Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mark DeCarteret's Feasts/Week 17

The seven poems of Mark DeCarteret's recent Beard of Bees chapbook, Feasts/Week 17, take saints' names so that each represents a different feast day, as if the short collection were a week out of church calendar with brief, 3-line explications of each day's saint. Strict adherence to a 5-7-5 haiku structure leads to a degree of condensation that, together with sparsity of punctuation, makes these verses function less as explanations than as objects for consideration and meditation. Uncovering the meanings of the lines and their relationships to the saints of their titles (whether legitimate Catholic saints or otherwise) requires conscious acts of interpretation by readers. They must consider these poems as the devout consider the mysteries of the rosary.

Take the first poem, for instance: "st george". The majority of educated anglophone readers have likely heard of this dragonslayer and so, assuming they can make the leap from dragon to serpent, should feel some sense of connection between the first line and the title. The serpent, however, is not killed. In fact, an act of interpretation is required to determine whether anything at all is done to the serpent. Is "sound" a verb (as parallelism suggests) or a noun (the more common usage)? Are the three lines a series of instructions or a description of actions accomplished (or being accomplished) being told via an atypical verb tense?

In creating these objects for contemplation, DeCarteret repeats certain themes. Medical imagery--"lip's herpes", "aspirin-white", "anesthetized type"--appears in the first three poems. Then there are the twists on cliches: "this world’s last gasp", "unsigned dotted line", "...or else". Unfortunately, in the italicized lines of "st peter mary chanel" there's a little too much cliche and not enough twist. Despite the cleverness of the title, the verse itself seems dull.

One of the greatest dangers of writing in such a short form is that, no matter how dense the writing, the reader may reach the end and feel as if they have read nothing substantial. Challenges to interpretation such as this chapbook presents are one way to overcome this, one way to slow the reader down. Such a technique also requires that the poems raise the desire in the reader to linger over the poems. The aforementioned "st peter mary chanel" fails for me in this regard; the other poems succeed to varying degrees with a smattering of onomatopoeic lines being the most powerful in this regard. Such judgments, of course, are necessarily subjective. Do these poems draw you in?

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