The View from Under the Bookcase

1. The king of poetry has died.

The king of poetry has died;
his daughter will decide
what laureate reigns after him
(whoever verses her riddle right).

Among Canadian candidates our Phoeb,
lately come up from the veritimes
with us, his rural retinue
transformed by grant’ma’s magic wand:
domestic vermin, sheep, geese, pigs,
chickens in glad rags—and his Dad’s
old pickup playing a Cadillac.

Each afternoon we’re all in form,
disguised so donkeys look like dons
and bureaucrats half-assed,
rodents and rustics radiant.
Phoeb has a ball.

I, most long-toothed of all the rats,
am woman til midnight. Then the rest
tout-de-suite back to the pet-motel.
But I stick around
(the view from under the bookcase isn’t bad),
I use these moments to compose
a kind of requiem for Phoeb,
although right now he seems just fine.

Dear Phoeb, our mini-Hamlet, sow’s heir, writes
his poems on tiny post-it notes
which he re-orders every night
and snips up ever tinier.
Stirring his stew of consonants,
he takes pot luck.

My poetry is different.
I need the sentence to emerge,
dragging its long narrative—
(but Time, who shortens every tail,
stalks me and Phoeb alike.
My marks along the wainscot fade;
the grant won’t last.)

2. Deus ex machina

The prince of disassembly, Phoeb.
His father’s scrapyard—body parts,
hub caps, knee caps, unlicenses,
machines dismade, shafts, shards, and screws—
is briar patch for br’er Phoebus where
inception and perception can not meet
in the unpicking of a text.

Phoeb makes a desert, the desired
(for Dad’s desertion consulate) effect.
He flipflops words and alphabets
in palindromic particles or petty cash
(small change). Rupture as rapture—
and doesn’t he
didn’t he?)

Sometimes he almost makes some sense
with his eclectic mini-mots,
yet, listening, I want to cry.
The courtiers see him as a priest
who makes the world with its loose scrap
communicant—(not that he thinks
it holy or a whole—)
a kind of lyric liar, or
a mirror of the glass shard in their hearts
(truth being, as they know it, out to lunch).

3. The riddle is: what does the princess want?

She wants her will, this daughter of the king.
But no one expected her to rule;
her will is want. She wants avowal, narrative.
Yet Phoeb, who only hears the vowel,
can charm her with his master bits,
the moving fracas of decay
he thinks is life.

I, too, feel woman’s tenderness
for his long, sloping shoulders, sagging gut,
his tenor voice that seems so sad;
in the refracted light of dusk
he seems to shine.
But he is not safe, my Phoeb, my prince,
my snapper-up of trifles, semi-breve.
The court grows tired of sortilege.
Once crowned he reigns
like a month of April, a fool moon,
and sings as if to wake the world.

But dream time ends. The princess sets
the riddle she must always ask
from poetry, her body’s need:
Some things want faith. But Phoeb,
who scrambles all things consonant,
erodently says “vole.”
Encrypted is not clear intent.
His dissolution failed the test.
We rats turned tail and scuttled from the hall.

4. And afterwards?

Phoeb’s bob-tailed bits
like dust in moon-beams recombine
into a thousand other things,
living a sort of semi-life, as he does,
in the narratives
of time, and change, and change of mind.

The rest of us left the palace for
the ports of rapture, monuments
to transit, concourse then discourse.
The jets loom down. Below the baggage carousels
we lurk, making our foodstall forays early dawn,
and live on crumbs and ketchup packs
and the occasional paperback
in faith, sometime, our flight will come
(as yet unnumbered and uncalled).

Back on the farm my sisters hide
uncourted and unheard of, and
unangeled, but
their poetry
like the low lichens of the earth,
lovely, endangered, larcenous,
resists, maintains.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “The View from Under the Bookcase”?

“The View From Under the Bookcase” is a narrative poem full of puns which bases itself on two stories, the story of Cinderella, and the story of the opera Turandot. In both of these cases somebody comes to court to win a royal marriage. I used Cinderella’s magical transformations, and Turandot’s riddle contest. The poem was inspired by the public performances of the very good Canadian poet bp nichol, whose work is critically admired, but which because of its highly inventive style has never become popular. The poem is a playful comment on fashion in poetry. The princess represents the general public, and the prince who initially wins commendation is clearly writing in a very avant-garde post-modernist fashion, which impresses the critics, but the princess just wants what she generally wants: poems about love that she can easily understand. The rat is also not a popular poet, and, she notes, narrative poems are also not in fashion.

What poetic techniques did you use in “The View from Under the Bookcase”?

I do not find it useful to talk about “technique” in a poem; I am more comfortable with the word “style”—e.g. is this poem written in a relaxed conversational style, or in a meditative and very personal style, or in a joking style, or in a musical or in a chanting style, etc.

This poem “The View from Under the Bookcase” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 169 (Summer 2001): 102-105.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.