canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Invisible World is in Decline
by Bruce Whiteman
ECW Press, 2000

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook

I once attended a reading in Toronto which was MC’ed by a woman, who, having noticed that all her male readers referred to other male writers, noted, “So many men talking about other men’s texts!” The sardonic comment took the wind out of some of the self-regarding stuffiness and insecurity of that literary community. I recalled this comment while reading Whiteman’s collection. 

The Invisible World is divided into six parts comprised of sequences, poems in parts, and prose poems, most of which have been previously published as chapbooks, broadsides, special editions and journals (some poems appeared in the previous collection, Visible Stars: New and Selected Poems). 

Invisible World is full of references and allusions to other texts, interpreted in the widest sense to include, for example, painting. In his notes, where the “ur-texts” for a couple of the poems are identified, Whiteman writes that one of the sequences, “The Zukofsky Impromptus”, “are a palimpsestic text written over words and phrases drawn from Louis Zukofsky’s ‘A-11’”. “Palimpsest” always reminds me of Ezra Pound’s pretensions and poses. (The Invisible World is also an apparently endless text - this being “Book V”). And then I feel the annoyance most readers do, I think, when confronted with literary cleverness and self-concern (which is not a necessary result of allusion). Nonetheless, there is some fine and interesting writing in the book.

Whiteman’s collection involves a number of motifs involving binary relationships of the body/soul, art/life type. The most developed of these oppositions, the most articulate tension in the collection, is that between the “forger” and the “lover”: the perfection of technique through imitation vs. the realization of authenticity through desire. Through this central metaphorical tension, Whiteman explores the ideas of art, authenticity and eros and their interrelationship.

The first 3 sequences, “The Zukovsky Impromptus”, “Polyphonic Windows” and “Interrealm” develop the theme of eros: here the body, love and the lover are credited as noble, beautiful, heroic aspects of human life. “The body’s love for the world is permanent”. “Love is set on the body like fate”. “Love makes last what can last”. In sum, “In love the body, ... knowing its need and true heart, [says], our honour consists in this”, i.e., love and loving. The pieces in these initial sequences are moving, at times, and, particularly in “Polyphonic Windows”, a challenge of one’s vocabulary.

In the transitional sequence, “Two Poems for Milt Jewel”, Whiteman meditates on the relation between art and life, alternately defiant and self-deprecating in tone. But it is the prose narrative, “The Forger’s Confession” which, ironically, is the most engaging piece in Whiteman’s book. The forger confesses, “my failure at love, my inability to be human in any but a mechanical fashion” has resulted in mastery of mimesis but a profound emotional “incompetence”. This man works not for money, love, revenge, fame or spite - other forgers’ motives - but “because [forgery] is the single thing of which I am master”. Ironically, a forger can be the greatest of artists:

... Keats’s notion of negative capability, by which he characterized the nature of literary genius, applies also to the consummate forger. It is the ability so to sympathize with another person or object as practically to become that other person or object, to allow easily for mystery and uncertainty and to be perfect in spite of them.

The forger sees through the great “illusion” of art, and Whiteman’s piece is partly a subtle, ironic critique of romantic and humanist notions of art and the artist:

The great canonized works of art depend on their ability to go on provoking certain bits of feeling, of intellection, of human identity over the years and centuries, and it was that provocation which from the beginning has fascinated me and which I have wanted to be able to simulate perfectly.

The forger of aesthetic pleasure finds that he can simulate sexual pleasure with equal finesse, making him the “perfect lover in a way. I wanted nothing for myself from sex and I was therefore entirely free to create pleasure for women in what at first they would mistake for selflessness.” Inevitably, the forger and his lovers find the sex superficial, “I had no character of my own and ... every act, thought, and emotion was manufactured in the light of something I had learned about someone else”. Sex and love proving vapid, the forger seeks spiritual solace - so romantically - in music; though here too the forger finds “childish catatonia and selflessness” in the end. The irony is that from the point of view of theory, the greatest artist is the forger. 

Yet our forger finds that his life and work are ultimately illusory and void of transcendent significance: “The path I pursue leads inevitably to death ... but also to silence and loss of personality.... I am pouring myself more and more into the imagined lives of others, and less and less is there much remaining that is me.” The analogy between the lover and the forger serves to establish the illusion of idealistic theories of art: it is the quality of the self - the individual, unique, suffering, flawed soul - that matters, that allows for communion (or love) and authentic communication (always a risk beyond the safety of theoretical illusions). 

While it critiques certain illusions about art and the artist, “The Forger’s Confession” returns us - on the level of ideas - to another fundamental truism of creativity: art that matters rises out of an individual life engaged emotionally as well as intellectually in the crises of desire and authenticity.

Aptly, Whiteman’s “Ecstasy: XXIV Short Love Poems” follows “The Forger’s Confession”, for “Ecstasy” is a collection of notes on the more authentic Whiteman-in-love. And again, ironically, these most intimate avowals of desire and affection are the most artless of pieces in “Invisible World”. And it is this artlessness of “the authentic”, seen as it must be beside the artfulness of the prose piece on the forger - which leaves a reader frustrated. 

Do we not seek, in art, the union of authenticity and artifice, the contingent and the transcendent, the honest with the artful? Do we not seek a “phrase [that] man can pass from hand to mouth” as Derek Walcott defines poetry in “The Forests of Europe”?

The technical concerns in Invisible World are with the logic and clarity of imagery in service of a set of ideas (aesthetic, moral, erotic, spiritual); with creating various self-sufficient yet inter-related structures and thus with the coherence of a totality of form(s)/idea(s). The technical concern is not, that is, with the line or metre, nor rhythm in a traditional sense. The poems are artistic objects, certainly; and Whiteman can be credited with originality of aesthetic and relevance of ideas (particularly in this time of anxious “intertextuality”). 

But the work remains on the level of ideas and texts, rarely transmogrifying into those salty phrases from which we take emotional and spiritual sustenance - despite the poet’s longing to make the word flesh, to discover the flesh’s immortality, as Wallace Stevens claimed: “Beauty is momentary in the mind - / The fitful tracing of a portal; / But in the flesh it is immortal.” In the end, Invisible World appears as the consummate piece of male anxiety: anxiety over sexuality, over artistry, over other’s texts. Thus the run for cover in wryness and tricks with texts.

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







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