Reviewed by Evie Christie
In Walid Bitar’s Bastardi Puri nothing is what it seems. That is to say, these poems are unique, each poem speakinginwardly and outwardly at once. Bitar makes language malleable, offsets tradition and form with a clear urbane voice, and generates a true relationship with his reader. There are post-modern elements found throughout the collection in the often self-reflexive dialogue: the speaker acknowledges the poem, the reader, and him/herself. Bitar pulls off this dialogue well, forming a genuinely intriguing relationship with the reader, as his lines tease, pun, insult, trick, and dizzy us with wordplay.
In the tidy looking traditional sonnet, “Tarzan,” the speaker begins the conversation with the reader, stating, “In wrestling and poetry, everything is staged” (64). A mischievous relationship is thus formed: the reader is aware that ‘this is a poem; I’m being tricked,’ and yet there is something alluring enough about the voice to make us want to find out how exactly we will be misled. Using the traditional structure of the sonnet, Bitar negotiates the role of the poem and poet. Poets can be understood as well-trained fakers (as the poem states, “those with the least sincerity soar” ) and readers are audience members. As spectators, we are happy to be tricked by the wordplay in Bastardi Puri, its fun, but herein lies a larger thematic element — language and its inherent ability to be used both malevolently and benevolently. If unassuming sonnets, full of a playful sing-song musicality, rhyme, and meter, can con us with dirty (if well loved and masterfully played) tricks and tropes, a more dangerous possibility lurks in the inseams, between the lines, politically, globally…
But let’s not get more serious than the text allows. While Bitar is indeed presenting bitter and acidic ideas, he has not allowed his speaker to become didactic or to deliver a manifesto of any sort. As readers, we mustn’t forget that this ever-charismatic speaker has been constructed by Bitar, who comments, whether sweetly or sourly, on (and within) the very lines he is assembling. We hope to be infused with a sophisticated understanding of rhetoric, with a sense of dramatic irony; it is a contract we enter into when we pick up a book of poems: we have to work for the best of the poems if we want their illumination, and we will be rewarded for such work; we won’t be cajoled into a relationship only to be mocked when an educated rhetoric is used against us. Bastardi Puri is, however, not a book that aims to congratulate the refined reader. It is the kind of book that lulls the reader into submission with striking language and imagery and then jolts them with this same language and tone, reminding us that “Consonants are gigolos, so are vowels” (“A Chain Collision” 60) and that we are in a consensual reading relationship with an enchanting and seemingly sociopathic speaker, who is controlling each aspect of our understanding.
There are also piercingly poignant moments throughout Bastardi Puri. “Prodigal Sons,” for example, is a beautiful poem considering identity, existential loneliness, sense of place, and family. The speaker describes two brothers separated at birth; “One is homeless, and the other hops a ship” (59). While the poem must be read in its entirety to realize its full merit, its final lines are well worth repeating here: “Pray for the dirty blond landlocked twin / whom nothing resembles: may he grow a shark’s fin” (59). These lines give a brilliant glimpse into a few of the myriad of themes sewn into this text: a divided self, a self alone in the universe, what it is to be torn from a place of birth or comfort, and a reckoning with the possibility of a meaning that may exist in the world, not yet discovered (this is, to be sure, why many of us write and read poems).
Readers of Bastardi Puri, be warned: don’t take yourselves too seriously. The abstract moments in this text are not to be endlessly wrestled with, or to leave you burdened; they make up more of the play the speaker manipulates us with and add a rare enigmatic element to work which could otherwise easily get bogged down in questions of existence, identity, linguistic responsibilities, and otherwise heavier thematic issues. To say (as I have) that Bastardi Puri is never what it appears to be, is obvious after opening the cover; I thought, given the brown speckled near-holy looking jacket, that I was in for some inconspicuous earthy Canadian poetry, but I was brilliantly surprised. The bigger surprise is in the layered understanding I gained in second and third reads; the joy of the language sharpened with each read, as did the charismatically untrustworthy relationship with Bitar’s speaker, who I think is best left represented, for the purposes of this review, in the final lines of his poem “The Mechanics of Banality”: “There are folks who get off watching the sun set, / and others who watch them for opportunities” (15).
Evie Christie’s first book of poetry, Gutted, was published by ECW Press this winter and she has written reviews for Women’s Post and published in Matrix, Taddle Creek, Kiss Machine, amongst others.