Review by Alessandro Porco

The Debaucher
Jason Camlot
Insomniac Press, 2008
112 pages, $11.95

The title poem of Jason Camlot’s third collection of poetry, The Debaucher, is an essay into the meaning and value of debauchery as an aesthetic and ethos. A “debaucher is not necessarily / a person,” writes Camlot, though it certainly could be. Maybe it’s best to describe the debaucher as a symbol for the will to change. And the debaucher calls to us, though we tend to ignore the call with vigour because, generally, we like the comforts of our everyday routines and relations, and because we perceive change, or debauchery, as a threat to order. But “[the debaucher] means no harm,” explains Camlot, “to those in whom he must / incite a change of course / for better or for worse.” The debaucher renders qualitative distinctions, such as “better” and “worse,” at most, meaningless or, at the least, equivocal.

Upon working his way through the various etymologies and pronunciations for debaucher, Camlot determines that what is essential is that debauchery “[makes] things flow / in new directions.” Camlot’s imagination is an instantiation of debauchery — perhaps we can say that what makes a poet a poet is the degree to which he is willing to acquiesce to the debaucher’s silent yet forceful demands. This is evident, for example, in the poem’s overall structure: the five-part poem “flows” and “changes” course from section to section. In Section 1, Camlot philosophizes about his debaucher’s ethos. Section 2 reads like an early-20th-century philology lecture. Section 3 explicitly figures the debaucher as poetic device: rhyme. “Rhyme makes poetry debauch. / It leads a line regrettably astray. / It jars us off into apposite thought,” explains Camlot. The figuration of the debaucher as rhyme is key: change does not mean totalizing rupture or the disarticulation between things; rather, like rhyme, it “makes things touch that shouldn’t touch”: “When Byron rhymes bottle with Aristotle, / it makes one want to drink metaphysics / ice cold, on a hot day, without a glass.” Those are my favourite lines of Canadian poetry in recent years, and I can’t imagine anyone but Camlot saying them!

Beyond the title poem, there’s so much to recommend in The Debaucher. In particular, the book ends with a 38-poem elegy, “Adios Sonnets,” written in memory of poet Robert Allen, who died in 2006. That Camlot wrote 38 poems, specifically, is a numerological homage to Allen, whose second-last book of poetry, Standing Wave, begins with “Thirty-Eight Sonnets from Jimmy Walker Swamp.” Camlot’s sonnets are a refracted take on Allen’s “big” themes of mortality and time.

Camlot narrates his experience of the last days of Allen’s life. There are poems in the sequence that seem like hurried journal entries, desperate — as they are so close to death — to capture the imminence of life, wherever and whenever it can be found: in friends and family, books, a sparrow, a game of hoops in the yard with David McGimpsey, poetic play (in the form of an abecedarian). If Camlot seems to insist on noting all the details, it’s because, in difficult times, “It is difficult to know what is worth mentioning.”

Other poems elevate the emotional rhetoric of it all: “There is crying in my heart / as there is rain on the city.” So begins his translation of Verlaine (included in the sequence). Over 38 sonnets, Camlot’s perspective expands and contracts, by turns telling of intimacies (daringly so!) and everyday chores, and yet he’s also a cool and collected observer with a big-picture sense of what’s happening — a sensibility he no doubt gleaned from reading Allen’s sonnets.

Between the long poems that bookend The Debaucher, Camlot reveals himself as a great postmodern love poet in “Lie-Lover” (“How beautiful you are, and shallower / than the tide pools of a Safeway lobster. / So what? Who seeks ‘high fibre’ from sugar pie, / laments ‘no pit’ in a maraschino cherry?”); as an epigone troubadour in “Petition to Be Entombed at St. Viateur Bagel” (“Step through these doors, shut out the storm / Bread and poetry will keep you warm”); as a belligerent — and horny — Orpheus in “The Lake Mussels” (“Listen, lake. I’m talking to you. Listen / rocks and caves. Listen, dark forests”); as a conceptual artist in “The Slave” and “Inspiration”; and as a twisted aphorist in “Aphids” (“Life is short and art long, unless you outlive yourself. / In that instance, you have your whole life to mourn in art”), giving that other great Canadian (surreal) aphorist, Steve Venright, a run for his money.

What else is there to say? Only this: that Camlot’s muse — the Debaucher, “pure / with wild intention” — and Camlot, the poet, are two of the better things to happen to Canadian poetry this side of Layton.

*Disclaimer: I am thanked in the acknowledgements to Camlot’s The Debaucher

Alessandro Porco is the author of The Jill Kelly Poems (2005) and Augustine in Carthage and Other Poems (2008), both from ECW Press.

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