Poetry Is No Joke (But an Endless and Repetitive One)
The quest for originality yields a great deal of hip and hollow idiosyncrasy, and only occasionally, something whose oddity seems driven by an earnest puzzling about language and the world rather than by self-indulgent posturing. One of the symptoms of this more enduring strangeness is the sense of a gradual uncovering or discovering. Things you didn’t notice before turn up to remind you more is there than meets the eye. You can’t open a poem like a present—you don’t just get a poem once you’ve opened it, and in fact, a good poem is a gift you can never (completely) open. As such, it should make interesting noises when you shake it. Macgregor Card is a difficult poet. His poems make wonderful noises when you shake them.
Card conceived his first book, Duties of an English Foreign Secretary, as a “companion volume to Karen Weiser’s To Light Out” (Ugly Duckling Press, 2010), according to an author’s note. I have unfortunately not had the occasion to read To Light Out, but I should hope the present review would encourage readers to seek out Weiser’s work in addition to Card’s, since the qualities of the latter no doubt reflect as many qualities in the former. For the moment, and pending a future reading of To Light Out, I’ll discuss Duties alone.
I see, said the blind man
Card borrowed the title of Duties from the 19th-century poet Sydney Dobell, labeled “spasmodic” because of his ostentatious mannerism, of which Card provides an example in an epigraph to his own book:
Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the winter stark,
Oh the level dark,
On the wold, the wold, the wold!
This excessive reliance on repetition might suggest a naïve belief that the device’s expressive potential could compensate for vacuity of content, although Poe’s well-known “Bells” displays the same excess. Card’s peculiar brand of wit suggests that he is sensitive to the parodic potential of the inane and self-deflating hyperbole such devices suggest:
in the song that is so true
no ship moves up to the one star night
without a plan to execute
in perpetuity, no no no no no no no
No, my boy, no no no no no no no no no no no
No no no, my boy, no no no no no no no no no no no
(“That Old Woolly Bloodletting”)
Here, the comical deluge of verbal tics reminiscent of a paternal old man (“no, my boy”) follows an archetypically lyrical evocation involving songs, stars and a ship: such anti-romantic jibes have become a familiar feature of poetry.
But the Dobell epigraph, by suggesting the comedy of our everyday, futile verbal gestures— “Little bit hungry / Yes so am I / Little bit hungry / yes so am I,” one poem concludes spastically—sets a kind of interpretive trap for the unwary reader. It seems to prepare us for a catalogue of contemporary poetry’s rehearsals of Dadaism; it also signals a recuperative project at work throughout the book. Dobell represents a forgotten literary curiosity, mocked by his contemporaries, that the epigraph displays as a potential model. Card’s writing does not resemble Dobell’s, but explores excentric and excessive language, including repetition. As Card writes, “What is there to sing / but a round?”—a statement that suggests Card is not deriding Dobell’s whirling and cyclical iterations, but admires them. Choosing Dobell as a visible literary antecedent reflects Card’s audacious reinvention of the literary past: at the risk of losing his reader, his poems are sprinkled with curiosities like Dobell as well as a few well-known figures. This eclectic and erudite exploration of tradition forms a singularly odd personal library reminiscent of Apollinaire’s Alcools or Pound’s Cantos. For the reader willing to explore this library, Duties reveals a more frankly lyrical worldview than the book’s off-kilter absurdity and apparent fondness for triviality at first suggests.
Let me present a few examples of this apparently haphazard archeology:
I hate to confess
sometimes I feel
by a formal quality of sky
(“To Friend-tree of Counted Days”)
Card apologizes here for identifying with the expansive sentiment Gerard Manley Hopkins experienced when faced with certain natural patterns which, for the Jesuit poet, reflected the perfection of divine order, and which he referred to as inscape. Card’s “cowed trust” and “formal quality of sky” very likely alludes to Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”: “Glory be to God for dappled things— / For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow.” The allusion suggest a much more obviously lyrical sentiment than Card’s deliberately casual delivery leads the reader to believe; “To Friend-tree of Counted Days”, as the title indicates, is a perfectly recognizable elegiac meditation on a tree and the seasons:
I wish I was not
on a burning tree
but a tree that was
really on fire
The apparent contradiction betrays the implicit metaphorical value of the “burning” tree, whose leaves are turning red in autumn, in which season the poem ends:
What is there to counter
but fall? (emphasis mine)
The idea of countering fall implies a resistance to inexorable change, while the immediately preceding lines echo the theatrum mundi topos, then the End of the Line (death’s “barrier”), the cyclical shape of the seasons, and Horace’s carpe diem:
How long is the comedy
How far to the barrier
What is there to sing
but a round?
What is there to seize
but a while?
What is there to counter
Even the epigraph to “To Friend-tree of Counted Days” insists on the poem’s preoccupation with sublime elegiac sentiment, quoting the French poet Rene Char. Another atypical reference for American poetry, Char is known for his singularly humorless oracular obscurity. Card playfully presents his hermetic epigraph in English translation, but leaves the title of Char’s poem, “Effacement du peuplier,” in French. The title translates as “The poplar’s erasure” —another elegy.
Say fromage! (or, Vengeance is ours)
Card displays his relationship to France in other poems. His author’s note specifies that the poem “My Donkey, My Dear” “is based on a French nursery rhyme, and the same poem is dedicated to Claire and Olivier Brossard, French friends of Card, who has also produced idiosyncratic translations of contemporary French poets such as Philippe Beck. “Le soleil et le police dog” playfully mixes the two languages. Less obvious is the grammatical meditation at the heart of a two-line “Poem”:
London, it is very ornery
Heathrow Airport, it is a nudist colony
In English, these sentences sound strange. We may read them as appositions: “London” and “it is very ornery” have nothing to do with each other; the name of the city has been randomly inserted at the head of an unrelated proposition. One might otherwise view these as a form of anacoluthon displaying a duplicated grammatical subject: London = it; Heathrow Airport = it. This syntactic arrangement in fact mimics that of the French native speaker with approximate English. In colloquial spoken French, these duplications are so frequent that they do not register as solecisms, though they are discouraged in written French. “Le francais, c’est une langue difficile” translates literally as “French, it is a difficult language”; a sentence like this one is banal among French speakers. The hypothesis is all the more plausible since this “Frenchman” is making disparaging comments about England.
In light of these observations, the title of Card’s book calls for a rereading. The title could refer to a person occupying the English monarchy’s position of Foreign Secretary. It could also designate a Foreign Secretary in the employ of any country, but who happens to be English. But the title might also suggest a paradoxical Englishman who is also a foreigner in England. Hence the poem “Afternoon of a Foreigner,” which parodies Mallarme’s “Afternoon of a Faun”: here, the foreigner is naturally excluded and vilified, as though his foreign speech were unpleasant to the ear:
You ought to learn English and carry a gun
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You may not enter to talk for the night
You may not enter to talk
or enter to rest
All of these secretive games involve matters of translation, a recurrent preoccupation throughout the collection. “Afternoon of a Foreigner” mentions a Roman
Hail / Farewell Hail / Farewell
The explanation for this apparently unmotivated statement, apart from an association between hail and the rain mentioned in a previous line, lies in the word vale, which in Latin means both hello and goodbye. Likewise the word salut in French, whose equivocation Rimbaud famously exploited in A Season in Hell: “Cela s’est passé. Je sais aujourd’hui saluer la beaute” (“This occurred. Today I know how to greet / bid farewell to beauty”). “Ursus Memento Mori” plays with both the Latin ursus (bear) and the meanings of the word bear in English. At the end of the poem, Card offers a translation of a pair of latin verses:
Ad astra per aspera, ursi
non numero nisi serenas
To the stars, through hardship
I only mark the hours of the day. (p. 95)
In fact, this is a mistranslation disguising a series of puns. The phrase horas non numero nisi serenas is one of many mottoes written on sundials, but it is already a pun, translating the idiomatic “I count only the sunny hours”, but also the literal “I count only the hours of contentment” (serenas, serene). I have found it translated as “I count only the bright hours,” a fine way to import the ambiguity into English. But Card’s Latin verses replace horas with ursi, so that his lines, translated literally, mean To the stars, through hardship, I only mark the bears of the day. Earlier in the poem, Card attempts another deliberately mistranslated variation on his parodic ursi non numero nisi serenas: “The bear does not speak against the sun.”
These Bears of Time, of course, are not Carebears. This memento mori reminds us repeatedly that we are each one doomed to die: the word “bear” and its many variations disguise a singularly insistent meditation on mortality, wrapped in dense layers of multilingual puns, many of them variations on familiar proverbs in various languages. The hardships mentioned in the Latin are, of course, all of the things in life that are so hard to . . . bear, as the first line of the poem reminds us: “The bears are too much to suffer.” The visual presentation of the poem is odd; a number of words are littered to the left of certain lines:
Come vary my iron plate
bear. Stand a little closer to me
bear. Now a little further
bear. [. . .]
As these positional adjustments suggest, one might say that these marginal jottings are bearing to the left. Or just a little more to the right. Move back. There, you’ve got it: don’t move: say cheese.
But what do bears have to do with time? The bare truth of the matter is that we are all going to croak, like frogs. The French word for bears, ours (pronounced “oorss”) derives directly from the Latin ursus. But the French have a great deal of difficulty with the aspirated h of the English language. Card’s bears might therefore be those of a Frenchman mispronouncing, à la française, the English word hours.
Some readers may find these puns difficult to, er, tolerate. Card himself notes that he can “hardly [barely?] suppress [his] gorge,” which might be a mistranslation of the French j’ai du mal à ne pas rendre gorge, i.e. it’s hard for me to keep from vomiting. Personally, I find these half-hidden word-games delightful.
Friend, Lover, Foreigner, Pariah: the Poet’s many roles
In “Afternoon of a foreigner,” Card exploits the role of the poet-pariah, the troublingly different social element, the eternal Foreigner. Similarly, the final poem opens with “A boy lifting a foreign whistle,” which strikes an ultimately melancholic concluding note. A similar sense of difference and exclusion marks some of the most intense pieces in Duties, such as “Shipfilm,” in which the poet seems to pursue friends who flee from him, poignantly echoing Wyatt’s “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”:
There might be friends along a shore
I will not know unless I follow
There might be friends below the water
Moving toward the other shore
I need to see where they are moving
And why they hurry from me
The forsaken poet then walks into the ocean. Card also invests an inverse role: that of the poet-seducer, the insatiable erotomaniac, who, unlike the repellent pariah, attracts irresistibly. The “Libertine” is featured in several poems sprinkled with allusions to the Don Juan tradition, or to the story of Bluebeard, reimagined as a universal emblem of the unrepentant lover:
Your own colossus I’ll invite
To you, you, libertine
With your beard of friends
You and you and you and you
Speak loudly and stay
Speak loudly to us and stay with us
To see us on our way
To nothing, together
The Libertine’s “beard of friends” designates him as Bluebeard’s symbolic double whose many “wives” represent the lover’s many conquests. Here, Card temporarily fills the avenging role of the “colossus,” the Stone Commander who dines with Don Juan and drags him to hell. The Commander-poet passes sentence, aiming his deadly stone index finger at anonymous members of his audience, as though every reader were a Bluebeard or a Libertine: “You and you and you and you.” Those who “stay” with the Commander are indeed soon sent on their way to “nothing.”
These two roles, the Lover (or the Friend) and the Friendless Foreigner, have a symmetric relationship throughout the book. While the lonely poet of “Shipfilm” walks into the sea in search of friends, in the “Libertine’s Punishment,” we watch as the poet-libertine is “grabbed by the arm” and dragged or sent to the bottom of the sea, in another variation of the Don Juan myth. The poet’s stone heart, like the cement shoes of a Mob victim, sends him to the bottom of the sea:
I was grabbed by the arm near the highway
Then grabbed by the arm near the shore
Until grabbed by the leg near the stone
at the ocean’s floor
The progression suggests a kidnapping, followed by manhandling at the docks, ending in a post-mortem farewell.
The attraction to figures like Bluebeard and Don Juan (particularly via Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni, another favorite and recurrent reference) suggests a fascination with folklore and collective myth. “The Sleeping Monk of Innisfree,” for instance, refers to an Irish folktale closely akin to the Rip Van Winkle story, in which a particularly sinful monk of Innisfree gets lost after too much drinking, and awakens many years later in a kneeling position: he had slept (or prayed . . . ) so long that his knees had worn two deep ruts in the stone where he had knelt. Card also enjoys echoing proverbs or quotations which have been absorbed into collective memory. “Once a liar, always a judge” revises the proverbial expression “once a priest, always a priest” and its many variants, but the two terms imply hypocrisy rather than self-identity: those who judge are no better than those they judge; liars are always judges (of other people). In “The Merman’s Gift,” whose title hints at dialogue with another literary, and possibly folkloric source, Card hilariously reinvents JFK’s famous saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”:
you are your friend’s own family
but you are your friend’s own family
This comical proverb equates friendship and shipwreck, as though we wash up on the shores of our friends. But the shipwreck scenario also suggests an ambiguous relationship to friendship borne out in many other poems: “The Rondel Friendship” hints at the power and ambivalence at work in every relationship (“a friend is only a machine / delivering consent”). Every friendship may become a friendshipwreck.
Portrait of the Artist as Professor Cuthbert Calculus
I’ve hardly scratched the surface of Card’s collection of literary allusions. “Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death,” as the title indicates, fuses almost direct quotation of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling with a meditation on marriage and fidelity; “I am the Teacher of Athletes” is a quote from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”; “The Giant and the Hunchback” may refer to a scene in Rabelais’ Quart livre, or to a play by Alfred Jarry called Par la taille featuring a Giant and a Hunchback; “Yield to Total Elation” is the title of Achilles G. Rizzoli’s series of posthumously published drawings of an imaginary world exhibition; “Studies of Sensation and Event” is the title of an obscure volume by the poet Ebenezer Jones (1843). Many more allusions probably escape me.
Card evidently inherits no canon, but invents his own. One might compare this relationship to the literary past to the foreigner’s relationship to a language and culture “from the outside.” In France, scholars and writers often quote Proust’s remark that the great writer reinvents his own language and makes it into a foreign language, an affirmation popularized by Gilles Deleuze. Card’s handcrafted tradition, distorted proverbs and often cockeyed syntax suggest that he would take Proust’s affirmation quite literally: I’ve already observed how his language often resembles that of the ESL speaker (English as a second language), as though poetry according to Card bore a kinship to flawed translation, or more generally to a kind of perpetual process of happy or tragic misunderstandings. In “Hey Friend,” “A friend says to a corpse, ‘I can say anything to you, and you can understand,’” denouncing friendship as a kind of one-way communication. (As it turns out, “Hey Friend” concludes “I am about to show you that you can never have seen me, anywhere”: this friend is anonymous). The friend’s message to a corpse closely resembles Card’s translation into table-ese in “A Chair is Not a Singing Man”:
I know you hear this
“beef needs salt”
But table understands
Duties is littered with similar situations of mistransmission, non-transmission or foggy perception, as if all of this poetry were spoken (and heard) from very far away. The initial phrase of “You jacket!,” a kind of insult-poem, appears in this light as a misspoken jackass, while “Ursus memento mori” resembles an assemblage of translation errors. In the title-poem “Duties of an English Foreign Secretary,” the poet repeats, “I only hear those friends sawing in the fog,” and evokes people who
the words “light company at four”
and a “mall to leaf through eye-correction
literature at eight” . . .
To “face perform” suggests exaggerated facial expressions destined for a lip-reader who seems unable to decipher a clear message. This lip-reader may be myopic, since this “eye-correction / literature” seems appropriate for the poet’s inability to see his friends through the “fog.”
“Overheard in the Bathysphere” is explicitly written around the conceit of the mistransmitted message. A bathysphere is a submersible device for exploring the depths of the sea (bathus, from the Greek, signifies the deep). This underwater excursion echoes the deep sea poet of “The Libertine’s Punishment” and “Shipfilm” (but the deep-sea voyage is also a companion to the voyage into the clouds evoked in “Gone to Earth”). Inside the bathysphere, sounds seem distorted by the water and the acoustics of the submersible:
Actionable wrong ear
Delay, I thought you said a man field
Like Hergé’s Tryphon Tournesol (alias Cuthbert Calculus, according to the English translation), the poet’s “wrong ear” has apparently misheard the word “minefield” (the poem’s “municipal axe” might likewise refer to “municipal acts”). “I thought you said you were in danger,” the poet later misunderstands. Even the title might be fruitfully misunderstood. The poet mentions an “observation tower / at cross-bathos / with applauding audience,” hinting at an alternate etymology according to which bathysphere derives not from bathus, but from bathos, a Greek concept which corresponds to a sudden shift from the sublime to the trivial or absurd, producing a punchline-effect that comically deflates the initial high-flown gesture. In this sense, the poet finds himself enclosed inside a bubble that makes everything appear absurd or trivial, not unlike a high observation tower from which grand human affairs resemble those of an ant-colony. To be at “cross-bathos” resembles being at “cross-purposes,” working in contrary directions. By analogy, what seems important to so many appears trivial to the bathos-sphere’s inhabitant—and vice-versa, since Card regularly laces his jokes with melancholy.
This reversibility of pathos and bathos might lie somewhere at the heart of Card’s writing, to the extent that it returns us to our initial observations concerning the Sydney Dobell epigraph, which seems at once to lampoon and offer homage to the ridiculed 19th-century poet. Card’s delightful, oddball humor often seems to apologize, as in “To Friend-Tree of Counted Days,” for the book’s intense lyricism. But the book ultimately best rewards the reader sensitive at once to our sad comedy, and to our farcical tragedy.