canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Free Will
by Harold Rhenisch
Ronsdale Press, 2004

Reviewed by Richard Stevenson

I didn’t see it coming, that notice in the press:
you’re no longer responsible for my debts:

your attorney’s phone, your maiden name,
mine in bold type. Why not post it on every stall

so women could read it when they flush?
maiden, now that’s a joke – or maybe miracles

are happening now and we can all go back
to the years of stuttering hesitation

before we knew the apple rots
if not picked, and we know that.
So begins “Sonnet 158: Broadside” from a sequence entitled “The Uncollected Sonnets of Mr. W. S., Translated From The English.” It’s not a sonnet – the poem runs to 12 distiches or 24 free verse lines, in fact – and it’s not a translation or transliteration, or even a homolinguistic translation from Shakespeare’s or anyone else’s Renaissance English. Rather, it’s a put-on of sorts: what Shakespeare might have written, given his penchant for conceits and metaphysics, if he were to have lived in our time and been confronted with our multimedia, star maker gossip, paparazzi-ridden, sensationalist, topsy turvy post- 9/11 world.

What poet Harold Rhenisch does in this, his twelfth, collection is carry the coyote hijinks of his collections Taking the Breath Away (Ronsdale Press, 1998) and The Blue Mouth of Morning (Oolichan Books, 1998) over to the worlds of Shakespearean and Absurdist theatre. Along the way, he folds in all manner of public discourse, pop culture allusions, current events, and theatric legerdemain. We get new takes on old Shakespearean plays – Hamlet from Ophelia’s and Gertrude’s points of view; Iago’s extemporaneous meditations on Romeo, Juliet, Oberon, Rosalind, Shylock, Bach’s harpsichord fugues, “Singing In The Rain;” cut scenes of Oberon filling his rainbow codpiece, and Falstaff planting tobacco in Virginia, etc. Puns, groaners, longeurs, guffaws: it’s all uproarious good fun!

Were that not enough, the poet also runs a kind of madcap tour through English literary tradition, from the genres and sub-genres of Romance, Comedy, Tragedy, Tragicomedy, Pastoral, Satire, History and Epic poetry, through the forms of ode, lyric, ballad, and serial narrative – or free verse nonce re-visitations of these forms, I should say, for, as with the sonnet, the poet may co-opt the thesis, antithesis, synthesis form or argument – or not – but employ a free verse line – usually in distitches or ragged, semi-regular closed form strophes, varying the length of his line and expertly modulating the tone and mood from antic to sad, deeply meditative to gonzo farcical. He even co-opts the play-within-the-play of Hamlet’s Mouse Trap for seventeen “stagings” of these modes, after the fashion of a concerto or sonata in picayunish good humour, starting with Polonious’s pompous introduction of the players in Hamlet as epigraph.

It sounds like a rollicking good time, and it most certainly is, especially when the infamous 10,000 monkeys locked in a room actually do get down to the business of writing Hamlet, or scratching their balls or defecating on the pages!

The book offers much more than this, of course, as the title implies: it’s not simply a matter of freeing old Will from the stultifying effect of so much classroom analysis and getting the characters to sit up on their hind legs, as it were, but is a matter of examining the philosophical implications and limitations upon the free will of individuals trying desperately to make sense of their lives in these insane, genocidal times.

In his useful introduction, the poet comments on his trip from the BC interior in an old beater with a bullet hole in the back window to U-Vic’s Phoenix Theatre to play Puck. His first artistic love was with the theatre, and this book has thus been in gestation since 1975. Besides Shakespeare, Rhenisch counts among his influences the absurdist plays of Ionesco, La Cage Aux Folles, silent movies, and the wild experiments of the French Surrealists. Thus, that the book is peopled with such characters as Coyote, Punch, Marcel Marceau, The Black Adder, and the Shriners on their scooters.

Poetry this much fun can’t be serious, you say? Ah, there’s the rub, but don’t take my word for it; witness the delightful hijinks and non-sequitors for yourself:

When the chimps were brought together
into a hall in Soho,
grinning and somersaulting,
leapfrogging and jumping jacks,
and routinely imitating
simple sexual acts,

each given a pine table,
a typewriter, a chair
on casters and a stack
of blank paper,
they pounded the keys –
with the tips of their fingers,
elbows, knees

or each of their toes individually.

“Which is better?’ the chimp had begun,
“to be a slave or to be a free man enslaved,
to be a man in this city or a chimp,
even if his jungle is the dictionary –
that leg hold trap, that artemesia
that cognitive turnip, that that?”

(“10,000 Monkeys Locked in a Room, pp 33 & 36 ) 

Even from these relatively straightforward narrative excerpts, the reader can see the mastery of melody, imagery, and rhythm. Indeed, with this book, Harold Rhenisch confirms his status as one of the most inventive and witty poets on the Canadian scene, and while there are cognitive delights aplenty here, he has not sacrificed readability or accessibility to the making of this fine Mulligan stew.

Richard Stevenson has published fourteen poetry collections and a CD of original jazz and poetry with jazz/poetry troupe Naked Ear; he has three more forthcoming in 2004: A Tidings of Magpies ( from Spotted Cow Press in Edmonton), A Charm of Finches (from Ekstasis Editions in Victoria ) -- both collections of haiku, senryu, and tanka -- and Parrot With Tourette's (a satiric work forthcoming from Black Moss Press (Palm Poets Series) in Windsor. He has also had two chapbooks recently accepted by Cubicle Press in Niagara: Fuzzy Dice and Frank's Aquarium. He lives and teaches in Lethbridge, AB.







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