- Christian Bök (Author)
Crystallography. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Mark Laba (Author)
Dummy Spit. Mercury Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Peter Culley (Author)
Hammertown. New Star Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Ian Rae
Due to the commercial and critical success of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, Coach House Books has issued a revised version of the poet’s 1994 collection, Crystallography. Bök explains in an afterword to this handsome volume that Crystallography is “a pataphysical encyclopaedia that misreads the language of poetics through the conceits of geology.” Following in the footsteps of his pataphysical Canadian forebears, Bök combines Christopher Dewdney’s scientific vocabulary with Steve McCaffrey’s theory-mindedness and bp Nichol’s orthographic obsessions, which might appear to be a fatal poetic strategy, but Bök has the craftsmanship to pull it off.
A lengthy epigram from M.C. Escher’s The Regular Divisions of the Plane provides a useful clue to Bök’s method. Escher wrote his treatise to demonstrate that visual motifs can be repeated to suggest infinite movement, instead of formal stasis. Inspired by the tiles and architecture of Moorish Spain, Escher had been experimenting with repetitions of contiguous, interlocking forms when he broke from tradition and began using asymmetrical, organic forms. He discovered techniques of rotation, translation, and mirroring that enabled such repetition, but he did not understand his own method until his brother, a geology professor, explained that he was really working in the field of crystallography. Escher used the insights of crystallography to theorize his discoveries and create his later, more famous artworks.
Equally cryptic, Bök twists and turns a few key concepts in Crystallography until he has explored every facet of his motifs. Like houseflies that “see the world through gemstones,” Bök directs the reader’s gaze through every available refraction. After reading Bök’s long poems and Borgesian essays, you will never think of mirrors, diamonds, and snow the same way again. His style “predicates itself upon an aesthetics of structural perfection,” yet it pressures the logic of structure to the point where it turns against itself and ceases to limit interpretation. Thus Bök’s concrete, diamond-shaped rendering of the word “diamond” resembles one of those Escher staircases that cycle round and round to infinity.
As an occasional rockhound who doesn’t mind digging up words in the dictionary that I will never use again, I am probably the target audience for this collection. Still, there are moments when even I cringe at the intellectual exhibitionism. With the important exception of “Diamonds,” Bök’s writing is strong on aphorism and weak in empathy. In place of an emotional connection, the short poems offer the reader marginal notes from physics class, mnemonics from chemistry cheatsheets, and alliterations of Bök’s favourite terms from dead languages. Perhaps the revisions to Crystallography, such as the omission of the subtitle “Book 1 of Information Theory,” suggest that Bök is growing tired of search engines that mistake his collection for a textbook. But many poems still resemble those Mensa puzzles that are marketed to people who like things difficult, abstract, and trivial. Real geniuses have bigger questions to ponder, and Bök may address them yet.
An overbearing obsession with form is not a problem affecting Mark Laba’s Dummy Spit. Although the promotional blurb on the back cover advertises his book as “hardcore surrealism,” “flacid” is the term that appears more often in Laba’s writing. Laba, who writes an “Adventures in Dining” column for The Vancouver Province, appears to have raided the dormotories at UBC in his spare time and collected all the post-party profundities that the budding writers were tearing up the morning after. He collages these fragments together and dutifully changes the subject every four seconds, but the overall poems seem arbitrarily put together. Laba can craft an intriguing phrase, but when one witnesses a line break separate an article from its subject for no rhythmic purpose, one can be certain that the design is random. Only Laba’s humour and flair for the grotesque gives this collection a compelling edge. His parodies of ventriloquism, in particular the play on vaudeville punchlines in the concluding poem, supply some hilarious and artful moments. More typical, unfortunately, are the poems where Laba strings together one or two words per line. This trick makes sentences look like poetry on the page, but to my mind it serves no other purpose than to get the Canada Council to support the pulp and paper industry.
This industry is responsible for the “pulpy sulphur rain” falling on the hometown of Nanaimo poet and art critic Peter Culley. Inspired by a reference to a village on Vancouver Island in George Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, Culley imagines in Hammertown how Nanaimo might have appeared to the Oulipo poet. Culley does not paint a realist portrait, but rather seeks to capture “the syntax of place” as Perec might have perceived it. I doubt that the syntax of either Paris or Hammertown compels a farmer to remark that “cattle from untasted fields do / bitterly return,” but overall the collection provides some interesting interpretative challenges. Given the Perec epigram, one hunts for acrostic-telestics, hidden algorithms, omitted letters of the alphabet, or some guiding principle for the shifting subject matter. For example, a third of the collection consists of sequences of seven-line stanzas, each containing roughly seven beats per line. This form conveys a sense of rhythm and looks very nice on the page, but in what else the poems cohere I have no idea. Culley, like Laba, hopes that the tactility of words and the delirious struggle of the mind to cope with incessant change are pleasure enough. One may wish to worship with Culley on the “prayer-rug of faded beach,” but he no sooner introduces this rug than he pulls it out from under the reader. Dizzy and confused, the reader lands in a world where “speech or its opposite / flutters the blinds / at the moment of sleep.” In short bursts this dizziness is quiet pleasing, but longer episodes induce sleep after all.
- What's New? by Moberley Luger
Books reviewed: Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets by Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry by Carmine Starnino, and Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry by derek beaulieu, Jason Christie, and Angela Rawlings
- Compelling Spells by Lally Grauer
Books reviewed: The Quality of Light by Richard Wagamese and Love Medicine and One Song by Gregory Scofield
- Inside the Darkness by Joan Crate
Books reviewed: The Blue Hour of the Day by Lorna Crozier
- In a Minor Key by Linda Lamont-Stewart
Books reviewed: Footnotes to the Book of Job by Elizabeth Brewster
- Aesthetic Distances by R. W. Stedingh
Books reviewed: A Second Earth: Poems Selected and New by Harold Enrico, Collected Poems by Eldon Grier, and Tom Thomson and Other Poems by George Whipple
MLA: Rae, Ian. Crystal Methods. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 105 - 106)
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