Véhicule Press - August 28, 2009 - 19 Comments
The Mechanical Bird by Asa Boxer
Reviewed by Lorette C. Luzajic
It was the title that grabbed me, and as for why, I cannot exactly say. The Mechanical Bird evoked images of a dusty antique toy store or of Ray Bradbury’s machineries. I let myself be led by this random curiousity, into the mechanics of Asa Boxer’s imagination.
Boxer is a prize-wining poet who has appeared in Arc, Books in Canada, and Maisonneueve. In this intriguing first collection of poetry, he fuses industrial, mechanical, technological themes with the natural or spiritual, contrasting, inventing, seeking. I was often lulled by the rhythm of words, soothed into a kind of fuzzy, drunken complacency of beauty, and then jarred abruptly from my reverie by something dark and sick. Listen:
Finding latitude was easy: read the polestar’s pitch; longitude,
however, was alike a lane passed blindly in a blizzard.
The earth, you see, in its slow, confusing spin, unscrolls
the stars across its southern screen like snow, a very, very slow
snow, a confounding pageant of brilliance in motion
(“The Mechanico-corpuscular Age” 47)
Erosion is the mark of love
carved in chalky cliffs
and left to the wind to press
like an unrelenting kiss.
(“A Workshop Run by Rust” 69)
But blow after blow will wake you from your apathetic slumber and give faces to historical statistics. In “Hitler’s Holy Land,” Boxer writes, “keep your gaze upon the ground while suicides blow / their deadly flowers everywhere, and your children pick bones” (26).
Or this, from the absolutely brilliant “Victims”:
We are collecting our victims.
We are cataloguing them alphabetically in books,
engraving them into glistening cenotaphs.
We sing songs. Our histories trouble over them.
The army rewards its victims with rank,
and makes of death a stripe, a bar, a star,
You can also expect a rigorous workout in linguistics along the way; Boxer exercises words that don’t make frequent appearances in everyday life: fasciti, grist, ionize, cicatrices, annealing, tensility, polynia. Sometimes poets forget the expansiveness of language in favour of placating a greeting card audience; they use the word ‘star’ fifteen times in one poem. I for one delight when I have to refresh my memory or learn something new by delving into the dictionary. It’s like receiving new contexts for perceptions.
And yet, for all the awards and critical acclaim this poet has received, I can’t deny that there were times I was hopelessly lost and had no idea what the story unfolding was about or should be about. Perhaps I am not as imaginative as I need to be, or I’m sorely lacking in frame of references that any reader of poetry should have in their arsenal. One moment I would be transfixed, and the next, the gears of the poetry would be clunky, hard-edged — well, mechanical. While spring coils and steel teeth make a vivid verbal landscape, there was an aloof reservation that seemed too wary and unnatural, despite the themes.
At times, this meant awkward moments, such as in “Fashion Statements”: “Jesus too is scrunchy in the face,” it reads (39), and then, “cords look constipated with thought.”
This cool, mistrusting distance from the reader took some of the blood out of the poems, leaving perfect yet lifeless mechanisms that clicked and clattered their way along, robotic and devoid of emotions. The cover blurb says this “debut constantly tests the claims of authenticity over artifice.” So I have to conclude that the effect was intentional, but for me it was just too removed. See, there was a heartbeat in places, like “the map impressed upon him / to the deepest vein, he’ll move with the world under his skin” (12). But a line like “this minute machine divided the globe and coordinated war” (48) has no pulse to draw me in to wonder why or what. By the end, there has been so much bad news and war that I was hurrying to finish and escape. “…Far worse / than having her own children / slaughtered and served to her for dinner,” reads “Solving a Lie” (64), but the reader is already rushing past this misery toward the end.
All that said, I have no doubts that this poet will warm up and get more comfortable interacting with his audience. It is, after all, tense territory: anti-Semitism, war, industrial humanity. There are moments of shining brilliance that made me want to try harder in the colder stretches. After all, there are many worse crimes in writing than the heavy hand, to which every poet is prone.