Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Reader's Diary #153- Christian Bok: Eunoia (Up to Ch. I)

Today's poet can choose from any number of forms, if in fact choosing form at all (i.e., s/he might choose free form). With so many options, there's a risk of being gratuitous. Too often a reader (or listener) has to suffer through a poet trying to challenge her/himself with a form obviously chosen simply for its own sake. Challenging oneself is fine, but when it is at the reader's expense it is not. I think a poet needs to find that fine line between challenging oneself yet still choosing forms that are warranted by the theme of the poem.

In Eunoia, Christian Bok employs a lesser known form called a lipogram which omits a letter or set of letters. In each chapter, Bok chooses to omit all the vowels but one (i.e., they are univocalic poems). To illustrate, the line "Carpal pangs gnarl a man's hands and cramp a man's palms" is from Chapter A.

Years ago I heard of a novel called Gadsby by a man named Ernest Vincent Wright. As trivia buffs could tell you, it's a book of over 50 000 words yet does not contain the letter e. Obviously that was its claim to fame, and people read it simply to find out if it could still be any good. (Don't ask me, I still haven't read it.) Eunoia used similar gimmickry and I suspect the reason it is popular (well, relative to other poetry collections anyway) for similar curiousity and skepticism.

Before I began, I tried to stifle my doubts by coming up with just causes for writing such poems. For "E" for instance, I thought of the sound of a long "E" and how it reminded me of white noise, of a sustained singularity. Maybe Bok would write about the pressures of loneliness. But then, he didn't focus only on long or short vowels. I was more than just curious if he could make this work. Truth be known, and geeky as this is going to sound, I was VERY excited to begin this book. Had it sent in from a library in Baker Lake even.

And I'm not disappointed. In fact, without even having finished it yet, it is one of the best poetry collections I have ever read. It's easy to theorize about Bok's justifications once you begin. For Chapter A, I could see the connotations A brought regarding beginnings. It was set in the middle East (yes, it had a setting- each chapter is a long, continuous poem almost with an epic feel), and isn't that where civilization is said to have begun? And there seem to be chronologies and geographies we're meant to follow: Brahms gives way to gangsta rap, manna turns to lasagna, and even a pagan switches to Marx. I also heard the A. The long A sound (think the Fonz), combined with the short A, suggest a sinister vibe, and so does this poem. From fatwas and warpaths, to malt and tramps, if its ever had an evil connotation, there's a good chance it's here (granted of course, its only vowel is an A).

So he has justification, what about the other poetic elements? Amazing. They're what I imagined beat poetry would be until I actually read some Ginsberg. They come at you with an almost dizzying pace, and the rhymes add a playful element like you're watching a magician at work. And surely, you are.


Robert Hiscock said...

I've been looking forward to this book for a while -- glad to hear it doesn't disappoint.

John Mutford said...

Definitely not (for me anyway). If (and when) you read it, let me know your thoughts.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I've always been curious as to why someone would go through an exercise such as eliminating a letter from an entire work. Aside from the curiousity factor, I've not had any inclination to actually read these, but it is heartening to hear you actually enjoyed this. I may have to expand my mind a little.

John Mutford said...

Barbara, I'm the king of skepticism. But this time around, I've been proven wrong. I can't possibly express it strong enough how much I LOVE this book.