.

Taking a step back (and I apologize for how abstract this paragraph is going to sound), we can think of any myth of beginnings as having two axes: left-right temporal (something comes first and then something else happens later), and up-down hierarchical (something more advanced is built on a previous established foundation). In addition, myths come in two dimensions: personal and social. So, for example, Rousseau has man born free in a state of nature only to fall into chains, which describes both what happens to the individual and to civilizations. That the movement up the mythic ladder is experienced as a fall was the essence of the Romantic revolution in thought, which associated “lower” levels of nature and the unsocialized mind (Blake’s Orc, and later Freud’s Id) with creative genius while the upper reaches of the tower represented unnecessary and oppressive accretions.

Whether you want to privilege nature or culture, the Id or the Superego, the basic picture of the former being prior to the latter is pretty straightforward. Also obvious is the notion that, no matter how empty a tower may be at the top, it has to be built on something. The foul rag-and-bone shop is where the ladder starts, not where it ends up.

This is, however, exactly the mythic map that Groundwork undermines. The opening poem, “The Night Guard,” introduces us to the new terms of reference. An excavation of ancient ruins becomes a metaphor: nature is no longer the groundwork but rather the overgrowth. Cattle are cleared away and topsoil removed from the site in order to lay bare (moving from the social to the individual dimension) “the structure of your thinking.” In turn, what we find underneath is not some wild and uncultivated Eden, or the roiling lava of subconscious thought, but the detritus of earlier civilizations and the fragments of myth that nature itself has made a palimpsest of.

I find this a very contemporary way of thinking. Nature (at least as writers in the Romantic tradition like Rousseau or Wordsworth would have understood and experienced it) has largely disappeared from modern life on both the public and the personal level. How many of us have memories – memories that would have been shared by most of us just a couple of generations ago – of growing up on a farm? Such a prehistory is no longer part of our personal or collective unconscious. Instead, nature (in the form of “the environment”) is something to be reclaimed – more a vision of a sustainable green future than a past state of innocence we are trying to “get back” to. This is the sort of thing Jernigan finds among the ancient walls of Carthage, where the “living have quarried the bricks of the dead,” leaving bare-armed men planting tomatoes in the ruins. “Any why not?” one poem asks. “One can’t eat art,” another answers.

I wouldn’t want to lean on this reading too heavily, but it’s consistent with the imagery employed throughout much of the book. In the second and third sections we move from tesserae to more familiar cultural fragments, but the same language of a reverse movement from cultural base to natural overgrowth is used. After the dismissal of Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden is scarcely recognizable as a garden, the vineyards and orchards untended, the rivers left to pursue a natural course. In “The Birds of Paradise,” “the water in which we bathe / is less than pure” because it has been poisoned by a factory upstream, where Yeats’s singing bird is now being manufactured out of polyvinyl chloride. From a whale’s perspective, “fifty fathoms deep,” icebergs are “upside-down basilicas.” When Odysseus finds his men transformed into pigs he thinks them none the worse for that. Art isn’t about progress.

In his early novels Don DeLillo liked to make the point that the subconscious mind, the inner reptile brain, isn’t a natural structure any more but one colonized by advertising jingles and other ephemeral bits and pieces of pop culture. Jernigan’s fragments are more elevated – she’s deeply (at times almost too deeply) allusive, even within individual poems – but I think she’s making a similar point about our collective mental groundwork. The structure of our thinking has nothing left in it of nature.

All of this might make Groundwork sound like a bit too much of an intellectual exercise, but I’ve only offered one reading and in any event it doesn’t play as dry as I’ve made it sound. Jernigan is more into rhyme than rhetoric, and handles form skillfully and with a light touch throughout. The poem “Islands” is a good example, with stanzas that spread out as aural rings of puns and homophones. On such a foundation a rich “overground” is built, an airy garden over the horizon line waiting to be mined.

Review first published online May 14, 2012.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

By David Rakoff

There are a number of noteworthy things about Montreal-born David Rakoff’s debut novel Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. It is, for starters, both Rakoff’s first novel (he had written three previous volumes of essays) and his last book, as he died of cancer just after completing it. It is also illustrated by Guelph artist Seth, and his full-page portraits of the main characters, profiles in gray that makes them seem like so many carved busts in a gallery of antiquities as much as snapshots from a photo album, nicely complement Rakoff’s generation-spanning chronicle of twentieth-century America. Seth is a master of revealing depth of character through just the set of a mouth or an eyebrow. Even a baby seems both innocent of and alarmed at the trials she will have to face as an adult.

But what makes the book most remarkable is the fact that it is a novel in verse. The long poem has been on the endangered species list for decades now, and its close cousin the narrative poem is an even rarer bird. But Rakoff tells the entire story here in rambling, often run-on, couplets. The metrical flow is such that if you read it aloud (which is worth trying just for a page or two) you don’t get the sense of a rocking rhyme scheme at all. There is a frequent use of enjambment and feminine line endings, making the rhymes almost invisible on occasion. In fact, the times when you notice the couplets the most tend to be when Rakoff stretches for a particularly risky or striking combination, like matching “pubic lice” with “paradise,” or in scenes like the one describing an abortion: “She lay back and placed her feet in the cold stirrups / And faced toward the window, all birdsong and chirrups.”

Despite the lighthearted tone of the verse, Rakoff’s representative and loosely linked American lives make for a pretty grim, unhappy bunch. Victims and outsiders, they are swept along toward inevitable illness and death. The faces become ghost-like and haunted as they confront harder facts and a colder reality, their best days all behind them, like spots of time now existing only in memories and boxes of old photos. Optimism is exposed as a delusion, albeit a necessary one. In the end it’s best to live in the now, and understand that life is only passing through various stages, a journey and not a destination.

Review first published August 10, 2013.

Sub Divo

By Norm Sibum

You don’t have to be a student of Northrop Frye’s historical system of mythic modes to be aware that we live in an ironic age, one that invokes past glories mainly as a way of commenting on a degraded present. This has been the default setting for our literature at least since Joyce and Eliot sent Odysseus and Agamemnon on brothel crawls. By now we’ve come to expect such inversions, and so when Norm Sibum opens Sub Divo with Odysseus on Circe’s island, the wandering hero’s resistance to the witch’s temptation involves a familiar undercutting of the epic. Instead of enjoying a “pretty beastliness” on the enchanted island Odysseus would rather be home doing doggy things:

My pleasures? They are a swallow of my own vintage,
My cheese, the goodly scent of my wife’s armpit.
The sight of my old father, my hunting dog –
Yes, come to think of it, my hunting dog –

For the goodly scent of an armpit I think we might read snuffling his wife’s crotch, but really it comes to the same thing. Circe counts such a life mere “wretchedness,” but Odysseus is off with a wagging tail after a quick sniff and kiss of the witch’s cheek. We won’t find any scent here of Tennyson’s Ulysses launching himself into the great unknown, or Spenser’s disdain for Grille and his hoggish mind. Better to leave the realm of gods and heroes alone and revel in earthy humanity.

That earthy humanity is, as the Latin tag has it, sub divo, under the heavens or the sky. And there’s nothing to be ashamed of about it. “Let me say it again,” Sibum says (again):

either pitch your verse at the highest
Pitch, or, chaste as a child playing at jacks,
get down and dirty . . .

Either stay with Circe (and Tennyson, and Spenser, and Homer) or get down in the muck. And though Sibum has an eye for the female form, it is a chaste dirtiness: one that can be likened to a child playing but which is closer to the memories of a veteran re-living past loves, the women won and the women lost. You can hear Roth’s Zuckerman in some of these monologues, with Sibum as the professor of desire. It’s not as big a stretch as that may seem, as Roth’s art is grounded in voice and the poems in Sub Divo are conversation pieces both in style (recall that “Yes, come to think of it . . .”) and form.

The conversations orbit around passions recollected in tranquility. Recollections of lust are made in chaste detachment, and that detachment is also the dominant tone in the collection’s political musings. Here the nod to Horace takes on further relevance, as Sibum dives into the increasingly popular question “Are We Rome?” The analogy is inevitable, arriving “as if preordained.” The torch of empire has been passed and America is “the thing once again made new.” And yet America the New is looking old and worn, “down in the mouth, / Snake-bit, war-maddened, its parts / But jailbait for the banks, morally, spiritually, intellectually spent,”

Fortress America an open-air crypt
of crumbling infrastructure
and advanced weapons systems.

Sibum is censorious, but gives the impression that he is past anger. Again there is a feeling of tranquility, with the model here being Tacitus in his garden, “taking the shade” while chronicling the empire’s corruption, decline and fall. Or, closer yet, Horace, who in his Epistles and Satires provided the model for the later English “conversation poem.” That same model and the consistency of mood is what here holds the personal and political together, private words addressed in public. This glue is necessary as the conversation, especially when our poet is in his cups, is often chatty and indirect, making Sibum’s muse seem “addled”:

war, love, lust, Caesar,
the shenanigans of the financial sector.
Why, they’re all over the place – these verses,
As if I were some shorebird, long-legged bundle of nerves
and aversions
Who finds the shore unstable, the tide treacherous, too many
gawking tourists about
looking for spirituality in the flaming sunset
and I can’t settle anywhere on the beach.

Sub Divo is a book that’s set on that beach. The flaming sunset – of years, of empire – is a retirement destination for some, a violent spectacle for others (I think of a synthesis, the apocalyptic end of West’s Day of the Locust, as I read the lines). And while one appreciates Sibum’s nervous uneasiness, it’s hard not to picture him sitting at a bar and enjoying the show while offering his commentary on time’s treacherous tides.

Review first published online February 18, 2013.

Hand Luggage

By P. K. Page

When P. K. Page subtitles this book a “memoir in verse” it signals something a little less ambitious than Wordsworth’s Prelude. That noble brick of a work was autobiography, not memoir; poetry not verse. While Page’s “long colloquial memoir” covers more territory – it stretches over 80 years and is set in various Canadian locations and diplomatic posts around the world – she doesn’t build up any set-piece “spots of time” or make oracular pronouncements about the mind of the poet, or the nature of her art. Indeed she consciously shies away from such Voice of the Bard moments, preferring a self-deprecating and speculative stance. She confesses “What interests me most / is beyond me.” She has no intention of making things cohere or forcing the past into a pattern. Instead, the more she digs the more questions she turns up.

As an example, she describes her discovery of Virginia Woolf as a revelation, opening her eyes to gender in writing – feminine “negative space” vs. the masculine chalice. Looking back, she adds as a postscript that today she inclines to the chalice again. And then a question that deflates the whole debate without resolving anything: “Is it hormones or mind?”

Not all of her shrugs are so deftly handled. One philosophical inquiry ends in a complaint that it “opens a question too big for my mind” and ideas she is unable to clearly formulate. This seems a cop-out. If a poet can’t formulate or express something difficult, at least metaphorically or through the use of imagery, then they’re letting us down. This is what we read poetry for – a fact that Page later sees fit to recognize: “how come I can’t, / as a writer, find words? It is surely my job!” Surely it is!

In Page’s defense, memoir/memory might be trumping poetry here. Art is the representation of feeling, not the reconstruction of identity or personal history. And here the author does have a formulation handy:

     One’s memories stored,
stashed away, who knows where, have a system unique
as a thumbprint – one triggered by tastes,
by weathers, by vague indefinable wants
and other ineffables – ‘humours’, I think,
is the word I am wanting for moistness and warmth
and temperament, too – for that watery self,
that ox-bowing river that rushes, dries out,
and is quickened by freshets and freakish flash floods.

The alliteration we get at the end of this passage is something we hear a lot of in Hand Luggage, suggestive of the Old English line. Poetry back in the days before English was English didn’t rhyme but instead used alliteration as its organizing principle. A typical “line” of Old English poetry (and, like all such rules, this is a generalization that allowed for variation) consisted of four stresses, and was split in the middle with a heavy caesura. (I put “line” in quotation marks, by the way, because the line as a separate unit of text was a later development.) What linked the two half-lines was the alliteration, with at least one of the stressed words in the first half-line beginning with the same sound as the first stressed word of the second half-line. To illustrate, here is the young P. K. getting started in western Canada, among

Remittance men, ranchers – friends of my family –
public school failures, penniless outcasts,
bigoted bachelors with British accents.

The budding poet discovers herself to be a “tightrope talker” – someone capable of walking the “vocal chasm” between these strange tongues and the authentic Canadian voices she hears in her classroom.

I was deceptive, full of disguises
a poet in residence, a private person
masked as a malamute – mutable, moody –

Page goes lighter on this Anglo-Saxon line later, primarily, I think, because she isn’t much interested in the line anyway. Her main poetic unit in this book is not the line but the verse paragraph. That may sound like heresy to some poetry purists – and I have to admit I found it occasionally disturbing myself, especially when confronted with some of her weaker line endings – but it fits with the book’s anecdotal, colloquial temperament.

As memoir, Hand Luggage is free of sensational revelations or startling epiphanies. Page writes without bitterness or scores to settle, and the overall tone is bemused and questioning – not just in her attitude toward what cummings called “matters arty,” but in her effort to make sense of what happened, to take stock of lessons learned, re-learned, and all but forgotten.

Like anyone who has seriously tried to engage with their own past, Page has trouble reconciling the person she was with the person she has become, the ideal with the reality. Typically we don’t notice these changes because they occur unconsciously. Taking up her last diplomatic post in Mexico Page is shocked to find how little she resembles the woman of her youth. “I wasn’t the person who’d gone / abroad in the fifties,” she realizes. She is ashamed and horrified to discover that she has become less independent, “accustomed to privilege”:

     How it occurred
I couldn’t imagine. Seduced, is the word –
a gradual seduction – and I had succumbed.

The diplomat’s wife on the receiving line is now “this middle-aged woman whom I wouldn’t like / had we been introduced.” And then the piercing parenthesis: “Know thyself . . . ? Take the lumps. You are not who you think.”

And how does the critical impulse respond to this wise call for reserving judgment? Perhaps Hand Luggage is not the book you might think. It has some good poetry, but also quite a bit of uninspired leg-work. And the footnotes, I think, were a mistake. But like any successful memoir, it is also something unique – in this case an engaging and wryly observed re-examination, in tranquility, of the ox-bow twists taken by a watery, ceaselessly questioning self.

Review first published online May 3, 2006.

From Sarajevo, With Sorrow and Yesterday’s People

By Goran Simic
By Goran Simic

Both of these books – one a collection of poetry, the other of short stories – were inspired by the siege of Sarajevo. Bosnian-born author Goran Simic, who now lives in Toronto, is witness and survivor of the Bosnian war, and his writing is both “epitaph and testimony” to the experience.

It is not reportage. The poems in From Sarajevo, With Sorrow were written in the belief “that when compared with the cold newspaper reports which would be forgotten with the start of a new war elsewhere, only poetry could be a true and decent witness to war.” A true witness would not be cold but hot. Coolness suggests detachment, escape. It’s an attitude of instant forgetfulness that Simic admits to finding seductive. After days full of horror he would

like to write poems which
resemble newspaper reports, so bare and cold
that I could forget them the very moment a
stranger asks: Why do you write poems which
resemble newspaper reports?

But as a poet Simic doesn’t want to forget.

Aside from their disposability (newspapers wrap sandwiches in another poem), what makes the newspaper reports cold isn’t the style they’re written in – Simic’s poetry is frequently as direct and plainspoken as the daily news – but their generic, abstract, and impersonal quality. Plus the fact that they’ve been tidied up. In the poem “Love Story” Simic writes about a pair of lovers shot on a bridge leading out of Sarajevo. Their deaths became a “major media event” as “newspapers from around the world” took angles like “the Bosnian Romeo and Juliet” and “a romantic love which surpassed political boundaries.”

But then the papers got tired of it. The dead lovers became yesterday’s people, forgotten ghosts. After the major media event had run its course their corpses still remained by the bridge as each day “maggots, flies, and crows finished off their swollen bodies.” The stench got so bad soldiers guarding the bridge had to wear gas masks. Simic concludes: “No newspapers wrote about that.”

Simic’s poetry was tidied up as well in the first translation into English of some of these poems, a collection titled Sprinting from the Graveyard published in 1997. In addition to making Simic’s writing more “poetic” (heightening the language and making it less rough and offensive to “Western sensibilities”), this version became the copyright of the translator, turning the original into what Simic describes as a “ghost book.” From Sarajevo, With Sorrow is a re-translation by Simic’s ex-wife of the original work, with the addition of some unpublished pieces also written in Sarajevo during the siege.

It is a ghost book haunted by ghosts. Sarajevo is an unreal city populated by those forgotten by the newspapers, “last year’s story, people who really died last Fall but don’t know it yet.” Where there is no representation, there is no reality: “The TV’s off. There is no war.” This experience of being de-mediaed is given an odd twist by the fact that during the siege a Bosnian daily newspaper twice published Simic’s name among the list of those killed, effectively turning him into a kind of ghost. In the poem “A Short Lecture on Life” he even gets into an argument with his father over whether he is still alive. His father remains unconvinced.

The poetry in From Sarajevo, With Sorrow is at turns anecdotal, hectoring, and coolly visionary. It’s all written in the first person, sometimes in Simic’s own voice and sometimes as dramatic monologue, but there’s nothing introverted about it. Its voice is one of witness rather than confession.

The stories in Yesterday’s People, which are also concerned with the Bosnian war and its aftermath, share a similar interest in the people of Sarajevo. In “Minefield” and “The Game” we are introduced to small casts of characters, identified by nickname but fully imagined as real. Simic puts flesh on the ghosts. The stories are also obsessed with “before” and “after,” locations (Sarajevo and Toronto) that are associated with states of mind. “Before” is the past, the place of ghosts that still dominates the present and that none of the haunted narrators can ever escape, even, as the penultimate story suggests, in death.

It’s the same world as From Sarajevo, With Sorrow, but Simic’s stories are more dramatic, even theatrical constructions than his poems. And so while his handling of the short story form is skilful, the effect is less direct. One has the sense of emotion recollected, of a book less possessed by an immediate horror than controlled by invention.

But this is more a tribute to the unique power of the poetry than anything else. In both books Simic successfully composes epitaph and testimony to a people and a place that the newspapers indeed forgot with the start of a new war elsewhere. His writing is a living bridge negotiating the shadow between now and then, here and there, the experience of war and its expression.

Review first published March 25, 2006.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt

By A. F. Moritz

The title of this new collection of poems by A. F. Moritz is taken from a painting by Bernard van Orley depicting a scene from the Gospel of Matthew. In the title poem this background of art and myth helps to bring into focus many of the book’s complex yet beautifully rendered themes.

“Van Orley has shown things/ as they are” the poem tells us, which isn’t at all a nod to realism. Plato banished poets precisely because they do not show things as they are, but rather imitate a phantom show of surface appearances. In defence of poetry it might be said that this mistakes the real poet’s aim, which is the construction of concrete universals and ideal (if minute) particulars. Things as they are get changed upon a blue guitar, which in turn only reveals to us more of what they really are. In other words, poetry is a sort of sur-realism, showing us not what is real so much as what is more than real.

Moritz’s penchant for the surreal is evidenced most clearly by his imagery. The sharply limned otherworldliness and grotesquerie he describes in such poems as “Manifestation” and “Industry” are like scenes from Dali. But the surreal is also very much a part of the collection’s philosophical foundation. Throughout many of the poems we find a three-fold conception of reality. In the middle is “fact”: a reality of desolate autumn landscapes and post-industrial burnout. This fact is, in turn, fashioned by authority into a corrupt vision of reality that is superimposed on things as they are. The authoritative vision of fact is associated with lies and propaganda, a word we are confronted with in the first poem as a General describes his hollow conquest of a border country. Propaganda is also the form reality takes in the self-help manual written by the clerk in “Artisan and Clerk” and the “muffled memories/ of ancient eloquence” indulged in by Kissinger at Nixon’s funeral.

But fact itself may only be another kind of vision, something superimposed on a more basic reality that Moritz associates with many favourite Surrealist motifs. Since this reality is imagined as metaphorically “lower” than the one of fact it is evoked through images of roots, night, and dream. It is a world of archetypes that the reader falls into, an earthward urge that ends up evoking a morally neutral primitivism.

“Life’s better now”, but things as they are, which includes injustice, tyranny and oppression, tend to stay the same. The archetype this autumnal world is associated with most frequently is the desert, and so landscapes of desolation frequently recur, presided over by generals, lords, strongmen and upper management.

It is unlikely such a landscape will be redeemed. Christianity seems ambiguously located throughout the collection (including a strangely constructed epigraph from the Gospel of Luke), and is shown in a harsh ironic light in “Artisan and Clerk”:

And we were shaken by a further rumour: of a flaw
in the world, in being itself, and even deeper –

a flaw in salvation. It was said that those ghosts,
even beatified, were eating heaven – that despite
infinity, they would soon consume it all,

have nothing left, and start on their own bodies.
Was this, then, what awaited us? Not likely. We
were condemned.

So much for the “fortunate fall.”

The interpretation offered here may be incorrect but it is at least an attempt at dealing with what are complex poems. Moritz is clearly writing in an intellectual tradition of poetry. (I would say “academic,” but that is too pejorative a term to use.) My own reservations about this direction in poetry I have noted elsewhere, along with my preference for poetry that is more “simple, sensuous and passionate.” This said, it is a relief to find in Moritz a poet capable of maintaining a balance.

He does so mainly through two stylistic decisions. The first is his frequent use of the dramatic monologue form, a useful tool for avoiding the oppressive self-consciousness and therapeutic confession that weighs down so much contemporary verse. The second escape route is his colloquial manner. In terms of their rhythms the poems imitate conversation rather than song. The tone is often understated, and some of the ironies muted as a result but, while quiet, the poetry is not resigned.

As a collection of poems Rest on the Flight into Egypt has highs and lows. Among the former, however, there are some truly excellent poems, including “Manifestation,” “Artisan and Clerk,” “The Little Walls Before China,” “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” and “The Lines.” Each of these deserves re-reading, containing much of that hard-to-crack simplicity which is both the essence of poetry and things as they are.

Review first published online November 15, 2000.

The Beauty of the Husband

By Anne Carson

When Boswell asked Johnson to define poetry he received the uncharacteristically unhelpful response that “it is much easier to say what it is not.” Over two hundred years later we still can’t do any better. In the twentieth century free verse rendered rhyme and conventional notions of meter obsolete. The vogue for “prose poems” blurred the line that used to divide prose from verse. One of the simplest definitions of poetry ever offered – writing that doesn’t make it all the way to the right-hand side of the page – was no longer of any use.

It is not surprising then that Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband does not announce itself as poetry at all, but rather “a fictional essay in 29 tangos.” The fiction part is a woman’s story of her husband’s lies and adulteries. The essay is a development of Keats’s ideas that beauty is truth. A tango is described on the dustjacket as something, like a marriage, “you have to dance to the end.”

The reader immediately has the sense of being asked to solve a riddle.

The example of Keats is a big clue. Each of the tangos is introduced by a quotation from Keats, though most of them are from obscure sources and a few remain impenetrable (for example: “She] {Ha?} She D”). It seems, however, as though the pronouncement of Keats’s Grecian urn, “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” is being treated ironically. For the woman in Carson’s fiction, the beauty of the husband is a lie.

His words are entirely false. His letters are picked apart. His speech is strained through a sieve. And it is found that he has lied “about everything.”

But his skill at artifice also has the poet’s “look of truth” – ironic, layered, elusive. And so the book is obsessed with analysis. Everything we read – passages from Aristotle, the husband’s love letters, lines out of Homer – is material for exegesis. Words are constantly being worried for their meaning. At one point even Fowler’s English Usage gets consulted.

In other words, The Beauty of the Husband really is an essay, but only in the limited sense of an academic exercise. How to read the husband is an analogy for how to read a poem. It is an essay about an essay, and a fiction of self-absorption. The husband folds the poem in upon himself after his wife realizes that she contains the beauty she saw in him.

This excessive inwardness is a hallmark of academic poetry, which is a label The Beauty of the Husband does nothing to avoid. It is difficult, sometimes to the point of being alienating, detached from any of the feeling that might have brought its case study to life, and self-consciously intellectual. As with every scholarly effort, there are endnotes explaining the learned allusions. Poetry is energy and joy. The Beauty of the Husband is just the form.

It is also, for a writer of Carson’s reputation, surprisingly uncertain in tone. A theory of poetry that holds that poetic truth is concealed beneath “strata of irony,” that it is a “two-faced proposition,/ allowing its operator to say one thing and mean another,” becomes annoying in practice. Poets have always written about poetry, but seldom with less confidence.

Poetry is not as popular as it once was, which has had the result of making it introspective and unsure of itself. It is a problem that goes deeper than the increasingly fluid definitions of what poetry is. Calling this book a fictional essay written in tangos may be a significant evasion. When the wife asks herself whether her husband was a poet she can only answer “Yes and no.”

And Anne Carson?

Review first published March 3, 2001.


By John Updike

Not all poetry is difficult. One of the biggest trends in contemporary poetry, for example, has been the rise of anecdotal poetry that speaks in plain language about everyday occurrences. It usually presents a slice of life rounded off with a metaphor (this is poetry, after all) that comes in at the end like a punch line. We might call it observational poetry, composed in the spirit of a Seinfeld monologue, but usually not as funny.

The first poem in John Updike’s new collection, Americana, is sub-titled “Poem Begun on Thursday, October 14, 1993, at O’Hare Airport, Terminal 3, around Six O’Clock P.M.” Yes, this is the world of the quotidian. All of the poems in the first section of the book are connected in some way with air travel, but the poetry only gets off the ground in a scattering of images, like the sky above New York City resembling “the unfilled spaces of a crossword puzzle.” In addition, there are some surprisingly angry and misanthropic riffs on topics such as overhead racks (“Like slats of a chicken coop/ overrunning with dung”) and foreign passengers who look like they might be terrorists. You don’t have to listen hard to hear Seinfeld’s voice in the background: “What is it with overhead racks? Don’t you just hate them? And who are these foreigners anyway? Where are they from?”

To be fair, John Updike has been doing this kind of thing for a lot longer than Jerry Seinfeld. His novels have always had an eye for the mundane details of modern life and a sense that these little things really mean a lot. But in his poetry the narrowness of this focus becomes magnified to an unnerving and unpleasant degree. We see Updike scratching a skin cancer on his hand in “One Tough Keratosis” and getting nicked on the finger by the page of a book in “A Wound Posthumously Inflicted.” We may well wonder if a poet so engrossed by picking a scab and getting a paper cut isn’t wasting our time.

One might also get the impression that Updike is more comfortable writing in prose. While he makes extensive use of the notoriously difficult sonnet form throughout this collection, his casual voice has little music in it.

Take the following example: “How many of us still remember when Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror hung at the turning of the stairs in the pre-expansion Museum of Modern Art?” Few people if they were asked this question would think they were hearing poetry, but in fact this is the beginning of the poem “Before the Mirror.” It appears on the page as:

How many of us still remember
when Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror hung
at the turning of the stairs in the pre-
expansion Museum of Modern Art?

Finally, something has to be said about the promotional blurb on the dustjacket, which tells us that Americana contains “sixty-two poems, three of them of considerable length.” According to my calculations, the three longest poems in the collection are six, five and three pages. In other words, for a poem to be of “considerable length” it now only has to be three pages long.

With its narrowing focus on personal trivialities and strict obedience to Poe’s dictum that a long poem is a contradiction in terms, one has the sense that poetry isn’t dying so much as it is shrinking away to nothing. Is the dried scab of Updike’s keratosis, once it has finally fallen from his hand, meant to be a symbol of the fate of poetry? We may wonder:

     Fighting down
an urge to slip it in my jacket pocket
to save among my other souvenirs,
or else to pop it in my mouth and give
those cells another chance, I dropped it to
the dirty taxi floor, to join Manhattan’s
unfathomable trafficking of dust.

Neither a relic nor a souvenir, certainly no longer part of an oral tradition, poetry has simply become an unnecessary part of ourselves.

Review first published June 2, 2001.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

What did it win?

Samuel Johnson Prize 2008

What’s it all about?

A London detective is called in to investigate a murder at an English country house. He suspects the killer, but she proves to be too many for him. Years later she confesses.

Was it really any good?

It’s kind of hard to go wrong with material this good. Mystery and narrative go hand-in-hand, and the appearance of such an archetypal plot in the wild, “the original country-house murder mystery,” makes for an irresistible read. William Roughead recognized the Road Hill House murder as a classic crime eighty years ago, and his lushly ironic opening is hard to forget:

In the palmy days of the sixties, the memory of which is preserved for us in the evergreen pages of Punch; when skirts were wide, minds were narrow, and whiskers did prodigiously abound; when ladies veiled their graces in chignons and crinolines, and gentlemen, inexpressibly peg-topped, fortified their manly bosoms with barricades of beard; when the cultured delighted in wooden woodcuts of gilt-edged table books, and the vulgar worshipped albums of painfully realistic family photographs; when the outside of cup and platter received much attention, and due regard was had to the whitening of sepulchres, and whatever was “respectable” was right; enfin, about that sincere and engaging period, there resided – to employ the appropriate contemporary term – at Road Hill House, near Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, one Mr. Samuel Kent, gentleman.

Oh for the palmy days of style – when even non-fiction sounded like this! Today we just want the facts. Economy, economy! Here is how Kate Summerscale begins the story:

In the early hours of Friday, 29 June 1860 Samuel and Mary Kent were asleep on the first floor of their detached three-storey Georgian house above the village of Road, five miles from Trowbridge. They lay in a four-poster bed carved from Spanish mahogany in a bedroom decked out with crimson damask. He was fifty-nine; she was forty, and eight months pregnant. Their eldest daughter, the five-year-old Mary Amelia, shared their room. Through the door to the nursery, a few feet away, were Elizabeth Gough, twenty-two, the nursemaid, in a painted French bed, and her two youngest charges, Saville (three) and Eveline (one), in cane cots.

Oh well. Such is crime writing in the Information Age.

What made the murder into such an excellent mystery was the genius of its author, then sixteen-year-old Constance Kent. In the real world, most criminals are stupid. And they commit stupid crimes. Constance was the exception. Not only did she manage to pull off a daring and complicated murder (of “Saville (three)”), she quite ingeniously manipulated evidence after the fact (destroying a bloody nightdress, then recovering a clean one from the laundry to later claim it had gone missing), and successfully stonewalled the police throughout their investigation. Mr. Whicher may have had his suspicions, but they didn’t hold up in court.

Like everyone else, he appears to have underestimated the girl. After the fact he was prepared to concede “Miss Constance possesses an extraordinary mind.” Extraordinary for its control and discipline, as well as its concealment behind what was, as pictures and contemporary testimony both indicate, a remarkably dull exterior. Here she is appearing at her second trial:

Her face, judged the Daily Telegraph reporter, was ‘broad, full, uninteresting’, with an ‘expression of stupid dulness’. . . . The News of the World described her as ‘dull and heavy, her forehead low, her eyes small and her figure tending to plumpness, and there being an entire absence of anything like vivacity in her air or countenance’.

Those black eyes deeply recessed into a plain, meaty face never gave anything away, and they didn’t miss anything either.

When no more than three years old I began to observe that my mother held quite a secondary place both as a wife and as a mistress of the house. She [Constance’s governess and future step-mother] it was who really ruled. Many conversations on the subject, which I was considered too young to understand, I heard and remembered in after years. . . .

Sadly, we don’t know very much about Constance’s long life after her sensational trial. What it amounted to was prison, followed by residence in Australia with her brother. Even this much was a mystery until her pseudonymous identity was revealed in the 1970s (Roughead says merely that “history knows nothing further of her fate” after her release from prison). From the beginning she seems to have “had a gift for invisibility.” This doesn’t leave Summerscale much to talk about in the final section of the book, which is rather disappointing. The career of William Saville-Kent, marine biologist, seems irrelevant to everything that has gone before, despite Summerscale’s best efforts to rope it in through strained analogies between biology and detective work (“William Kent had a furious curiosity about little things, a conviction that they held the big secrets”). And why the publisher felt the need to include colour plates of William’s illustrations of coral life is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.

While I can understand The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher being the most popular book on a non-fiction shortlist, I suspect most of that has to do with the subject matter, the given. I think I would have been more impressed by an author taking a less handy topic and making something of it. While Summerscale does wrap the story in an interesting social and cultural history of detectives and detective fiction, there isn’t a whole lot here that’s new. The most eye-opening moments for me came when using the “note on money” to translate the wages into today’s dollars. Apparently sub-inspectors of factories and marine biologists were very well paid in Victorian England. Oh for the palmy days of such government largesse!