Wordrunner Chapbooks, 2007 $7.00 - www.wordrunner.com
(Wordrunner, based in Petaluma, California, helps authors self-publish. It has an extremely interesting website, full of all sorts of useful information including a free information sheet on DIY pamphlet-publishing http://www.wordrunner.com/chapbook/)
This is a very nicely-produced chapbook. It looks nice and feels nice. Very professional.
On the back cover, there’s a picture of the author. He is wearing a black eyepatch, pirate-style, and he’s cuddling a teddy-bear with a similar eye-patch and pirate hat. We learn from the biographical information there that he was “raised by opera singers” and that his “adult avocations have trended to wild jellyfish harvesting, boar stalking, and expressionist welding.” That (assuming you read the back cover first, as I always do) set up some enjoyable expectations. I specially liked the jellyfish-harvesting.
Inside… oh dear. The Foreword put me off. Someone (the author himself, just possibly) was offering an introduction “under a pseudonym for the abiding reason that I am not certain about our author’s motives—although the cleverer among you may smoke me out.” Well, I’m not that clever, not certain about the author’s motives either. The poems, we learn, are mainly “excepts from longer cycles” with the exception of ‘Soar upward, starlings’ which was “performed before it was ever printed, at a Napa Valley wedding shot by reknowned (sic) photographer Carter Brookes.” The pseudonymous foreword-writer concludes thus:
“What are we to make of the pages that follow? Is Harpoon the tender and modestly ungainly debut of a new poetic career, or merely a long-form writer’s lark? We shall see. In the least, we are entertained along the way.”
Cut to the poems. Hm. By page three, I’m still not being entertained, though I do feel drenched in dizzy word-groupings, sometimes reminded of Gerard Manley-Hopkins, sometimes of Dylan Thomas, but alas without the accompanying feeling of an experience I can connect with. There are lots of hyphenated words, as well as some words that you’d expect to be hyphenated run together so that strongeared, for example, could be ‘strong-eared’ or ‘strong-geared’. The sound of the words is pleasing to some extent, but generally I am pretty much … lost.
Feels to me like a poet who is doing his own thing, none too worried about his reader. ‘Soar Upward, Starlings’ lurches into a very different sort of style, with patches wholly archaic (“Wait not on worry, the inklings of worry find us soon enough” and “But up fly you with on beating heart”). Some lines have first-word capitalisation; others don’t. There’s a feeling of eerie chaos. Life is short. Why would you read on, unless you knew the poet and could put this into some kind of context? At the top of ‘Etudes’ I pencilled ‘What is the point?’ but at least that set of observations taught me two new words, “nuncupative” and “xenodocheionology” (the last, in the ‘dictionary of difficult words’ means love of hotels—a sort of bringing together of foreigners, I guess.)
The poet is having fun bringing together foreigners—stray thoughts, peculiar words and phrases, ideas he wants to roll out somewhere. The trouble is that the reader is somewhat extraneous to the process.
A feeling of relief occurs when reading ‘Poetic Autobiography’ which is simply written and easy to understand. I quite liked the bit about the flood of 1983 and inventing weapons to partake in “alligator combat”. In fact, this whole sequence is… okay, and in places mildly witty. But not more than that. Somehow you expect a bit about that wild jellyfish harvesting in here. But no. Nothing so memorable.
Then it’s back to more wordgames and, as final flourish, the title poem ‘Harpoon’. It’s a poem glittering with energy—bravado, even. I still have no idea what it is about.
As for the question raised in the foreword (“What are we to make of the pages that follow?”), I’m inclined towards the “long-form writer’s lark”. Not sure that’s what I look for in poetry, really—not unless there is something glitteringly clever going on. I kept wondering whether I was wasting my time trying to understand and evaluate text that might not even take itself seriously, let alone its reader.
What the Young Reader has to say about Harpoon:
The chapbook looks quite nice. The cover looks clean and clear with an interesting harpoon symbol in the centre, and it has fancy transparent endpapers.
But these poems didn’t really do anything for me. They were slightly prose-like—as though they were made into poems by putting some random line breaks into prose.
Some of them were really hard to follow, like this bit from ‘The Poppies’ VII:
akimbo from the acorn fall
cicada beaks busy at labor
trim jademint wainscott and emerald upholster
and seaglass porte cochères
a lass in the windbreak our Pinkflue
in her minster of creamblossom cherry
surveys stevedored parrot-coat pea-envy silks