The Violence of the Morning
If this review hops around a bit, well, maybe it’s because I’m hopping mad. Or maybe Bedient has given me the hiccups.
I’m just going to get the inconsistent praise out of the way for the benefit of those who have read the book and are committed to its worth and those who will go ahead and read it out of curiosity.
Section Three of this collection is comprised of the following poems:
“A Short Ailment. Appointed with a Swarm, Massy, Low”
“Not Shallow Smaller but a Larger Flickering”
“The Day Is Extreme When There Is No Frame”
“Rust with Night and Language in the Waste”
” I’m Cooked, I’m Beefsteak Letting Go of the Grass’s Tail”
“Cup of Astonishment and Desolation”
“Person Throwing a Stone at a Bird”
Some of these poems are quite fine; even the least of them offers a moment or two that is compelling, chilling, comic or grievous. It is in these poems, most consistently elegiac, that Mr. Bedient’s restlessness and discursiveness find their best expression. Consider this sample from the conclusion of “Not Shallow Smaller . . .”:
In Elgar’s concerto, Jacqueline du Pre
almost expires for a moment
in the long rotting resonance of her cello—
a dark brown sound.
Did she crawl into her instrument
to get the tree from the fruit?
To the darkness
Some who are crushed do not go all the way.
A bit of wind a ball of bees and they are humming.
Nothing helps. He was careless. He went everywhere.
This works, but it’s a delicate arrangement. Bedient sustains a balance between forced impossibilities of image and a ruffled rhetorical reliance on inquiry, and ends on flat declarations that puncture somewhat the preciousness of what precedes them. It is the tone of the poems, though, that apparently constrains the poet’s impulses; that constraint is lacking in the remainder of the book.
The tone of Section Three is one of exhaustion and irritation, both of which are candid, elucidating responses to grief and the embedded injustices of the mortal condition. Here, Bedient’s shuttling between reverence and mockery, his Protean adoption of myriad prosodic and lyric conventions, works well. It indicates a subdued fury, an impotence from which the poet can nevertheless wring expressions of bruised beauty and a glittering, ethically vengeful malice.
All to the good.
Section Three, however, is preceded by the misconceived Sections One and Two and followed by the lamentable Section Four.
Dr. Seuss’s Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now? poses a provocative question of interpretation. What, precisely, necessitates Marvin K. Mooney’s departure? Is it Marvin’s very presence that mandates his absence, or is it a consequence of Marvin’s actions, or is it simply that a little Marvin is a fine thing that becomes progressively less fine with the addition of ever more Marvin?
I ask because the answers will determine my sense that what really compels me about The Violence of the Morning is the following question: Calvin Bedient, Will You Please Stop Now?
Good titles, though.
Yes yes. But stop what? That’s precisely why I want him to stop: the poetic act that he so often performs is constitutive of an impressively great percentage of poetic resource; and yet the marshalling of that resource too often amounts to nil.
I do not believe that it is possible to have read too much, but I do think one can have too ready an access to what one has read—and Mr. Bedient subreferences as if his poetry depends upon it. He isn’t mistaken, though I wish he was; it is only via access to a portable library of referential effluvia that many of those poems can be made to hang together at all, and even with the assistance of my trusty New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, the poem with which Bedient links it hangs precariously and at a regrettable angle.
This poetry is fascinating, until it isn’t, which is almost immediately. This sounds cavalier, but no: I was struck again and again by the number of poems here that begin with intrigue and promise and end in ruin:
Amiable Monet, in lieu of that, had a now
postdated like his eyes—
crafty, a beaver’s,
flush with the floating waterlily fields.
Concluding with . . .
What you cannot think will be your life.
(“Clouds of Willing Seen in the Bird Day”)
Perhaps you wonder what occurred after the first stanza to justify the egregious, lard-assed profundity of this last line. I wonder as well. But such uncontrolled inflation is characteristic of this collection, in which numerous poems appear all shiny with potential and disappear in the huff and bother of a choice Poetic, Important—
Let me elaborate.
The only indication I have that Mr. Bedient understands that these auto-propagating errors should not have been committed is his periodic tendency to sever the heads of his poems with end-lines of hastily manufactured import:
I will never leave a lover who drives through rain
just by being beautiful.
I will never. The positivity of that.
(“You Should See the Letters I Would Have Written If They Agreed to Everything”)
This sticks with me unpleasantly, this “The positivity of that”.
Try this instead:
We’re oyster spit, yet the sea
opens before us the white swan of the wound.
Are we oyster spit? Does the sea open before us the white swan of the wound? Of course, the answer is no, but Mr. Bedient deserves better than literal-mindedness. Unhappily, though, I can manufacture no manner of mindedness to which these particular claims can happily accommodate themselves. They are bracingly, shockingly free of the senses sonic, dramatic, lyric or visual. I respond to these lines with a No despite the fact that the poem puts no question to me at all. This last point, actually, is fully emblematic of The Violence of the Morning entire: this book gives neither hoot nor whit for The Reader. Reader, shmeader—whyfor needst thou readers when yon poetry encompasses everything and the horse the kitchen sink rode in on? Welcome, then, to Bedient’s Circus of Wonders! Well, I can’t exactly welcome you; because there’s just no room.
Good titles, though.
View from a blurb:
“There is nothing that these poems disallow.”
These are the words of the estimable Claudia Rankine, right there on the back of the book. And she’s correct, but in a way that constitutes a left-handed compliment, though I’m certain her praise was originally and faithfully offered with the right. These poems do allow anything, including routinely catastrophic errors in judgement. I feel it necessary to excerpt as evidence in support of these admittedly unflattering claims, but I’m hindered by the relative length of Bedient’s poems, and the above-mentioned impression that many of them begin with delight and then dwindle (or swell) with disastrous, terminal results.
What does this remind me of, this conflagration that is tantamount to diminishment?
Oh yes. The Hindenberg.
The poems are longish. At least I thought they were, until I went back to check. In point of fact, they only feel long—maybe because the book is also on the hefty side: ninety-five pages with notes. This raises the question of editing, or its apparent lack. Ninety-five pages? Great God. What has been left out? By what possible criteria? The mind reels: The Violence of the Morning Director’s Cut; The Violence of the Morning 12-inch European Dance Mix.
I also fear I’ve become hysterical and mean. My apologies. On the other hand, by the time I reached “Take Me to the Godfish” (only page forty-five), I was feeling fairly put-upon myself— I’ll take you to the godfish. In the notes, of course, the title is “Take Me to the Goldfish”. Oops. In the Acknowledgements and Table of Contents, the gold is god, so I assume that the title is correct as it appears. I only mention this to illustrate the degree to which it isn’t relevant: goldfish, godfish, it don’t much matter. It ought to, but it doesn’t.
This makes me particularly sad, because “Take Me to the Godfish” is a poem I like, some, relative to its companions. It’s a poem with no overt ambition, as is “No. 2 Pencil Quaquaversal Shout”. I was happy to see these poems, which display Bedient’s facility without suffering the additional burden of having to impart. Imparting of what? Again, it don’t much matter.
A cut-up of The Violence of the Morning would render the world’s most magnificent Magnetic Poetry Kit. My fear, of course, is that it already has.
Look, here are all the reasons why I wanted to like this book, why I was more than willing to meet the damned thing more than halfway:
Bedient’s poems have brains.
The poet has obviously read both well and weirdly.
The poet does not fear to let the poem run hither and yon, driven by the caprice of the language.
The poet invents, rather than recycles.
The poet depends upon no discernable trend to bolster or inform the effect of his work.
So what’s the problem?
There are minds but there are no intelligences: the poems seem to merely occur, which is an effect that can please in brief but grows tiresome at length.
The poet’s reading expresses itself as a utility utterly interior. To follow the strategic, or even sensual, application of these references is not even akin to looking at a stranger’s holiday snapshots. It is akin to listening to a stranger describe apocryphal snapshots of a holiday taken in a place of parsimoniously undisclosed location.
And of course he lets the poem run hither and yon. He lets it prance into the rosebushes and crap in the driveway and bite and snap at the neighborhood children with an air of indifferent bemusement that is, perversely, both studied and genuinely indifferent.
He invents without surcease. And yet the machines do not fly or open cans or describe fascinating arcs and parabolas with their cobbled-together spangles and fans. In their assemblage they resemble nothing so much as legitimate and senseless disarray.
He cannot participate in a trend or movement, even given the dubious chance that such a thing might be desirable; to do so would imply readers, those possible creatures it is apparently beyond or beneath Mr. Bedient’s ability to countenance.
Perhaps this amounts to nothing more than a description of my prejudices. A poem need not declaim the terms of its necessity, but it must establish those terms, or else I will wonder as to its existence. Necessity need not be equivalent to gravity: a trifle, a satire. A healthy dose of fun or fitfulness or sheer joy in the raising of ruckus or contraption—any of these will do. And that’s the point: they will do because they do; they address their cause by inventing it. Cal Bedient can invent with marvelous and liberating facility; that he chooses not to invent to even the partial service of a reader—at least this reader—is a pity.
No: at fifty-five pages, it would have been a pity. At close to one hundred, it’s a crime.