[Part one of this essay was printed in ASH Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 1995]
Having attempted (at the end of part one) to provoke the reader, I’ll now return to my principal subject: poems. We’ve three more writers to consider—Matt Santateresa, Ibi Kaslik and Jason Heroux—each of which exhibits a style differing significantly from that of the others. I’ve decided, for convenience’s sake, that our first poet writes “meditative” lines, our second “anthemic,” and our third “intuitive.”
Matt Santateresa writes curious poems; I should begin by pointing out I’m often unsure what he’s getting at. There’s a line from his poem “Aluminum” (Perhaps? no. 2) that sums up his work quite well, at least how I see it: “caught in time, a study in images/the widening angles imagination holds.” Poems that reach back across centuries, that employ unusual groupings of images, that are ambitious enough to attempt grand temporal and spatial syncretism (see “Evensong Ruminations” to see what I mean)—this is what I encounter. I’ve approached the works by noticing first themes and images (always a safe approach). I nominate his work “meditative” because of the tone, its subjective, impressionistic nature. Here the titles are a clue: “In the Empire of Moonlight” and “Evensong Ruminations (A prose/poem),” for example, both from Arachne number one. These are poems of dream and impression, informed though they are by historical themes (the Holocaust, war in Rwanda, an Indiana vision of the Virgin Mary, Dante’s Inferno, etc., etc., etc….). The poems I’m (very briefly) discussing, “For This Country” (The Fiddlehead No. 177) and “Ferryer” (Perhaps? no. 2) fit less nicely into this description, but the description is nonetheless useful, and so I’ve kept it.
“The Ferryer” is based loosely on the Greek myth of Charon, who you’ll recall was responsible for the transportation of the souls of the dead over the river Styx. Here, Santateresa takes a religious theme (the afterlife) as a point of departure:
Detritus floats; feathers from
worn birds, aerofolied seeds wind-drawn.
Light dazzles, a reticulum on wavelets
connects as if hung out to dry. Motor
is thick-boned, a chug that shoulders
the deadest water aside under a broad
hull. Our engines have stopped, inarticulate
they take us nowhere….
[“The Ferryer” 1-8]
There is a number of things to notice here. First, I mention Santateresa’s diction, which I find quite good and almost never inappropriate (the use of terms, for instance, “reticulum” and “obsidian hair”—see “In the Empire of Moonlight,” line 11). Second, I draw the reader’s attention to the conflation of human beings and machines, in the line “Motor/is thick-boned.” This is a good indication of the thoroughly materialist bent of the poem, associating as it does the mechanical and the human. But even more interesting is the line “our engines have stopped, inarticulate/they take us nowhere”(7-8), drawing together language and power, just as does pretty much every other Santateresa poem. What becomes apparent after reading a number of Santateresa’s poems is that they constitute an ongoing meditation not only upon death but also on the role of language in the shaping, course and destiny of our lives—hence the significance in this case of the Charon myth, myth being the place for these themes explicitly to appear. These, then, are recurrent themes: death, religion, language, power, the effects of time, the incongruence of the ideal (as represented in religious systems) and the “real.”
“For This Country” is populated by reticent personae. It is a narrative of a girl who has undergone devastating sexual abuse. She withdraws somewhat from the world, her powerlessness revealed in an inability to use language to transform the realities of her life:
Deny, think elsewhere but here
memory stores the grunts of laughter, faster
repeat a prayer. Our Father who
tongue touches the eyelids
empty interior of mouth
each syllable unbelievable.
Some of Santateresa’s more ambitious poems consider the violence of people against one another, violence across both space (i.e. throughout our world) and time (i.e. throughout history). The result could be described a vast panorama of waste and futility, hopelessly unmitigated by religion or by literature (though “Evensong Ruminations,” having rehearsed some of history’s darkest moments, does end “Agnes dei./Amen.”). The reader will have to decide. With this I leave Santateresa so that I might proceed into territory in which I feel more confident.
Ibolya (Ibi) Kaslik’s poems have been featured in Perhaps? no. 2 and Arachne no. 1 (both are Montreal publications). She produced a chapbook in 1994, and the introductory inscription is a pretty good indication of what to expect of her work. It reads: “I was born to hustle roses/down the avenues of the dead” —Charles Bukowski. Had I known nothing else I’d have concluded that Kaslik’s would be a Bohemian, flamboyantly wanton and even vulgar (vulgaris) poetry. No surprise there. And anthemic—what else would you term this, from the first (and untitled) poem of her collection Catch Me Darling…?
and we made it somehow
here we all are
thru long summer afternoons of masturbating in our brother’s bed
thru “Happy Days”
thru anorexic years
thru that first French Kiss apocalypse
and somehow healed and unhealed
and somehow never thought we could be so tall
such grown up words
such grown up clothes
we toast god or someone for letting us live
for letting those broken bones & hearts mend
only so we can break them again.
Whereas Santateresa’s poems are at times obscure, Kaslik’s are joyfully in-your-face; she (one might say, like Bukowski) wants you to GET IT. Self-consciously “generational” and sloganeering, favouring the vernacular, and adopting an unapologetically brash persona, Kaslik, often in keeping with the counter-cultural Beat posture (note: is a counter-culture still a possibility?) eschews the poetical. Not for her, the iambic pentameter. Her lines are intuitively broken and tend to be short and minimalistic, that is, rarely qualified or punctuated:
what is your body
made from anyway?
nipples & hair &
dark but really
marrow and the possibility
of alabaster fabric
fine moles kissed
with down your clothes
I want to scrape them
with my teeth the way
you fill them
makes me lonely
your neck a bridge
I have travelled
to get there
[“Anatomy II) flesh”]
The poem is mostly prose, but I’m fond of the line “your neck a bridge/I have travelled to get there” (I’m not certain where “there” is. That’s another matter). I like also the phrase “your clothes/are liars”; I suspect that there’s an essential point in this, a disclosure of a need for intimacy and a distrust of appearances, of the clothed (i.e. made up) self we present to the world. The touching thing about Kaslik’s poetry, and what is able to save it from being mere narcissism, is the unindulged vulnerability it at times displays. Kaslik is a young poet, the youngest of the six poets with which this essay is concerned—young enough that self-indulgence is to be forgiven, even expected. And the same is to be said about the overwhelming Bukowski influence, influence being perfectly understandable (also healthy) in an emerging poet.
If Charles Bukowski is the ideal version of Kaslik, Jason Heroux’s ideal version can be found in Pablo Neruda (I realise these comparisons are silly, but I need a shorthand). Only Heroux’s earliest work however lends itself to this notion, for he’s already departed somewhat from the techniques found in the poems he published in 1993-4. At that time, Heroux employed something not unlike the Chilean Neruda’s “deep image,” a concept which produced astonishing poems, for instance, “Melancholy in Families.” (If you haven’t read any Neruda, do so). Here is one of Heroux’s first published works, “Hunger” (The Fiddlehead no. 178):
They have grown around the heart,
knuckling like a rib cage,
imagining the pick-up truck
stacked with corn.
We hear bats clapping
through damp air, voices
broken by a hair
in the throat.
The sky is wafer-thin,
the smooth chest of a child, nude
and holding breath.
The bell rings.
In the sink
our hands jump, whip
like salmon sheathed in stream.
The poem works, I think, for many reasons. First, there’s the tactile quality of the language: the repetition of affricates and alveolar nasals in the first two verse paragraphs (knuckling like a rib cage/reaching) and the consonance throughout. Second, there’s the minimalistic use of images with little or no narrative, which achieves (in my opinion, at least) an uncanny evocation of mood. The diction, principally through its employment of palatal and labial phonemes, achieves a compelling richness and warmth, and forces the reader to go slowly. As a result, the mood is sombre and suspenseful. In every line, the texture of the language complements both the tone and the meaning—and the language is simple throughout, as is the technique, relying as it does upon simile and image to convey an overall impression.
In later poems, Heroux relies too much on simile. The techniques that work so well in “Hunger” feel formulaic in later work, the prose poem “Nine Novels About Vicki,” for instance (published in ASH vol. 2 no. 1). One senses the approach of the simile, much to the work’s detriment. Of mixed success also are the poems published in Perhaps? no. 2, “Lemons,” “Aviary,” and “Orang-outang” (sic). Despite some fine lines, “Lemons” doesn’t quite add up as a poem (that is, as a co-ordinated verbal performance) the way “Hunger” certainly does. The similes are too contrived and plain, the language mostly unremarkable (except for its excesses):
They are no longer
the exotic fruit they once were;
lemons look like slightly bent elbows,
You bought a dozen
and let them sit on the table,
swelling, like tumours
between our conversations.
“Aviary” is more of the same, only this time the literary precedent seems (superficially) to be Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:
a blackbird, ravelled
upon the pillow like smoke
frayed from a harlequin flame
a seagull is a staircase
with a broken first step,
it is one hand
rummaging through a dark drawer
pigeons are like handkerchiefs
that old men cough into,
evicted from trees
scattered in bridges and attics
they pick at the anatomy
“Orang-outang” however marks a departure for Heroux; it is one of his better poems, and it has a promising narrative element (whereas, as I’ve shown, Heroux previously discarded narrative). It reminds me a bit of Earle Birney’s “Bear on a Delhi Road,” if only because of its treatment of the relation of human beings to the rest of the animal world. The poem implies that cruelty inevitably dehumanises its perpetrator, and it nicely exposes human pretension through the use of irony. As for technique, notice the decreased reliance on simile and the use of plosives in the sixth verse paragraph:
Caught in a brothel
in Borneo, amidst squeals of humiliation;
he was shuffled into the salted tobacco sleeves
of every shirt the sailor owned,
corridors which both approached and abandoned
His owner locked him in the black
behind mirrors, behind the eyelids of closets.
He could always hear the barbed nurseries
of speaking mouths somewhere beside him.
He longed to be human and spent days
pacing a plank of wood, back and forth,
until splinters cropped in his heels.
The habits of his master fit a keyhole:
a shave, combing his hair, gestures of vanity.
Sometimes the wagoner’s whip snapped
like a tongue sheathed in gossip or desire,
and he was forced to mock himself with lather
and cologne, a barber’s razor in his hand.
The sailor had wanted to sell the animal
to a zoo, but then began to imitate him.
They started shaving each other with patient loathing.
On the streets of Paris they waltzed up
lightning rods and spoke a dozen foreign languages.
Some of the line breaks are questionable, but that’s nearly always the case with intuitive line division, subjective as it is. This poem shows that Heroux is flexible, that he’s willing to try differing approaches to writing. It shows also that Heroux’s language is economical, that he is able to capture an idea in precise language (“The habits of his master fit a keyhole”). In my estimation, Jason Heroux has already written one very good poem (“Hunger”) and one good (“Orang-outang”); even if he’s written a number of ordinary ones, this is still a notable accomplishment—especially for someone who is not yet 25 years of age.