Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

C. Starnino has written another book of Canadian literary criticism. It is entitled Lazy Bastardism, Gaspereau Press. That ism tacked on to the one-two punch of bas and tard does grate on the ear, but I am not looking to get petty. Otherwise, from what I have seen of the book, it appears to be written with uptown aplomb. Or perhaps it is downtown aplomb, with all the bravura of power drink venues and hot dog vendors and bored secretaries passing by (and poets even more bored, boredom being the acme of creative potentiality as per Mr Starnino in a philosophical moment): all that construction going on around Union Station, Toronto. It is written as if to speak of Canadian literature is the most natural of human acts, as natural an act as – you fill in the blank; as if there were to Canadian literature now a certain preeminence in much the same way as American literary critics of a by-gone time once accorded American authors of a by-gone time their God-given, constitutional right to preeminent centrality in the universe of literature: F Scott, for example, or Ernest or Mr Faulkner hard on the heels of salutary mention of Joyce and Shakespeare and a Captain Kydde hitting puberty, and thereafter, his stride. It is akin, on C. Starnino’s part, to the lifting up of a mile-long stretch of railcars from one set of tracks and depositing them on another set of tracks, train to then go and meander off in a sunset direction—Man, that’s some applied physics. Again, I am not looking to cavil; and the physics of which I make mention are, without a doubt, necessary to some sort of discussion about X, Y and Zed in respect to Canadian verse. Be the book good, awful or indifferent, or indeed, excellent, it is a sophisticated hombre: got those Roman sunshades firmly in place. I had literature pretty much on my mind as I came away from the Argo bookshop where I encountered the item and skimmed by mention of Lane and Layton on a page selected at random, and Lana Turner – nope, wrong book, the Argo shop the little shop that can; and it was still on my mind as I got on the metro and the subsequent bus. It still amazes long after it should, perhaps, that two out of every three people in transit will have countenances affixed to screens, thumbs prepared to pounce on keypads. It startles (because it seems to happen so rarely now) when one spots a person intent on the faces of other persons for God knows what and for who knows what reasons. Even so, there still are instances when one exchanges a highly covert acknowledgement of another whose eyes are saying: “Ah, us. Do you find it all kind of curious, too?” Yes, and once again, the impulse to digress has got the best of me—A few passages from Mr Broch’s The Death of Virgil were seething, still, in the old bean while I was on that metro and on that bus; and I will get to those passages anon; just that a few of them, despite the poncy language that carries them headlong through literary infinity, constitute a serious challenge as to whether or not literature, as a human endeavour, is vastly over-rated; and that the Aeneid would not have come to matter at all had not Augustus C., the Caesar’s Caesar (and not because he necessarily gave a rat’s ass for poetry), prevented Virgil from torching the manuscript, Virgil’s dying thumb decidedly in the turn-down position in respect to his magnum opus. Literature mattered to Caesar because it was part and parcel of his expression of power, which is one reason why, presumably, poetry has not mattered much in a long while. Does not add lustre to anyone’s ill-gotten crown however encrusted with the pieties of a democratic order, or even with a darling’s progressivism. Nor does it threaten any crown, which is one way some literature has mattered throughout the ages to anticlerics, to malcontents, to Shelley quoters, to retro Beats on St Laurent. But as much of our literature is a state-sponsored enterprise, one might think that it, willy-nilly, shines up the crown that writes its ticket, even if the literature is so little perused on account of the fact, as Mr Starnino puts it, people are just not that into it, not into that sort of luminosity. Let the games begin—Besides, Current President on the Letterman Show, ensconced before a polite but fairly sympathetic audience, seems to be doing the work of most poetry, in any case. He can chat away with his host on a subject of the beer he’s brewing in the White House basement. He can say: we’re just folks. He can speak of a want of civility in the land; or suggest that, even so, the country is not really as polarized as all that, not outside the capital, at any rate. So then, who needs Horace’s view of human behaviour as might nicely point out that there really is a Caesar and he is in his lair, let alone Atwood’s view of dystopia or mine of the loopy denizens of Nikas restaurant? There is what C. Starnino’s book does not say at first blush, or does not bother to say, or is unwilling to say, but hey, a discussion best left unmolested until I have actually read the book in its entirety, at which point I suppose a new world will have formed itself in the annals of creation, the previous one rendered redundant. I am tempted to console the so-called ‘one-note’ critic, as Mr Starnino characterizes the chirping sod, inasmuch as, in certain instances, that one single note just might remain pertinent over a long span of time, especially when a culture is agog with itself, and, as per the buzz-phrase makers, is so happily in a state of denial about its true importance. Otherwise, there was the spectacle of the Balloon Man causing my stomach to quease up as he stared down at the earth from the edge of space and was about to fling himself into the aether and attain an exorbitant rate of descent in doing so. The stunt was quite the whim, as whimsical a business as blowing on dandelion puffballs. And then an old adage came to mind, how it is pride goeth before a fall. But in the movie Beloved Infidel, it departeth long after a cartwheel had gone wrong, as when Peck played F Scott and Kerr played Sheila, and failure and fear of the same haunted everyone, including famous authors; and is there a prize culture after death? Perhaps the virtues are necessary to society, or an arrangement of ways and means between citizens sort of equal under some sort of law, but are the virtues anything more than an expression of the evolutionary lottery, though prizes would highlight virtues of one order or another? Are virtues, as such, the equivalence of human co-operation in any endeavour you care to name? Alright, I will confess: I succumbed once again to a viewing of Sense and Sensibility. And who and or what speaks most to items like the virtues and social graces and ‘honour’? Imperial cultures, that’s what—Well, it so happens that the Moesian is reading Browning’s Mr Sludge the Medium. Hysterical verbosity contained in i. pentameter—Surely, there is more to it than that. Is not Sludge, especially in his spiritual shabbiness, honouring his God just as our tin men honour their bewildering variety of gods? Browning is one of the few optimists a pessimist like me can bear, seeing as Mr Broch, in The Death of Virgil, will have as his special appeal the anciently dark notion that consciousness itself is a vanity, literature a ruse. —oh, only then are we creatures of creation, when we have stripped off all carnality, when we have learned to separate ourselves from even the knowledge of carnality and what lies behind it, when we have roused ourselves to accept our final penance with humility, when we are able to obliterate our own graves!No, I’ve no idea what’s meant here. But are Broch, Sludge and the Moesian in cahoots with one another? Santayana thought Browning a ‘barbarian poet’. I am so much the primitive that my first participation in a duet (with Guitar Teach, he sight-reading his bass part, me gingerly sight-reading my treble) elicited in me a fit of the giggles. What would Herr Broch have made of the internet age, an age in which the acquisition of knowledge justifies every perverse wrinkle of a human class act; Broch one author who came to eschew authorship, as literature was mere frivolity? False life = false art, in any case. There is the fact of the election campaign to the south of here, one in which no one is voting for anyone. The following does not necessarily define plutocracy, but perhaps we have arrived at this pretty pass when, for the one per centers, the fact of their wealth trumps any notion of loyalty to any nation-state and all the suckers which are in them. P.M. Carpenter, Distinguished Political Commentator down there, is pretending not to panic when he observes that the election should not be as close as it is. I have at this moment now reached a point where I am obliged to take Yogi Berra’s fork in the road: whether to accord to Herr Broch or to Mr Starnino this post’s penultimate verbiage. Mr Starnino then, from his aforementioned book: So why am I so glum? Because while our poetry is now home to ravishingly odd confections, and while many of the poems bring me under their spell, they never quite make the sale…. But after a point, after celebrating the explosion of poetic techniques, I have to ask myself: what are all those techniques for, exactly? … In each case the results have been fascinating. But what untrendy mystery, what human plight, hope or grief have these projects brought to consciousness? From Mr Broch, and bearing in mind that for Mr Starnino, a poem and a prayer can seldom be, if ever, one and the same thing: oh, purity of prayer, unattainable by poetry and yet, oh attainable for it, insofar as it offered itself, as it overcame and annihilated its very self—And so forth and so on.