canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

So Dance the Lords of Language
by Marius Kociejowski
The Porcupine’s Quill, 2003

Reviewed by Zach Wells

So Dance the Lords of Language is Canadian ex-pat Marius Kociejowski’s first book published in this country, a selection drawn from three works printed in England, his country of adoption. These poems showcase Kociejowski’s wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, erudition and undeniable stylistic and formal elegance. It’s easy to see how he has acquired a following across the pond; easy also to see why he’s been criticized for being old-fashioned. But for reasons other than formal ability and popular taste, I found most of the poems unsatisfying if not outright unappealing. And since this selection purports to be the author’s own "representative" sampling of his work, I can only see this dissatisfaction as a reaction against Kociejowski’s entire poetic endeavour, against nothing less than his world view.

I mentioned the author’s wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. It manifests itself in poems about a great many subjects and objects: a medieval mechanism called a water clock; various animals, including the long-extinct English Wolf; the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi; Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano; a Romanian pianist; George Sand and Chopin’s winter in Majorca—to name a few. The breadth of Kociejowski’s culture is impressive, to say the least.

There’s no doubt in my mind that such a thirst for knowledge is an inherently positive attribute in any poet. But the mere transmission of data does not a poet make. Far too often, these poems are vehicles for the display of Kociejowski’s arcane learning, rather than knowledge placed in the service of poetry. In "Giacomo Leopardi in Naples," for instance, Kociejowski presents a rather two-dimensional picture of the eccentric Italian genius, despite devoting five pages of first person verse, with Leopardi as speaker, to the subject. We get the poet’s obsession with ice cream, his overall grubbiness, his deformities, illness and pessimism; we get a wealth of trivial detail, but nothing of the complexity of the man’s thought and writing. What we get, in short, is a caricature that offers very little poetic or psychological insight into Leopardi not available on internet web pages, never mind in the man’s own prose and verse. This is not a problem unique to this poem. Most of Kociejowski’s subjects are not full-blooded in their realization, but put me in mind of pinned butterflies behind glass, of value only as curios. This works well in a poem like "The Water Clock," where the subject is just such a curiosity, but falls especially flat in the Leopardi piece and in rambling poems about Chopin and Sand and the Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti.

Kociejowksi cannot resist the pedantic impulse. In "The Polar Bear," for example, a deft interweaving of the lives of a zoo bear, a spider, and the speaker’s sleeping daughter is interrupted by the speaker’s insistence on the difficulty of the connections he is attempting to forge:

My daughter, I seek a connection
Between all this: these are distances

The stammering mind cannot hold.

If the thought seems hard
I could hum you a song.
But the immeasurable racks us,

So finally it is fathomed
Only by love and even then
Not so easily gauged.

Similarly, the startling unheralded presence of horsemen in the final stanza of "The Water Clock" is prosed away by an explanatory endnote. This is ironic since the poem is a metaphorical ars poetica which admonishes the poet to make his work as precise and intricate an instrument as the water clock itself. Such elegant precision is in no wise abetted by having a baggy explanation tacked on. The long-winded explanatory note is an addiction for this poet, over four pages of them being appended to the poems. If these are really necessary, then the author must not believe that the poems are doing their job; either that, or he has a condescending lack of faith in the reader’s intelligence. And if they are unnecessary, then why include them?

In the manner of an avid hobbyist, Kociejowski is far better at telling the reader what he is passionate about than he is at making us feel and understand his avowal. Far too often he comes off cool and detached precisely when a warmer affect is required. "Night Song of the Nomadic Shepherd in Asia, after Leopardi" provides the best example of this problem. Here we have a Canadian cum Englishman with atavistic proclivities, writing in the voice of a nomadic Asian (could he be more general?) shepherd, in the manner of a 19th century Italian aristocrat (borrowing specifically from the sonnet "To the Moon") who was wont to imitate the poetic modes of antiquity. Little wonder that when the poor shepherd’s voice finally squeaks out of this switchbacking complex of identities, his monologue sounds like a stiff translation. The climax of the poem is drearily unconvincing:

You hang mutely above this dim landscape
At whose distant edge the sky becomes a dome.
And standing here, I ponder the vast solitudes;
I question all that moves, and, yes, even the flesh that bears my name—
All things revolve, go back from whence they came.
Yet I divine no scheme.
All is badness to me.

Instead of crisis, deflation. Instead of tension, ennui. Instead of humanity, disembodied idea. An atmosphere of lacklustre boredom saturates not only this poem, but the book as a whole. It is so frequently the speakers’ response to "vast solitudes" and other like clichés that one wonders why they bother to speak at all, and don’t just lie down and die of their world-weariness.

Occasionally, Kociejowski attempts a less defeatist stance, as in "The Stag": "The predator blends with the innocent/And things of beauty make their betrayals." These might be impressive lines, were they not so reminiscent of Yeats in "The Second Coming":

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Kociejowski’s lines are uncannily similar, like a faint echo rebounding off distant cliffs, but do not survive the comparison. Rather, they turn back upon their author, revealing him, ironically, as one "lack[ing] all conviction." Kociejowski wears fine poetic clothes, which look impressive from afar, but as one approaches his poems more closely, one begins to realize that his outfit is second hand; a bit short at the wrists and ankles, threadbare at knees and elbows, shiny with wear, in need of a good brushing. He is not so much "resolutely unfashionable," as Tony Frazer opines, as he is a slavish mime of old fashions, a nostalgic sigher after imaginary times gone by when real art was made and the scene was not so cluttered with pretenders, philistines, poetasters.

This is the point at which Marius Kociejowski’s poetry graduates from unsatisfyingly anachronistic high modernism to thoroughly annoying pique. For all his mouthing of fine sentiments, I have reached the ineluctable conclusion that this poet is in essence a petty aesthete, a half-hearted misanthrope who holds art above the flood of filthy humanity, lest it be soiled. Clearly, I need evidence to back up this assertion; unfortunately, there is no shortage of it in the text. "Babel," a metaphorical commentary on 20th century poetry, concludes:

This tower they have conjured—
An architecture for the times,
Columns of stagnant air,
Emptiness upon emptiness

This is one of the earlier poems gathered in this selection, from Kociejowski’s first book, Coast, and it is clear that the poet is merely disdainful of his predecessors at this point. As we proceed chronologically through So Dance the Lords of Language, Kociejowski’s splenetic whingeing mounts. In "Doctor Honoris Causa," the speaker, a poet, laments: "Who should know such neglect and be?" In "Giacomo Leopardi in Naples," Kociejowski ventriloquizes through Leopardi:

I will write in my book of consolations the names
Of those whom destiny might otherwise blur on stone.
The critics and poetasters must fend for themselves.
They would burn up the whole language for a single shred of praise
Yet I alone give them credence.

The eponymous woodcutter of one poem, a surrogate poet, is "[u]nfriended , unblest" and "embraces//The company of wolves," which animals represent critics, poetasters and other such philistines. Kociejowski’s bitterness hits its nadir in "Communiqué for William Hoffer," which is little more than a rancorous ode to rancour and a glorification of his and Bill Hoffer’s supposedly tragic roles as guardians of soi-disant culture:

Smallholders, we plunge deeply our stakes,
And holding our small patches of ground we lose
The world to thoughtless jackasses, spineless,
Who’d have us believe miracles come by mind alone.
They speak from a chamber of dying echoes.

This book, for all its pedantry and ressentiment, is not bereft of grace notes. There is some true poetry in "The Wolf Month" sequence, particularly in the title poem:

A black drop entered,
Burst the thin veneer
Of piety. Yes, despair
Shook him as from above,

Swallowed him whole;
And now his staff prods
The stony ground, traces
Blindly the face of God.

"A Seventh Jew" is also worthy of note. About an anonymous Jew about to be executed by the Nazis, who, in the face of death, sings, it is a fine example of what Kociejowski can accomplish when his anger is not misdirected at trivial, imaginary foes.

Kociejowski is a poet of considerable skill who can, when he sets aside distracting predilections towards self-important pomposity and second-rate satire, craft a fine poem. There are so few such verses in So Dance the Lords of Language, however, that I have to wonder if it was worth the trouble to bring him and his verse back to Canada.

Zach Wells lives in Halifax. A chapbook of his poems, Fool’s Errand, will be published in the spring 2004 by Saturday Morning Chapbooks followed in the fall by a full length collection, Unsettled, from Insomniac Press. His website is







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