Shane Rhodes’s edgy Err

Shane Rhodes. Err (nightwoodeditions 2011).

Shane Rhodes does not err much in his poetry, but he does make it as errant as possible. Err covers a lot of ground, at play in the fields of the word. Rhodes enters, encroaches on, engineers both surplus & surfeit of language in Err; he seeks to undermine our normal responses by pushing the lyric beyond bo(u)nds.

Err opens with a Table of Contents (mis)matched by a Table of Discontents, the latter a series of ‘computer and electronic media error messages’; no better way to set the stage for what’s to follow. In the first part, ‘Spirits,’ Rhodes plays with various dialects of drinking, utilizing on line lexicons & other treasuries of words & phrases to pile up rhetorics of drunken jabber, wacky as he can make it. As his notes to the poems reveal, he has found a number of structural ploys to construct these a-personal verses. Many approach pure comic sound, but unlike much Sound Poetry, they assume the appearance of conventional verse even as they shout, snigger, & sing.

Having set his readers up with these hi-jinks, Rhodes turns in the second part, ‘Bodies,’ to a spirit of elegy; in fact many of the poems here are elegies, while the rest look coolly & unsentimentally at the HIV/AIDS crisis, the main reason for the elegies. There’s a finely tuned irony at work here, catching the virus of lingo doing its job of social/cultural sabotage. ‘Pearls’ traverses centuries & arts & crafts, & the terrible economies of them all. The pearl itself as a sign, how it marks bodies, skin, fashion as a control. ‘This is its centre, that anything, looked at hard enough, bleeds history.’ In some ways that sentence provides the core sense of what these poems do. As they remember people Rhodes knew, the poems’ ‘I’ expresses the personal as commitment to rather than as the conventional lyric ego. Rhodes is walking a very thin formal tightrope here, but he doesn’t slip.

‘The Cloud Chamber’ section, as he says, ‘cycles, with a roving focus, through a variety of English phonemes, letters, orthography, specific vocabularies and jargons.’ Various poems satirically jibe at mid-eastern oil, war & assassination, the ruins of colonialism, Oedipal battles & other forms of family romance-as-power-struggle. ‘The Horror’ provides a good example: exuberant wordplay turns Swiftian, the title underlining the folly of colonial practices as delineated through parodic implied narrative:

Hungry? We hovered huevos
and exotic hoosh (Hip hip!),
tabbouleh, hummus, lahars of rahat lokum (Hip hip!),
and bahars of homey hominy (Hurrah!)

finishing with a flourish of unheavenly trumpetings:

Housed in a hebe-hobbledehoyhood
of nanas and ayahs, from hammocks
we hollered, Heaven! Hell! At the heathens
as, horny, we hammered their harems
and whooped, The whores! The whores!
in high holy hallelujah.

‘Dark Matters’ contains another elegy, a computer aided ‘translation’ of ‘In Flanders Fields,’ & ‘Dark Matter,’ a poem exposing all the ins & outs of ‘it.’ Err, as a whole mixed bag, testifies to Shane Rhodes’s inquiring imagination, his playful approach to various formal constructs (many of these poems push alliteration, internal rhyme, neologism, & much else to the hilt), & to what such play can tell of how language reveals (perhaps itself constructs) cultural biases / ideological compliances. But that sounds too theoretical, a bit too serious, although much of this play is serious, indeed. Err is also highly entertaining, a smorgasbord of not-so-casual language games twisted into sharp poems both inviting & provocative.

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