There is much to be said for knotty poetry (also for naughty poetry, but that shall be another review). Norm Sibum’s latest collection is a great one for the tangles, as for the untangling. The Pangborn Defence, mostly epistolary poems addressed to an eminently Googlable and occasionally imaginary bunch, is playful and polemical. And so overgrown that the reader is dizzied by the “whim of some poet’s capering caprice.”
The intellect is relentless and the language lashing:
Overworlds and underworlds—mutually reinforcing
Fall short of systemic collapse for now
If only because the bravado needed
To stage the apocalypse lacks a tenor …
Yikes. Many won’t wade in very far to discover what the pastiche of acerbic oddities might amount to, but the patient few will find gems—
Check yourself for feathers: you’ve gone against
The rules, arrived at the limits of natural law
and human reason, and crossed boundaries.
The risk of sliding into harangue is avoided by Sibum’s gift (or perhaps his effort) for sublime moments: that abstracted cusp of natural law is softened by the comic and winsome plumage. Among the figurative contortions and avoidance of clarity, the lyrical Sibum is in there, offering “hookers on speedballs,” reminding us, “we live at the level of a plea bargain / Struck at molecular levels.” I’ll take the deal, more convinced than confused in the end, drugged and dragged along by the collection’s velocity, its weird, simultaneous sift of ecstasy and despair.
We’re not built for complexity these days, right? There is much holier-than-thouing on behalf of both writing that challenges, and of accessible writing. The perfect poem likely falls somewhere in between, immediately inviting; what stays, however, is in the rereading.
Jason Guriel’s Pure Product is definitely catchy, and the best poems in this collection live up to that initial promise, either snapping us to attention with their uncluttered honesty, like “Upright in Bed,” seducing us with story, like “Dear Neighbour” or rollercoastering gleefully, as in the opening poem, “Less,” which zooms in infinitesimally—to the corduroyed palate, for starters—then backs out, as that “rough path on the roof of the mouth” becomes a “chandelier / of texture”—not just delicately hewn but surprisingly, wonderfully ablaze. The poem riffs on topographical misperceptions (ending on the best use of a one-night lover’s bottom in a poem), whirling unexpectedly and in complete control.
As with his first book, Guriel has panned the collective western cultural consciousness for poem-able nuggets: his habitual vernacular is what we’ve gathered and who we know, from the rotten state of Denmark to bebop bassists. Guriel’s M.O., however, with its name-dropping, its em-dashed asides and a surfeit of tininess, becomes wearisome. There is no need for Guriel to dilute his solid poetic instincts and good ear—in “Empty Nests in Leafless Trees,” for instance, nests “tend to stand out / like mashed clots / in a fine mesh of capillaries,” a shivery simile Guriel then undermines by piling on “ink blots / in failed calligraphy.” That Guriel has talent is clear, but Pure Product is too slight, and perhaps too soon.
Poet Katia Grubisic knows a thing or two about clarity avoidance.