Poet Edward Hirsch states that persona poetry originates “in archaic rituals where masks are independent beings that possess the ones who assume them,” resulting in the animistic “displacement of the poet’s self into another existence, a second self.” While persona or mask poetry can scarcely be said to be currently popular in Canada where either the lyrical/confessional-style poem or the experimental/language poem continues to dominate, two recent books deal with the development of multiple personas in mostly masterful ways: Heiti’s first foray Hydrologos (Pedlar Press 2011) and Noyes’ Rainbow Stage/Manchuria (Oolichan Books 2012). While book-length persona poems like Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid were lauded in the 1970s, very few persona-based texts seem to receive much acclaim these days, Anne Carson’s An Autobiography of Red springing to mind among her other titles as an exception. Persona poems can indeed be challenging, requiring the author to steep themselves in not only research but also milieu for an extensive period of time in order for the voices and narratives that emerge to feel organic, genuine. Can definitely be a risky proposition in these personal and deconstructionist times.
1/Warren Heiti’s Hydrologos
What Shines: Heiti is certainly deeply enmeshed in his materials as a student of ancient philosophies who has taken Jan Zwicky as his long-term mentor. In this exquisitely-designed book (imminently strokable!), Heiti mostly adeptly assumes the voicings of masks from that of Sallie Chisum to Agriope, from Plato to the character Harey from Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Persona allows Heiti to be female; to be from other eras; to be doubly fictionalized. The book is stirring, dream-like, gently punctuated by devastating lines like: “the wasps orbit on little tethers of light”; “the iris of your fist constricts”; “the crocus with its curved blue hurt.” Quite simply, he is unafeard of beauty and taking on these personas enables this flowering. Impossible to summarize, even if one knows few of Heiti’s allusions, the rhythm of these pieces will draw you within and hold you there.
What Stumbles: Little but sometimes Heiti tries too hard. To be accessible, he can aim at fusing the ancient and modern in the manner of Stephanie Bolster in White Stone: The Alice Poems or Susan McCaslin in several of her books in the voices of Blake, Mary and Persephone and on occasion it doesn’t work. Instead, it comes across as cutesy, silly, for instance when Parmenides is morphed into Pamela Anderson, the lifeguard with “his pink whistle.” Leaping across eras can be a fun exercise but it can also feel strained and I love it best when Heiti sticks with the period of time most conducive to his characters.
What it Echoes: Carson & Zwicky of course, Catullus, Charles Wright, Tarkovsky again more literally, HD, Ondaatje, Bolster, Glenn Gould.
2/Steve Noyes’ Rainbow Stage/Manchuria:
What Shines: In Rainbow Stage/Manchuria, Noyes twists together a deliciously rhythmic array of cultural allusions for his multi-genred narrative of The NEXT, a band part Grateful Dead, part Spinal Tap, & all fucked up on the coked-out yet still-noble road of 70s rock god pursuits.The energy of this epic is echoed in the second part, The Marais, a section of combustible lyrics that rampage across the tangled terrain of youth, health, fatherhood, travel, religion – followed by the ambitious third section, a long poem threading through the linguistic & political complexities experienced by a waitress living in Manchuria. Always paramount – the music of words, chiming, alliterative, cacophonous,raucous & stuffed to the stanza-brim with energy. Ok, that was the blurb I wrote on this book, never-used by the publisher so resurrected here. Essentially, it frames my essential approval of this text and Noyes’ work in general but for this review I do want to acclaim the first long persona poem, Rainbow Stage, above the others. In fact, as the poem is over 70 pages I fail to comprehend why it couldn’t have been published on its own, with a different cover than the somewhat garish pink and red one, and perhaps even a harder-edged title to match Noyes’ textured and sproingy poetic style. Just listen to this description of the singer of The Next, Ransom, who is stuck “in a fit of bitterness that set him to chinooking out his tunes on his old piyanner and polishing his throat with Glenlivet…he struck a lonely, bellicose pose.” Taut, novelistic, full of rampant zing, Noyes’ consistent cadences recall Dionne Brand’s book-length poem, Inventory, without the overt politick. A romp through a lost Winnipeg, a vanished time when making the music was all.
As noted, although poems such as The Marais are brilliant, I prefer more focused texts that revel in their intensities and match form with content. Thus, if Rainbow Stage had constituted the whole book, perhaps interspersed with constructed “photographs of the band” and with an appended cd of the songs sprinkled throughout, it would have been a much more memorable entity. I don’t know why we always need to have extensive books of poems when one long poem as the book itself can sweetly suffice. That said, lines from other pieces like “night in their oval, kindergarten eyes” and the repeated tropes of gold in The Marais give me crucial shudders kin to that when reading Murial Ruykeyser’s the Man-Moth or PK Page’s The Man with One Small Hand, say. Noyes doesn’t stumble, much.
What it Echoes: Obviously The Guess Who among other 70s rock bands but also Cab Calloway and jazzier beats, George Elliot Clarke, Margaret Christakos in her long poem Lucent, Dionne Brand as mentioned, Hard Core Logo, Spinal Tap.