On Jonathan Ball’s The Politics of Knives

In these last few years, Jonathan Ball has justly gained a reputation as one of Canada’s most intriguing young poets. His previous books include Ex Machina (Bookthug, 2009), a self-proclaimed “latticework of poetic and philosophical statements concerning the symbiosis of humans, books, and machines,” as well as Clockfire (Coach House 2010), a collection of poetic-scenarios of 77 imaginary plays that would be impossible to produce. The latter in particular has already gained a somewhat cultish status among small press devotees and is one of our favourites here at the shop. Ball has been likened to a kind of Calvino/Lovecraft hybrid or a mixture of Lynch/Kafka, an avant-garde horror writer whose work pushes beyond the strictures of the workshop towards something potentially more transgressive and visceral, and whose genre-defying work has the potential for a more populist appeal. His new collection is The Politics of Knives (2012), with which release publisher Coach House Books is boasting that Ball has become “the Stephen King of verse”.  Needless to say, expectations are high.

The first thing that will strike readers familiar with Ball’s work is how much less thematically or conceptually driven The Politics of Knives is. The book showcases a dizzying array of forms and subjects loosely revolving around film and “the language of violence” that range from invocations to the muse to erasure poems, from a kind of jumped-up Late Capitalist riff on Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” to fractured and remixed bits of Kafka’s The Castle and Hitchcock’s Psycho, and much else besides. “In Vitro City” gives us a portrait of a dystopian city of the future in a state of severe political lockdown, a gentrified metropolis made of glass where “all things are windows, so there are no windows,” and “hotels hold you, elevat[ing] penthouse to throne.”

Alternately, “He Paints the Room Red”  gives us a scenario of a Warhol film from Hell, where an unknown author films himself preparing to write his life’s work over a period of days, only to douse himself, the work and the mise-en-scene (a sparcely furnished room he has painted blood-red) with gasoline upon the manuscript’s completion. He then lights a match, and the camera continues to record the end of this disconcerting ritual: “For hours in his created world, we watch our faceless author burn.”

Despite such striking and evocative images however, I confess to being somewhat disappointed on the whole by Ball’s new book. From the examples briefly cited above, it is clear that Ball wanted to step away from his earlier conceit driven books and try on various poetic guises in The Politics of Knives, exploring his general theme of “the language of violence” in a more open-ended manner. Contrary to criticising it for its diversity – which I indeed think is a virtue given how much Canadian poetry is suffering from the trend of trying to sell itself by making individual collections little more than extensions of a singular thesis or artist statement (what Phil Hall has dubbed “The Bad Sequence”) –  one of the reasons I have reservations about the book is its habit of holding the reader at arm’s length in a predictable, almost token manner.

Ball delights in disrupting expectations. At the end of  “He Paints the Room Red,” subsequent to his character burning himself to death, Ball confesses that he “do[es]  not know his reasons.” “I don’t understand any of this,” he continues, “You’ll object. You’ll say: he’s your character. You’ll say: you wrote him, we read this, we know.” Although Ball is dramatizing the problem of traditionally held ideas about memesis and authorship, it is not enough to deflect responsibility in such a coy, almost smug manner, and he is in fact right: as readers invested in the work we do have a right to object. Ball doesn’t have to give us the story – but he can certainly do better than withhold it in this manner. In short, the deflection doesn’t feel earned. Additionally, it strikes me as somewhat counterproductive for a book that is striving to scare and to shock, that firmly situates itself in a lineage of horror stories (bastard-child though it may be), to continually foreground its artificiality in such a manner. Problems like this abound in the book. Does Ball sincerely expect us to be scared by the Boogeyman once he’s been revealed as an empty rhetorical concoction?

That said, there are a few poems in The Politics of Knives that showcase the reasons for the excitement surrounding Ball’s work. “The Process Proposed,” the collection’s opening poem and Ball’s self-described “perversion of the traditional invocation of the muse” grafts linguistic innovation directly to striking images in an act of concrete-lyricism at which Ball excels: “She made hyphens, made me use them. / Pulled brackets from her back. Saying: / These in your throat and these around your neck.” Dictated verse becomes an unruly voice in a psychotic’s head, and Ball’s musicality proceeds from the outset with a terse, hypnotic intensity: “When she spoke, she did not speak / but with exhalation of wires.” The poem is genuinely chilling and ventures into the dark, cobwebbed corners of a longstanding form, exploiting its malleability and dramatic potential. Another outstanding effort is “Then Wolves,” a poem rich in pastoral gloom that has the logic and inevitability of an old-world folk tale and marries the mannered vowel-play of Christian Bök with the traumatized imagism of Georg Trakl. It is a verbal feat, and showcases a simultaneous musical flair and constraint unmatched by other poems in the collection:

WOLVES

 

seek skin supine

among sins swallow cake wine

 

let this bread be mould daily

let this hunger loose

 

songs howling break branches

through torn chords

 

 I find myself returning to The Politics of Knives for such poems alone. To his credit, even when Ball’s poems leave me unable to give him the benefit of the doubt and seem not to rise above the level of the sketch, I find myself intrigued by his comparative failures. Ball tries out a lot in The Politics and Knives,  but it sometimes feels as if he is grasping at straws in a period of transition. It seems to me that the hallmark of a successful formal experiment is the illusion of its invicibility. I am also ambivalent about the ipso facto classification of Ball’s otherwise unclassifiable work as poetry, an appelation that sometimes feels earned only through its enjabment on the page and its fragmentary nature.

 Given the dexterity of the poems in The Politics of Knives and the book’s occasional but distinctive successes, one could still make a case for Jonathan Ball’s status as a distinct and uniquely positioned figure in the contemporary Canadian avant-garde, though perhaps not even remotely in the way “the Stephen King of verse” epiphet might suggest. One certainly looks forward to his next book and hopes that his apparent range and diversity will be more successfully married to a more fully realized imaginative vision.

– Jesse

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