Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book review : The Sad Phoenician Robert Kroetsch

 Reviewed by David S. West

A POEM SHOULD BE economic and precise. It should be free of too strong an authorial presence. Objectivity is a virtue that lends shapeliness and focus to the finished product. B u t Kroetsch is writing about writing, and that changes the rules. There is always, here, a sense of the author lurking behind the language, manipulating, contriving, and interjecting at will. There is much will- fullness, butlittle restraint, little attempt at control or discipline. In some way this is a disadvantage, but it does reflect the subject. In a book concerned with basiccom- munication, these characteristics illustrate the struggle of the individual to express publicly his emotions and responses to the external world. Theinner and outer worlds meet o n t h e plain of language, where poetry is the struggle to share ex- perience andperception. Andduringthe life-long conflict, an author must develop a sense of what language and communi- cation mean tohimboth asthemeansof expression and as an objective phenome- non — the whole range of the sounds and shapes of letters and words and all that they can be made to mean. What- ever the penalties for being a poet, at least the satisfaction of putting words on paper rewards the author; no matter what else goes wrong in life, he has his 'poetry to protect' him: "I have mywork to sustain me, my poetry, the satisfaction / of a jobwell done...." But the poetry alone is never enough. The poet lives in a living world; life rushes on about him,he responds to it, he makes it part of his living changing craft. T h e poet is a life-junkie; hooked on it, harmed by it, he is beyond the reach of any sedative except the actof writing, which relieves the aches of life even as it dredges them from the inner deeps. The poet becomes dependent on language and life but remains as human as a n y bricklayers: " I d o have feelings, just because I'm a poet doesn't mean / I have no feelings of my own, poets are human; I am,you/ might say,a kindof Phoenician, with reference, that is, / to my trading in language, even in,to stretch a point, / ha, my being at sea." Kroetsch is always present, reminding the reader that yes there is a real live person behind the poetry, that yes poets and fallible and human — that they want to be recognized as people just as much as they desire fame as poets. We are aware of the poet: "the dreamer, him- self: /lurching, leaping, flying; о to be mere gerund; no past, / no future: what do you do in life: I ing." Yet there is no room for complacency. Life is full of surprises: "once a year a rubber breaks and we / learn to count" ; no matter how we try, we always face uncertainty. Love and its uncertainties are part of living, and often the poet retreats from emotion in wounded confusion; he is "The Sad Phoenician of Love / slighted by the woman." But, as with language and life, the poet is drawn mothlike to the flame of love. Singed, he writes an- other poem and survives: "lonely is only lonely, it has no other name like / hand or hope or trust, or pissing against the wind, / it has no habit of upside-down, it slams no doors, / it does not fly south in autumn." The urgent demands of sexuality as a means of expression and fulfillment are as loud and raucous as the insistent call of art, of the addition to life and love. One is forced to venture continually into the outer world for one's needs: love, comfort, reassurance. And, as with any voyage or quest, the journey is fraught with peril: "keep an ear cocked for sirens, you one-eyed mariner" in the voyage of life where communica- tion requires as much skill as sailing a ship. The Sad Phoenician is an ambitious undertaking; an existential portrait of the plight of sensitive individuals, it is an excursion into the turbulent waters of communication that it attempts to de- scribe and chart even as it traverses them for the first time. It is a reminder that each day is capable of presenting a new world, a new-beginning as life-affirming as the tree in the garden, and as dan- gerous : you're out of it, the lady said, she was very polite, she wore a chair on her head, a basket between her knees full of salmon; a butterfly almost the shade of a Baltimore oriole licked its perfect proboscis to her right nipple: she was the guardian of the tree, that was clear . . . the tree itself stood in the distance behind her, possibly green, possibly not a tree at all, a sail A complex poem, The Sad Phoenician defies full analysis in the space of a re- view: its fuller significance the reader himself must determine. As if to confirm that the first section of the book is about the poet as human being as well as creative artist, the second part, "The Silent Poet Sequence," pre- sents the poet more objectively. The poems employ a schizoid splitting of per- sonality; two characters emerge: The Poet and The Professor. Both are the same. Any poet lives a double life: if he lives for his writing, he must still earn bread. If he lives for his teaching, he must still answer to his compulsion to write. Sometimes the two urges conflict: and Earache the Red, at coffee, for god's sake hit the sack early, he says, you look lile you never sleep but watch those dirty dreams; he winks and shakeshisspooninmydirection but I don't let on that I understand but Earache, there's a new law, he says, you're legally responsible for all your dreams and I buy his coffee but just last night, while he snored in her arms, I pitched black dirt at his win- dow and walled himin but he doesn't let on . . . ("The Silent Poet FindsOut") As may be seen from this excerpt, the form of the poems is an experiment, separating conjunctions from clauses. The sequence ends with a further devo- lution of words into shapes — letters divided by appearance rather than sense. The last page, once one deciphers it, affirms the thirst for life and love and experience apparent from t h e first. T h e humour found throughout the book is hard to describe, yet it has a good deal to do with the final willingness to under- go thefrustrations, failures, andimbecili- ties of life encountered during the quest for ways of expression.

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