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Insomniac Press - July 16, 2007 - 16 Comments

Every Inadequate Name

Every Inadequate Name by Nick Thran

Reviewed by Alessandro Porco

In his debut collection of poetry, Every Inadequate Name, Nick Thran’s is at its best when his poem’s speaker’s emotional transparency is honest enough to admit complicity; he’s flawed and guilty, young and frivolous — that is to say, too human for living yet just perfect for poetry. Conversely, the collection is at its worst when the poem’s speaker participates only in his capacity as a moralizing spectator, resulting in off-putting poems quietly dictated from the sidelines. Perhaps these are the inevitable two faces of a romantic like Thran. Where one goes, the other follows. Surely, there are other poems that fall somewhere in between, but they are for some other review to take up and defend.

In the case of the former, that is, emotional transparency, there are startling admissions of solipsism, as in “That Lobster Has Been There Forever,” the collection’s opening poem; the speaker states, “I’ve never wept in a twentieth-century / building for anything other / than my own lost loves and friends” (13). The speaker recognizes, with some embarrassment and fear, how the sort of self-involvement that leads to such an admission is the very sort of self-involvement that led to the atrocities of the twentieth-century that deserve to be “wept” for. Accordingly, in the poem’s proceeding line, he begs: “Please, don’t tell the architects” (13). The four succinct lines quoted would have themselves make a powerful poem. (Their potency is, unfortunately, diluted by what follows in the poem.) Other effective examples of this tenor of honesty and complicity abound. In “How Pop Sounds,” a very touching ode to pop music’s ability to permeate our lives, the speaker writes of “how your first time lasted exactly / two minutes and thirteen seconds — the perfect length, you thought” (14). So, the speaker knows he was once an inconsiderate lover. Of course, implied, also, is that the speaker’s only understanding of what would make the sexual experience “perfect” is entirely dependent upon a pop music epistemology. (The perfect pop song is “two-minutes and thirteen seconds.”) This is an important point: the speaker is willing to allow into his nostalgia (“This is about falling in love / with something dated” [14]) one of two things, or perhaps both: one, a defect of that which he so much wishes to defend (Pop’s “sugar”-coated representations of the world-at-large); two, his own prejudice as a listener, desperate to extract practical value from a genre that may be anything but practical and, thus, to confer upon it the aura of Art or artfulness. (Also of interest, “How Pop Sounds” ends with a subtle and effective allusion to Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.”)

Another poem of the first-type I am describing is “The Bear Claw Tub.” “Old fashioned, dragging its bloat porcelain / across the linoleum floor,” begins the poem (25). From there on in, from sentence to sentence, the short-poem’s speaker attempts to figure and re-figure the title tub in his and our imaginations, respectively. The tub is, among other things, “a mythological creature” and “the sort of place suicides happen / in movies, or where murder victims are found” (25). Yet balancing these more public figurations are the private or personalized ones: “it was where I entered to let off steam” and “[it was] best on nights / I’d return home stinking, sweating, having / hurt who I loved most” (25). By accumulating various versions of the tub, associative connections are allowed to be made from sentence to sentence. How has the speaker “hurt” his lover? Is he no different than a murderer? Has he inspired a suicide? Such questions are suggestive and cast a rather stirring pall over the poem. One final example: in “Seriously, It Was the Biggest Cricket,” the speaker critiques, with comic irony, his younger-self’s rather Olympian-like ability to be shallow (“seriously, she / was the hottest” [32]) and equally Olympiam-like inability to be discerning: “seriously, it [love] felt like the real thing” (33) — not coincidentally, said feeling is inspired by a “gorgeous backpacker / who speaks fluent Italian, [and ] recites whole blocks / of the Inferno aloud” (32-33).

On the other hand, there are those speaker-as-spectator poems I mentioned at the start — “Azucar” and “Monday in the World of Beauty” — that, as suggested, tend towards an off-putting moralizing. In “Azucar,” the speaker tells the story of his mother’s timely intervention into a domestic-abuse situation in a nearby apartment:

Neither of us really knew what was up
until an open-palm blow
broke the language barrier, and Mother,
who tries hard to do good in this world,
marched upstairs,
banged on their door till it opened
enough for her to ask
in a friendly, foreign voice
for azucar,
the Spanish word for sugar
she’d made a point to learn before bastard,
prison, abuse,
and asshole, leave her alone.
(44)

It’s those last lines, in particular, that offend my sensibility. The speaker and his mother (the former a ventriloquist for the latter) are, metaphorically speaking, tourists, merely visiting the language (”It has been a struggle, Mother meant trying / to learn Spanish”) and, correspondingly, the poem’s apartment of violence. It’s a convenient, bourgeois position for the speaker to occupy. There is no real investment; no involvement; no immersion — that is, there is no getting to know the asshole in question. Instead, the asshole functions as a flat, two-dimensional character that enables the speaker to reify, in the form of the poem, his own as well as his mother’s righteousness. I’m just not convinced — and never have been — that poetry is the place of such righteousness, especially considering it’s of the sort one is likely to find more well-done in a W-Network Movie-of-the-Week. The poem “Monday in the World of Beauty” includes a similarly distasteful moralizing: the speaker, speculating as to the “whereabouts” of an abused hair-stylist’s “significant [other],” suggests

he's probably hovering
 like thick cloud
over a cocktail umbrella
 inside some peeler
where even flesh can't light the room.

(46)

Allow me to parse the logic here: Strip-clubs are venues empty of significant meaning (“even flesh can’t light the room”) ergo the moral darkness of such places engender the stylist’s “black eye” (a symbol of moral darkness i.e. the absence of light) ergo bad, abusive men frequent strip-clubs ergo strip-clubs are bad ergo aren’t I a good poet for pointing this out. The articulation of such a position may be correct — who knows! — but it doesn’t make for interesting poetry.

Stylistically, Thran’s strong point is the construction of the prosaic vignette. It’s enviable. Therein, you will find a functional simile or two. Beyond that, he doesn’t seem overly concerned with formal innovation; there is no linguistic panache — I don’t say this as a critique (in the negative) but rather as a point of fact. (The sole exception is the poem “Bloor Street,” which plays with the morphemic construction of the word.) His rhythms are unassuming, doing nothing to carry the meaning of a poem. His descriptions tend towards a hokey romanticism.  Also worth mentioning is the fact that Thran’s collection isn’t exactly what I would refer to as “literate” or, more accurately, explicitly steeped in Tradition — it’s presentation is disarmingly naive and, at times, even simple. A welcome change of pace. Perhaps this is indicative of that aforementioned pop sensibility. (Though, of that very generic classification, I would say that no poem in the collection has that timeless “pop” quality Thran so admires.)

Alessandro Porco’s first collection of poetry, The Jill Kelly Poems, is published by ECW Press (2005). Currently, Porco attends the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he is completing a doctorate on Hip-Hop Poetics. A second collection of poetry, titled Augustine in Carthage, is forthcoming from ECW Press in the spring of 2008.

Comments

On July 17, 2007, J.K. said:

it’s unfortunate that many reviewers dismiss social commentary as “self-righteous.”

okay, let’s just write about rocks and trees. god forbid someone writes a poem about domestic abuse.

i found the poetic lines cited were bold and refreshing. seems like a book worth checking out, review aside.

On July 17, 2007, Zach Wells said:

It’s equally unfortunate when readers dismiss a review based on one point, when the review makes several and the point being dismissed is more nuanced than JK is saying.

If I read the review correctly, the question is not so much what the poem is about as it is how the poem goes about its business, and I think Alessandro makes a very legitimate point about the too-easy, too-predictable liberal p.o.v. in the poem.

Thran’s book is definitely worth checking out?I don’t think Alessandro says otherwise?but it shares a quality with almost every other book in the world: it’s not perfect. It is remarkably good for a poet still in his mid-twenties (and as Alessandro says, it certainly has the qualities, for better and/or worse, one would expect of a young man’s book), and better than most older “poets” could hope for.

On July 17, 2007, J.K. said:

the point in question is hardly a “nuance”. it was pretty blatant as far as i’m concerned.

“too-easy, too-predictable liberal p.o.v.” betrays your bias, Zach. but this is how the big critics like to vilify poets who write on social issues. it saves the trouble of actually writing an intelligent rebuttal.

btw, why the sarcastic quotation marks around older poets? what statement are you trying to make with that? it’s kind of wide-brushed, don’t you think?

cheers.

On July 17, 2007, Alex said:

I thought it was a good review. But I also thought there were some poems that showed “linguistic panache” (at least if that means what I think it means), and where the rhythm helps carry the meaning. Take the second half anyway of “Isolation Camp, A Letter.” The aggression in that voice is at one with the rhythm, which is not “unassuming” but in your face. At least as I read it. There are heavy punctuations on the internal rhymes with “pot” and the rhetorical asides, repetitions, and adverbs (the “perfectly” and “actually” really spit out at you with initial emphasis). The speed of “I fire two quick shots” (especially coming after the accelerator “perimeter”) is clever (though some people argue that there’s no such thing as a “fast” line so this would be an illusion). And the curtness in the final stanza is another example of rhythm being used for effect, driving home the sense of isolation with off-putting closure. Ending the last two lines with k’s is harsh.

On July 18, 2007, Zach Wells said:

I agree with you, Alex. I thought “Isolation Camp” the best poem in the book and very skillfully turned.

JK, as someone who has “written on social issues,” I’m the wrong big-critic-tree (who are these “big critics” anyhow?) up which to be barking. The fact is that writing on social issues has attendant risks and its very easy to miscue in one way or another (being either too earnest or too glib). I think that the youthful solipsism Alessandro identifies in some poems is probably an obstacle to the writing of effective, engaged political verse. Could be that Thran has good political poems in his future, but the best work by far in EIN is Lyrical.

I use the quotes around “poets” because I find the term is much abused by people who have no business using it for self-identification. In a recent interview Leonard Cohen, one of the best poets this country’s seen, said he doesn’t apply the term to himself because it’s arrogant to do so?it’s for other people to determine whether or not he’s a poet. If only more people understood this, we’d have a “League of Canadian Scribblers, with Maybe a Few Poets.” It’s only wide-brushed if you think I was referring to ALL older “poets.” I wasn’t.

On July 18, 2007, Shane Neilson said:

J.K,

  Crypto-calling Zach a conservative is just ludicrous. Can’t anyone criticize the left and not be accused of bias? In fact, I know Zach to be of the left (though I’m sure he’d chafe at being described in that reductive way) and the fact that he identifies Thran as less deft when on safari in the social jungle is, to me, something that can be considered reliable when one considers the source. If Zach ever writes poems with Stephen Harper wearing underwear on this head, then I’ll be the first to scream bias. But only if the underwear are dirty.

Shane

On July 19, 2007, Zach Wells said:

What if they were “soiled and blood-soaked underwear,” Shane?

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