What Stronger Perfume Than a Just Cause

I had the good fortune of being present at a poetry reading of rare calibre Monday night which featured, in addition to outlandishly priced drinks and a raucous house band with a thoroughly objectionable name, performances by three of Canada’s distinguished poetry elder statesmen, Norm Sibum, Marius Kociejowski, and Eric Ormsby. The event took place at the CFC (formerly Zoobizarre) in the midst of the surreal St Hubert shopping district in the mile end, a sandwich board promising a free evening of live music and poetry oddly incandescent and alluring among the whirlwind of shoe polishes and esoteric tablecloths. The goods were sponsored by Encore Literary Magazine and presided over by editor Michael Carbert, who handled the matter of introductions and read poems by the late Richard Outram between readers.

First up was Sibum, “the bard of Sherbrooke West,” author of over fifteen books and an ongoing series of blog-based missives of considerable lucidity and moxy, Ephemeris. With several books in arm he took to the stage and confessed that, contrary to usual, he had no idea what he was going to read. He began, quite arbitrarily, with a long, truly idiosyncratic poem rife with allusions and elusive particularities that I think the audience, myself included, was quite unprepared for. Upon completion Sibum confessed that the audience seemed “awful serious out there” and decided to read another lengthy musing with “funny stuff in it” this time. Perhaps it was due to the fact that the audience’s occasional muted chuckles never coalesced into actual laughter, or his eagerness to have his peers take the stand, but Sibum concluded somewhat prematurely, all but one of his books, and two of his poems, neglected. Sibum was in the difficult position of ice breaker this evening, and unfortunately, as he tested the waters, the audience somewhat failed him. Although I was unable to fully sink my teeth into much of Sibum’s verse, I was left with a strong impression of his commanding presence, his almost classical eloquence, and his begrudging, curmudgeonly tenderness and charm. My interest for more was piqued.

Second was Marius Kociejowski, author of the acclaimed travelogues The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool (2004) and The Pigeon Wars of Damascus (2010) whose recent reminiscences on a life well spent in the antiquarian book trade, published as “A Factotum in the Book Trade” in the latest issue of CNQ, I read with relish. Kociejowski read two poems from his 2003 selected poems So Dance the Lords of Language, “Tiger Music” and “A Seventh Jew,” as well as a more recent poem called “Sparrows”. His reading was phenomenal. He was captivating, summoning a perfect timbre of restraint, patience, and theatricality. There was a sense of urgency, a visceral propulsion to his reading. He knew how to hook a listener, as evidenced by his introduction to “Tiger Music”: “I was informed by my friend Subhi inDamascus that in Arabic there are sixty-seven words for ‘lion’; I assume, perhaps wrongly, that there must be almost as many for ‘tiger’”. That poem’s exploration of “the many shades of tigerness between one which dozes / And another that lunges, / the different music they make” and “A country as bare of tigers as [a] soul of truth” was Conradian in its narrative pull, utterly convincing, with scores of dramatic levity in tow. In “A Seventh Jew” he gave us an imaginative portrait of an anonymous victim of the French Resistance in Lyon, arrested, imprisoned, executed and known to history only as “a Jew / with a fine voice” who sang an aria of Cavaradossi’s before being taken to be shot. His closer, “Sparrows,” pulled me in with its incendiary opening line “The bitch muse has gone, pulled another fast one” and sustained my interest in a usually hackneyed mode (the writer’s block poem) with its stunning lines and images: “You should have known better than to bring her home. / You should never have tried to work miracles on a global scale. / There are, after all, limits to what a man on stilts can do.” I never doubted Kociejowski’s authenticity for a second, and where he displayed a romantic predisposition to dwell on the loftiest and most reiterative of poetic themes, he earned every moment of it. I was left reeling.

Eric Ormsby closed off the evening nicely with a set of finely tuned poems from his most recent selected poems, 2011’s The Baboons of Hada, to which the audience was very receptive. Ormsby displayed great range, reading poems reminiscent of the formally-calibrated, conceit-driven English poetry of the mid Twentieth Century in a warm, sonorous voice. He made the crowd laugh with “Mrs Lazarus,” a comedic portrayal of the resurrected man’s wife’s chagrin at having to endure the rank odours and whims of her living dead husband, and then edged them toward contemplative silence with his closer “Blood”, a moving account of fatherhood and a tribute to Ormsby’s two adopted sons, “Children not of my blood but of my love” of which “Consanguinity knows nothing of our fierce fragility”: “Backward to Eden let our recognitions rhyme.” I enjoyed the contrast between the ease and assurance of Ormsby’s delivery and the rigid strictures of his often rhymed verse, but the performance’s effectiveness was somewhat blunted for me by Kociejowski’s reading just previous, its ineffable, wild-eyed flashes and shadowy volleys still resonating.

The evening was amazing, a powerful antidote to the mutual admiration societies and increasingly facetious meta-writing bullshit that all too easily fills up journals and readings and garners praise these days. There are master craftsmen about and, it seems, at least temporary reprieves from the eternal apprenticeships the like of which I’m floundering in. I see now that we can renew our commitments to the craft and find other ways to deal with the apparent deficiency of our situation without being glib or dismissive. This was an important evening for me as a young writer and book lover both. How much richer and more memorable the exchanges between the few who bought books last night and expressed their appreciation and thanks with the poets than those who line up daily inside Dear Heather’s to buy the most recent offering of Stephanie Meyer’s dull pap. As Kociejowski inscribed in my friend J.P Karvatski’s copy of So Dance the Lords of Language, “What stronger perfume than a just cause?” Here’s hoping the wind bears that perfume towards our book world a little longer before it stagnates with indifference and is replaced with the sewer that overtakes it.    

 — Jesse Eckerlin