The Good Bacteria by Sharon Thesen


Review by Shane Neilson.

Often when reading poetry books, I’m moved. Moved to say, this is brilliant, or more often, moved to note, somewhat wraithlike, that this is atrocious. But then there are the flawed books, the ones ambitious in their conception but problematic in their execution, and Sharon Thesen’s The Good Bacteria emphatically falls into this middle category. Sometimes it’s these books which provoke the strongest reaction, the greatest disillusionment. So it is here.

The part of this book that deserves the most commentary is the eponymous first sequence, “The Good Bacteria.” It’s a kind of catch-all compendium that’s capricious in terms of its switches in subject matter. For example, I provide the following as a taste of its manic naming:

[The antibiotic] killed all the bacteria, good and bad, like death or God.
Though death, being a matter of bacteria, is also life.
It was easier to walk to Kamloops. (“1.” 11)

So, in three lines, we’ve played connect the dots (and that’s really all it is; there is no higher intelligence linking these disparate concepts) with bacteria, death, God, life, and of course, that humourous one about Kamloops, the place with the funny name. I keep asking myself: Why is this sequence necessary, why is it integral to the poem? The answer: It isn’t; it’s just another component amongst components.

Downright millennial in its anxieties, this sequence is a catalogue of menace and doom, albeit a rather superficial one. There’s not much narrative to hang one’s hat on, just a series of images and riffs that, for the most part, fail to accrue, for in the end I think Thesen is mainly out to strike a mood, seed an atmosphere, not really to write a coherent poem. The book’s back cover gives the game away, calling its contents a “layered meditation. ” In current parlance, this is basically an excuse that one needn’t write poems anymore; one need merely string a few highfalutin concepts together and have it suffice as a “meditation,” which, paradoxically, is code for meaninglessness. (There are themes, duly signified that one can pull out of the morass, sure, but a theme or themes do not make for meaning or meanings.)

What this meditation consists of – and I’m speaking here of “The Good Bacteria” the sequence — is empty constructs of vapid language. So much is trying to be said, so little memorably. Reading and rereading the sequence, scouring it for purpose, has left me in a bad mood. I look for “high talk,” I get cute pronouncement, sly smarty-pantsness. You can get an inkling of the profundity of the book from this excerpt, an extension from the previous quotation:

He lugged his own laptop; it was easier that way.
On his lap sat the known universe.
When he sat down, the known universe sat on his lap.
He could see anything that way on the way to Kamloops. (“1.” 11)

It’s saying nothing, really; it’s a misguided attempt at aphorism; it’s superficial cleverness. And the technique recalls automatic writing:

Perched on a pearl
leaf leaning out to see
insect heraldry. And to call
for a change in government. (“2.” 12)

Change in government? Where did that one come from? These random bits, haphazardly sewn together, belie technique; it is as if Thesen is splicing her poems together. And in case you’re wondering, I’m not quoting out of context; with Thesen, that’s precisely the problem: There is no context. Nothing in the poem suggests a government needed to be changed before the excerpt, and nothing after. It merely is.

On the brighter side, there is an attractive Delphic quality to her poems, an inscrutability borne of constitutive randomness (which may be me making a good thing out of a bad.) In the middle of a myth about the poet’s sister marrying a duck and living in an underwater house – Thesen is strongest at myth — an “electricity inspector/ peers at a gauge on the house wall and writes/ in his book” (“3.” 13). What does it mean? Hard to say, other than to intimate that, even in myth, the tentacles of the mundane can intrude. Or that, in Thesen’s world, there are ominous forces that are relentlessly counting, counting.

Perhaps this is unfair, but it’d be nice to know just what Thesen is for or against, yet on the evidence of this book, showing her cards is probably too old-fashioned for her as a meditative artist. “The Good Bacteria” is the poetry of attitude, or perhaps more precisely, of an oracular pose. But it’s a pose that can go on autopilot, when the clever thing is usurped by the banal thing:

                                             All the crying
and the carrying on, agencies like you wouldn’t
believe, all helpless. Infinite worlds. (“6.” 16)

This is all in soft focus. “Infinite worlds”? Isn’t it the job of the poet to convey infinite worlds, not just to refer to them? And the cliché of “like you wouldn’t/ believe” is enough to ruin a poem all by itself. Come to think of it, I haven’t found a single memorable utterance in this entire book; all there is to be found is a bloated free-float from topic to topic. Reading the sequences, rereading the sequences, I was hard-pressed to account for passages like this:

An orange popsicle was softening
in the grocery bag. While he sat in the café
among other songless birds
it melted, then liquefied, then vanished. (“8.” 18)

Just what is trying to be articulated here in this Ode to Popsicles? I’d venture: nothing much.

If I’m being hard on Thesen – and I guess I am — it’s because there are things to like in the book, and it makes me think that she can do much better. She has her own internally consistent language; only on occasion am I caught up short on her prosody, second-guessing her word-choice. Though I’ve questioned her direction, her subjects, I don’t think the craft’s to blame here. Nothing memorable is said because Thesen doesn’t allow herself to say anything memorable; it’s definitely not because she doesn’t have the capacity –the words, the order- to do so. There’s tons of potential in the following bit:

Small round islands crammed with tall trees,
toupees of underwater giants. On balder crowns
eagles rest hooded and quiet, hangmen
at lunchtime. (“6.” 16)

The images here — eagles as hangmen, trees as toupees — are fresh, their expression economical. In fact, I’d say that Thesen doesn’t ever take too long to express herself; there is little verbiage in a Thesen poem. Thesen is good with essence, again harkening back to my point that the poet is skilled with mood. But mood can only produce vague feeling in a reader; there needs to be something more to make it poetry, that art of charged cadence. It’s here — on the meaning side of the equation — that Thesen must linger in the future. Thesen has so much to comment on, or better yet invoke, but really so little to say.

That holds true for “A Holy Experiment,” the second sequence of the book and, on the whole, a much creakier performance. This is definitely a poetry of diminished expectations; what can one derive from breathless enjambment like the following:

We said goodbye beside the rental car in the rain. Along the path,
fierce little mottled apples strewn by the wind at the cemetery
the ashes of Frances beneath a fresh pile of dirt in the family
plot, a dozen granite headstones all saying MOTZ. (“1.” 25)

Careless in terms of line breaks, random even, one gets the sense they could have fallen anywhere, and did; heavy on the conveying of information – a woman died — without really evoking a feeling of sadness, which would be the expected thing to do; and abdicating any responsibility towards the sounds of poetry, lacking any inner music, all of these offend the sensibilities. But mostly, it’s that familiar failure to feel that really shipwrecks the sequence.

The third section of the book, containing individual poems, is titled “Relative to History” and it’s here that I hoped, on the smaller scale, that Thesen would shine; instead, all of the annoying traits already articulated kept appearing. “Hey I Think That’s Me” is descriptive domestic reportage; “Happy Hour” has a “whatever” in it and no, it’s not ironic, and in my book this constitutes a failure to create. If I had to use a single word to characterize these singles, it would be irrelevant. They’re glancing blows at life — a rather boring life at that.

I could go on and indict this book further, but really the flaws that are seeded in the first three sections fully flower in the later two. This irks me as a critic because I know, on the evidence of the poems themselves, that Thesen is capable of so much more; it’s as if she chose prattle over poetry. The only ambition of this book was to be inarticulate, and that ambition has been achieved. Next time out, would that Thesen acquire a subject that she cares about, that means something to her, that is emphatically not a “mediation” – a canard with currency in current Canadian Poetry — but rather necessitates a group of poems that cannot help but be kindled by her love. Take Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian’s advice: “An aesthetic intricately related to the human emotions is the only indispensible criteron for literary works.”

Shane Neilson is a writer from New Brunswick.