canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Carousel: A Book of Second Thoughts
by George Murray
Exile Editions, 2000

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook

One of Rilke’s more romantic notions was that the modern world denied human beings their rightful deaths, by which he seems to have meant a death that was a logical consequence of a life conceived aesthetically: an organic and culminating event; death as consummation. The modern world presumably denied us our proper deaths because the technological, industrial and economic revolutions alienated people from the world, removing the possibility of the imagined, aestheticized life; and - though Rilke never says this - modernity simply increased the possibility of the arbitrary, accidental death (labourers in factories tripping and becoming hamburger in some meat plant, for example).

George Murray’s Carousel is, in a way, an answer to Rilke’s lament, but an ironic answer, of course: creating elegies for a host of odd characters from the social and psychological fringe and marginal, esoteric, and medical disciplines, Murray makes possible and simultaneously absurd a “right death”; and that tension between the possible and the absurd allows for a wide range of tones and perspectives: poignant, comic, tragic, sardonic, and erotic.

The structural coherence in the book is also ironic: Carousel is a book of 53 mock-sonnet elegies. Though Murray eschews rhyme and iambic pentametre, his 14 lines nonetheless preserve the epiphanic effect of the sonnet, its drama and rhythm. These poems are further organized into four sets (with an epilogue) of thirteen poems a piece - or I should say, four houses, for the titles of the sections correspond to the four houses from a deck of cards.

The characters seem to be categorized according to their “vocations”: circus performers; the quasi- or quack professions (phrenologists, exorcists, oracles); the psychotic and the health professions (discounting a couple anomalies). A pyromaniac escapes the prison of the coffin by self-combusting; a contortionist is bent into her homemade shoe box coffin as soon as she dies before rigor mortis cheats her of her extraordinary virtue - her self-defined self. A euthanasist commits suicide; an archeologist is exhumed. These portraits of the arcane, fraudulent and scary (coroners and cardiologists) nonetheless reflect more common anxieties, desires and tragedies.

As an aesthetic project, one can only say that Murray has triumphed in his metaphor. Besides the subtlety and variety of tone, the poems are rhythmically engaging, and the metaphors and language are dexterous, original and entertaining. The very consummateness of the performance, the extremity of artifice, however, is also the weakness of the collection. Carousel is like a book of jokes: a little tiresome when read flat out. It’s best for sampling; for the occasional laugh.

So a review should leave you as Murray does, with the artists’ ever-faithful spokesman/side-kick, the fool:

The Joker’s Last Words

I always wanted to read a eulogy for first thoughts,
the ones that got away, truth being rootless as
the shadow of a bird in flight;
the fool’s fate been execution, by lord or conqueror:
changes in humour (more than mirth) giving context
to life & in turn to death; we are born, we sleep,
we remember, we die!
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXyet each is simply a sugar pill
that can be hidden under the tongue & expelled
once the nurses are gone;
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXfor now please work
at excusing the words I have yet to utter because
despite what I may fear or you believe, the greatest
thing about dying is that others have done it before.

Geoffrey Cook is one of The Danforth Review's poetry editors.







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