Michael Ondaatje’s extrardinary play of warlight & shadow

Michael Ondaatje. Warlight. (McClelland & Stewart 2018).

Set in early post-WW2 London to begin with, told from the point-of-view of a young man in his late 20s writing in 1959, Warlight takes up the tropes of mystery, spy thriller, & youthful family abandonment, & as one would expect of Ondaatje, tramples them underfoot while offering mysteries galore, extraordinary invention, a beautiful opaqueness, the usual Ondaatjean deviousness of narration, & a slyly oblique series of imbedded stories slowly unfolded by a narrator who knows just how unreliable his memory & the fragments of historical archives force him to be. It is, as one would expect, a terrific & emotionally engaging read.

In 1946, the parents of 14 year old Nathaniel (‘Stitch’) & his 16 year old sister, Rachel (‘Wren’) tell them that their father’s job will take the two of them to Singapore for a year, & so their upstairs lodger, whom the kids called ‘The Moth,’ would be their guardian for the year they were away, while the kids attended their different schools & were home for the holidays. All those years later, Nathaniel is trying to recall their life during that time, to see if he can reconstruct what happened to him (he’s estranged from his sister, & can’t now understand her interior life then) & what it all did to make him the person he is now. Yet, he drops some earlier memories remembered, that hint at other stories, those of his mother & of some of the other people whom The Moth knew & invited into their home.

Some of these other people become Stitch’s wayward mentors over the next few years as his parents, especially his mother (his father quickly disappears from his narrative, & in a quietly traumatic way from his memory) fail to return, & he & Rachel learn quite early that she never joined their father in Singapore. So in the kinds of unrelated/deeply related narrative fragments that slowly accumulate into the larger narrative that is the Ondaatje novel, Nathaniel writes of his younger life, the love affair with a waitress in one of the places he works, his adventures with The Darter, who uses a borrowed mussel boat to ferry illegal greyhounds across London, & of his sister’s epileptic fits (not large but needing to be dealt with properly), & some of The Darter’s lovers who influenced him.

Then, he starts writing as his older self, now working for the Intelligence service as a reviewer of archived information, much of which is to be destroyed. And his mother, whom we will learn later, left the Service to protect her children & returned to her ancestral home in Sussex, where he lives with her when not at university, but Rachel never visits. Nathaniel now begins is obsessive research into her double life, & finds enough scattered hints to start imagining her life, & that of her mentor (a man mentioned as a boy in passing in the first few pages of Warlight). Slowly both narrator & author begin filling in the spy thriller/mystery story a more conventional writer would have made the central & driving plot of the book. But, of course, Ondaatje is after subtler, more difficult game here: the psychologies of both narrator & narrated, how Nathaniel’s telling tells about him, the kind of isolato he has become, the kind his mother perforce had to be to do her intelligence work both during the war & perhaps more importantly in the tiny wars among various participants, especially in Italy & the Balkans, afterwards.

The accumulation of details, whether ‘real’ or simply imagined by Nathaniel, the ways in which some of what seemed unimportant ones in the early tales of Nathaniel & Rachel’s teenage lives come into the dark foreground later, the ways Nathaniel’s tracking of soon-to-be-destroyed Intelligence documents as well as rumours & occasional memories passed on, slowly add up, creating their own devious & oblique suspense, leading the reader ever deeper into the maze that is this skein of interrelated fragments of mystery. The title is offhandedly explained late in the novel, & suggests the hidden light & strong shadows in which everything takes place in these interleaved stories. There is a richness, a depth of arcane & ordinary information, to Warlight that lends it immense fictional weight (& I haven’t even mentioned how craftily & sneakily the adjectives & adverbs do their devious work throughout). Indeed, although I’ve barely begun to touch on all that Warlight accomplishes in its complex narrative bricolage, what I can say is that it’s a wonderful addition to the Ondaatje oeuvre, an experience to enjoy slowly & fully.

Advertisements
Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

Jennifer Still plays the silences

Jennifer Still. Comma. (BookThug 2017).

As a sign of just how large & crowded the poetry scene, just in Canada, is, although she has published 2 previous books & been nominated for many awards, Comma is my first encounter with Jennifer Still’s writing, & right up front I must tell you it’s a brilliant & complexly moving book, a kind of serial-of serials volume constructed out of several hand-made chapbooks (at least one of which appeared in an edition of one).

Comma as inscribed on its cover displays a major aspect of Still’s writing practice here, that of what she calls in the long assembly of prose fragments that anchors the book at its centre, ‘Paper Acts’: ‘Erasure as regeneration. Silent stammer.’ The full word indicates a pause, the shorter one inside it, ’my long pause’ of her brother’s illness, his breath held by machines, full of trauma to be dealt with, & lasting years. How she dealt with this erasure/loss, it seems, was to write & then cut, to inscribe through blank space on the page the empty space in her life of his silent apartness. She tells us: ‘My brother’s illness was a constant process of breakdown and regeneration. Under his long sleep, the physiology that took place inside his body was almost unthinkable. A re-building of the skin. The nail. The eyelid. The voice.’ Among the many other things it does, Comma enacts that breakdown & rebuilding in words.

There are 7 sections to Comma, each one (but the explanatory ‘Paper Acts’) a powerful & dynamic example of intense construction-as-deconstruction, the power of ever fewer words ranged across the open field of the page. Among the many texts Still quotes, paraphrases, & alludes to, Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space plays an important role, but I would perhaps call what she does in Comma a rhythmics of spacing, how words & phrases carefully laid out far apart on the page can be made to sing their silence. As Miles Davis said, ‘Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,’ & Still makes wonderful use of the not there, the silent spaces, in Comma.

Comma begins with a single poem, ‘Chrysalis,’ in which Still alludes to her brother’s coma while preparing readers for the ways in which the following sections will work – on them. ‘Somewhere / just below the breath, silence / reorders’; ‘I sit quietly at my desk. Scraps / of sounds work into something’; ‘You are turning back /into yourself.’ In the book these two actions are united in both the words finally found & the wide open spaces between so many of them.

Still does collage, bricolage, she makes beautiful constructs, ‘the honest and raw and intimate . . . handmade that I want my writing to embody.’ And that final word is important, these poems seek to be embodiment, something we touch, we feel, not just read.

Of course, because they are so openly spaced, or reproductions of handmade pages (& BookThug has done a terrific job of that), with drawings, pen & pencil & typed words & phrases, much of Comma resists any easy quotation (& indeed, some of the reproduced pages are deliberately difficult to read, though lovely to look at, & that is part of their deliberate resistance to ordinary comprehension: they refuse easy commentary as they offer us a kind of ghost writing/drawing, a stark beauty to be felt as much as read.

‘Blue’ offers a series of fragmented takes on that colour: ‘the last hue to print / when the toner runs dry’; ‘BLUES are small and usually / secret’ leading to ‘MY BLUE / the smallest of all / its / well- / camouflaged / tongue.’ The spacings play the silence beautifully. ‘Scroll’ begins in dreams, & dream dis-logic dislodges images, phrases throughout. The poems are first quite aggressive, then something as quietly lovely as ‘Rush-Wick’ emerges: ‘From stair to star the i is drifting.’ ‘Swarm’ is inscribed on the pages of Still’s ‘mother’s Le Voyageur exercise scribbler,’ words & drawings/ illustrations scattered across the yellow pages, hard to read, lovely to look at. ‘Papery Acts,’ with its many quotations mixed with Still’s own thoughts on her writing practice, delivered as a lecture, explores her poetics & provides a better introduction to Comma than any commentary could. ‘Thorn’ is perhaps the strongest example of erasure in the book, reproduced pages of collaged cutouts leading to fuller poems of ‘Hedge,’ where ‘The line grows into itself. / Trying for the widest possible // privacy’; different readers will have different associations, for me Ronald Johnson’s RADI OS & the work of Susan Howe comes immediately to mind. ‘Greif Silhouettes’ mourns across its pages the continuing destruction of birds & trees, of the very fields of flowers & grasses her brother studied reflected in the fields of its pages. And finally ‘Comma’ reads through & under her ‘brother’s handwritten field guide of prairie grasses,’ finding in his words a way to say her specific keeping watch while he slowly healed in that long pause.

Comma, this beautiful piece of book making, is simply a deeply moving, rhythmically sparse & intense, example of how the traditional lyric can be transcended while never losing lyric’s subtle song. A book to read & reread, a major work.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

Stephen Cain raises his ante & his anti- in False Friends

Stephen Cain. False Friends. (BookThug 2017).

In his first full length collection in over a decade, & playing off the multilingual opposition contained in his title, Stephen Cain offers hifalutin (& low) games, lots of play on & with various ‘friends’ in literature & art, & a decisive retort to the personal lyric. As he says in the first sequence, ‘Stanzas,’ which is, he acknowledges, a kind of ‘allusive referential reduction on “Rooms” by Gertrude Stein’ (one of the avatars of this book), ‘Starve the saccharine smiths,’ possibly with ‘Minimal music, rapid repetition.’ One of the things that happens in this piece, as it stretches out, there are many such phrasings that more or less make sense, but they’re part of of a whole that keeps stopping doing so: ‘Nano nexus next strike, some storm, contain the converse more measured’ or ‘Missing kitten altered ivory smoking area.’ The whole holds one’s attention because each sentence or fragment thereof catches the (inner) eye, but the accretion resists interpretation in any ordinary sense.

This is generally true throughout False Friends, although some pieces are more accessible than others – to the reader who knows more or less what Cain knows. That isn’t necessary to enjoy the various pieces, but it definitely helps. For example, as someone who taught Canadian Literature as he does now, I can really enjoy ‘Mod Cons,’ in which he ‘revisits poems by A. M. Klein, Irving Layton, F. R. Scott, Earle Birney, & W. W. E. Ross.’ That they are all men is deliberate, I believe, & these rewrites offer sly critiques of that situation & their easy acceptance of poetic privilege in their day. They’re all sharp, although I like the visual synopsis, so to speak, of Birney’s ‘Vancouver Lights’ the best.

‘Idiosyntactic ‘ has more games with language & artistic inheritance. Here Cain takes on clichés of all kinds, but especially those of ‘the writing life.’ Especially in ‘Sportstalk,’ with its long list of things writers say & think: a hoot. But once again, a reader’s knowledge helps. Putting Gertrude Stein & Oscar Wilde together on fictional lecture tours in ‘Geniuses Together’ works for anyone, but adds a certain piquance for those who have read these writers & the book from which the title is taken. Knowing who Adorno was & his comments on jazz & the US lack of culture will make the addled review article on the (not music but the article reads like something from a pop music mag) group, ‘Adorno Hates Jazz,’ & their generally bad (according to the reviewer) releases. Because I am a big Gibson & cyberpunk fan I get those allusions in ‘Cyberpunk,’ but because I never paid much attention to it, I miss many of those to punk music. That is how most of these poems work.

On the other hand, everyone will get & laugh with the visual ‘signs’ in “Wordwards.’ But you really need to know your bpnichol to get much of ‘Etc Phrases,’ which he calls ‘an ekphrasic translation of bpNichol’s “Allegories”.’ They’re brilliant, & can certainly be read & enjoyed as sharp examples of the anti-lyric, singing & stinging, & not ever rendering the emotions of an ‘I’. Any one would do to show how they work, each line apart & a part, as in ‘Etc Phrase’ #21’ (where we are meant, I think, to hear ‘phase’ as well): ‘Return to the slippery trope. / Basic Buddhism. / Half-baked Hinduism.. / All the syncretism you can stand.’ Here again, as throughout, we see Cain’s almost alchemical addiction to alliteration in False Friends.

Indeed, it’s one of Cain’s major forms of sounding in this collection, &, as the penultimate sequence, ‘Zoom,’ a weird ‘translation’ (the term almost meaningless when dealing with sound poetry) of sound poems by Hugo Ball & others, alliteration & repetition form an important aspect of allowing sound to make a hash of sense. What’s interesting about ‘Zoom’ is that Cain has ‘translated’ these sound pieces by writers of other mother tongues into mostly English words, but run these together in a way that forces any reader to default to something close to mere sound anyway. Cain closes False Friends with the comic flourish of ‘Proverbs for the Jilted Generation,’ all of which slide away from any helpful advice. All in all, False Friends offers intellectually stimulating & formally complex delights to any reader willing to take a chance on such chanciness.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

Firebreaks: John Kinsella’s eocpoetic homecoming.

John Kinsella. Firebreaks. (Norton 2016).

The Australian writer, John Kinsella, has earned an international reputation as a poet both progressive & traditional, exploring innovative or more conventional forms, depending on what each book ends up being, ‘about’. Firebreaks, his latest, is big, 284 pages, & expansive, charged with personal as well as public ambition. I guess it could be called a kind of ecopoetic diary/memoir-in-verse(s), as it registers his (& his family’s) life in England, then back ‘home’ in the land he owns (inherited?) in Western Australia, Jam Tree Gully, land which they are striving to protect & preserve, against the encroachments of modern Oz & the up-to-date farmers in the surrounding area, who love their machines, their Monsanto, their shooting of roos. The poems emerge as a complex argument with both others & the self, also as containing, if only by implication, a kind of manifesto for the organic way of life.

Kinsella is a highly eclectic writer, & in Firebreaks, he opts to explore & rehabilitate through generic play a variety of traditional modes: he takes up the narrative lyric, the lyric dialogue, the poetic essay, the ode, & many others, & weaves them into a sort of domestic epic, a compilation of complicated perceptions & arguments, including a ‘(frequently oppositional) dialogue I’ve had with Ovid’s late works of exile, Tristia and Ex Ponto, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and The Psychoanalysis of Fire.’ And that comment certainly sets a kind of rhetorical standard for the book.

The various sections register the real ‘exile’ of living in England for a time, away from Jam Tree Gully & thus unable to protect it in person; but when he returns, he still feels he’s in ‘internal exile,’ & rages against both his own people who refuse to see how the planet (more than the world) is changing, or being changed by their efforts, for the worse. His ‘envoy’ to ‘Internal Exile,’ the first half of the book, ‘(out of Ex Ponto IV, XVI, line 47-52)’, demonstrates the kind of directness he achieves at various places in Firebreaks, though more often it’s a descriptive directness, while here it’s a polemical one: ‘Unbearable blue / crouching over / incendiary breeze / to inflict wounds / where there’s no room / for further wounds; / but none compares / to loss of land / or land degraded / so even the dead / are troubled; / the malice / of profiteers / loving conversion / of land into commodities / in this golden age / of the consumer. / Iron rods in puppets. / My alienated ‘belonging’. / The small choices I have. / The Gall. The pall / of this western subject. / Forgive me, you / who have lost / so much more. / I sign over these words. / Ash on the page.’ But this short lined poem only arrives at the end of 147 pages of carefully wrought exercises in seeing & feeling one person’s embodied relations to the land & the people, surrounding where he lives but, living in their different ways on it. There are poems of lament, of simple delight in natural beauty, of anger at those who not only dismiss that beauty but take great pleasure in destroying it for what they see as simple ordinary & necessary progress.

The 2nd half of Firebreaks, ‘Inside Out,’ takes a more personal look at living in this small place during a ‘time of “mouse plague” and fire.’ The poems here delve into the difficulty his family has in trying to live as close to their little piece of land as they can. He achieves some fine social/cultural/agricultural comedy, as well as gorgeous representations of the Australian landscape, both native & changed by the European colonists, even on a small, & apparently still untouched, ‘block’ of land. The descriptions of flora & fauna, those eagles both native & introduced, for instance, the little dramas of encounters with mice or other people, the representations of the fires attacking the land: Kinsella handles all these set pieces with energy & élan; these are story poems in the best sense. But the anger is real too; how to deal with it, with them, these others: ‘And the cruel are out there killing roos / with arrows snapped off near hearts. Violent weekend parties / calling time on nature in the valley. On the other side of the country, / Queensland farmers are chomping at remnant bushland. That’s regional / and that’s national: accumulation of like-mindedness. Like mining; / it leaves nothing for anyone.’ Here we see Kinsella the rhetorician utilizing the long line for argument, yet the sensitivity to sound (as sense) remains.

Firebreaks is, as said, a big book, a series of intense images & insights, yet also a single, & singular, work. It demands careful reading, but it repays with a complex, often profoundly personal, representation of one aspect of our (failing) engagement with the natural world we too easily forget & so devalue, & so lose. If that makes it sound too didactic, it’s not; rather it’s a carefully woven poetic tapestry of well wrought tales that draw you in to one man’s continuing attempt to live as fully as possible what he has concluded is the good life, against all the (ordinary) odds arrayed against him, is family, & their home place.

 

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

For Claire Kelly, maunder is an active verb

Claire Kelly. Maunder. (Palimpsest Press 2017).

According to The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, ‘maunder’ refers to both speaking & walking, the former ‘in a dreamy or rambling manner,’ the latter ‘listlessly or idly.’ Well, the poems in Maunder, Clair Kelly’s first collection, definitely ramble & often have the intense visual specificity of dreams, & they do wander over a large territory in the apparently rambling manner of the flaneuse, but they are not idle at all.

Early on, in the delightful sequence, ‘Keeping Track, Keeping Pace,’ Kelly explores variations of walking: ‘Swagger’ (‘a tear to the target’; ‘John Wayne advertising adventure wholesale’); ‘Shuffle’ (‘Here’s an army of slouch and grimace’); ‘Promenade’ (‘Pretend your partner is a stable / influence: hook arms and match pace’); ‘Lurch and Reel’ (‘you stutter-step on too / shadowing some off-kilter scent’); ‘Hobble’ (‘spasmodic rhythm: / crimson marionette with / a snagged string’); & finally ‘Strut’ with its ‘Cluster poise and cluster pose’ & final

Strobe. Muybridge sequence:

a horse galloping. In slow-mo.

The variant phrasings in this series provides a neat introduction to Kelly’s wide-ranging interests & the vocabulary that attends them.

This certainly applies to Kelly’s titles, which often startle (‘Apollo in a Sulky,’ ‘I Dreamt I Could Fly; I Awoke Encased in Lead,’ ‘In the Torso of a Great Windstorm,’ among others) & offer strange doorways into the poems that follow. ‘In the Torso of a Great Windstorm,’ for example, apparently having something to do with Emily Carr, is filled with oddly appropriate images, such as ‘Airstream gale whipping / the pinprick stars into dashes,’ a lovely shift from visual to written. Many of the poems in Maunder demonstrate a fiction writer’s sense of catching the action of a moment in an ongoing narrative, except the narrative can only be sensed hovering somewhere behind the poem’s specific perception of the imaged now.

Kelly happily shows off some of the writers & artists she finds inspiring in her epigraphs, & quite rightly for a maundering poet, she includes that lunchtime New York walker, Frank O’Hara, who clearly acts as a spiritual guide in ‘Street Haunting,’ with its ‘inner walk gone wrong: / my mind, a gymnast’s spiraling ribbon, / something loose and beautiful about / the planned       the lack of plan, / as if, here, the only message is to maunder.’ The final sequence of this collection that wanders in its planned-unplanned way across a wonderfully eclectic range of topics,

Maundering,’ is a series of crisp ghazals, the leaps from couplet to couplet quick & sharp: ‘Your friend’s grandfather clock stops working. / A stilled scythe in a museum case. // Three right turns and you’re speeding eastwards again. / The sun resolute as a gobstopper stuck in your throat.’

Maunder is a fine & wide ranging volume that suggests Claire Kelly will be walking her poetic lines for a long while yet.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

Sandra Ridley does the elegy as dark construction

Sandra Ridley. Silvija. (BookThug 2016).

About midway through this volume of shorter serial poems making up a single longer one, we read: ‘Decide what to keep.’ In many ways this is the mandate of the whole book, a book the back cover announces is ‘a sequence of feverish elegies, . . . a linguistic embodiment of the traumas of psychological suffering, physical abuse, and terminal illness.’ Elegy has been an important form recently (see Sina Queyras’s MXT, for example), & yet the title slyly alludes to another tradition of memory (of) loss, referenced in the first epigraph, a definition of ‘Silva,’ both a ‘wood, forest, woodland’ & ‘in poetry, a piece composed, as it were, at a start, in a kind of Rapture.’ Which leads to the 2nd epigraph: ‘That they with Joy their own Requiem might sing, / And close their eyes’ – a note of that Rapture, yet with a sense of ghostly return, that here only the dead might sing their elegies, themselves.

There are a lot of such selves in these poems, many in pain. Five sections, all but one a separate piece yet linked by that trauma of loss & of deciding what to keep of & in such loss. Linking them, in pieces between each section, the carefully titled ‘In Praise of the Healer.’ Thus the book itself begins, ‘Swallow the word. // Swallow the tongue.’ Yet ‘Farther/Father,’ the first section refuses to swallow any of the punishment that figure forces on everyone about him; rather it deliberately & resolutely parses it, while insisting elegy is the way to do so:

Our dead call out our dead / …

From the old butcher / your leather strap / unbelted

Crescent buckle for a skinning / hiding / each of us/

Slickened with blood / held down in your hinterland

Each barren mile unabating / say mercy

The shifts of focus, the puns so painful, each line a stanza to slow the reading of the pain down, as it came upon the ‘we,’ the ‘I’ remembering after the father’s death & always the one who’s ‘been meaning to say,’ among other things that, ghostly,

we find you not as we want

You / still where you are / dead on the floor / facing down

The long shadow / incalculable

The prose of the following ‘Clasp’ evokes a bitter & brutal relationship, also dead, yet even so mourned, somewhat. In between each section a page of ‘In Praise of the Healer’ offers something of succor: ‘Breathe you in.’ ‘After the long sought // reckon — // surrender.’ ‘Vigil/Vestige’ then seems to enter & entertain personal loss, illnesses that strike both speaker & the natural world. There are ‘The scripture of leaves’ & the ‘shy sweats / and the cold we’re night-blind by’; & then, ‘Our after-dream terrors / of a slaughterhouse — / or a labyrinth / akin / to a slaughterhouse.’ These poems move with great force to cement love & suffering: ‘We ghost-slip out from the drowning.’ Yet in the end, ‘Press deep and rest in me — / there is space enough for us both to die.’

And in that break before the last longer piece, ‘Courage — / stay in my arms / until / you can’t.’ ‘Dirge’ does what it says, echoing much of what has come before, sifting & shifting through the themes: ‘The undaunted / spectral’; ‘fear departing as soon as it’s spoken’; & ‘the essential / sylph / shadow / detached from // A great shade / shale eyes /released to darkening // Night // only you are present when the heart stops.’

And then the final statement of ‘In Praise of the Healer’: ‘What I mean is this is where I choose to die.’ As a reader I cannot know how much of Silvija really relates to its author’s life (the ‘Notes’ tell us that various sections were written in response to requests or to gallery installations), but I do see how carefully the ‘I’s of these poems have been constructed, partly to deal with/ speak to their ‘you’s. Beautifully designed, Silvija is a structural whole, a beautiful web of language, doing elegy as a constrained & compelling dance of words.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

Kate Sutherland draws the reader in to a dark rhinoceros history

Kate Sutherland. How to Draw a Rhinoceros. (BookThug 2016).9781771662604

Kate Sutherland is a scholarly lawyer with a troubling sense of mission, almost obsession, concerning the now nearly extinct rhinoceros, & in How to Draw a Rhinoceros she has constructed a complex compendium of historical rhinoceros lore, which when read in that context becomes a fascinating & deeply troubling introduction to a hidden history of colonial exploitation. What she has made is a kind of book length documentary-(become-near-or-wholly-) found poem, although only one poem, ‘Great Family of Giants,’ is forthrightly distinguished as such, perhaps because it’s the only one ‘with all of the text taken from a single nineteenth-century circus poster.’ For the rest, her general notes about ‘Fragments of text borrowed from…’ serves to warn the reader of just how much of this text is, indeed, other texts she has sought & found in archives around the world.

How to Draw a Rhinoceros is a good title, because it seems no one knew how back at the beginning of its introduction to the European world in the renaissance & later. So the first piece, ‘A Natural History of the Rhinoceros,’ presents a series of contradictory descriptions (not the last: a major aspect of the book has to do with how poorly ‘western man’ perceived the rhinoceros [& its countries &, if we but make the imaginative leap, the people thereof]). The poems entertain, as did the exhibitions of Clara, the famous first one in the 18th century, & the others brought to England & Europe in the 19th.

Sutherland is somewhat sneaky here. She presents the presentations, the comments by important viewers, the slowly expanding tale of exhibitions of the exotic, without comment, & it is kind of easy to read these with that pleasure of knowing better & seeing the past as simpler & less sophisticated in its understanding – of biology, geography, etc. The many false (the ‘fake news’ of the time) reports of Clara’s death suggest an historical comedy of errors, but the final one, & the poem’s uncertainty about even that, remind us of how she was used: ‘London / died unexpectedly / at the Horse and Groom / may or may not have been stuffed / by a pioneering taxidermist / and continued on tour’.

How to Draw a Rhinoceros slowly builds a lawyer’s case that, like many such, takes in a much larger situation than the singular one it seems to be about. Readers (like me, perhaps like you) can enjoy the early sections, the historically distant stories of this extraordinary animal (& seen as such, then), being transported across Europe & put on display for the amazement & amusement of the locals. Only a few, & look at how they fascinate. But, as How to Draw a Rhinoceros draws nearer to the present, with the chilling descriptions of such hunters as President Theodore Roosevelt, King George V, & Ernest Hemingway & his friends, laid before us with a dryly nonchalant tone that dissolves into a sardonic accusation, what came before falls into its proper perspective. The section of the Roosevelt poem that repeats the ‘I’ over & over again as ‘I put both barrels into and behind the shoulder / I fired into the shoulder again’ devolves into pure slaughter on the male egos behalf. The even darker repetitions of ‘Officials said,’ a wonderfully (de)constructed series of broken reports in which the repetition of poachings overwhelms formally as well as factually. The lovely lyrics, sort of lovely lies, about Clara as a star, eventually an astronaut, with her final comment (‘from a very early Buddhist text known as the Rhinoceros Sutra’), ‘wander alone / like a rhinoceros,’ cannot undo the knowledge of colonial destruction How to Draw a Rhinoceros has slowly built throughout. Like many documentaries, it entertains with its arcane knowledge, but it packs a dark political punch.

Posted in Poetry | 1 Comment