Jon Paul Fiorentino indexes elegy

Jon Paul Fiorentino. Indexical Elegies (Coach House 2010).

With an index card for a cover, this book sets out from the get go to warp the traditional sense of the elegy, yet its long title poem, certainly the felt centre of the book finally renews the form by refusing its easiest, clichéd, conventions. It begins, however, with ‘Elizabeth Conway: A Montreal Suite,’ a series of poems that tend to transgress against the lyric shape they appear to take. I wasn’t able to find out exactly who Elizabeth Conway is, or was, as the first poem suggests she was in hospital dying (possibly an actor, but Google didn’t help me be sure of that). Fiorentino can play with language well enough; he also has a fine sense of the undercurrents in form, as in ‘Mentholism,’ which also strikes one of the repeated chords of the book:

Don’t have a problem
in writing

Need a
room in which to brood

An adjacent
room from which to watch

So hard to keep
the stories straight

This poem makes
sure of that

How to write without imposing the lyric lie on the materials: this is one of the questions facing many inventive poets today. Fiorentino tries a number of gambits, many of which work quite well. Utilizing the sheer materiality of words in various ways is a major formal move.

Finding a way beyond pure personal cry while still allowing in his sense of profound loss for his friend & mentor, Robert Allen, propels ‘Indexical Elegies.’ As its first poems admonishes: ‘Don’t fuck this up / with your feelings.’ Nevertheless, the feelings pushed the poem into being:

But it’s zero sum the

Nothing cold about it
it’s just that

The closer I come to loving
the closer I edge into elegy

Shh. There are
poets trying to die

And so the poet, the poem, must seek ways to get around that without denying it. The two ways he goes about this are the ‘hymns’ made up of words jumbled & forced thereby to carry unusual syntactic weight & the ‘CSP’ pieces, which may or may not be quotes from C.S. Pierce’s writings on signs but definitely feel as if they are. As Fiorentino says in an interview, ‘The CSP (Charles Sanders Peirce) sections and the little litanies (the Hymns) are there to distract and defer. I think all successful elegiac poetry has this quality of distraction and deferral.’ It certainly works here, & allows the poem to return to the personal without becoming sentimental (in the bad sense). This method also allows other voices some space, as the title or line ‘My sincere apologists’ suggests. But they can’t quite achieve articulation, any more than this poet’s unformed cries would: ‘They knew him / like // So stunned by / your’. ‘The word ‘I’ is apparently / an essential indexical unit’; this ‘theoretical’ statement allows every ‘I’ thereafter to function as both exemplary sign & poet’s voice, as in ‘I object to your secondness’. In the middle of the sequence, this lovely lyric carries more power than it could have alone:

All roads, side roads
All text, signage

All seasons, autumn
All memories, winter

‘Indexical Elegies’ manages to remember Allen by paying homage to his own innovative writing while constructing something quite unlike his work & also articulating through diversion the very real pain of the loss Fiorentino feels.

‘Transprairie’ segues into another kind of loss, one in which the comic elegiac tone of the blues seems at home: it remembers & severs the poet from Winnipeg, but not quite. As the final poem, ‘Dying in Winnipeg,’ puts it, ‘Don’t read me wrong — / I plan on dying in Winnipeg // In a strange way I / believe Winnipeg is where everything always dies’. Something any ex-Winnipegger, or Guy Maddin, can agree with. Indexical Elegies is a fascinating book, full of intriguing little experiments, but it’s finally the title poem that readers will carry with them.

This entry was posted in Poetry. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Jon Paul Fiorentino indexes elegy

  1. K Connolly says:

    Thanks for another thoughtful, well-reasoned review Doug. Not many people doing that these days.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s