Before we split six years ago, a girlfriend bought me a few books of poetry for my birthday. One of them was Roy Miki’s Surrender, the 2002 winner of the GG. It has an appealing orange cover, but upon opening it, I discovered -- in fragments of several “poems” -- the colour to be its only appealing sticking point. It subsequently got lost in a box where neglected articles find their (usually) permanent homes, though I recently rediscovered it amongst other bric-a-brac. Here’s an admittedly slapdash critique of the contents of this theory infestation.
MAKE IT NEW
“I have altered my tactics to reflect the new era”
Is there anything more unappealing than an opening statement which, self-importance to the fore, declaims its self-conscious procedure?
“the hallucinated cartoons spread their wings”
A phrase without context followed by a painful cliché.
I tried wrapping myself in this one for a minute or two. Should I have tried harder? And would it have been worth it? Feathered sounds, and which enter one’s consciousness by “declension”, no less. Ah, but then we have the alternate “contractual fumes”, which certainly clears things up. Ah ha ha, but then I tripped up again: clarity is for those old “traditionalist” fogies. I don’t mind suggestiveness. In fact, under the right circumstances, and under a rigorous cross-checked metaphorical caroming, I welcome it. Unfortunately, “Make It New” lives up to its title only in an arrogantly processed word-splash.
“the abstraction summons all/to suspension in the shaft of/the escalators”
And the cratering elephant in the middle of the rec room looms incandescent in the periphery of marginalia, a double negation ushering in the bifurcated rumblings of vectors and tangents, roaming minions of ellipses leaping across bunkered appropriations. Imbroglios of referents. Musings of fragmentary fibula-fixings.
“murmur’s master stroke”
Oh, the self-regarding and smug half-smile. Betcha don’t think I know what’s goin’ on, eh?
“let's get serious, a poetic text has to resonate”
Quite. Though I’d substitute “poem” for “poetic text” (what the fuck’s a “poetic text”?). And this, of course, is not a poem.
MATERIAL RECOVERY TWO
“resin does not resonate/ricochet does not return”
Resin is to ricochet as droopy drawers is to fluorocarbon. Resin to recind to re-sin. Resonating to ….?
“morning light laves/this futon couch”
I suppose this is the first instance of (back cover) “the lyrical”. Is there an emotion hidden in the futon, or in the one observing it? For all the “risk” of the grammar-smashing previous lines, is there any emotional risk or intellectual complexity in the futon couch (isn’t this a redundancy?) or in the lines of this “poem” which follow (“pro life ration/is only/ a word/after all/is sd/& done”)? I’m asking many questions here, dear reader, because I’m honestly trying to negotiate a “framework for discussion” , since confident declarations and conclusions about what I’m reading are simultaneously frowned on and laughed at. But life -- and art -- are fragments. Meaning is an anachronism. Language is a minefield of pin-pulled duds. And universities pay good money to any prof with a slant, a theoretical addendum.
“the odometer of social declension is set to warp speed”
Then I suppose we’re a million leagues under water since this was written. Proportion is usually a good thing. So is context. So is truth. Doesn’t this sound important? The intrepid poet/reporter/recorder, documenting social ills. It also helps to be on the right side of politically correct history. Then no matter what you say, or more appropriately, how you say it, a free pass is a pre-fab check-off. (Now Chekhov, there was a guy who wrenched compassion from the coldest intellectual.) It’s being on the right side, the side of “exposing” “blasphemies of language use” that crafts and affixes the seminar room halo.
MATERIAL RECOVERY THREE
Can I play, too? “fiddle/wrench/systole/sycophant”
“the reliance on/supper is a ploy//left over from/previous eras”
Tell that to anyone before the age of refined fossil fuels. The growing and eating of supper was not only the focal point, but the time-and energy-consuming sine qua non of existence. But, then, middle-class intellectuals need to create personal moral banks where credit derivative swaps can be initiated to those also in need of a defining vagary.
I’m such an idiot, though. It’s an irony when you don’t think it so, a suggestive diatribe when you think it foolish, or both at once, or none at all. Remember, language is the enemy. Or, rather, only the language which acts confidently.
KNOCKS AT THE DOOR
“the point of theory is to prick you -- you asshole.”
Ahha, a subtle assfucking by the arbiters of what poets should or should not say.
“don’t say it. Not yet.”
“wait till the light changes”
Poetry is always set on green.
MATERIAL RECOVERY FOUR
“I.e./equivalence tempts/human subjects”
The perfect marriage of unmusicality with abstraction, one usually defining the other.
A MID INITIAL
I like wordplay when it’s witty, musical, and when it serves a larger purpose. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly (considering what’s gone on before), this “poem” lacks any delight or purpose for its boring multiple word meanings, unless you think a reader is so dense that patronizing exhibitions of “fin etude” are necessary.
SUBVERSION IN TOKYO
Reading this "poem" was like listening to a Sunday sermon when I was six years old, and all I could think about (over the droning gibberish) was going outside to play. Time for a break for that overrated ploy, supper, and to rest my befogged occipital lobe.
MATERIAL RECOVERY FIVE
“the sausages, so steamy and/graspable, were shaped to/resemble blocks of tofu”
Don’t read that fragment if under the influence of Jim Beam (not that I’ve yet turned to that ploy in getting through to this book’s end). “Toy boat” repeated a hundred times at warp speed would be more easily negotiable.
A WALK THROUGH PORTAGE MALL
I suppose this one would be a hit amongst en garde-ists everywhere for its mix of archival speech, typographical “originality”, commentary on commentary, fractured narrative, and theoretical framing. I got lost, though, and not in a fruitful way. It’s ironic that for someone whose biggest concern is language, and the ways it’s destroyed by bureaucratic laziness and cynicism, the “poems” in Miki’s Surrender are themselves devoid of rhythmic and sonic flavour.
MATERIAL RECOVERY SIX
The idea is interesting -- noting the elements underscoring each line (“past”, “fantasy”, “now”) -- but a good poem will elicit those links from a discerning reader. This poem, like so many others in this volume, doesn’t trust that reader, but instead brags about its “complexity” of perspective. If you take out the markers, the language of the anecdote is as flat as granny’s breasts on the Beverly Hillbillies.
“vainglorious summits beckon abysmal/rounds of canticles colchis diffused hounds/in autumnal glaciers bark new of the demise/of freight trains colonial notes unleash torrents”
This is what happens when lyricism is mistaken for stream of consciousness without coordination. I know, I know, that’s the point here. But then lyricism can’t be the positive it’s made out to be among surrendering supporters of Surrender. Can’t have and eat that cake. Of course, I’m wrong again: surely, it’s a lyrical parody, no?
MATERIAL RECOVERY SEVEN
“nothing to report”
This "poem" should have stopped after the first three words.
WINNIPEG c. 1950
“the leaves always/shiver in the snaphot”
I like the reactive feeling between the line break. And the similar “the eyes filled with frames/of bicycle spokes turning” evokes the idea of imagined motion in solidified memory.
“was also racing too”
If this is a mocking conclusion to, an acerbic parody on, a rhymed contemplation on the evanescence of time (O hoary staple of traditonalists’ concerns!), fine. But what’s the point? That bad lyricism exists? Of course. But unless the idea is fleshed out in detail, either by the provocative limning of a particular abuser, or by an actual good lyrical poem, it’s a slight and uninteresting gambit, a “corrective” theoretical wank.
The witty title is the best thing about this wannabe-Kafka roll-on. Dialogue is always welcome in a poem, but the conversation here (with a knowing, and by now boring, nod to the bludgeoned theme of misapplied and cynical self-protective messaging) acts solely on the level of ideological explication, not sensuous interplay and striking phrase-making.
ON THE SUBLIME
“fear is driven/deeper into the social debt of syntax controls”
The accumulated abstractions about the evils of bureaucratic evil are unconvincing. It’s not that I disagree with Miki, it’s that he’s yet to evoke this idee fixe into an artful shaping of immediate and specific detail. We’re to take the Japanese internment as a horrific given, though ironically, we’re not shown how the horror, the insensitivity, is manifested. I’ve seen more affecting poems written in first-person on the horrors of WWII by people who weren’t even born at the time than I have about Miki’s superior word-derisions.
“the encounter has ripple effects that/accumulate and announce the dispatch”
Says Miki. Show, don’t tell. Isn’t that workshop maxim still in vogue?
“the few who are/deaf to tonal variations listen to the heat waves instead”
MATERIAL RECOVERY EIGHT
Banal iteration of bureaucratic malfeasance. Can there be one, just one, dramatic, vivid account of this hammer-on-head leitmotif?
SURRENDER IS A VERBAL SIGN
Interminable, this (what?) meandering damnation of collective syntax descends into a shaking finger at advertising slogans. The last, and final, section 15 is a piss-poor attempt to redraw Ionesco’s hilarious non-sequitur The Chairs.
MATERIAL RECOVERY NINE
“atonal costumes//texts so conducive to/fronds of obverse reflection”
Glances, gestures, numbers, events, noise, procedure, circumstances, syllable, problem …..
If the idea is to awaken complacency in league with the language-mangling, language-subverting powers-that-be into a counterforce, aping those numbing abstractions doesn’t seem to be the best way to go about it.
“like a mouse scurrying/around the bookcase/its furry brown body/could be a mirage”
An effective suggestive vision (or non-vision, I suppose) of how memory first fades, then alters history, then doubts , completely, seminal veracity.
MATERIAL RECOVERY TEN
“speech is/the black squirrel/in search of/buried peanuts//on erased paths”
A good, though inferior, addition to the opening lines of “So”.
Twenty pages of in-club professorial hand-jobs, this mishmash of boring poetics is another repetition in the unfortunate line of Olson’s The Maximus Poems. Theoretical senseless and sense-less digressions on digressions are bad enough, but when they come with the Pound-Olson adoring thrice-removed-from-the-initial-cipher footnotes, it’s best to turn the pages. Quickly.
MATERIAL RECOVERY ELEVEN
More mocking of collective media-driven self-serving adspeak on the one hand, bad and high-flown emotivity on the other. The flogged horse is not just dead, but decomposing, pungently, on the page. Is there anything that Miki is for, besides abstract truth with a capital T? Not a jab, just an honest question.
I was initially going to write that by this time, poem #30 of 33, the one-note tone of Surrender is one more reason for its unremarkable existence. But that’s doing a disservice to even the notion of tone. Tone means music. The “one note” here, as in the rest of the book, is a groping-towards tuning of broken instruments.
“a sequel to “Watch Signs””
Thanks for the heads up. I didn’t read the rest of it.
MATERIAL RECOVERY TWELVE
What a ridiculous “arguement”. The superfluities of the modern age somehow negate the realization (in writers, too?) of great poems. We (always the collective “we”) are so benumbed and amused by the syntactical manipulations of the advertisers, and their corpus of consumer-crazed cheerleaders, that the poor great masterpiece (Surrender?) slides “into the blue carpet below”. Boo hoo.
Gobbledygook shrouded in more self-importance.
I’ll be donating this book to the library. I’m sure it’ll eventually find a better home.