Review of Abraham
From Stephen Dunning , Journal of Canadian Poetry, Vol. 4, 1989

Abraham by Colin Browne; Microphones by A.R. Kazuk; Letter to a Distant Father by Kenneth Radu

Colin Browne, Abraham. Ilderton, Ontario: Brick Books, 1987. Paper. Pp. 80. $7.50.

A.R. Kazuk, Microphones. Ilderton, Ontario: Brick Books, 1987. Paper. Pp. 76. $10.00.

Kenneth Radu, Letter to a Distant Father. Ilderton, Ontario: Brick Books, 1987. Paper. Pp. 52. $8.75.

The recent offerings from Brick Books, a young poetry publishing house whose titles already include the works of such notables as Michael Ondaatje, should do nothing to hurt its reputation. Indeed, Colin Browne’s Abraham, A.R. Kazuk’s Microphones, and Kenneth Radu’s Letter to a Distant Father, represent major poetic undertakings, and reward serious reading. But it had best be serious. These highly self-conscious, and often stunning, explorations of alienation place heavy demands upon a reader’s hermeneutical ingenuity and, at time, goodwill.

Abraham comes complete with its own caveat, an epigraphic gloss on the Hebrew aleph inscribed on its cover. The inscription on the tomb from which it originates carries the warning: “I beseech every royal person, every man: let no one open my bed and let no one search here for treasure for there is no treasure; let no one remove this sarcophagus in which I live, or build above me a chamber for second bed.” The concluding admonition, one suspects, targets critics in particular, especially those who cannot resist worrying meaning from its grave.

The warning, however, proves slightly gratuitous. Browne effectively prevents the reader from discovering unified meaning within this collection of poems (long poem?). His playful experimentation with traditional format (words struck through and inverted, lines reading right to left, “sentences” unpunctuated and pages unnumbered), though occasionally self-indulgent and tedious, reinforces his thematic agenda. “Periods,” the poet insists with polysemous irony, “deform the page / with ‘certainty’ / not fidelity.”

Preoccupation with “periods” generates much of the poetic energy in this collection. Stratified along discrete temporal layers, and coalescing around places weighty with massed personal significance (Vancouver, the Okanagan, Vancouver Island), the verse successfully articulates the discontinuities of history. The thematic continuities remain to haunt the poems like disconsolate ghosts: the bitter blessedness of ancestral legacy, the pogroms and perditions, birthrights and glories, the terrible ambiguity of individual necessity and possibility, and (inevitably) the poetic vocation.

This haunting testifies to the poet’s sensitivity to the paradox, if not contradiction, of his enterprise. Like Eliot, he tackles the contemporary poetic challenge of how to exploit, without falling victim to, accumulated linguistic-historical significance, by providing an extensive prose Glossary which ostensibly unlocks the mysteries of his parsimonious and impenetrably esoteric verse. Without this attempt to create a competent readership, the verse (unlike Eliot’s) would fail, remaining an asylumed voice singing incomprehensibly to itself of solipsism. And even with the Glossary, Browne will lose his share of readers. (Incidentally, those at a complete loss with the poetry may well enjoy the Glossary, an intriguing, albeit idiosyncratic, survey of subjects ranging from photography, Nazism and local British Columbian history, to apocryphal Jewish texts and the Tarot.)

Abraham, however fragmented, was not conceived as a sterile, intellectual puzzle. This often passionate and intense work pulsates with the rhythmic stresses of embodied existence, and achieves its greatest lyrical clarity, beauty, and force, where it celebrates desire, sacred as well as profane. Here Browne touches what perhaps bonds us most deeply, the one thing that has so far escaped the epidemic of our self-consuming self-consciousness.

Still, self-consciousness dominates the verse. One almost senses the poet’s embarrassment at his occasional lyric exuberance, not to mention lucidity. Then the voice quickly retreats behind its fey lens, dissipating pathos, preventing intimacy. The world fragments and the poet offers few words of comfort (aside from the pregnant closing reference to Yom Kippur) and no satisfying gloss on the scattering of images he presents. Yet, one also senses that Browne thereby remains true to his vision as well as his vocation. No one can successfully plunder a tomb for a treasure that is not there.

Microphones, on the other hand, flaunts its treasure, and warrants attention if for no other reason than the ingenuity of its hybrid structure. The Brick Books catalogue (Summer 1987) provides a good point of entry: “From Microphones there will be no returning to the standard detective story. This long poem/videotext ticks right along on its narrative marginalia alone, but its substance is an interplay of voices and its essence is high-density song. Reality is the issue.” The last observation rings especially true. Aside from format, it reads much like a Philip K. Dick novel, especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the work that inspired the film Bladerunner), A Scanner Darkly, and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. That is to say, it forcefully carries the reader into a deeply schizoid, deeply paranoid world. More alarmingly, it does more than suspend disbelief. It convinces. We enter a sinisterly plastic reality, finding ourselves traumatized by the forces struggling to mold it.

Here again as in Dick, the dramatis personae bifurcate into distinct polarities: a dehumanized, dishonest, sterile, uptight, high-tech fascism versus a humane, candid, fecund, disreputable, natural anarchy, with the hero, police Lt. Detective Samson Tull, caught in the middle, struggling to choose himself. Theme determines character, and politics plot. Yet what the existential allegory loses in subtlety it gains in dramatic force. Furthermore, the multi-framed structure more than compensates for any thematic simplicity, generating a complexity rarely surpassed in literature.

This “long poem/videotext”—“detective story” opens with an invitation: “Sit, settle back! Watch a movie with me.” The viewing occurs over three days, from Sunday through Tuesday, each day forming one of the three major divisions of the text. Each day yields further titled sections (up to thirteen), effectively “poems.” The speaker usually introduces each poem, often directly addressing the reader, and then always underscoring hermeneutical problems. The film, for example, continues to run in the reader’s absence. To make matters more interesting (worse?) the narrator informs us that the “artist’s idea was to play a videotape of himself, which the machine would break up into a dozen variant sequences with its randomizing programme. That’s why there are multiple screens, because a single screen would show only a jumbled blur.” Naturally, the “original” tape has been lost. The format of each page further emphasizes lost unity: the left margin being reserved for the speaker’s running prose commentary (usually visual and contextual) on the poetic voices of the sound-track appearing off to the right. Moreover, at times the commentary runs out of phase with this sound-track. Add a score from John Cage and the formula for schizophrenia is complete. Sound difficult? It is. Yet it works surprisingly well.

Kazuk adds other clever touches too. By incorporating the narrator into the text, he eliminates the need for a cumbersome Glossary, and in the process passes ironic judgement on obscurantist poetics. For example, at one point he excuses himself to “look up something.” In the next section, he discloses his findings, providing a thumb-nail history of Tullus Hostilius’ struggles with one of his young warriors, Horace. The information not only contributes nothing to our understanding of the plot (we never witnessed the scene that pricked the narrator’s curiosity), it hampers it; for in the “movie” the roles are reversed, with Tull’s uncle, Horace Waters (and daughter June, Tull’s intended) representing the villainous Powers that be. The information amounts to an intellectual irrelevance, the research mere comic relief.

Vera Anne Sabinet, the bilingual heroine, drug addict, prostitute, and only “sympathetic” character, embodies Kazuk’s case against any attempt to nail meaning. True to her French pedigree (shades of Bathes, Derrida, Foucault, et al.), she inhabits a “reality…in which all thins can be signs of one another.” An accomplished linguist, her world is au fond without fundamentals, endlessly significant (not significant at all?), predicated on jeu and hasard (sexual and semantic)—the world Tull finally chooses.

Yet such endless ingenuity can be tiresome. In comparison to Abraham, Microphones suffers from being too caught up in the puzzle of its own being, too mesmerized by its maze, in short, too clever by half. It can strike as somehow eerily ahistorical and disembodied, cut off from corporate human pathos. Not that passion does not enter the discourse. It merely emerges mediated by reflection, lost to its own historical immediacy, one more problem resolved by schizoid speculation. And perhaps this is precisely Kazuk’s point. The alienation remains as absolute and inescapable as the text itself.

Loss, separation and absence (rather than pathological alienation) thematically unify Radu’s Letter to a Distant Father, which takes its title from the longest and ultimate poem in the collection. And though the title poem eclipses the others, this reflects on the magnitude of its achievement rather than on their insignificance Pathetic yet never sentimental, deeply perceptive and wise, this poem draws readers into its anguish, awakening consciousness to a universal plight through concrete instantiation: the longing for a place, a time, a person, a culture, all irrevocably lost.

The collection, moreover, evinces more unity than might be supposed upon a first reading. A dialectic of distance and proximity, absence and presence, loss and recovery not only lies behind each poem, but also organizes the sequence of the poems. That it opens with a section of five sonnet-length sketches entitled “Letters,” treating of distanced love, also allows the work to come full circle.

The speaker’s “point of view” provides another key to movement within the series. The first poems lament separation in the first person singular. Two poems succeed these, both celebrating consummated passion in the first person plural.   Then, with one exception, comes a series of poems where the wound of loss has severed the lover from himself. The speaker remains coldly distanced; the lover appears strictly in the third person singular. The middle section “Royal Women” objectifies the crisis completely, each poem taking for its subject a woman isolated by her political position, and ultimately victimized by history, destroyed by political revolution. And although the speaker addresses them in the second person, he remains objectively dispassionate, often ironic if not sardonic. The next few poems invert the point of view cleverly, returning to the first person, but now probing our wounded collective unconscious. Then the focus returns to externality, but now the objective voice betrays hints of a profound threat: the graveyard, the feral Canadian wilderness, the murdered Montreal swan, the venal Amazonian, all body forth the severing and severed darkness. This sets the stage for “Narrenschiff,” a disturbing autopsy of our cultural displacement, our futile Ship of Fools. In this penultimate poem (bearing a lengthy epigraph from Foucault’s Madness and Civilization) he speaks in the first person plural, as a madcap member of this floating grotesquerie, thereby preparing for “Letter to a Distant Father” and the return to the first person singular.

The speaker in the final poem writes to his father, a man dying in a rest home by the Black Sea, the two having been separated since the boy’s escape “under the wire”:

I travelled
on the sea to a clean horizon
thirty years away from the push
of your voice at the barb’s
brutal edge.

I believed you dead.
I ran. I grieved. You are alive
now, dying, the official writes
to me in a language I have lost.
His letter is translated.
We speak to each other
through the mouths of strangers.
I am invited to visit
a country that no longer exists,
to say goodbye again for the last time
to a man who was my father
until the wire interrupted.
You are now a foreign syllable
with letters missing.

The speaker struggles poignantly with his appalling sense of helplessness. Attempting to traverse the chasm on a slender bridge of words, he succeeds only in articulating distance; and he knows it. His “clean horizon” opened onto a “landless manhood.” “[He] grew into a North American / whose dwelling place is a book, / whose country is the literate synapses of his brain.” His conviction that contemporary Canada pales next to their lost heritage intensifies his distress. Translation becomes an ethical as well as a logistical problem, especially recalling that we were forcefully “loaded” onto the Ship of Fools and there “[touched] by God’s skeltering finger.”

It strikes as appropriate that the most noteworthy piece in any of the three collections should call the present poetic enterprise into question. In true Canadian fashion, Radu appears at his best when in acute vocational and cultural angst. Unlike Browne and Kazuk, his retrospective poetic gaze lingers longingly towards a tradition, and even paradise, lost. Browne, for his part, pronounces the “old poem…dead” and proceeds to translate traditional coherence into contemporary incoherence, yet not without hope. In Kazuk, tradition furnishes nothing more or less than comic relief: it presents no possibilities, no way out. While each of the three distinctive voices will find sympathetic listeners, all deserve attention.

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