Stewart Cole goes Kenspotting in Babstock's latest, On Malice
I'M NOT AS fond as most of Ken Babstock’s celebrated debut Mean. This is partly an accident of my own chronology: I can still remember the afternoon in 2001, hiding in the tiny poetry section of the cavernous bookstore where I worked, pulling Babstock’s just-released second collection Days into Flatspin off the shelf never having heard of him, opening to the second poem, “Carrying someone else’s infant past a cow in a field near Marmora, Ont.,” finding myself bewildered and exhilarated, almost instantly becoming a fan and, to a certain extent (as a relatively late starter enmired in my own abortive first attempts at ‘real’ poetry) an acolyte. Here were poems so unlike the Borsons and Ondaatjes, Bowerings and Musgraves I’d been coached to admire in university poetry classes: maximalist by comparison, shaped by a more geometric sense of form, taking a skeptical stance towards their own potential profundity, unafraid to risk outlandishness in their figurative reach, and above all, possessed of a depth and scope of verbal intelligence I’d only encountered in poets like Auden and Bishop and Heaney—i.e., the Greats. And this guy grew up in the Ottawa Valley, a snowball’s throw from my own childhood! Reaching the end of a Babstock poem, I often felt (and still often feel) stunned into a kind of numinous awe, wondering things akin to the speaker’s questions at the climax of the aforementioned “Marmora” poem:
What was I shown that I haven’t retained?
What peered back long before the cracked
bell of its name
came sounding off a tongue’s hammer and fenced it forever?
Babstock’s poems often leave me feeling not only as though what I’ve gleaned from them transcends my capacity to articulate, but also as though if I were to try articulating their impact, something would be lost. In yet other words, Babstock’s work not only strains my critical capacities but makes me question those capacities’ ultimate usefulness. I take this as the mark of a special writer, and this is likely why, despite my admiration for his work and my desire to flesh out for myself what precisely I find so admirable about it, I have not tried to write about Babstock until now.
Given that this attachment started with Days into Flatspin, perhaps it’s natural that in going back to Mean I found it less magically admirable than the consensus assured me I would. (It occurs to me that a similar chronological circumstance explains why I’ve always preferred Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain to the more revered Slanted and Enchanted. That’s a subject for another essay, but I will add that just as Airstream Land Yacht does to its to predecessors, Wowee Zowee trumps them both.) Returning to Mean recently, though, I was struck more forcefully than ever by the single element that has always made the book less than wholly satisfying to me: its persona. All poets take on personae to a certain extent, and some of the most fascinating writing today—I think of August Kleinzahler and Frederick Seidel, or among a younger generation, Dorothea Lasky and Michael Robbins—adopt an outsized poetic “I” to elaborate an expansive and (each in their own way) often kaleidoscopic worldview. The traits of Mean’s lyric persona, by contrast, seem overly circumscribed and uncomplex: he is brooding, jaded, labour-toughened, and punchy of utterance. If he wasn’t so damned articulate, he’d be a masculinist cliché—and as it stands, he’s pretty close. The pseudo-sonnet “Sawteeth” ticks all the boxes:
Sawteeth rasp through cedar planks,
and whiskered at their newly cut butt-ends.
Slapped together as shelving in a cluttered
one-bedroom, they bow under
books, teeter, and test each L-bracket’s grip
on the wall. But their alternate function—
fragrance, that express
route to memory where hope chests breathed
strange in the master room, and shavings littered
a cage where a gerbil
was kept, fed, to piss and quiver
under a stunned boy’s
gaze until it ran itself out on the wheel.
There’s a lot to admire here, of course: the dense but melodious sound patterning (especially assonance), the subtly animating personifications (the planks are “whiskered,” and they “test” the brackets) that prepare us for the gerbil’s later entrance, the way the poem shifts at the volta from present to past tense so seamlessly we hardly notice, and most interestingly, the fact that the only seven Latinate words in this relentlessly Anglo-Saxon poem (“bracket,” “alternate,” “function,” “fragrance,” “express,” “memory,” and “strange”) are all clustered around and within that voltaic third tercet, signaling through their cerebrality this earthbound speaker’s sudden philosophic turn. Here and throughout Mean we encounter a voice seemingly shaped by meticulous craft and preternatural linguistic instinct in equal measure, tightroping a taut formal wire. Amid this consistent dexterity of form, however, the actual content of Mean’s poems becomes repetitious. In the above example, words and phrases like “Sawteeth rasp,” “rough-hewn,” “cluttered / one-bedroom,” “teeter,” “littered,” “piss and quiver,” “stunned boy’s / gaze,” and “ran itself out on the wheel” all scream “Hardscrabble!” (yes, with a capital H and an exclamation point): they mass to convey a stance, a pose, most generously a worldview, but over the course of the collection we are so insistently hammered with this rough-and-tumbleness that its precarious closeness to cliché comes into ever sharper focus. Don’t believe me? Check out these last lines of poems from Mean: “how conditions may / shift from bad to worse,” “The boy I was edged closer to them, / brine-spattered, waterlogged, less,” “and swallowed what spit I had left,” “I’ll hear the grinding metal when the Yamaha drops,” and “Our tongues pellets of waste with the flock gone.” These are drawn from five of the book’s first nine poems (“Sawteeth” is the tenth), so evidently this list could go on.
The issue here isn’t the words themselves but the repetitious vision they articulate. That no one has remarked upon Mean’s one-note weltanshauung before now is not surprising given that: a) the book’s considerable formal and linguistic virtues (partially enumerated above) were probably even more dazzling to the Canadian poetry scene into which it entered, unshaken as it yet was by Babstock’s influence; b) even amidst their glitches of vision, Babstock’s poems remain so skillfully constructed and always contain such flares of brilliance that they can disarm (again, as I admitted of myself above) one’s critical faculties; and c) the Canadian poetry scene tends to almost automatically lavish admiration upon chronicles of masculine struggle, especially in regards to labour (“Wow, he worked on an oil rig!,” “Wow, he worked on a fishing boat!,” “Wow, he worked in a potash mine!”). This is not to demean the concreteness of that struggle or the worth of that labour, but rather to suggest that our culture of “hewers of wood and drawers of water” still may not be fully convinced that poetry is actual work, and so is inclined to imbue evidence of bodily manual labour—never mind that writing is in fact both bodily and manual—with an aura of greater ‘authenticity’ that tends to blunt or at least soften aesthetic judgement.
I offer these criticisms of Mean as someone who finds it likely that when future literary historians get down to chronicling the development of Canadian poetry in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Babstock’s hallowed quartet up to Methodist Hatchet will be seen to have had an impact on our late-blooming postmodernity akin to that of Auden’s work up to Another Time on the British poetry that followed. That said, I don’t believe that such an assessment would be possible if Babstock’s work since his debut hadn’t so concertedly striven to expand its narrow worldview. Each successive collection has achieved a marked expansion in diction, formal intricacy, range of intellectual reference, and rhetorical inventiveness. Another sonnet-ish piece—one of the “Explanatory Gap” poems from his third collection Airstream Land Yacht—nicely illustrates this general trajectory:
Like I said, important.
Calm your amygdala! Keep up with the furtherance
of what’s known as best as it can be for now. This spruce
is dripping new growth, little lime-coloured nubbins
in the uncorked sun of a Monday. They now can listen in on the harmony
of seizures, all the differing bandwidths holding hands
and hooraying, hell, they can trigger them at will, and will.
And when last you gripped a garter snake by its tail, whipping it in circles above you,
offering it a Benthamic view of the bean fields and windbreaks, you went home
with the feel of its scales—a muscled dryness you could taste—and humped
your bicameral mind to bed to stop the senses mingling.
Veering from the more straightforward narrative thrust of his earlier work, this begins in medias res, with those absurdist first two sentences evoking Beckett (and all the more so because a later poem in the collection uses Godot’s “Think, Pig!” as its title). The diction here is notably more diverse, less committed to plumbing the guttural Anglo-Saxon register to create an impression of toughness and therefore more exploratory in its mingling of registers to achieve neat sonic and rhetorical effects (e.g., “Calm your amygdala!,” “the harmony / of seizures, all the differing bandwidths,” “and humped / your bicameral mind to bed to stop the senses mingling”). Intellectually, “Explanatory Gap” draws in neuroscience (“amygdala”), IT (“bandwidths”), and social theory (“Benthamic” refers—a bit misleadingly, actually—to Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century design for the panopticon), all while maintaining the impression of a concretely situated person on the verge of becoming synaesthetically unhinged amid a torrent of stimuli. This isn’t even close to Babstock’s best work—another challenge he presents to any critic hoping to engage with him in relatively short space is that his poems have gotten on average longer in proportion to their growing rhetorical expansiveness—but it is exploratory and rewardingly difficult in a way that highlights the restless tenor of Airstream Land Yacht and Methodist Hatchet. Indeed, what staggers one most in reading Babstock’s body of work, particularly in sequence, is its insistent restlessness: rather than stagnate under the slow drip of consistent acclaim, he has allowed himself to be empowered by praise, with each book grooving out new (and granted, increasingly esoteric) artistic channels.
This brings me to Babstock’s latest, On Malice. While previous collections displayed an ever more fascinating mind to match his immense verbal talent, here we get to watch that mind pretend not to be itself, as Babstock turns to more experimental compositional methods, sourcing vocabulary from such disparate luminaries as Walter Benjamin, William Hazlitt, and John Donne. The result reads like a decisive leap of self-overcoming. In an illuminating National Post piece published just after the book’s release, Emily Keeler quotes Babstock on recently winning the Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize, given to a mid-career poet of exceptional achievement:
“I wish that I was a different person in my twenties,” he says now. “When I look at the poems I think that they’re put together well, but I don’t recognize the person that wrote them.” He taps a knuckle on the table. “If I were on the jury and looking at my own work—well, maybe I’m getting this prize for getting as far away from Mean as I possibly could. Maybe that’s what the award is for.”
In terms of distancing himself from Mean, On Malice is mission accomplished, at least on the surface. If we analogize Babstock’s oeuvre to the colonizing of a new planet, Mean is naturally the terraforming stage, Days into Flatspin marks the transition from primarily subsistence agriculture to a market economy, Airstream Land Yacht charts the flowering of a cultural enlightenment, Methodist Hatchet watches as civilization collapses under the weight of its own bloated decadence, while On Malice transcribes the garbled broadcasts emanating from abandoned satellites back down upon those few derelict souls left to scrabble in the wreckage of the once-proud colony from which those selfsame signals, in their ostensibly more logical forms, were originally intercepted. This makes for pretty puzzling stuff:
Don’t say anything funny. Isn’t that possible?
Isn’t that at all
times what holds one together?
Little fairy tales all at once. Stomach fright.
One never hears about compulsion.
‘Killed’ is a word with a star tied around it.
One can listen all night, they won’t
talk of ‘compulsion.’ Compulsion
is a wind with the unmodern cat
stapled to it. The anus constricts.
Needles of yellow and red light, little
aurora materialis and night eyes of the pig family.
At 19:45, over Gorno-Ataysk, August 1974
Read in isolation, this appears to want to communicate only insofar as words can’t help communicating. But as always with Babstock, there’s a lot technically to appreciate here; this a poet so adept at finding novel formulations that even his most apparently random images (“Stomach fright,” “night eyes of the pig family”) or disconnected metaphors (“‘Killed’ is a word with a star around it”) resound with weird force. In terms of what to take from such a poem beyond scattered points of word-light, Emma Healey’s review of On Malice in The Globe and Mail harbours some insight: “It turns out the poems here aren’t being deliberately difficult,” she writes, “they’re just speaking to each other instead of you.” At least the second half of that is true: the poems in SIGINT, the opening sonnet sequence that makes up half of On Malice, really do dialogue in consistently intriguing ways. The “unmodern cat” of the above poem, for example, appears in the previous poem in the sequence imprisoned in a parenthetical aside: “(the cat is laughing).” That same previous poem contains the lines, “The rattle again of splintered waste / in orbit; shards, at speed, incredibly cold”—thus reverberating with the “aurora materialis” of the next poem. Nor do such echoes occur strictly sequentially; the sentence “The anus constricts” reappears thirteen poems later, in another section of the sequence, this time encased by commas and broken by enjambment (“I lie with the dead Lord, the anus / constricts, I cover us both with your dress”). Given the collection’s abiding refusal to communicate through narrative methods, much of the appeal and even fun of reading On Malice resides in sifting among such fragmentary reverberations within and across its forbidding lexical surfaces.
Would I have indulged at such length in this “fun,” thumbing back and forth through reading after reading, if the cover didn’t bear Ken Babstock’s name? Very little chance: there are too many other compendia of utterances, poetic and otherwise, competing for my time for me to dedicate so many hours to something so obstinately unforthcoming were it not written by someone already ensconced among the influential voices in my writerly consciousness. Does this make it a lesser book? I don’t think so: Babstock has earned our attention.
On Malice, then, would appear to pursue an almost opposite poetics to Mean: coldly celestial where that book was mucky and entrenched, fragmentary and associative rather than story-driven, enigmatically political instead of verging on confessional. The two collections’ voices, especially, would seem diametrically opposed: while Mean’s persona dusts off a well-worn Canadian male archetype, rooted yet vagabond, sensitive yet unflinching, On Malice seems to slough off persona altogether, absenting all but the barest hints of the distinctive cadences expanded and refined over the previous four collections in favour of a patchwork of spectral voices afloat in a textual ether. On Malice achieves some of its most arresting effects when we can hear the diction of the source material blend strangely and imperfectly with some more typically Babstockian turn of voice, whether that source material is John Donne’s essayistic defence of suicide “Biothanatos” in “Five Eyes” (“We may eat better from prison, // may pay virtue’s debts by refusing.”) or William Hazlitt’s “Why Distant Objects Please” in “Perfect Blue Distant Objects,” which ends as follows:
If I despair of vice,
my ‘if’ is courage,
a finely tuned one-by-one into the truly
long weakness, it bisects
pride, party of the proudly weak, named,
mean, learning all having is classified.
It’s hard to say why I find this moving. Especially read aloud, though, it shimmers with a kind of elegiac power despite the fragmentariness of its motifs. The litany of moralistic abstractions—“despair,” “vice,” “courage,” “pride”—lends the passage the cultivated veneer of its nineteenth-century source material, and yet those last two lines, with their hints of surmounting something to come of age or awareness, could be drawn from any previous Babstock collection.
Reading On Malice, I repeatedly find myself indulging in this sort of Kenspotting, scanning the text’s surface for bubbles to reassure me that he’s still breathing down there. On one hand, the book is saturated in evidence of its authorship, enmeshed in the paradox that haunts all such experimental attempts to efface or undermine the self-speaking subject: the greater the poet’s effort to de-emphasize the “I,” the more emphatically is her or his manipulative presence announced. On the other hand, however—and because I suspect the book’s appeal will be dependent for many, as it is for me, on Babstock’s authorship of it—I look specifically for evidence of that particular poet. Here the paratext—e.g., acknowledgements, author photo, blurbs, explanatory notes—proves helpful. (Paratext is fair game: if I’m going to be fed, I reserve the right to smell what goes into my mouth.) The explanatory notes on SIGINT tell us that “These sonnets ‘occur’ inside the abandoned NSA surveillance station on the summit of Teufelsberg (‘Devil’s Mountain’) in Berlin, Germany” and go on to state:
The sonnets source vocabulary from Walter Benjamin’s records of his son’s language acquisition between the ages of two and six (Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs, Verso Books, 2007). Benjamin himself appears on page 49. The source text is then abandoned at each sonnet’s volta. The italicized ‘incident reports’ that appear in lieu of a traditional sonnet’s closing couplet imagine collisions between light aircraft and common swifts in what would have been Soviet airspace. The collisions begin in Siberia at ‘A’ and travel westward (through a malfunctioning clock) to Berlin and ‘Z.’
This is both actually informative and comedy gold (“malfunctioning clock”), so over-the-top pretentious that it might just come full circle to unpretentiousness. I don’t intend this as a jab; as with the poems themselves, I assume Babstock’s full intentionality here. By explaining the poems’ origins in a way that offers us precious little help in reading them, the poet is striking no less a pose than that repeatedly struck by the more conventionally lyric speakers of Mean.
Despite its resolute impersonality, then, On Malice can be seen less as Mean’s opposite than as its inverse, the dark side of the same firmamental star. Rather than having liberated his work from its early rootedness in persona, Babstock has simply shifted the frieght of persona to the paratext. Whereas the most striking line in the Acknowledgments section of Mean offers “Deep thanks to everyone at The Banff Centre for the Arts—not least of all, the bartender with the Uncle Tupelo and Wilco albums,” its relative equivalent in On Malice tells us that “Fredric Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic broke a silence, or opened on to one.” In the conceptual and rhetorical space between these two sentences of acknowledgement can be charted Babstock’s aesthetic journey thus far in all its dazzling ambition. In less than two decades he has not only irrevocably altered our poetic climate but briskly evolved multiple new ecosystems in which his fellow songsters can work and flourish. In the wake of On Malice, I think we should prepare ourselves for a raft of source-text experiments and procedural treatises. Because as Canadian poets, it’s Babstock’s planet we’re walking on.
STEWART COLE's latest book is Questions in Bed (2012).