|Jan/Feb 2004 Book Reviews|
Copper Canyon Press (2003) 88 pages
It is extremely difficult, these days, to write poetry that distinguishes itself. Many hundreds of volumes are published every year. With the new publishing technologies, all but the smallest presses can produce the packaging to help give their poets a veneer of legitimacy. Computer layout and typesetting are almost easy. The Internet provides a means of inexpensive advertising and distribution.
From the poet's perspective, there are hundreds of prizes. Anyone with a smidgin of ambition and a passing sense of which prizes are dedicated to what styles, can at least capture a few runner-up awards and advertise him or herself as an "award winning poet." With so many publishers available, seeking poets to tout, a publishing bio listing a dozen more or less obscure journals, together with a modest flair for networking, qualifies for a volume replete with book-blurb adjectives that might have made Shakespeare blush if they had been applied to him.
This is not necessarily a bad state of affairs. The late Renaissance was the product of a new publishing technology, increased national power and a more widely educated population, and, crass as it often was, we look at it as the equal of any period in history. Some wonderful (and many not so wonderful) books of poetry were written, and we go back to them time and again. But, then, neither is it necessarily a good state of affairs. A vague parallel does not in and of itself make for a new Renaissance.
If a poet wishes to break out of the pack, however, the old Renaissance might not provide the worst guidance as to how. Many books, not particularly well written, remain favorites to this day because they are about interesting—even compelling—subject matter. Nothing saves a middling style like a great story. But it is once the poet has broken out and is riding ahead that the ultimate test comes. Nothing enhances compelling subject matter like exceptional writing.
Peter Pereira, the author of Saying the World, is a doctor. In an age where most drama is experienced vicariously through the television and movies, or through pre-packaged, safety-tested "experience products" such as theme parks and two-week package tours, the hospital is one of the few remaining places where the drama is real. Each of us shares in it for brief periods. The doctor lives it as a life.
Saying the World is presented in three sections. The first is dedicated to Pereira's experiences as a doctor and clinician. He has the good sense not to try to compete with high drama television shows such as E.R. As he reflects, in the poem "Nosophilia," which is given as an epigraph to the volume:
For one it's insomnia, tremor, migraine.
Another has hangnails, hives, boils.
Airsick. Seasick. Incontinent. Fat.
Such misery loves company: a listening ear.
The drama of the poems is as quiet as—generally, as inconsequential as—the drama of most real experience.
Even Pereira's own internship is as drab and exhausting as it is fascinating. One moment bleary, lectured on "the minutiae of Fluid Management," the next he is wide-eyed, marveling at having completed his first Cesarean section. The next he is delivering a postmortem baby, tending a junkie, giving a check-up to an open-heart patient.
It is all real, grueling, repetitive. At times it all becomes too much, and one is paid "The Wages of Mercy":
I wonder for a moment what all
the commotion is about,
nurses frantically starting IVs
and drawing blood and
placing EKG electrodes;
it's only death—
Perhaps it is not just emotional exhaustion. Perhaps it is wisdom, at last. After the endless round of systoles and diastoles, Percocets and morphine drips, hydrocephalic babies and congestive heart failures, perhaps it is both.
In the best poems from Saying the World, the doctor is listening to the obsessive, rambling soliloquies of the survivors who have lost loved ones. These are devastating poems. In "Litany," a Cambodian father who came to the United States to escape the terror of the Pol Pot regime loses his teenage son to a drive-by shooting. Between the description of a son being lost to the streets, of a father hoarse with chanting prayers to help his soul to be reborn, the poem has a refrain—an unusual thing for a contemporary poem—as the father repeats "If only I'd...":
If only I'd given him the five dollars
If only I'd asked him to stay, make his grandmother another cup of tea
The two go to the pagoda to pray the boy on his way. "I join him," Pereira recalls:
...singing the phowa,
and dwell for a moment in that radiant doorway
where birth becomes death
and death becomes birth:
one hand washing the other.
Such moments stay with him. His spare, unadorned style makes sure that they stay with us.
After the first section, perhaps the most shocking thing is to discover that the doctor has another life—his own (actually, there is a two poem transition into his personal life at the end of the first section). He is a gay man. A sister has died young of sugar diabetes. His first gay experiences suggest rape. A brother is schizophrenic. A friend dies of breast cancer. His car is stolen. He struggles to find companionship in a devastated and devastating world.
Still a doctor, his private life is sprinkled with an exotic language. Dancing, he hears "the blue-jean decussation of our legs." His friends and neighbors read like patients in an at-large waiting room. Still a human being, he celebrates the simple moments of beauty and companionship—the long stretches of loneliness in life. He travels, reads, gardens.
In these better days, however, the gay lifestyle is not the forbidden (and, therefore, "compelling") subject matter it once was. Not engaged in with reckless abandon, it is just another detail of another normal life (the same qualification applying, of course, to the straight lifestyle). Regardless of Peter Pereira's considerable talents, the poems of the final two sections occasionally suffer from the standard problems. Among the hundreds of volumes of poetry published each year are thousands of descriptions of sex. Pereira's discretion marks him out, in this regard, but not so much that his do not blend into the deluge of such intimate details with which a reader is overwhelmed. His gardens are beautifully described but blend into ten thousand gardens. Flower names are felt to carry far more weight than they do. The successes continue while the overall level of the poetry is below that of the first section.
So then, what is striking is the chaos of the world within which he must seek his happiness—the euphemisms family members use to explain to themselves and to others that he is gay. In "Kafka's Grave," the poet puts his little nephew to bed:
It's uncanny the resemblance
between this child and myself; a stranger
would think he was mine, yet
I'll surely never be called father
or husband by anyone in this life—
as his grandfather blithely explains:
Your uncle's the artistic type.
The interplay of characters and thoughts here is remarkable. The line break at "stranger" is so ambiguous, in the positive sense of the term, that an exceptional bit of poetry rises to the level of the unredactable. Every life choice—or compulsion—involves loss, and the reader comes away from this with a profound sense of empathy.
There are many uncommonly deft small touches throughout Saying the World. In the poem "In August, My Sister," the symbol of "our semen, translucent/on my belly" is quietly tragic. In "Pas de Deux"—about applying the Heimlich maneuver to a choking friend—Pereira has the remarkable self-discipline not to waste time and impact describing the friend. There is only "scarfing scrambled eggs and toast" and a conversation suddenly ended with "your mouth making a mime's O." The images are all carefully dissonant and the sense of the ludicrous—"our bodies in a bunny hop" and "you bent forward, as if to take a curtain call"—is something that few poets could carry off.
Peter Pereira being a doctor, it is only natural that comparisons have been made to William Carlos Williams. The resemblance ends there, however. There is none of the experimentation, the Imagism, the faded wallpaper effect of Doc Williams in Doc Pereira. Nor is there the sense of political and economic injustice so common in Williams. Pereira could no more write "The Yachts" than "The Artist."
Even being a doctor is a profoundly changed experience. The general practitioner doing house calls with his little leather bag has long disappeared from the field—along with his perspective on the world. The poet as esthetical pioneer has largely disappeared for the present, as well. Pereira tells a compelling story in the common tongue—and he tells it well.
Saying the World was chosen by Gregory Orr and Sam Hamill for Copper Canyon Press's 2002 Hayden Carruth Award. Orr and Hamill are names we have grown used to associating with an unusual level of success, and they enhance that reputation with this book. With it, Copper Canyon Press has added yet another exceptional title to its already impressive list.