Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Eric Folsom: Northeastern Anti-Ghazals

Although books outnumber chapbooks on my shelves by at least two dozen to one, the chapbook has always struck me as a format most germane to poetry: the intensity of the form lends itself to short draughts. Looking at all the unfinished collections on my shelves, as well as all those I have read in full to which I might return to reread a handful, I could easily say that in every full-length book of poetry, I find a chapbook I could call my own.

Eric Folsom's Northeastern Anti-Ghazals is a chap I picked up at the last League of Poets' AGM in Edmonton. I read the poems with great interest a couple of months ago, and now am rereading them and enjoying them all the more. Especially arresting is the diamond-like particularity of many of those couplets, i.e. observations like:

Inside where I stand, one cobweb on the ceiling
Delicately twists when the furnace comes to life.

or the suggestiveness of

Labouring with love for love, the wedding ring
On the spice shelves while I do the dishes.

... and the frequently mysterious leaps between those couplets.

The Ghazal, according to my Dictionary of Poetic Terms, is a Near Eastern verse form, celebrating love and drinking, composed of 5 to 12 couplets, the last of which contains the author's name. One feature of them is a spirit of intensity and compression that brings to mind the haiku; according to Kate Braid & Sandy Shreve's In Fine Form, traditional ghazal couplets are never enjambed; and in fact were so independent of each other that their order could be changed without damaging the poem.

Eric tells me (we corresponded by e-mail) that the “Anti” part in the title "is a nod to Phyllis Webb, who first used the term to acknowledge that she was really writing a highly westernized version of the ghazal, not recognizable to most Arabic poets, and one might presume Persian, Urdu, or Hindi." (Possibly English haikus could be called an anti-haikus for the same reason.) His poems tend to take the form of understated, sharp observations: drinking is not a primary feature of them, although definitely love figures prominently, in a restrained sort of way; I see no enjambment between couplets, however, and although none of the poems includes his name, many of the poems end with a first-person self-reference.

Speaking of those leaps between couplets, I am reminded of a passage by one Idis Parry quoted in Alan Watt's The Book:

What guarantee is there that the five senses, taken together, do cover the whole of possible experience? They cover simply our actual experience, our human knowledge of facts and events. There are gaps between the fingers; there are gaps between the senses. In these gaps is the darkness which hides the connection between things... This darkness is the source of our vague fears and anxieties, but also the home of the gods.

In a number of the poems, one is left guessing about why the various couplets are sewn together. In others, a multiplicity of connections is possible. In their cryptic construction, ambiguities abound. Clearly, this is a form that takes risks, but can also bring great rewards. In the following poem, for instance, the reader is forced to shift gears emotionally as well as logistically with the shifts in points of view. It is the mind’s hunger for context that finds an implied narrative in the juxtapositions:


She wore a scent like blue light bulbs,
Wore her coat the way trees wear hills.

After the bloodiest campaign in years,
His heart smouldered like an old cigar.

His eyes put down roots for the first time,
The light of crows in his hair.

Every influence caught her off-guard:
A vaginal infection, the phone calls.

He courted his own grief,
He thought she would be his second wife.

No angry objects on this table,
No jack-in-the-box anger from your lips.

I love your failure to communicate,
I love your naked back facing me.

Each of these couplets, of course, could be a separate epigram: a hallmark of the form. The second one, for instance, could be about Donald Rumsfeld. But considering that the first five couplets shift between a man and a woman, a very intense war between the sexes is set up. The second last couplet is a particularly brilliant one: it can be taken as both a climax of the implied narrative, and negation of the tension, depending on whether one takes it as a command or an observation. Considering the intensity of the previous couplets, and of that image of “jack-in-the-box anger” that quite literally shoots out from the page, it commands attention, in any case; even when one says “there is no anger”, presence of anger is invoked. Similarly the title, “The Wise”: is it ironic? Does it suggest the process these characters must go through to become wise? The denouement is a lovely one, a celebration of beauty, and yet an unresolved tension: it could be taken as playfully tender, or deeply ironic, all at once.

Googling Eric and ghazals, I found this link, where you can read articles by Eric and others about the form, as well as a couple of other poems from the collection, including a personal favourite, "Just Another Yuppie Raising Children".

North-Eastern Anti-Ghazals is (on the surface of it) a plain production on ordinary paper comprising 15 poems; it is, as with all chapbooks, one of those instant rarities. Published by above/ground press in Ottawa, it can be obtained here.

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