|The Last Existentialist
||Confessions of a Body Thief||The Lesions of Genetic Sin|
|Chris Drumm Books,
|Miniature Sun Press, |
|A review by Trent Walters
All of them are tastefully designed, though the latter two are the more compellingly presented: respectively, a
cardboard to protect what is a true broadside (folded, single-sided, large sheet), and a cardboard folder to protect
the four-panel accordion broadside.
All of them are tastefully designed, though the latter two are the more compellingly presented: respectively, a cardboard to protect what is a true broadside (folded, single-sided, large sheet), and a cardboard folder to protect the four-panel accordion broadside.
On Tuesdays I'm an existentialist. Purely, a part-timer now. About a decade or so ago, I did it full-time, five days a week. Unbeknownst to them, two unrelated friends had recommended Albert Camus' The Stranger to me because the character reminded them of me. I read and agreed. Even some of the character's dialogues were phrases I'd thought I'd invented. I found out there was a name (diagnosis?) for people like me (though I saw no need to go around killing folks).
So it was with great pleasure that I read Bruce Boston's "The Last Existentialist" poems, learning just how my peculiar species wound up and how humour got entangled with our demise. From "The Last Existentialist Eats":
eggs for breakfast,This reviewer cannot complain. The poems here all please -- "The Last Existentialist Eats", "The Last Existentialist Needs", "When the Last Existentialist [tires of sensitivity]" and "If The Last Existentialist [could afford a time trip]" -- giving the existentialists their proper context yet poking fun at them, too. "The Last Existentialist Eats" was perhaps the strongest (hence this reviewer's quoting it), but "If The Last Existentialist" was the most playful, sending him back in time to visit Sartre, Camus, and an inconsequential moment which he changes for the hell of it. Highly recommended.
"Confessions of a Body Thief" won last year's Rhysling and will be included in this year's Nebula Awards anthology, so it no doubt needs little introduction, let alone a review. Yet copies of the poem in its original, limited-edition format are still available, and another perspective couldn't hurt.
Sometime in the 60s, a fellow learns of his ability to inhabit bodies. "He" picks the kinds of lives he'd like to lead: from a rock star to a cybernetic genius, to a...
...Wall Street whiz kid,"Confessions of a Body Thief" burns with strong ideas and important themes -- how would a person feel living the lives of others -- attributes that make the poem a winner to legions of speculative readers. Indeed, such speculation sparks this reviewer's imagination, but much of the life lived is unfelt as the narrator has merely "cruised and skimmed / along the skin of things" so that the construct mimics the intent. Still the vicarious habitation of a reader is to do just that: to live other lives, to understand the other that is so much like one's self. Lines like "Youth was in rebellion. / Generations ripped apart." are difficult to inhabit. This reviewer would have enjoyed an even longer poem -- perhaps a poster-sized broadside -- which allowed more of the habitation like that of the lines quoted above, if only to be jerked into another habitation in the next stanza.
Yet, neither this nor a longish denouement should deter the serious Boston fan from investigating. The heart of speculation and its serious commentary both reside here to give the reader thought.
"Too many poets write poems which are only difficult on the surface, difficult because the dramatic situation is easily misunderstood. It's not difficult to write poems that are misunderstood. A drunk, a three-year-old -- they are easily misunderstood. What is difficult is being clear and mysterious at the same time. The dramatic situation needs to be as clear in a poem as it is in a piece of good journalism. The why is part of the mystery, but the who, what, where, and when should all be understood." -- Miller Williams in "The Writer's Chronicle" You'll have to consider the source on that quote. Miller Williams writes clear and clean poetry. John Ashberry may not agree. That said, this reviewer prefers poetry he can come to grips with after a reading or two -- three if the poem is enticing enough, more if it continues to reveal (e.g., Eliot's "The Wasteland"). However, though this reviewer might change his mind come Tuesday, Ashberry does not suit his tastes.
Not many reviewers admit to being puzzled by a poem, lest time prove them a fool (as so many reviewers, who have made such pronouncements and blame the poets, appear). On the first read, not much stuck except that there were two voices speaking about an inexplicable cast of characters: the narrator and a "you" in the un-italicized; the narrator, a "she" and another "you" in the italicized. Were these the same "you"s? So it would seem. Were these the same narrators? This was difficult to discern since why else use the italics? Stumped, this reviewer was.
On the second read, he thought, a-ha! It's a poem about language ("bruised and bloodied vocabularies," "a lingual corpse," "the knotted tongue," "reiterative elevator cycling," and a "she" who could very well stand as the poet's muse -- much as Stevens', etc.) -- specifically a poem about speculatively poetic language with "lesions of genetic sin," a slur perhaps bestowed by its opponents and an irate muse: "a crime, she screams, a dirty sham," as the speculative poets
...descend iron staircases
... aware that
when we try to answer the questions that
But once the muse says "enough... as you give her back all the dead petals / she once gathered from the gardens of the moon," this reviewer grew confused. Has she been a speculative muse all along despite her protests? How has the "finite compost fragments coalescing / to a shifting teleidoscopic [my unabridged Webster did not have this one] symmetry / that redefines the lesions of genetic sin" (meaning speculative sin in poetry -- my interpretation)?
I consulted my fellow reviewers for help: in Star*Line 23.2, G.O. Clark says, "The Lesions of Genetic Sin is hallucinogenic and surreal. A poem of gossamer layering, of speculations upon genetics and the soul, of inward and outward searching, of the blurring of distinctions between the living and the dead in a brave new world more strange than that of Mr. Huxley's most enlightened nightmare." Were we reading the same poem? What about all the "tropes" and other references to language? Maybe, though I have studied genetics a time or two, I just didn't know which scientific discoveries Boston was referring to, which would otherwise open up the poem for me.
I consulted another reviewer, Robert Randolph Mecalf Jr., in Star*Line 24.2: "the multiple viewpoints and lush, sensuous descriptions of LESIONS sweep the reader off on a high speed, rocket-powered, roller coaster ride through a decadent dystopia: A psychedelic cascade of kaliedoscopic images, all building to a resounding climax," which didn't help much though it certainly sounded quotable enough. He, too, saw "multiple viewpoints" (more than two, though?); and "dystopia" seemed a useful possibility though I missed the decadence -- perhaps the comparisons in the second section (some unnamed object is compared to "a city that changes its sex so often / it has morphed to a jaded spaceport"). Maybe this reviewer is making this harder than it needs to be. Certainly, he could consult the poet himself. Even should the poet tell, that would be cheating. The speculative poetry readers of 2200 AD won't have that luxury unless we cryo Boston's brain. This reviewer and others got something out of the poem, and that's all that matters. If you're a poetry reader in search of a challenge and intense linguistic imagery, "The Lesions of Genetic Sin" may be the broadside for you.
To keep one of the more critical critics fair, I generally pass the review by the author when possible. And, since I've always regretted the treatment Steinbeck received in the hands of critics, I'll let the author get the last word.
Bruce Boston says:
"Lesions has no literal message or storyline to offer the reader, but aims instead for evocative/associative images and impressions that can ignite chains of thought and feeling. BTW, a teleidoscope is just like a kaleidoscope only it has no pebbles or pieces of glass in the tube.
"Instead it breaks up the image of whatever you point it at into shards that change as you turn the tube. I've never found the word in a dictionary either, but I have seen the product for sale by this name, both when I was a young child (I had one), less than a year ago, and numerous times in the interim, most often in the 60s."
Trent Walters co-edits Mythic Circle, is a 1999 graduate of Clarion West, is working on a book of interviews with science fiction writers.
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