In these last few years, Jonathan Ball has justly gained a reputation as one of Canadaâ€™s most intriguing young poets. His previous books include Ex Machina (Bookthug, 2009), a self-proclaimed â€œlatticework of poetic and philosophical statements concerning the symbiosis of humans, books, and machines,â€ 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 â€œthe Stephen King of verseâ€.Â Needless to say, expectations are high.
The first thing that will strike readers familiar with Ballâ€™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 â€œthe language of violenceâ€ that range from invocations to the muse to erasure poems, from a kind of jumped-up Late Capitalist riff on Ferlinghettiâ€™s â€œI Am Waitingâ€ to fractured and remixed bits of Kafkaâ€™s The Castle and Hitchcockâ€™s Psycho, and much else besides. â€œIn Vitro Cityâ€ 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 â€œall things are windows, so there are no windows,â€ and â€œhotels hold you, elevat[ing] penthouse to throne.â€
Alternately, â€œHe Paints the Room Redâ€ Â gives us a scenario of a Warhol film from Hell, where an unknown author films himself preparing to write his lifeâ€™s work over a period of days, only to douse himself, the work and the mise-en-scene (a sparcely furnishedÂ room he has painted blood-red)Â with gasoline upon the manuscriptâ€™s completion. He then lights a match, and the camera continues to record the end of this disconcerting ritual: â€œFor hours in his created world, we watch our faceless author burn.â€
Despite such striking and evocative images however, I confess to being somewhat disappointed on the whole by Ballâ€™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 â€œthe language of violenceâ€ in a more open-ended manner. Contrary to criticising it for its diversity â€“ 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 hasÂ dubbed â€œThe Bad Sequenceâ€) â€“Â one of the reasons I haveÂ reservations about the book is itsÂ habit of holding the reader at armâ€™s length in a predictable, almost token manner.
Ball delights in disrupting expectations. At the end ofÂ â€œHe Paints the Room Red,â€ subsequent to his character burning himself to death, Ball confesses that he â€œdo[es] Â not know his reasons.â€ â€œI donâ€™t understand any of this,â€ he continues, â€œYouâ€™ll object. Youâ€™ll say: heâ€™s your character. Youâ€™ll say: you wrote him, we read this, we know.â€ 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 doesnâ€™t have to give us the story â€“ but he can certainly do better than withhold it in this manner. In short, the deflection doesnâ€™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 heâ€™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 Ballâ€™s work. â€œThe Process Proposed,â€ the collectionâ€™s opening poem and Ballâ€™s self-described â€œperversion of the traditional invocation of the museâ€ grafts linguistic innovation directly to striking images in an act of concrete-lyricism at which Ball excels: â€œShe made hyphens, made me use them. / Pulled brackets from her back. Saying: / These in your throat and these around your neck.â€ Dictated verse becomes an unruly voice inÂ a psychotic’sÂ head, and Ballâ€™s musicality proceeds from the outset with a terse, hypnotic intensity: â€œWhen she spoke, she did not speak / but with exhalation of wires.â€ 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 â€œThen Wolves,â€ 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 BÃ¶k 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:
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
Â I find myself returning to The Politics of Knives for such poems alone. To his credit, even when Ballâ€™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,Â Â but it sometimes feels asÂ if he is grasping at straws in a period of transition. It seems to me thatÂ the hallmark of a successful formal experiment is the illusion of its invicibility. I am also ambivalentÂ about the ipso factoÂ classification of Ball’s otherwise unclassifiableÂ work as poetry, an appelation that sometimes feels earnedÂ only through itsÂ enjabment on the page and its fragmentary nature.
Â Given the dexterity of the poems in The Politics of Knives andÂ the book’sÂ occasional but distinctive successes, one could still make a case for Jonathan Ballâ€™s status as a distinct and uniquely positioned figure in the contemporary Canadian avant-garde, though perhaps not even remotely in the way â€œthe Stephen King of verseâ€Â epiphet might suggest. One certainly looks forward to his next book and hopes that his apparent range and diversity will be more successfully married toÂ a more fully realizedÂ imaginative vision.