What’s In Store by Trevor Joyce
(New Writers Press / The Gig, Dublin, Ireland / North York, Ontario, 2007)
It’s impossible to read Trevor Joyce’s poems without being intrigued by their combination of formalism and lyric power. Each poem can be seen as a kind of latticework or trellis, in which lines often appear to be constrained by a systematic, yet variegated word and/or syllable count. Whether this is done consciously or not, I am not sure. Each line or group of lines may be a self-contained perception, or, alternatively, a counter-reflection, counter-weight or counter-rhyme to another group of lines on the trellis. This technique allows Joyce to give a seemingly predictable surface a sudden torque:
it could not
had in fact
The “unidentified / vehicle” arrives in the poem as a kind of “spook,” a potential saboteur that betrays the apparently authoritative reportage of the news channels. The illusion of being in control as a reader/viewer is disrupted by the sudden appearance of this “unidentified” force.
When I asked Trevor in an email about his formal intentions he moved my sense of intricate forms to a larger, structural level:
My own view of them, both in the initial writing and in the overall organization, was as rhymes of different sorts: phonetic, conceptual, structural, thematic, etc., etc…
Without asking, from reading the book closely, I am sure he means “rhymes” of a variety of sorts – slant, off, or just down right contrary. Whatever the specific process involved in a particular poem or series, his subversion of forms has the effect of an enormously compacted playfulness that functions on several different levels:
Hey, brown-haired girl,
your bed looks wild,
and a brown-haired man
left his hat behind.
Hey, girl, fetch my hat,
fit it firm on my head,
so that bright moonlight
won’t dazzle my eyes.
The intense, contrasting rhythms, the individual words and lines create a variety of frictions, moving with a skittering quickness as one reads them. Bartok’s transformations of Hungarian folk music come to mind, or Charles Ives’ contrary, yet sympathetic re-interpretations of nineteenth-century American marching-band music. Indeed, many of the sequences in What’s in Store are counter-foils to snatches of folk tradition and anthropological and archeological lore drawn from the Chinese, Hungarian and Irish. Neither sentimental nor mimetic, Joyce’s arsenal of constraints and rhymes becomes a means of penetrating and exploring the suffocating crust of traditional formal devices and cultures. He can be as relentlessly impersonal with work that emerges from his own daily sphere. What is the intention? In my reading, the poems are intent on securing a space that is fresh and contemporary, while still bearing an echo of their original sources.
Throughout the book, these forms & re-workings vary from the hauntingly simple to the extremely complex. In some cases, such as the poem “Stillsman,” Joyce’s pages are thick with language – a relentless masonry wall in which texture is achieved by the correlation of stones of different textures, colors, shapes and implicit histories. At other times, the works fold out into a more relaxed, traditional lyricism. The variety of forms – either stretched or compressed – creates the impression of a poet who is relentless in his drive to explore the ways in which multiple constraints can compel the play of intelligence and imagination:
We, all impassioned
If not already
in a ruined
for the forms
of all familiar
(Page 170; translation from the Chinese of Ruan Ji)
Despite the formal variety, the book achieves a strong consistency of tone. Why do so many of these poems -- including those contemporary in reference -- have a ‘one step removed’ chill, even a hard-hearted sense of objectivity? Over time, modernism, science, and other utopian practices notwithstanding, the force of the fates appears not to have changed at all. In these poems, phantoms continue to threaten the collective and private psyche; courtships spin out of control, marriages falter, wars spread destruction, children disappear, someone’s death is always nearing, while strange, elusive, possibly threatening messages clamor from the edges of the darkness. Beauty – brief appearances of paradisiacal white birds, peacocks and liquid, transparent stone – is never less than transient:
The only order in the universe appears to be the order of song. Without song, one remains as vulnerable as ever. With these songs, however, we are given the rhythmic energy and heightened awareness that allow us to be -- at least, for the length of the song -- liberated from the burdens that inevitably bear down upon us.
The title of the book may be taken on two levels. “What’s in store” is what we each hold in storage in our lives -- our memories and belongings. It’s also what’s to come, in the sense of prophecy or fate. Yes, there is definitely a kind of blues here. No matter the dexterity of the poems’ formal inventiveness, things often turn out badly, or contrary to intentions. Yet, like all good blues, these poems are suffused with the optimism and joy implicit in of the acting of creation or listening (or both). Trevor’s lyricism and variety, his formal invention and sheer velocity, not to mention his sharp sense of humor, are a wake-up call, a joyous alarm to the living, a kick in the butt to the sleepers among us. It’s as if the work is saying the only way we will, at least briefly, get out of here alive is to make poetry, listen and, no doubt, dance to become a member of the race.
A longtime Irish acquaintance says of Trevor, “I love his recent work and think that paradoxically he only found a voice when he lost his own.” I do not know Joyce’s early work, though the comment’s suggestion is that it was, perhaps, overly self-absorbed, autobiographical and/or sentimental. Ironically, through various conceptual systems of constraints -- in the way of Oulipo -- the work has become familiar in the most public sense of that term. The writing’s obligation to arbitrary forms liberates the poem from autobiographical intention, while the poems themselves become a measure of a world ultimately and simultaneously much more personal and universal, tragic or comedic as that may be. That is not to say this book will make Trevor Joyce any more recognizable on the street, or anywhere else. But he has constructed poems that speak much more clearly to a shared condition of human presence.
Yes, I highly recommend What’s In Store. And would suggest that Trevor Joyce is one of most remarkable contemporary poets among us.
Stephen Vincent - a long time resident of San Francisco - is poet, essayist, bloggist, photographer, editor/publisher, teacher, walker, etc! He is the author of over 10 books of poetry, most recently the much praised Walking Theory (Junction Press, 2007). Vincent leads private walking and writing workshops in the Bay Area, as well as classes at the Fromm Institute (University of San Francisco) where he is a member of the writing faculty. His popular blog of commentary, photographs, poems, haptic artwork, and walks may be found at http://stephenvincent.net/blog/