Surrealism, Spoonerism, Lyric

  • Steve Venright
    The Least You Can Do Is Be Magnificent: Selected and New Writings. Anvil Press (purchase at
Reviewed by James Gifford

If Steve Venright gave only the minimum, it would still be magnificent. This collection not only recollects the past but is “a light from the highest floor . . . out toward the future,” and in his “Foretext” Venright promises the magnificence of what is yet to come. So, a “selected works” seems utopian and premature—yet very welcome. “Transvocations” opens in a tone replete with contradictions, juxtapositions, and puns. Subverting vocations marks the collection as equal parts radical social critique and spoonerism. “Mesmermaids are hypnotically entrancing female servants” seems to double as a poetic reinvention of a Xanth novel by Piers Anthony and revolutionary subversion. “Transvocations Two” tickles the uncomfortable edges of “Conquistadorks,” “Atrocity Planners,” and “Obliterary agents.” There’s delight and discomfort in the contradictions Venright makes visible, like some emerging class consciousness chafing against the reification of the book itself.

This exercise in contradictions occupies Alessandro Porco’s afterword. He follows Clint Burnham’s attention to small-press production in Allegories of Publishing (1991) by retracing Venright’s production history. This intrigues deeply. Where Burnham postulates a utopianism in the small press, so much like Sisley Huddleston’s “published by us as well as written by us and read by us” of the modernist little magazines, Porco points to the fetishized textual object with collector value and rarity that eventually becomes “literary ephemera that’s difficult to find and expensive to buy.” This edition is the radical break via Venright “owning his own labour” in the neoliberal age, hence making this affordable edition possible. Yet contradictions persist. My copy is stamped “NOT FOR RESALE” to restrict its freedom of movement and participation in capitalist exchange. Precisely these contradictions give Venright’s work its vitality.

Where Porco (and Venright) point to the material history of the poetic corpus, there is also a distinctly personal gesture. “Ode to Joy” and “Scenes from Childhood” seem to voice a personal relationship to Schiller and Schumann, both disrupting with humour while reflecting on the intensely unique stream of one’s own childhood experiences. Likewise, where Porco traces out the fiscal constraints on small-press production in the Tortoiseshell & Black Press (based on its reliance on grants and the gift economy), these conditions of production are equally entangled with the intimate lives of the individuals. Perhaps the most enticing gesture comes through Venright’s connections to surrealism. Where Porco points to Mervyn Peake and Maurice Sendak, a different post-surrealist tradition trembles near the surface. Peake’s prose confessed itself Romantic, and it’s impossible not to compare Porco’s work collecting Venright’s Straunge Wunder; or, The Metalirious Pleasures of Neuralchemy and the dual texts of “Manta Ray Jack and the Crew of the Spooner: An Unsignified Detour” to Peter Loeffler and Jack Stewart’s Michael Bullock: Selected Works, or even to insist less on flarf and more on an echo of the neo-surrealism of Murray Morton in Limbo: A Paraliterary Journal of Survivalism—all surrealisms that kept faith with the Romantic lyric.

The least of this book revels in magnificence.

This review “Surrealism, Spoonerism, Lyric” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 171-172.

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