Friday, September 3, 2010
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too…
- John Keats
Yes, the high days of summer are done. We mourn a little the passing season…but then look forward with hope to what lies ahead and to the words that await us. This week, a review of some wonderful words in Toronto poet Jeff Latosik's book Tiny, Frantic, Stronger.
You’re going to like this book of poems, let’s get that out of the way first. Jeff Latosik is an intelligent poet with an interesting, wry presence and an understated style that plays well against the underachieving earnestness that infects so much poetry these days. These are strong, artful poems - all the more startling in a debut collection - and make a legitimate claim on our interest in any subsequent work.
Not that there isn’t a little tough sledding along the way. Latosik’s is also a disparately associative, oblique style as evident by the title of his book where the first two terms “tiny” and “frantic” collide semantically with that third word “stronger’. Later we’ll learn that he’s referring to cockroaches and how they’ll survive us all, but this initial incongruence in the title signals Latosik’s determination to do something different with language and challenge his readers to make connections where none is immediately apparent. Here’s part of the poem from which the title is drawn, “Cockroach Elegy”. Again, notice the range of associations assembled around civilization’s lowly, persistent bug:
Whose mind was an old-time music box,
whose hunger was fifty children playing soccer
on an unmarked field.
Who gave birth like a machine gun firing,
whose lineage took the long train from Cretaceous,
who continue scurrying away from us, tiny, frantic, stronger. (57)
What, the reader asks, does “an old-time music box” have to do with “fifty children playing soccer”? Or “a machine gun firing” with “a long train” from anywhere, let alone the Cretaceous period? What does it all signify? Not much at first blush. Once you read beyond the odd associations and the metaphoric connection with cockroaches, however, you discover that Latosik wants our first pleasure here to be our kinetic experience of the poem during the actual reading. He achieves this partly by varying his syntax and the length of his lines and punching the ending with those three little words. But understanding what it all presumes to say about life, love and death, while important to our appreciation of the poem, remains secondary to the poem’s movement.
That commitment to the rhythm of the poem is even more apparent in the opening lines of “On Appreciating Space Exploration”:
Press your hands against the ceiling,
Notice how hot they become there on the border
of home and a sky that rolls like water
pushing its way through a hairline crack.
Step down slowly. Break a window
Or, unravel a roll of film
then try to stuff it all back in the roll. Develop. (71)
The first two stanzas have the measured, slightly eerie visual presentation and feel of a carefully staged performance installation. Like a performance piece it also quickly descends from the rational into the absurd. I find the moment immensely compelling, but what is just as interesting is how Latosik extends the wonderfully weird and disparate associations between words early on in the book to the disparity in this poem between ideas and the existential choices humans make between ideas. “Spend a moment pondering this statement”, he says: “that the road should be built in this direction/or that direction is an equally preposterous notion.” Latosik asks – quite legitimately, I think - how rational are the statements we construct about reality? and then answers the question by saying Not very rational at all; in fact much of what we say and the choices we make end in absurdity.
The paradox is that this in itself is a statement, a poetic statement about the accidental quality and futility of human action. The associative disparity and perfunctory, double-spaced structure of the final three lines shore up the truth contained in the statement:
Throw a fistful of marbles across a field.
Try to get inside a shoebox.
Fall off something.
Like much of Latosik’s poetry, this poem answers a demand for the strange, for the surreal. In this regard, his poems put me in mind of the painters Magritte and Dali as much as they do André Breton by their close juxtaposition of normally unrelated objects and ideas so that we see the larger picture – our life - in a new light or fresher perspective. Again, statement, if it’s required at all, merely rounds out our experience, so that the confluence between what we experience and what we understand, between sensuality and sense, makes a well crafted poem a memorable poem.
I stress this point because of what Jeff Latosik had to say recently about the secondary role of meaning in poetry – an assertion severely undercut by two competing strains in this book of poems, i.e. the surreal and a desire (all too rare among poets) to say something of lasting meaning to readers. Readers may have to suspend their expectations around sense or meaning to the end of the poem and often for a second reading of the poem, but the fact remains Tiny, Frantic, Stronger also tries to achieve the unity and understanding Eliot tells us even the most disjunctive verse seeks.
That effort reaches its apex in one of the book’s best poem’s “Cactus Love”, and worth citing here in its entirety:
The cactus keeping its cool water secret
is simple to love: as if all that is hard in us,
closed up tight as a fist in a pocket
can still be loved, need not be relieved.
To prick your thumb, to call that conversation,
in a quiet room when you’re tired of speaking
and someone you’ve kissed all light from
is curled under a blanket in her own wrinkled mood.
The cactus, which thrives in irascible sunlight,
cracked earth and stone. Calm as a soldier’s
silent sleeves. The cactus knows there is
even a war in the cracks between stones.
The cactus leaning into February sun:
a long green tongue that never tells us
yes or no. To have brushed the webs from
its tiny perfect spikes and considered forgiveness.
One blue flower that closes like a door
when Spring curves to Summer. To smell it and find
your way back to the morning. To find your way
back to the light on the bed.
The cactus keeping its cool water secret
with a stillness you had once, long ago,
in a place where you laid down, but had to get up from,
to go on into your armourless life. (67)
Latosik’s poems are not without their weaknesses, notably his overuse of the "to infinitive” (e.g. “To go all in”… “To lift the latch. To let contentment/hitch up its trailer”…“To hold a coup d’état” etc.). It’s an all too familiar trope in prose and poetry, which tends to make several of Latosik’s poems a little too solemn for my taste. Still, the device works well here in this poem, and more importantly supports a poetic thought that is rounded out, complete, and touching in its final effects.
There’s also a decidedly moral thrust behind Latosik's poetry that I like very much (moral not in any religious sense, but in the respect and nurture we owe each other as fellow creatures). His teasing, playful manner and a thoughtful, slightly more metaphysical approach to poetry than we’re used to makes this book well worth picking up and Latosik’s poetic career well worth following.
Jeff Latosik’s award-winning poems have appeared in magazines and journals across the country. He won the P.K. Page Founders’ Award from The Malahat Review in 2007, placed first in THIS Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt in 2008, and was a finalist for the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for 2008. He teaches at Humber College in Toronto. Tiny, Frantic, Stronger (Insomniac Press, 2010) is his first book.
Next week, Catherine Graham reflects upon her time in Northern Ireland and her encounter with Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz.
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