canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Green Alembic
by Louise Fabiani
Signal Editions / Vehicule Press, 1999

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook

Louise Fabiani, trained in biology and environmental studies, brings novel vocabulary and subjects to poetry in this, her first book. An alembic is an instrument for distillation once used in alchemy (it is not, as the back cover states "a vessel" but rather two connected by a tube: the larger is set over a Bunsen burner, and the smaller gathers the distilled liquid). The metaphor "green alembic" refers to the myriad and - however technical in fact - miraculous metamorphoses in nature: in the 'green' and in the human worlds.

Thus we get poems about "Geophagy", "The Palynologist", "Emmetropization", "Lichen", and terms like "anosmic", "snoofle", "excrescent", "exotherm", "hymenopteran", "hydrophilic" and so on. Yet there's nothing elitist in this choice of diction: a reader shares in the poet's instructive, surprising and delightful language. Besides, Fabiani's vocabulary includes the deliberately vulgar (in the sense of 'common parlance') "bum": an idea and image which is conspicuous in the book, as if some central, guiding metaphor and myth were implied.

Indeed, isn't the bum an 1) object of erotic curiosity and desire (and eros is surely a catalyst of change); 2) predominately associated with the feminine ("Night Forest, Georgian Bay" associates the bum with the moon) and the 'changes' of the female body in particular are a major concern of the book (blood poem); 3) the seat - 'tail end'? - of a peculiar form of human metamorphoses (at least insofar as nutrition is concerned?); 4) the polar opposite of the face - oppositions always challenging poets to create irony and those larger perspectives which unite contraries; 5) and isn't the use of the word, at a certain psychological stage, liberating, especially among so many supposedly detached, scientific, objective terms?

Fabiani writes in free verse almost exclusively (there are a few cases of rhyme, usually in the final lines of a poem). While this technique does not, as is often the case, compromise the fluidity of the poems - the rhythms and syntax -, nonetheless the line breaks can be arbitrary.

Take the following verses:

The past may then become the future,
nurturing the roots of marjoram, basil and chives.

For although I am only the cook's assitant,
I know how the kitchen

("The Cook's Assistant")

The only reason to put "thrives" on a new line is to emphasize the rhyme with "chives". But why such redundant slight of hand? A reader/listener doesn't need the false pause of the line break to appreciate the aesthetic effect of the rhyme. The free verse movement of the Modernists was a "revolution" against the vapid rhyme and inefficient language in Victorian poetry.

Focus shifted to the importance of the image and metaphor and, secondly, to supposedly more 'natural' rhythms. Unfortunately, because of the resulting density of much Modernist poetry (not to mention the ethereal obscurity of Symbolism), the popular success of this aesthetics and rhetoric, and the increasing anxiety - and the intellectual insecurity and emotional lassitude - of teachers of English literature, the primary and primal element of sound in poetry (specifically rhyme) has been ignored, if not forgotten (the exception being experimental verse going to the opposite extreme: sound poetry).

Too many contemporary poets learned only the virtue of metaphor, of image. So now we have a plethora of poetry in which rhythmical elements are determined not by sound, breath, or syntax but by image: line breaks occur as often as not where the image - and/or the idea - shifts or is in some way modified. The visual and intellectual has usurped the aural and sensual.

Of course, this problem has also been created by the tyranny of the page, of visual stimuli and silent, private reading (something which enterprises like DR - poetry zines - may do more to harm, I admit). And although "spoken word" (a misnomer if there ever was one; it's more performance art than anything else) has its own set of problems, it at least re-introduces the oral/aural element of poetry - and the popularity of this art should give the bookish poet pause.

So, on the one hand, it is disappointing that a poet so knowledgeable about and appreciative of nature - of the sensual - should compromise the musical potential of language, and, on the other hand, it is no surprise that a poem like "Hearing in Colour" - where we would expect the oral elements of the poetry to be conspicuous (and alliteration at least is) - resorts to visual metaphors: "Speak to me pinkly. / Murmur to me mauvely. / Whisper sweet neutrals in my ear."

There is an attempt at interesting rhythms and sound effects in some of the poems in "The Green Alembic"; "Search Images" achieves a more satisfying conclusion, as contrasted to "The Cook's Assistant":

The power of anatomical analogy vanished
below the waist:

their whole affair re-written
into something chaste.

Other poems that use final couplets effectively are: "The Art of Spelunking" ("No ghostly crayfish, bats or moles / within the psyche's depthless holes."; "The Palynologist" ("eolian silts buried under eolian silts / - a sylvan princess' pile of quilts. / The pollen-counter takes a core / and sees the world as it bloomed before."); and the prose poem, "Violet Garters", does a fair take of Joyce's Molly Bloom. Though she does not try to mimic the music, interestingly, several of Fabiani's poems hearken back to a very old genre of English poetry: the Anglo-Saxon riddle - "Biography", "Creature", "Blue Box", "Stomachs", "Lichens".

Whether the poet was aware of the analogy, I don't know, but it is easy to see how scientific knowledge and aesthetic delight would lead logically to such engaging forms. If metamorphosis is the explicit, central metaphor of "The Green Alembic", the more implicit, but logically subsequent conclusion or myth is the necessity and beauty of universal harmony among the living things of the earth (and air and sea - the book is divided into 4 sections corresponding to the four elements, earth, air, water and fire):

It is the oldest story and the one
most recently understood: cooperation
is the crux of complexity, and complexity
the stamp of the divine.


Geoffrey Cook is one of The Danforth Review's Poetry Editors. He currently lives in Montreal.







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