Review by Jenn Houle.
I think it might be best to read Ken Babstock’s Airstream Land Yacht in the morning. I made the mistake of first cracking it in the evening, and I ended up unable to sleep. Could be that it was the seasons changing, my circadian rhythms glitching with late spring dampness and fog, but I am nearly certain Babstock’s poems played a part. Some of the poems in this collection are just so surprisingly beautiful, so stunning and viscerally interesting, that it actually takes your brain a little while to apprehend it. Something like when you have a near collision in the car, and the details of the near-miss only fill themselves in later, once you’re already long past the yield sign and cruising safely. As I read along, I kept turning back to previous poems, and then trying to catch up with the collection’s flow all over again. I kept flipping to the back page and staring at the author’s photo, thinking: What? How? Really? Who is this person and how did he manage to articulate that?
It is not my intention to praise the collection unreservedly, because there are a few places in which a little more clarity, a little less allusiveness, and little more assertion might have benefited the whole. There were places in this book that I got absolutely lost, places where, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what Babstock’s scheme was. Should I have studied Post-Modernism more profoundly? Or Modernism? Am I thinking of Marianne Moore or Ezra Pound, here, or… ? This feeling of being adrift occurred intermittently throughout the four part collection, in poems such as “The Sickness Unto Death and Harris on the Pig. Found.”
Fig. 34—ELEVATION OF MR. ROSEBURGH’S PIGGERY
People do neither one nor the other; they shriek that help is
impossible without ever taxing their minds, and afterwards they
ungratefully lie. To lack possibility means that everything has
become necessary or that everything
may be described as long and deep in the carcass, full in the ham,
admitting of no neck, dish face, and an easy taking on of fat.
I was never sure if it was a poem about exposition, ekphrasis, illness and excess, or a purely conceptual poem, or maybe, all of the above. It is certainly another poem which asks the reader to make sense of an odd juxtaposition. There might be something brilliant in it I was unable to put together. But, this is a collection that deals consistently with consciousness and our attempts to make discernments, to connect things — and here, I’d jolt from my alpha state thinking of E.M. Forster, my entire English literature education re-asserting itself with a vengeance — to establish cause and effect, and to understand ourselves and the world.
Whenever I found myself lost, I would turn back to poems which staggered me with their simple beauty. “Marram Grass,” poetry about love, is my favorite in the collection, and I turned back to it at least five times.
I’ll pass this sight of you—soggy, in love
with me, bent to inspect and feel
the petals of something tiny, wild, nestled
among the roots and moss—over
the projector of my fluctuating self if ever
life’s thin, rigid narrowness
requests my heart be small. You taught
and teach me things. Most alive when grit
makes seeing hard, scrapes the lens
through which what’s fixed is seen to weaken.
I feel about this poem the way I think I used to feel about certain formulaic power ballads when I was in high school. And I don’t intend that as a trivialization of the poem, or as a piece of self-deprecating nuance. I mean, I kind of swooned at how. . .beautiful and spot-on it was about the memory of the relationships which most mark us. Oh? Is it Neruda he reminds me of, then? And, of course, every time I re-read it, I would flip to the last page again. Is he like Byron? Is he mad, bad and dangerous to know? Babstock hints at past misdeeds and failures of conscience and character, throughout. He writes of feeble attempts at restitution:
from my seat, I went and faced a woman whose caress
had eased my passage through some months I couldn’t pass
through on my own, she’d been more than kind, I’d
found I couldn’t love her at the time, and fled.
So, I faced her and apologized as best I could, given the mass
of people in the pub. ‘This is a poem,’ she said, ‘and that’s not
good enough. Around here, we don’t let art, no matter
how acutely felt, stand in for what’s necessary, true and right.
Next time you face me, maybe leave you here. End quote.’
(”The Minds of the Higher Animals” 49)
Art should not serve as apology, of course. But it should also not have to apologize for itself, and thankfully, this collection doesn’t. It grapples with the issue of flawed cognition, dulled senses, and the simple, human desire to understand ourselves. This is shameless poetry, so painstakingly crafted in places, the seams show. Seams. Well. . . but the seams don’t run straight and the neck is stitched to the wrist button, and sometimes. . . Maybe that’s what it is: Babstock has made a really weird sweater out of human consciousness and I can’t get it on right. Well, who could? You see, I really, really couldn’t get to sleep that first night with the book and I came up with things both trite and fascinating to me. My mind was playing with itself, and aware that it was doing so. Usually, our minds only play with themselves in dreams, but poetry, I’ve often thought, is what you get when your mind is able to play while still awake, when self-consciousness is there to mitigate and get us to try to impose a bit of order. This collection inspired that urge in me. I wanted to get up out of bed and write things down at 3am.
There is so much more I should mention. There is a great deal in here about a sojourn in Iceland, the Nordic landscape, the feeling of a society on the edge of the sea. There is much mist; much difficult and dodgy industry. There is false advertising, played against real and difficult beauty. There is darkness and much groping around in that darkness. There is the masterful poem “Ataraxia” (52), which should be read seven times in a row, at least. The back of the book contends that “the clutch of love poems contained within are key to unlocking the larger collection—itself a love song to the wordless world.”
And there is definitely something here to unlock. The book contains six poems entitled “Explanatory Gap” (17, 40, 44 and 60, 78, and 100, respectively), and while they are phenomenal poems, I admit, there are still some connections between these, and other individual poems that I haven’t quite made. For instance, I am not quite sure yet about the relationship between poems entitled “Essentialist” (13), “Pragmatist” (38), “Materialist” (62), “Verificationist” (87) and “Compatibilist” (107), all excellent poems in their own rights. In my defense, I have only been sitting with the book for a month, and I have been shamelessly rereading “Marram Grass” instead of trying to really crack the code.
This was my first exposure to Babstock, and, mild insomnia notwithstanding, I am grateful for the exposure. It reminded me why I still love poetry as much as I do. It gave me a kind of ataraxia (I am ashamed to tell you that I had to Google this word—and I thought I knew my Greek ideology). I will certainly read the collection again, hoping to make more connections between the poems. I hope, I hope and pray, that very, very savvy scholars will publish articles about these connections and that I will chance upon these articles and be floored with fleeting feelings of really understanding. I hope someone posts a comment underneath this review, elaborating on something I missed. This collection is a love song to human consciousness, adrift in the “worldless world,” and I was utterly seduced. So, while, some moments cast me just a bit too far adrift for me to praise it unreservedly (I mean, none of us like to be thrown out of a moving vehicle), I still recommend it unreservedly. It is worth the price of admission solely for poems like “Ataraxia,” “Marram Grass,” “Palindromic” (27), and the “Explanatory Gaps.” And for the poem “Epochal,” which offers us two images, culled from different forms of visual media, which seem, at first, utterly unrelated to one another. Babstock then demands that we “connect them” (50). Oh. It is worth the price of admission just to be invited to try.
Jenn Houle lives, works and writes in Shediac, New Brunswick. Her poetry has appeared in Lichen (winner of 2004 serial poetry contest) and is forthcoming in Arc and The Antigonish Review. She is currently working on her first collection of poems.