Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2011. 81 pages. $15.95.
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If, in a moment of indignant weakness, you’ve ever asked why bad things happen to good people, you’ve reckoned with theodicy. Cyrus Console’s new book of poems takes its title from this theological term for philosophical defenses of God’s goodness in the light of the existence of evil. Not that The Odicy is a dutifully religious book: it never trades craft for creed. These poems’ biblical allusions take the Lord’s name in vain, but they also use it as a vane for measuring the contemporary world’s distance from a presumed natural innocence. Instead of the Eucharist, Diet Rite invokes the holy name:
You were the first
No-calorie soft drink and you meant it
By God, by cyclamine and saccharin
And look closely at Console’s title: the single space that separates the first three letters of the divine prefix from their suffix makes all the difference. Not only does the definite article, “the,” take on a significance tantamount to God’s, the odd suffix takes on a capitalized life of its own. A little homonymic hermeneutics and “Odicy” gives us “Odyssey”: suddenly, the genre of Console’s poems is just as much epic as treatise. In fact, it’s the combination of invective doggerel and dogged voyage that gives The Odicy its strange movement through a strange, almost apocalyptic present. It shows a kind of Book of Revelation through the saturated colors of network TV:
It’s your decision. It’s a destination
Wedding. There’s no longer any point
Pretending you and I are not in motion
Through what we cannot call oblivion
Which will be remedied by morning, certain
As solar chiliads continue shining
These poems take the measure of the bad things happening in and to our world—environmental crisis, animal suffering, individual and corporate corruption. But they do so through an enduring device, the pentameter line, which provides a standard from which Console veers freely, showing that the poetry’s traditional formal conventions can “make new” our newly threatened world.
Like its Homeric precursor, The Odicy has a hero (his name is Tony) who faces crises (be warned, reader, some of them are sartorial) in the attempt, against all odds, to claim a home in the world. Denied access to every direct route, Console ranges from Vietnam to Providence, from Genesis to Led Zeppelin, and from Hell on earth replete with Lethe and Styx to the Troposphere. The outcome of The Odicy’s central conflict—between the planet’s ecology and the greed that would consume it—hangs in the balance. The book’s tone is dark, its pace rhythmically chaotic, and Console (more like Vergil than Homer) takes sides, indicting human constructions with the same exuberance with which Hart Crane had celebrated them. Much as Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge” figures the five o’clock world at the moment when “elevators drop us from our day,” Console counsels the contemporary office worker caught, as ever, in traffic heading home:
If brown air take us from our long commute
Draw some brown air through a paper tube
Throw a shadow on the lung, I say
Throw dice against two perpendicular
Fabrics of crushed stone bounding a field
Where white polyhedral instruments
Of chance shock and collide, nonrepeating
Names of the short bones crowding the hand
Not coming to us.
It’s only when the cigarette smoke clears from these fields of “shock and collide” warfare that Console reveals his skill in another register, and offers the low, plangent, lyrical note of the exhausted poet-soldier: “Perhaps I will go. I am tired / Of what sets us apart from animals.” But more often, world-weary and playful humor counterbalances disaster; Console revels in the limited possibilities of life on earth:
Another shitty thing about the eighties
You never knew whether it was a movie
Keeping you awake or just a song.
I’ll have a burger and a glass of coke.
The Odicy avoids lyrical sweetness because that sweetness, most notably in the form of soft drinks, has become too commonplace: we rise and fall on its wings, fattened on it to such an extent that we lose sensitivity to the hardships of labor and the violence our modes of production exercise on the living earth. Since the same corporation that sponsored chemical warfare in Vietnam developed artificial sweeteners, a poisoned prehistory infects every sip: “We drink Coca-Cola long time.” The ethnic slur at the heart of this grammatical construction reveals that it’s really language, not soft drinks, at stake in the war of sugared sweetness. Letting itself get too sweet, language gave up its just calling and became an advertisement for violent consumption: “Remarketing is what the language suffered / Agonies and died for.” It takes a lot of courage, or gall, for a poet to write after acknowledging that language is just as useful for bringing about destruction as for bringing it to light. After such knowledge—that the medium partakes in the massacre—what forgiveness?
In confronting this dilemma, The Odicy stands alongside recent volumes by Ben Lerner, Timothy Donnelly, and Aaron Kunin. This body of work emphasizes the complicity of poetic language—its blindness, stodginess, and saccharinity—in the making of contemporary crises, but suggests that an awareness of this fact may open new formal possibilities for poetry to explain, interpret, and intervene. Donnelly’s Russian-doll-like syntax, for example, enrolls the mythic past in an exposé of contemporary capital’s mystifying cloud cover; Lerner and Kunin re-imagine individual poems as composites of recycled fragments or as mirrors of strictly symmetrical lines to show how interpersonal relationships suffer from our contemporary moment’s fascination with violence and shame. Console, in his turn, invokes the pentameter line, which famously served Shakespeare as an agent of preservation, in order to reckon with environmental degradation and decay. To resist the pull of the deathly destruction it explores, though, and to reinvigorate poetic language, he combines technical jargon and Topeka street slang, “solar chiliads” and Diet Coke. In a zone of high-pressure concerns, the pentameter line becomes a crucible, threatening to burst, a twelve-ounce can dropped from the sun.
Console leaves this dark and downward and subtly optimistic journey intentionally, and un-Homerically, incomplete, like a believer who, in trying to construct Jonathan Edwards’ impenetrable theological fortress, brings himself to the edge of disbelief. The Odicy cannot (in a pun its author makes good use of) console us that worldly evil has a just cause or end. The hope it instills, however, is that these poems’ explorations of and momentary triumphs over our complicity with that evil will continue in a future they both doubt and leave us longing, somehow more meekly, to inherit.