TRACES OF THE MISSING POET: THE HORNBOOKS OF RITA K
BY ROBERT KROETSCH
With The Hornbooks of Rita K (2001), Robert Kroetsch continues his long tradition of long poems after his famous The Ledger (1975), The Stone Hammer Poems (1976), Seed Catalogue (1977), the collection of long poems Field Notes (1981). Kroetsch releases his poetic energy through meditations on everyday objects like the stone hammer, the ledger, the seed catalogue, the hornbook.
In The Hornbooks, Kroetsch focuses his attention on the hornbook. The explanations of the term hornbook set us on the journey of discovering the meaning of the fragments, the function of the poet and the poem, the role of us as readers of the fragments ordered with no order. The play with opposites, with different multiple meanings and functions in the poems, the juxtaposition of terms is something that underlines Kroetsch’s literary talent as postmodern.
In the epigraph of the book Kroetsch offers several definitions of the term hornbook: as “a leaf of paper containing the alphabet, the Lord’s Prayer, etc., mounted on a wooden tablet with a handle, and protected by a thin plate of horn” or as “a treatise on the rudiments of a subject: a primer.” Rita Kleinhart, the prairie poet, writes hornbooks that are primers with vague meanings left for the readers to understand. In hornbook #4, Rita’s lover, Raymond, meditates on the term as a “book one page in length”1 that “says its say”2 opposing what Rita’s poems fail to provide: “the clarity of the exact and solitary and visible page”3. Raymond, the poet too and the editor, sorts out through hornbooks in Rita’s prairie farmhouse trying to make sense of what’s left behind.
In this collection of poems, Kroetsch further explores his innovative and experimental approach to poetry. The Hornbooks consists of 99 poetical fragments about Rita K, who disappears mysteriously one day, on Kroetsch’s 65th birthday, from the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art. The author of the book is Raymond who lives on the prairies and who traces the life of his beloved Rita by way of the fragments she had left. Both Rita and Raymond appear as doubles of Robert Kroetsch, the poet and the scholar. Rita is both like and unlike Kroetsch. Like him, she travels all around the world lecturing and trying to write „an autobiography in which I do not appear“4. Unlike Kroetsch, she lives on a ranch in the Battle River Valley in Alberta. The book becomes Kroetsch’s attempt to imagine himself as a poet and what might have been if he had not left his home. But like the missing Rita K or the missing poet from the text, this book of poetical fragments is about what is not rather than about what is. Or it is both about presence and absence. By tracing Rita’s life, Raymond faces the dilemma:
„The question is always the question of trace,
What remains of what does not remain?“5
According to Raymond, Rita disappeared in the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art while viewing “a framed painting”6, “Twilight Arch” by James Turrell. Her contemplation on the minimalist and conceptualist “absence of an image”7 corresponds to our contemplation on her poems on which we cast a new light of awaraness as readers. “Poetry is a changing of the light”8 which we use to enlighten our perception of the world.
The problem of the disappearing female figure is one of Kroetsch’s obsessions in poetry. The missing woman, the lost love object, signify the absent mother for Kroetsch and as he says:
“I kept the mother figures, especially, very silent at the center of the writing, partly because my own relationship with my mother was so painful, that I’ve only recently even put it into print at all. … I think some of the female presence in my book is almost a parody of the absence which is really what the book is about”9.
Raymond tells Rita of the loss of the mother in the book. The loss was replaced by language, words, poems. Poetry comes at the expense of the female presence:
“The day they brought my mother’s body home to our
house for the wake, I went up the low hill behind our
house. Rita, I wanted to tell you this. I went to a hollow
beside a large round rock, and I curled up in that hollow
and I cried until I had cried out my life. After that I was
empty enough to be a poet”10.
By transgressing gender, Kroetsch makes Rita Kleinhart his alter ego, his ideal female persona, whom he conceives as one of his many doubles in this book of fragments.
Raymond is Rita’s lover, reader, archivist, who exchanges places with Rita, occupying her abandoned house, determining the relationship between self and other, poet and poem, reader and poem.
„We have made a small trade, you and I. I occupy your
abandoned house. Therefore, by your crystal logic, it is
who am missing from the world, not you. But surely it is,
always, the poet who is absent from the terrors of
existence, not the reader“11.
By addressing „you“ and „I“, Raymond addresses the absent Rita both as the writer and the reader of his text. He also addresses us readers, who occupy the „abandoned house“ of a poem which the poet had left behind.
In The Hornbooks, mediating on the function of art and poetry, the poet asks: „What’s the poetic function of the hand?“12 and answers by asking another question: „Is not poetry a questing after place, a will to locate?“13 Kroetsch connects the function of poetry to a sense of place. His long poems The Ledger and Seed Catalogue are also attempts to recreate his native place and home.
For Kroetsch, the poem is stored in memory. What we think and read and write is the memory of what was never made present or seen. The memory is the memory of trace, a fragment which makes poetry possible, the very possibility of life, for „to take poetry into one’s hands is to take one’s own life into one’s hands“14. The possibility could be the trace of a ’dream of origins’ or a ’local pride’, or the narrative of origins which Raymond as the inventor of the text on Rita K tries to compile, or it could be the erasure and the absence because erasure constitutes the trace as trace, makes it like the snow that Rita admired, „disappear in its appearance“15, „disappear into art“16. The poet explains in The Hornbooks:
„We turn to speak and confront an absence. Thus we
become, all of us, poets“17.
The poet’s attempt to decreate and recreate the life of Rita K, the missing object of desire, is related to the memory of what had been and what had remained. His long poems and fiction comprise a kind of biographical and textual traces of the place and the narrative of origin associated with the prairie where he grew up. His poems and stories are his memories about the home that had been and that can only exist in the present moment of memory, experience, and text.
Starting from his early meditation on the task of the poet in his essay “Unhiding the Hidden”, Kroetsch claims that
“At one time I considered it the task of the Canadian writer to give the name to his experience, to be the namer. I now suspect that on the contrary, it is his task to un-name”18.
Kroetsch further elaborates on his notion of un-naming and decreation and asks through Raymond in The Hornbooks:
“What is poetry but a resistance to its own urgency?
The body is. The body does.
The rest is all a vague because.”19
This notion of poetry encompasses that every poem is “a casting out, an abandonment”20, “the poem as vacated crypt. As wound. As pothole”21. The poem is a puzzle left on the page to be turned into another reality and possibility for “what after all is a poem but a longing for a possible reality?” 22asks Kroetsch in the book.
The poet is much more trivial and related to the real world. He is dependent on the petty technological innovations:
“As poets we attribute to ourselves the poems we record on
paper. The presumption of the poet is one of technology’s
petty tripumphs.” 23
The poet’s advice for a young poet is to focus on something as substantial as breakfast can be and then reflect on it:
“Have bacon (four strips,
preferably) and eggs (two, sunnyside up),
hash browns with ketchup,
toast (white) with real strawberry jam,
a glass of orange juice (small will do),
and three cups of black coffee;
then mark one of the following
(please, not with an X):” 24
The reflection on the trivial turned into sublime by the poet who leaves the poem as “an empty house” leaves the space for the reader to assert his presence and to decrypt the poem. The opposites once again touch themselves at poignant junctures.
But who is the poet in The Hornbooks? Or how many poets are there? And who is the missing poet? Unlike Rita, Raymond is the editor, archivist, and archaeologist who collects the fragments, other people’s documents and scraps trying to compose the meaningful whole. Rita K is definitely the poet who is present through her art. Rita is the “goner” who erases her presence from the literary scene recreating the world into another possibility of language:
“We recognize in these unlikely lines her wish to erase
herself from the literary scene. She is, here, as good as
gone. A goner. She abjures sense as we think we know it.
She tells us there is another possibility in language and she
is on her way to asking what it is. She adds on a postcard
apparently intended for herself but never mailed. Some
days poetry is a dialogue with nobody.” 25
For Raymond, Rita, the poet, “must return”26 and he seeks to make her reappear in his writing. Kroetsch, who has his doubles Rita and Raymond in the book, is the absent poet who escaped “from the terrors of existence”.
The dispersal of the self within the text by adopting different names, opposite gender positions, roles, Kroetsch’s many alter egos, is a central element of his poetics. Raymond who delivers “confidential documents from place to place”27 is one of his protean-trickster figures and his poetical alter ego. Like his favorite Hermes figure in the poems, Raymond is a thief and a creator, and by trying to sketch Rita’s life and writing, he is concerned both with the originality of the text and the authenticity of the poet. He asks:”Did Rita write those exquisite lines, or did I?”28, and tells Rita “that a poem is a fractal”29, the notion he resents by trying to recreate Rita’s poetics out of traces. Rita is an ideal female figure and persona of Robert Kroetsch too. In “The Kyoto Mound” fragment, there appears another of Kroetsch’s alter egos, a character named Robert, Rita’s friend in Japan. While reflecting on the nature of Japanese poetry, Kroetsch exchanges his position with the Japanese poet Ryokan, his partner Teishin, and the Chinese artists Li Po and Tu Fu.
Apart from his many identities as textual creations, game is an important part of Kroetsch’s creative process too. The free combination of poetical fragments, the play with many personas, is the invitation for the reader to participate actively in decoding of disguised traces and to search and invent the author of the text. Each fragment is its own story, a poem in itself, and, as he explains in “For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem” (1980), they are “poems in which archaeology supplants history; an archaeology that challenges the authenticity of history by saying there can be no joined story, only abrupt guesswork, juxtaposition, flashes of insight”30.