CRITIPEG: Poetry book is heavy reading

Cam Scott
104 pages, ARP Books, September 2019

It had been an education, nights inhaling cumulus of wiseacre dissention

Romans/Snowmare has good intentions in its attempt to critique capitalism through experimental poetry. The text alternates between shorter sections of free verse and prose poetry, which gives a sense of continuous movement. The free-verse sections are short, some with no more than a few stanzas each. Some are only one or two sentences, spread out between a stanza or two.

The prose poems vary from half a page to a full page long. These dense walls of text have some spectacular turns of phrase, such as “The boulevards become our commons, under threat of picturesque dissensus.” Some of them veer into stream-of-consciousness territory.

The poetry contains hints of capitalist critique and romance, but for most of the book, the poetry lives outside of itself. Some of the text lacks an internal logic and instead requires readers to have an extensive knowledge of critical theory and a passing understanding of the Italian language. Readers should keep both English and Italian dictionaries on hand to help decode portions of text. The language is often abstract, and without an image to cling to, it can become shapeless.

Halfway through the book, Scott starts to work with imagistic language of urban and prairie landscapes, but shifts back to a more abstract construct, with some images. When working with concrete imagery, the poems find shape and meaning, but they are often over-encumbered with complex language and academic theory.

Certain poems show a deft and sophisticated relationship with language and approach politically left-leaning theories, such as a living wage. The book is concerned with the concept of how poetry lives both on the page and as a spiritual ideal. The idea of the poem and of poetry wafts in and out of the book, as the speaker tries to shape what poetry is:

“A new constraint: the poem must contain the words ‘the poem,’ in the same way the Ramones or Motorhead extol the benefits of rock ’n’ roll.”

Romans/Snowmare is most interesting when the poems are self-contained, and the intertextuality works within the poem. In one of its several untitled sections, the speaker drives through rural Manitoba, describing the green-and-yellow drive and the daydreams it inspires.

Parts of the book may require a graduate-level understanding of critical theory and politics. Folks without a background in critical theory would be hard-pressed to understand some of the poems. Instead of sharing an understanding of critical theorists Zizek and Foucault, referencing their names without elaborating on their meaning or context creates an exclusive world for poets and readers with a certain level of education. Large sections of this book are not for the casual poetry reader or those who prefer more imagistic or self-contained poetry.

Published in Volume 74, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 31, 2019)

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