“Where there are many beauties in a poem,
A few blots won’t offend, those carelessly split,
Or that human frailty can scarcely help. So what?”
-- Horace, “Ars Poetica”
Horace stuffed his instruction in one long breezy poem. Jason Guriel, in last year’s Satisfying Clicking Sound, believes in the verse equivalent of a Tim Vine joke – enter straightaway, set up smartly, don’t leave them hanging – but he otherwise approximates the seminal Latin work in focus, the meta- and meta-meta-brevity of most every poem in the volume scored with the what-it’s-for and how-to administration. Of course, other poets have treated readers as students – less artfully, to be sure (and more on Guriel’s craft later, though here’s a hint, it differs from the epigraph-leader) – but though that usually humourless didactic strategy sees off more than a few “experimental” poetics-as-poetry productions, there’s not much difference in the constant backgrounding of subject matter, in the service of poetics, between Guriel’s in-poem foes or foils, and the author himself.
Guriel’s ostensible subjects include painters, speed bumps, leaves, straw, airport bookstores, and signatures, but especially poets, musicians or songwriters, and geometry. Even when Guriel forgets to organize his poetics mission for a page in “My Father’s Stamps” – an anecdote about a dying father that necessarily shelves the constant, bludgeoned-by-wit lit-crit allegory for a time-fading concentration of emotion – the unwelcome switch is thrown back to an electrifying summation of father-as-artist, in “this is the work of one/of the great surrealists”.
Guriel expresses often his exasperation with the poetic process, and to a contemporary working poet, this must strike a lot of anvil iron. But, as noted, the result is usually (always?) a foot or ten yards short of ringing the bell. Should non-poets care, let alone sympathize? And if one can enter the narrator’s anguished soul to commiserate with that failure during one poem, does the next poem’s identical topic garner the same consideration? Of course, Guriel would argue it’s all about craft. But aesthetic accomplishment straightjacketted by its own abstract commentary can’t even be considered stifling (another reviewer called this “claustrophobic”, and Guriel responds to it in a clever but silly poem wherein the conceit has the unfortunate critic shut up in an air-tight cartoon) because there isn’t much – and in many poems, no – force to stifle. Subjects are hauled into Guriel’s ideé fixe by music biography so that the epigraph (in part, “ “The hands playing haunting chords turned into clenched fists pounding the ivories” “, from Ben Edmonds) serves as the (by now) obvious spur to another link to the poetic process. And what does Guriel do with this unexciting material?
“Hands playing haunting chords
cannot help the soul
that’s up the sleeves,
and cannot help
but fall as fists – off
and on and off
the beat – upon the ivories.”
Guriel adheres, in the following, however, to more of Horace’s advice, knowingly or no: “You who write, choose a subject that’s matched by/Your powers, consider deeply what your shoulders/Can and cannot bear.” But that’s selling oneself very short here. The subject, dear reader, is Dennis Wilson’s creative angst. Now, I confess I haven’t read the bio this is taken from. Perhaps there’s a case to be made for buried genius in the failures of the drummer. But, really, who cares other than diehard Beach Boys fans or Dennis Wilson groupies? If Dennis wasn’t related to Brian, the only audience for his mediocre drumming would have been several other drunks in a seaside bar, and he would have been surfing to the welfare depot every month after hosing crabs out of his trunks. Remember, this is a poem about the frustrations of creativity.
Good, then, that Guriel concentrates his idea on others more worthy of incorporating it, as well as shedding light on the process. “Poetry Is Barbarous” takes off from a letter from mentor Samuel Menashe, in which the poet writes of erasing lines that’s he’s just sent. Guriel turns this into an arresting image of two rakes covered by snow. I wonder if he meant for the rakes, originally, to be thought of as clearance devices. Not a happy thought, that, to be sure, when considering the religious or primordial aspects of creation. A pun (surprise!) appears with the expected short development, though it works on two levels (at least), and the scene ends with “the rakes are primered-over lines/that lie below like old designs.” A satisfying click? Or piling on with unnecessary metaphor? To get to that click ...
The book’s titular poem uses an epigraph from a Steve Jobs bio wherein engineers were asked to “stay up all night fiddling with the headphone jack so that it made a more satisfying clicking sound”. Guriel then, in the poem proper, compares this to Yeats’ well-known quote on “the click/of a well-made box”. As is Guriel’s frequent procedure, the reader is led to consider possible sonic metaphors. The cricket’s “field/of creaks” is an excellent sonic choice and lexical melisma (and the obligatory pun is enjoyable, probably because here it’s buried – many of the other puns in the book should have been read their last rites). I admit my own obtuseness with the poem’s own final click. Actually, for Guriel, an extended one that I can’t decipher. Images of death are introduced early on, and the abstract summation uses them organically, but I don’t get the connection to Yeats or, indeed, to the headphones’ click. A well-made ending is a definite death? The poem’s “click” has to be finite in what way? Aesthetically? Dialectically? Logically? “What’s grating/is the indefinitiveness/of the death rattle-/ragged, the way/we have to guess/which one’s the last/gasp by waiting/out the sequence.”
The three strongest poems in Satisfying Clicking Sound are “The Washbasin”, “A Moving Picture”, and “Looking at People While Listening to Nico”. In the former, the father is recently deceased, and the narrator stares at his murky, shifting reflection in a washbasin of water that his father hadn’t emptied. The subject, and its metaphorical support, is finally intriguing. And Guriel delivers. Though Tom Vine’s “quantity over quality” philosophy of punning allows no poem to go unpunished, the main one here – “The reflection of my face/takes it on the chin” – is legitimately startling. Even here, though, one wonders if the joke was too irresistable, that another more emotionally affecting and logical choice would have been better. Say, “in the heart” instead of “on the chin”. No pun there, though. Better tamp down the emotion. Still, the poem recovers, and really kicks off a wake with its concluding, “I mean to stand for one/more moment in the five/o’clock shadow of/my father, a brave face/I pretend is mine.”
“A Moving Picture” is the volume’s highlight, and a terrific meditation on perspective, yes, but there’s also and finally a correspondingly light and weighty metaphysical element to the poem top to bottom. “Once when I was one/year old and on my back,/I noticed the sun/seemed skewered on a lance.” There’s no borrowed preface, here. No straining for extended metaphor. The one is no longer the other. The one is both the one and the other. (Most metaphors, no matter how craftily drawn, fall down metaphysically, not structurally.) There’s a wonderfully appropriate simile involving Icarus here that hovers successfully in the pre- and post-period, both in mythological implication and in the autobiographical timeline. I usually hesitate in quoting too much of a very good poem because lines, out of context, can seem haphazard or confusing meshed with surrounding exegesis. The rhymes here are frequently full, and all follow a sing-songy ABAB, a fantastic and deceptive contrast to the perfectly orchestrated and thoughtful material.
“Looking at People while Listening to Nico” sees Guriel in the heads of actual people, not abstract props that can more easily be shifted about a geometrical board, as in “Problems of Design”. Here, “[T]he face across the aisle/yawns – but Nico stops/the hole with a moan/of a voice the face,/a middle-aged man’s,/doesn’t know it makes.” Similar in imaginary conception to the static “Claustrophobic”, the transformation here is complicated by shifting emotions, in both the sender and receiver. Guriel then ups the ante further down the typically quick-running lines when, “[B]ut then/you’re not yourself/either in the eyes/of those whose ears/are also spoken for.”
A poet who writes criticism should be given even less leeway for compositions about composition. After all, we’ve heard it before. And the prose, elsewhere, is good enough, sometimes more than good enough.. There’s an enjoyable interview of guitarist Rory Gallagher up on yootoob in which he answers questions on the technical detail of playing any of various of his instruments. Gallagher circles his hands artfully around the frets, the resonator, demonstrates with a few phrases, holds up a brass slide, and casually throws off allusions and category shifts. But I’ve only seen that ten or fifteen minute interview once. Mostly I’d rather listen to any one of hundreds of his versions of “Tattooed Lady”.