Michael Boughn. City Book One: Singular Assumptions (BookThug 2014).
Those who know Michael Boughn also know of his great admiration for Charles Olson’s work. The back cover of City informs us that it takes ‘Charles Olson’s “Poem 143 – the festival aspect’ as its provocation and partner in conversation.’ That particular Maximus poem explores various ways in which ‘the Three Towns’ encounter both the human & the apparent divine as it manifests in civic festivals, among many other things. City, as an ongoing poem of which Book One: Singular Assumptions is the beginning, takes up some of the same complexities, in terms, as far as I can see, of Boughn’s home city, Toronto. Perhaps there are ‘Three Towns’ in the Toronto he knows intimately, I don’t know, but the ‘inhabited domesticities / in face of streets’ he sets out to explore yield more than simply ‘coteries of sharpened / intensifications’ throughout this challenging, sharp witted, provocation of a book.
City Book One: Singular Assumptions is divided into 3 parts, ‘Prelude,’ ‘Rush Hour,’ & ‘Entertainments,’ & Boughn finds a suitable tone & form for each. ‘Prelude’ utilizes the wholes page in a wide open mapping of the city’s various bounds, both physical & metaphysical. Indeed, each section of ‘Prelude’ spreads across the page almost like a wordy map of some part of the city it insists upon navigating in ‘syntactical confusions,’ ‘erupting language escaping declensions,’ & ‘context implications’ that might, just barely, allow the driver of this machine to swerve & accelerate through this city built of language. Indeed, throughout City Book One: Singular Assumptions, Boughn takes marvelous liberties with normal syntax, taxing word after word with the job of simultaneously performing many parts of speech.
‘Rush Hour’ reflects all too well the awful traffic jams any commuter in a city like Toronto suffers through, while also implicating a vast array of theoretical discourses, all of which are treated with careful ambiguity. ‘Examined / traffic patterns [like any patterns found in, say, a poem] yield / crusading misprisions in place / of flows when deflect // enters the picture’ could stand as an exemplum of how City does what it does. Watch the nifty shifts in this passage: ‘The light / changes and no one moves / because distant incursions / of injected greed breeds / entropic incursions normal // stasis and no one really wants / to get there knowing pensioned / conclusions offer little hope / …’. It goes one, with more twists & turns, to announce ‘broadcasts / across temporal grid interstices / every night at six while economies // quiver thinking of arrangements / opening, beginning to move / into the night, shifting constellations / flowing toward another long day.’ Each poem in Part Two takes the reader on such an intellectual ride, despite the poem’s insistence that the only rush ‘Rush Hour’ provides is the frustration ‘of patrolled rectitude indications’ that nothing will move (or change).
Or will it? What City Book One: Singular Assumptions demonstrates throughout its sharply observed & playful construction is one reply to the accusation that poetry doesn’t, & can’t, matter. We know how bad things are, in the largest political sense, in our cities, our states, & poetry, however cleverly it articulates the ‘atonal breaches in the historical / fabric.’ The wit of the whole, & comic intensity of, especially, ‘Part Three; Entertainment,’ suggest the ways in which poetry can shake up minds too easily & lazily given to reading the world (& its many means of communication) with an aggressiveness that remains trapped in political passivity. City argues, finally, that beauty & art are part of the possible solution, the book’s ‘adieu calls / to attention, to here, that supple / shift of weight yields the world // in spades. Anyway it’s a place to start.’
So is City Book One: Singular Assumptions, which invites the attention it clearly earns with its intensely witty linguistic play, all the more serious & demanding for being so.