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.

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