MICHAEL BOUGHN Reviews
K A 21st Century Canzoniere by I Goldfarb
(BlazeVox Books, New York, 2015)
A chocolate paradise of two
Love holds a spot of supreme significance in the order of values that shapes our lives. Arguably it has from the very first, prehistoric ritual acknowledgement of the creative power of sexuality. It is certainly there in the enlightening power of Platonic Eros, the sacred mystery of the Christian God’s love, and the emotional/psychic/physical force that defines the human in the Renaissance. Currently, love’s cultural site is on the run down side of the cosmos, but even so it is an important commodity generating a significant portion of the GDP, at least for the entertainment industry. And it continues to provide – meaning may be too strong -- say, something exciting to aspire to, to desire, in a world largely given to the same old same old. If love once enlightened, now it enlivens.
I Goldfarb is not content to leave love there, abandoned to the fortunes of commerce and the narrative engine of an endless stream of stories in which it provides salvation. As its title boldly declares, K A 21st Century Canzoniere, returns to the tradition of the modern love poem at the moment it was forged in the dawn of the Renaissance out of the spiritual love poetry of the troubadours and the Dolce stil novo. There hasn’t been a book like this in quite a while. 590 love poems, many of them sonnets with classic Petrarchan rhyme schemes, written over a couple of years to a student a good 50 years younger than the poet in an extended act of chaste service in the name of love out of which flowed the poems. That’s pretty singular, especially in a poetry context dominated by the predictable Commercial Poetry Product of the creative writing administration, its snarling doppelgängers from the self-branded “avant-garde,” and the angry rhetoric of the various Po-battles over the shrinking spoils of art booty and who owns what.
Modeled on Petrarch’s Canzoniere, written almost 700 years ago, K is a massive epic spiritual love poem, written, however, with full knowledge, in the age of online dating and televised courting, an age in which the cynicism about love grows exponentially in relation to its commodification and use selling everything from Coca-Cola to Cadillacs, from deodorant to life insurance. Goldfarb pulls it off by sticking to the old script, while keeping the attention and language absolutely current, if occasionally playfully old fashioned. He unleashes a barrage of emotions – awe, laughter, disbelief, admiration, pity, fear, delight, skepticism, belief – all pretty much in a gang at the same time (though the relative intensities shift) leading to an experience of irreducible, confounding, delightful complexity.
It makes you wonder, especially because it is such an old story, here again, alive, chivalric love in the age of Ashley Madison and The Bachelor, and in a way that defies all expectation and decorum. At the heart of it is a spiritual exercise. Ezra Pound, in his study of the troubadours, argued that chivalric love was, as he put it, educational, that a “charged surface is produced between the predominant natural poles of two human mechanisms. Sex is, that is to say, of a double function and purpose, reproductive and educational; or, as we see in the realm of fluid force, one sort of vibration produces at different intensities, heat and light.” In the same spirit, and directly on point in relation to Goldfarb’s accomplishment, Giorgio Agamben proposes that “Beatrice is the name of the amorous experience of the event of language at play in the poetic text itself.” Goldfarb, following the tradition here, calls it “muse.” In any case, it forcefully generates an outpouring of language in the form of poems.
Beatrice, of course, was Dante’s muse. Dante, Petrarch’s father’s friend, told the story magnificently, and although Petrarch claimed not to have read Dante’s poem, he engages it in such a precise conversation it is hard to take him at his word. Dante’s love for Beatrice led him to a vision of the celestial white Rose in a kind of marvelous, visionary last gasp of medieval theology. Petrarch, the young Turk, was having none of that, which is why Pound found him so uninteresting. Petrarch, often identified as the “father of Humanism”, approached the relation to Laura as a mortal man in love. He was caught between his carnal desire and his awe at her purity. No divine vision flowed from that. At best, her death lead him into a prolonged meditation on the transitory essence of life and the mortality of love. He came to see his passion as a corruption, “that error that almost crushed / the seeds of virtue . . ..” (364)
James Hillman calls this work of Petrarch’s poem “soul making,” but we should be clear it is a human soul, not a divine soul, at stake here. Even Petrarch’s struggle between desire for Laura and his thought of religious virtue took place in an arena of human(ist) passion. If Dante’s poem draws on the mystical love religion of the troubadours and the Dolce stil novo, Petrarch’s departs from that into the anxiety of mortal love and desire, that human drive/capacity that defines through its passion the meaning of the “human”, and that has gone on to become the stuff of every pop song of the last hundred years as well as the most powerful marketing tool ever invented. Love for sale, indeed.
Goldfarb’s book, written at the other end of that 700 hundred year run of the human, introduces a different order of thinking to an old order of poetry and thought. It is a different world, the difference, say, between a world that accepts and honours a poet’s erotic/spiritual dedication to a 13 year old girl and a world that throws him in jail for it. Goldfarb’s Canzoniere implicates us in its measure of that difference through the continuous production of modulating sound. Much of that measure is caught up in the prosody which soars, as they say, from the banal to the sublime. The poems vary between iambic pentameter, iambic tetrameter, common measure (8/6 8/6), fourteeners, and occasional eruptions of “free verse.” The strangeness of the tetrameter resonates in Canto 14 which exemplifies what ought to be trite but manages to propel us through a consideration of Agamben’s “poetic text” to an experience of “paradise:”
I’ve no brief for their quality
or their publishability
or for their readability
or minimal utility
if you should come to question them
you’d likely find expressed in them
laments of lost virility
harbingers of senility
yet an imperative divine
bids me extol the tender soul
your body helps me to divine
more than for Platonists of old
the earthly beauty that I see
embodies paradise to be
Goldfarb’s commitment to engage a process and make something out of words charged with the energy of love and desire leads to a kaleidoscopic language event formed out of successive dispositions of moods arising from the formal provocation of the tradition and the impetus of the emotional rollercoaster as it catapults toward its inevitable end. Through it all, Goldfarb maintains a constant recognition of the complexity of the mystery of writing which is entangled in the mystery of love, even in the midst of his renovation of forms that hover at the border between ordinary and banal. In keeping with the tradition of the troubadours, Goldfarb, a self-proclaimed Bronx romantic, transforms, or rides, the energy of the relation through commonplace forms and meters into moments of sublime beauty and insight grounded in the ordinary from which we are most alienated:
Now that we understand each other
will you teach me the poetry
to celebrate the everyday
of things that people make together
things love begins and keeps alive
children and books and work each day
fulfilments of productive lives
to share as if from far away
yet our love’s instinct counsels us
nourish the flowers and trees that thrive
within the garden where our lives
like streams bright and harmonious
commingle through the confidence
of each heart’s tacit transparence
The “confidence / of each heart’s tacit transparence” hits you and sticks with you as only the work of poetry can.
But it is 2015, and sublimity is catch as catch can these days, a fact noted in Goldfarb’s often self-deprecating humour, a humour that is at once both ruthless and tender in its seeming naiveté, and often focused in his outrageous rhymes. “Canto 21 (Memo to the Muse)” begins, “If I had my druthers / I’d write for no others / writing in adoration / is my Bronxian vocation.” Rhyming druthers and others, and shifting from two six syllable lines to a seven syllables then eight creates a sense at once awkward, innocent, and inevitable. But the closed rhythm suddenly lurches into an unexpected, if equally awkward, opening that is utterly charming in its confessional self-awareness: “but friends tell me my verse albeit impassioned / is embarrassingly old-fashioned.” To then go on to rhyme Petrarch and ballpark is above and beyond the call of any poem, but Goldfarb does it with panache : “that lyric in the tradition of Sappho and Petrarch / is no longer in the ballpark.” Well, I guess it depends on whose ballpark it is. Goldfarb will have none of that and soldiers on determinedly to compose his “chocolate paradise of two.”
In “Canto 100,” well into the beginning of this one sided relationship, the beloved shows up in Goldfarb’s office in an old wool coat that sheds. A classic meditation on beauty and death, which is rendered as “sadness” in the poem, it is tender and vulnerable in the extreme. The poet nails a thinking of love grounded in our ordinary, unadorned selves: “Your beauty looked tired today / I love when your face isn’t pretty / just your soul face and body together.” It could be a toned down Lucien Freud painting, a revelation and celebration of the unadorned prodigality of flesh that resolves into the simple happiness of hot chocolate and wafers. After doing his lady a service – signing out a library film for her – he weeps. The poem ends with the lover bemoaning the destructive passage of time in the spirit of just about any Renaissance sonneteer you care to mention: “Sadness and beauty of it all / of time that takes all away / and love that would hold it back.” The poet, in his notes at the end of the volume, draws our attention to “the interplay between ‘it’ and ‘all’ in the first three lines.” As well, the deployed tensions between “taking” “away” and “holding” “back” create a nostalgic stasis where we understand nostalgia as the longing to return home that lingers in in its roots, the “nostos” “algos.” The gesture that follows is clearly in the tradition of the memento amore but translated into the ordinary stuff of our postmodern world: “and the tufts of grey wool on my sofa / I’ll never brush them away / my Madeleine relics of you.” Apart from introducing Proust, modernity, and the whole tangled question of memory, these lines entangle the high tradition of humanist love poetry with . . . some fluff on a couch. It is a moment that embodies all of the multiple, contradictory, unresolvable energies unleashed in this endlessly delightful book.
Michael Boughn is the editor, with Victor Coleman, of Robert Duncan's The H.D. Book. His 2011 book, Cosmographia -- a post-Lucretian faux micro-epic (Book Thug, 2011) was shortlisted for the Canadian Governor-General's Award for Poetry. City Books 1-3 is forthcoming in 2016 from Spuyten Duyvil. He lives in Toronto.