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
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.