Wolsak & Wynn, 2009
90 pages, $17
So take the tone of unswerving devotion
the iambic heart and sound proclamation
leave everything that squabbles.
The woman you love will leave the man she is with
if you can offer better carnival
or thrill her without skin let me
tell you about life
—from “Country of the Blue”
Moez Surani’s Reticent Bodies is an energetic, poetically dextrous first collection that speaks to a new talent able to borrow liberally from a great assortment of past voices, without ever being subsumed by them. Returning to the dusty traditions of love and loss, of abstractions made real by the force of his descriptions, Surani stands out amid the microscope-wielding fetishists of the quantifiable world that have dominated his generation of Canadian poets. This uniqueness of worldview is carried on a talent robust enough to move, in the course of a single line, from the specific to the global, and from the personal to the political, without ever losing sight of his target or forgetting to employ his ferocious and adaptable wit.
Witness “My Transit Friend” and “The Necessary Questions,” which follow each other in Bodies’ first section. These poems are essentially about the same thing (observation), but they take such different routes through their discussions that their juxtaposition in the book becomes a sort of textual sight gag. “My Transit Friend” presents an observer so overzealous in his appropriation of his subject’s “subtle gestures” that he becomes incapable of deducing a larger narrative (that the man he has been sitting across from on so many bus trips is growing increasingly creeped out by the intensity of the poet’s watching). The poem ends in soliloquy, with Surani’s speaker defending his subjectivity:
Well I saw you,
I saw your subtle gestures and learned to decode each one
the look at your shoes for disapproval
head at angle indicating an overstayed welcome
that wistful survey of ceiling, a craving for peppermint chocolate.
The opposite of this breathless intensity can be found on the next page, in “The Necessary Questions,” where Surani gives us the barest introduction to an overheard conversation between two young writers, and then gives up his subjectivity to a simple transcription:
—…The ending, did it surprise you?
—Her death? Yes, I was surprised.
—No, the orgy.
—The orgy was shocking
—I wanted it to shock. I wanted it to be a shocking orgy.
Reading these two poems side by side, we are forced to re-evaluate the level of self-awareness this new poet possesses. Perhaps cognizant of how close he came to self-satire in “My Transit Friend,” Surani backpedals just a touch, as if he knows what readers might be thinking at this point, and has the antidote for their fears. Few poets are capable of acting as tour guides to their own work in quite this manner.
Surani’s very British education (the product of perhaps our most British university, Queen’s in Kingston) is written all over this book. Taking a brief survey of his epigraphs and references is like scanning the reading list of a sophomore Anglo-American lit course: Austen, Steinbeck, Othello, Quixote. But coupled with this is a second set of allusions to the heroes of the literary iconoclast, to the shadow cabinet of contemporary book learning; they include Neruda, W. C. Williams, Cohen (more on him later), Hikmet and Maupassant. A reader can imagine some of these poems coming out of late nights spent dutifully studying at Queen’s Stauffer Library, while others were inspired by the restlessness such late nights can breed, the long walks through dusty stacks wherein the young poet-in-training picks titles off the shelves, reads a couple pages and decides to commit or move on. Bodies begins to strain a bit under the weight of all these quotations and shout-outs, though Surani is self-aware enough again to make light of this, as he does in “Apostrophe to Canada,” which is composed of a 35-word epigraph from the beginning of Alexander McLachlan’s “The Emigrant,” followed by just two new ones from Surani himself: “hey, you,” he addresses, and ends the poem.
After the parade of varied and (mostly) appropriate epigraphs, I expected Reticent Bodies to close with a long, lovingly rendered Notes section. While Surani at least credits his authors, we don’t even get the names of the texts from which he cropped his precise selections. Here is an author still conflicted by his relationship with scholarship, with literary history. Bodies is so eminently indebted to its creator’s literary heroes that, embarrassed by the depth and intensity of his fandoms, the creator shies away from them when he should be gathering them together. This is sad because, if Reticent Bodies shows us anything, it’s that a young poet’s voice isn’t lessened in originality or clarity by being bold and open when identifying (and later discussing) his or her precedents. Harping on something as peripheral as a Notes section seems a minor quibble, but in a book as in love with its allusions as Reticent Bodies, not having one is a significant imbalance.
To return to the text, there are three kinds of poems in Reticent Bodies. These are the Great Canadian Anecdotal Riff (see “Yardsaling with Robin”), the intertextual call-out to a classic of fiction or poetry (“The Missing Exchange”) and the metapoetic experiment (“Several Idiomatic Demonstrations of ‘Carbunkle’”). These cycling concerns (life, literature and language) are shared, to varying degrees, by most of our young lyricists. What sets Surani apart is that he is willing to affix each of these three concerns to any level of emotionality or subjectivity. This creates surprises when his expected unemotive poems like “Carbunkle” find themselves suddenly charged with both a great wit and a great passion, as in “you get angry for no particular reason and shut everybody out—‘Carbunkle,’ he muttered, leaving the room.” And when his poems of love and loss are cooled by a certain flippancy, as in this coda from “Packing for Montreal”: “I leave only absurd/sentimental fruit behind.”
If this formula sounds familiar, it should. It is poetic home base to both Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen, the two great romantic obituarists of mid-century Canada, whose love songs impacted future generations of young male poets in a paradoxical way. Venerating them both as the grand old masters of the nation’s lovelorn youth, decades of young men promptly wrote away from them, turning to the woods, to low culture, to popular ephemera and the full shit and plastic of corporeal life, unconcerned with notions like reticence or love. In Reticent Bodies, there’s a real invitation to turn back and approach the brief glimmering spark of Canadian neo-Romanticism directly. Surani still avoids most of Layton’s formal predilections, and he’s not willing to match Cohen’s mean-spiritedness, but he is almost completely alone on the Canadian landscape in his willingness to start his career from the edges of their cosmopolitan shadow and move forward.
Of course, extending a public invitation, and having it ignored, is the worst of all embarrassments, and Surani has invested a great deal of talent on the hunch that behind all that deification of Layton and Cohen lies an actual urge to foster voices that begin within their respective styles, and move forward. It’s one of the truly strange incidents in the history of our national literature that, after the explosions of the 1960s, Layton and especially Cohen won the fame, won the mystique of sex gods and gurus, and won jobs as poetry’s pop-cultural ambassadors, while their ruralist peers (Purdy and Acorn et al) had to settle for the consolation prize of winning the future of Canadian poetry. Surely, this is a generalization, and especially in Irv and Lenny’s home city of Montreal (where portions of Bodies seem to have been conceived) we can find colonies of Surani’s contemporary cousins. But the shadow of the mother tree is not an easy place to grow saplings, and the nation, as a whole, just moved on.
Reticent Bodies arrives on a suggestion that the haze of hangover may be finally lifting from the romantic, the cosmopolitan and the self-consciousness of Cohen’s and Layton’s youth and masculinity. Surani has the talent to stand alone, but he may also have the talent to trigger something more, and Reticent Bodies is that rare book that has the power to be a lynchpin, a hinge in the history of Canadian poetry. As it is, it’s a beautiful, lonely, little thing. However, if it were to be read by the right contemporaries, there is an assortment of other exciting possibilities. Surani has written a fire starter and, if his timing is right, he could find himself quickly surrounded by fellow travellers, the first step in (dare we say it?) a movement, a revival.
As this is a review of the invitation, and not the party it may conjure, I don’t want to dwell on that possibility too much, but I will say this: some invitations are garish and stained by their own sense of proposed history, while others are just really good books. Reticent Bodies is the second kind, and deserves to be read. With it, Moez Surani has appeared on the doorstep of Canadian poetry, overdressed and clutching flowers, asking to take our daughter out for dinner. And every couple decades, it becomes incumbent on the family to empty its nest.
Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008).