Epic Perceptions

Reviewed by Carl Watts

New books by Shaun Robinson and Marc di Saverio engage with the perceptions and experiences that comprise our lives. Robinson focuses on the minutiae of a gently adrift adulthood, while di Saverio tackles sweeping societal and institutional oppressions. One yields to the current of stimulus; the other musters a defiant, unwavering assertion of self. The biggest divergence is in the poetics that emerge from and articulate their encounters with the world.

Robinson’s opening poem, “Greyhound Depot, Cache Creek,” plays with measures of time, shifting from “decades ago, // in the incomprehensible era of Kenny Rogers” to the gift of a watch “when you turned sixteen that’s never kept // the right time— 3:02 could be 3:05, or midnight, / or 1978.” “Trivia Night” adds scales of exploration, invention, and history, recalling that Vasco da Gama “discovered whatever it was— / Florida, maybe, or fire, or the fountain / of youth” before considering that the helicopter has existed only “since 1936. The zipper was invented / in 1891, and before that we lived / without it.” The poem’s ending combines these modes of apprehension into an image of memory, forgetting, and habit:

You know you’ll wake on your bathroom
floor, the toilet glowing above you
like a ceramic moon, like a match
struck on your zipper in the dark room
of everything you’ve forgotten.

Many poems employ alcohol to evoke a barely detectable circularity. “Sunomono” moves from skyscrapers that look like “a shelf of high-end / vodkas” to a “tiny city” in “the cracked-open television / in the alley where I leave / my empties”; in “New Year’s Day,” the nervous brio of a hangover is an only somewhat ironized microcosm of the decision to move to a new city: “I have no choice—I obey. Why not? / It was impulse that brought me here, farther / from home than I’ve ever been.” But the mundane alienations of the book exist independent of intoxication. “Shared Accommodation” highlights one’s realization of being interchangeable and smooths out the accompanying unpleasantness with the repetitions of inane chatter:

Ignore the photos on the fridge—
that’s who you’ll be replacing.
Temporary is okay, in the sense
that everything is temporary and okay.

Robinson’s easy, conversational style belies a purposeful minimalism. (All the poems from his 2017 chapbook Manmade Clouds are here, many with shorter lines and more regular breaks.) There’s just enough echo to bring out the ghostly patterns and paradoxes of personal growth. That “Annie, Annie, Are You Okay?” voices this dynamic with a CPR dummy (“Day after day, I die in the mailroom’s / manila light”) underscores the way life, death, and crisis remain comprehensible to us as still more ready-made, replicable scenes and remarks.

In Crito di Volta, di Saverio’s eponymous character, emerging from a decade in an institution, breathlessly asserts his beliefs and persona. The self-described epic encompasses Crito’s bond with Flavia Vamorri; their fight against abuses in mental health institutions; and Crito’s Mortarism, a movement against the “light-blocking ceilings of present Western ‘Verse,’ ‘Art’ and ‘Democracy.’” Reviews have praised di Saverio’s passion and the complexity of his protagonist. The book is certainly ambitious, incorporating epistolary form, translation, visual poetry, and an electric mixture of classical and vernacular language that at its best recalls George Elliott Clarke.

Still, it’s hard to discuss the book without mentioning the volume and relentlessness of Crito’s monologues. Here’s an example from a letter to Flavia, after Crito declares that “the amphetamine’s working!”:

Rattle the world harder than the guerrilla machine-gunning
at the start of her first battle.
Be in me as the brusque verity of a cadaver, and not as
anything hazy: an Afghan field of poppies for the
unrequited lover.
Have me in the intensity of Christ on the cross, a second before
he gave, and not in the calm comfort of a lover in my arms.

It’s epic on stimulants, alright, and the trip lasts for much of the book’s 177 pages. The exhaustion will be compounded for many readers given the tirades against political correctness (“with which I have divided and conquered your conversations, closing you into your small talk, alone!”), sometimes flippant discussions of sexual assault, and ham-fisted set pieces (like when “a girl wearing a blue hijab” appears and asks, “What are your thoughts on 9/11, Crito?”).

For this reviewer, what rankles isn’t the violation of progressive tenets but the culmination of these attacks in prescriptions for poetic authenticity:

               Drivers of their lines of “verse” are failing their beginners’ tests, but “poet”-editor-professors let them graduate with honours, yes!
               The “poets” write prose and tailor their “poetics” to their own inabilities—thereby re-defining poetry as prose—then accuse our few true poets of not knowing how to write verses at all!

Some social justice discourse certainly reduces individuals to cardboard cutouts or repeats ungainly mantras. But, neither does di Saverio’s larger-than-life thinking and feeling and shirt-ruffles-billowing-in-the-wind Rückenfigur express objective truth in a form we all ought to learn from. Whatever authenticity exists in poetic language lies in its artifice, constraint, or indirectness—going back to M. H. Abrams, it’s pretty much anything that’s stylized to such a degree as to differentiate it from strictly communicative prose. Declaring what real poetry is as part of a thirty-page harangue that obliterates irony or uncertainty (or negative capability!) misses this point, even if it convinces us of Crito’s fervour.

There are also subtleties that emerge over the book’s long haul. The landscape and landmarks of di Saverio’s native Hamilton, Ontario, are rendered not heavy-handedly, or even deliberately, but as part of the comings and goings of Crito’s small network of friends and acquaintances. As we grapple with the relentless unreality of Crito’s journey, a city we don’t often think about emerges into vivid detail, its invisible normies taking buses on named streets, looking out over the Escarpment, or going down the hill to Jackson Square or McMaster University. It brings to mind Robinson’s subtly augmenting repetitions—the patterns through which our lives find shelter and shuffle oddly forward—even as Crito’s hubristic pronouncements churn under the power of their own lake effect.

This review “Epic Perceptions” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Mar. 2021. Web.

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