Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews

Charm School

More Than Peace and Cypresses
Cyrus Cassells
Copper Canyon Press (2004) 102 pages
ISBN 1-55659-214-0

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! With the end of the "New Yorker poem," now decades ago, it was suddenly gauche for an American poet to include more than the occasional reference to a European landscape in her or his poetry. It was considered high time that American poetry embraced its own. To do otherwise was reactionary, elitist. Better, more appropriate, subjects lay closer at hand.

The European (generally Italian) locations (the poet being also an actor, we may sometimes call them "locations"), of the poems of Cyrus Cassell's More Than Peace and Cypresses, will, as a result, be considered reactionary by some. Others, for whom thirty years is time enough for skirts and milieus to come back into fashion, or who are young enough, and innocent of ancient history (if a reviewer may be permitted to be redundant), may find the poems slightly exotic, even refreshing.

It is clear that Cassells depends upon the exotic quality of his foreign landscapes. The poet who divides himself between two homes (as this poet does) may have the advantage that each may be strange to him by virtue of the familiarity of the other. He may see each of his worlds with a fresher eye as a result. To this extent, the exoticism of his poetry will be sincere and the reader receptive. Inasmuch as the extrinsic detail is more aesthetic than sincere--does not, at the very least, partake equally of both qualities--the images involved will fail to satisfy.

This is not to say that aestheticism is necessarily a fault or even a poor relation of the exotic. What is most striking about the poetry of Cyrus Cassells is that it refurbishes the reputation of "aesthetics" just a little. This poet makes no apologies for engaging in the practice. Above all else, these are charming poems and are meant to be. They shamelessly take place in train stations, in villas, among meadows and ruins. The lighting conditions are always perfect for the given scene. The small details, that mean so much to the charming poem, are chosen with care more often than not.

A book simply cannot be charming without aesthetics and the more practiced the aesthetician the more expansive the realm of charm. When Cassells writes,

                   The dusk was freaked
with the little upended
exclamation points of poppies.

the description is charming. When he writes of "the larkish solace of children" he begins to extend the definition of charm. When he recalls Pier Passolini's "Kabuki-wild, inelegant death," he lets charm out of the cage most poets would feel they must keep it in, confident that it will obey his commands. Across such a spectrum, the term "aesthetic" ceases to be pejorative.

If Cassells had been satisfied, in More Than Peace and Cypresses, to remain within these boundaries, expansive, but (admittedly) expansive only along surfaces, it would be difficult to see him as anything less than a remarkable poet. His book would be a minor one, in an age in which, for reasons beyond the scope of this review, approved work is done in the minor keys. Its flaws would be even more minor. A phrase like "the super-subtlety of the courtyard," for example, for all of its laudable effort to be contemporary, is lazy but does little damage by the fact. Another, like "the razory / hem of the words" is not only a mixed metaphor (adjectival constructions notwithstanding) but exemplary of the pitfalls of poetic crypto-persiflage. The image (inasmuch as there is a coherent image) is contrived and overstated, but the "Elegy for Giorgio Bassani" (the poem it occupies) is a name-dropping poem and accomplishes its task quite apart from any image or other detail. His advancement in his craft would amount, then, to writing poems in which there are fewer such lapses and less obvious. He would be a healthier, less morbid Arthur Symons.

Cassell's poetic tour through Andalusia, which composes the second section of More Than Peace and Cypresses, provides him the opportunity to show his appreciation of Garcia Lorca and he acquits himself exceptionally well on the whole. The finest touches from the Andalusian section suggest a careful study of Lorca's poetry from Romancero Gitano onwards. (The influence of the Divan del Tamarit, with its bold but discreet homoeroticism, is clear throughout Peace and Cypresses.) But it is also here that he blithely goes out of his depth.

The quality of the poetry in this section is generally quite high. The poet's picture of his flamenco lover dancing in the countryside in the poem "Farruquito and La Nina" is exemplary of the better passages:

Flamenco on a flatbed truck,
candles ensconced
on a darkening hillside;
green strophes of cactus--
green, green as the frantic
leaves of heartbreak...

Lorca himself traveled through the region, with a troupe of actors and dancers, directing similar performances before peasant audiences. The tradition goes back, unbroken, for centuries.

But the poem that follows, "The Way of Duende," is the kind of serious mistake against which the charming poet is too poorly defended should he also be precocious. Duende and aesthetics is a rare and powerful mixture that even Lorca found difficult to maintain in proper balance. Charm is a property of surfaces, so much so that it too easily mistakes the figure left by a three dimensional object, as it intersects a plane, as all that actually exists of the object. To make matters worse, the duende, that the earlier poet described, "que agota, que rechaza toda la dulce geometria aprendida, que rompe los estilos"--that lays waste, that rejects all the sweet geometry one has learned, that smashes the styles--corresponds to a four-dimensional object, large portions of it not even being suspected in a fully three-dimensional world. To conclude the point, Cassell's forte is light, and duende, as Lorca makes clear again and again, is dark: dark with night, dark with blood and earth, dark with death.

"Once, I swore, a piston-swift stag / had taken his place" sings Cassells of his Andalusian trophy and it is immediately obvious that the dancer may or may not have duende but this is not the poet to assign the quality to him. When, on the following page--the final page of the poem--he writes of "the sheerly authentic" quality that is essential to the duende, the piston-swift stag and a half-dozen other inauthentic images (even one or two misappropriated from Lorca's own poetry) can only come to mind. Cassells is a kind of nocturnal Phaeton in this poem. The difference between this and duende corresponds to the difference between the simple elegance of Cassells' publicity photo (used both in his acting portfolio and as the back-cover photo for More Than Peace and Cypresses) and the blocky, deeply lit, almost painfully graceless photograph of Lorca that opens the Aguilar Edition of his Obras Completas.


The same, unfortunately, must be said of the 13 page poem, "Sons and Violets," about Cassells' struggle to deal with the death of his father, and for the same reasons. The father having succumbed to cancer, the actor/son reflects upon the impositions of death:

My father didn't want a funeral,
a garish coffin or a grave;
I was relieved,
but that still meant the task
of being the able emcee
at his memorial.

The impression is of a precocious young man who has managed, by virtue of his obvious talents (the reference is not only to poetry and acting), to avoid all of the suffocating realizations, the shatteringly painful experiences, the depths of grief that may resolve themselves in such qualities as duende and wisdom.

Should all of this seem to describe a poet with disappointingly little to aspire to, there is always the hope for a Proustian late-flowering. Marcel, after all, was a precocious young man, well beyond the years normally assigned to youth or precocity, who had written a few charming things (the reader may smile to reflect that they were book reviews as often as not), until the death of his mother first shook him to the core and then set him free. It must be admitted, however, that he was a neurotic mess from a promisingly early age, apart from all deaths and entrances, and Cassells is, by all appearances, far too normal to entertain hopes of recovery.

Should suddenly being suffocated by the reality of death not have been enough to trap the gasping Proust in a room where he could do little more than relive the past in luxurious detail, we might have said of one or another of his slim productions (or, perhaps, the Salon pieces from Le Figaro), as we say now of More Than Peace and Cypresses: that it is a charming book and strikingly successful in that way. While charm may play only on surfaces, Cyrus Cassells has given those surfaces the occasional irony, the sudden gratuitous act of violence, and a distant sense of loss by way of perspective-lines converging at the horizon such that a most satisfactory sense of a third dimension is generally achieved. The intangibles are supplied by small but inspired observations. But what we would not have said of Proust, even then, is that those observations too often suffer from a tendency in the author to be too easily satisfied.


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