Jazz, Bees, and Manifestos
- Walid Bitar (Author)
Bastardi Puri. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Pier Giorgio Di Cicco (Author)
Dead Men of the Fifties. Mansfield Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Andy Weaver (Author)
were the bees. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Aurian Haller
While these three books are distinguished by themes of music, torture, and love, it is mostly their narrative tone which sets them apart. Weaver’s playful first book begins with strong traditional lyrics such as “Tangle,” “Sparrows,” and “The Drought,” as well as the experimental “My ignorance of Mina Loy,” which is based on words he looked up while reading Loy. In the midst of such gems, however, are such lines as “achingly beautiful,” and “Did i just not hear / a tree falling in the forest?” which pale in comparison.
“were the bees” (the sequence) is an innovative poem based on an interview with Robert Duncan. Weaver remarks in an interview on experimentation, “I want to be surprised by the outcome, rather than knowing what the poem will say before I begin,” and revealing unpredictability is precisely what he accomplishes. By stitching poems out of the first line of every page, then the second line in succession, he arrives at surprising stanzas such as “an important aspect / begins to be limited in message, and finally people / have their own contents.”
Weaver concludes with the ghazal sequence, “Small Moons: Ghazals,” and a nod to Solomon’s twin gazelles. With a cast that includes George Jones, Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Sanford Fleming, The Flintstones and the quintessential ghazal man, Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan (aka Ghalib), there is much to enjoy in Weaver’s wit and downright funny Youngmanesque one-liners: “the truth is in the putting.” The speaker warns, “there are no great epiphanies here”; however, the poems seem freighted by their promise of depth: “i reach after answers.” An uneven, but rewarding book.
Bastardi Puri is true farrago: half manifesto, half absurdist drama. Bitar does what workshoppees are forbidden to do—deal with abstractions. “When I’m abstract,” muses his speaker, “I know it’s escapist.” All the same, Eternity, Fate, Morality, Time, Art, The Self, Reality, Perception, History, and Man become characters in his tragicomedy. To back him up, Bitar calls on heavyweights from Greek mythology and Shakespearian tragedies. His bizarre narratives deal with questions of representation, the treachery of language, cultural identity and the spectre of Big Brother with striking originality. The problem with abstractions is that they occasionally lead to such platitudes as “what’s seen is not the thing itself” and “The views you think are there are illusions,” which crop up too often throughout the book, instead of the more agile “I hope when what we say steps out of our mouths / for a smoke, it denies it was ever inside.”
Bitar has the songwriter’s talent for turning a worn expression on its ear. Some ring predictably: “Like a call waiting, it’s put on hold.” Others are splendidly funny: “we’re . . . fired to win at any cost even if it means / being put in kilns by hippies, and coming out ceramic.” His dark humour ranges from pointing to the two asses in “assassin,” to the zany, “They wolf down asparagus so that the pee / passed on miscreants is memorable.”
Formally, Bitar is the more traditional of the three, evoking the sonnet, the quatrain and couplet and then deliberately disregarding their formal rigidity to rich effect. He takes himself a little too seriously, however, with the dog-eared postmodern refrain, “What, I wonder, lies under my lines?” and I miss the lightness of Weaver’s verse.
In Dead Men of the Fifties, Di Cicco becomes apologist for an era of decadence and jazz in a dizzy tour of a city and its musical stars. The tone is unabashedly celebratory, demonstrating the speaker’s affection for his onetime hometown, for the big jazz numbers, the crooners, the local dives: “Baltimore, my Baltimore / I am your public diary.” “What an Adult Would Watch” is particularly poignant, offering one of the few quiet notes of reason in an otherwise rosy-fevered pitch: “Keep in mind we are virtually all strolling / into the comprehensive ideas of when we / were kids.”
The second section shifts in tone and chronicles the desperate innocence of ordinary people. Everyone, it seems, is “ working for happiness. / To find a state that glows.” Underneath the “splendour of the age” lies also a quiet undercurrent of desperation rooted in the architecture of the suburbs, “Because nothing can be hurt here.”
The last section is a humorous take on Hollywood personalities, their hairdressers, and the nature of art. Although there are some strong poems such as “ I Worship You” and “His Memory,” the remainder lack the weight of earlier poems. Also, throughout the collection, Di Cicco has a tendency to fall back too often on forms of declaration and lists, such as “there are,” “this is,” “there is,” “I am,” and “it is” to move the poems along. Otherwise, this is an elegant collection.
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- Translator Retranslated by Kevin McNeilly
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MLA: Haller, Aurian. Jazz, Bees, and Manifestos. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 156 - 158)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.