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Those Godawful Streets of Man by Stephen Bett reviewed in Pacific Rim Review of Books (10th Anniversary Edition)

  

Those Godawful Streets of Man by Stephen Bett 
reviewed in Pacific Rim Review of Books (10th Anniversary Edition)
Reviewed by Richard Stevenson


I love what Stephen Bett is doing with language in his latest opus. I call it word jazz: poetry generated as much by sound association as image association; what Charles Olson called Projective Verse—proprioceptive poetry that lives in the moment and leaps playfully through word association nets not so much to create a thing, as to arrest the movement of the mind as it moves through microcosms and macrocosms of the cityscape, reflecting on and refracting what the poet finds.

Let me lay my cards out. I’ve been in a long love affair with English language haikai poetry (haiku, senryu, tanka, kyoka, zappai, renku); Kerouacian “pops” and Ginsberg’s “American Sentences”; trad to avant garde ‘ku; imagism; found poetry; realist and neosurrealist styles. So, after a bout of jazz poetry and performance in homage to Miles Davis, and performing cryptocritter/alien poems at kidlit conferences and local bandshell/gazebos (Frank Zappa for Tweens) with my jazz/rock troupe Sasquatch, I’ve been getting low and digging wit, irony, humour, epiphanies, bumper snicker spam-ku, scifaiku, for a good ten years or more.

Hence, I love the paradox of the so-called “wordless poem,” erasure, minimalism in all its modes, modern and post-modern. Bett’s his own man here. He’s absorbed the lessons of Donald Allen’s New American poets—the Objectivists, Beats, Black Mountain, New York and San Francisco schools, etc.; the Canadian Tish poets’ experiments with vernacular phonological phrasing in open form; the studious avoidance of the “burnished urn” Modernist reliance on myth, metaphor, and intellectual conceits, dense allusion, tight boxed containers.

Not that Bett’s poems aren’t marvelously allusive; the bric-à-brac of pop culture is all here: movies, cell phones, the Web, selfies, Tweets and all manner of squawks from the Interface. But there is nothing overtly confessional and the stitches and strophes are as comfortable and companionable as a Tetley Tea bag or
new silk pyramid of the latest craft tea. The allusions are to pop culture events: post-modern texts, not obscure texts. The reader is invited in—to squalid coldwater flats of yesteryear newly converted for the addicted and down-and-out of the lower east side of Vancouver, with sparking bare wires spitting between poles, maybe—but, no matter: the urban experience touches everyone and the reader will supply his or her own meta-narratives where the minimalist directive of the poet’s overarching narrative allows.

This is minimalism for readers who like their poems fat: rich, but sans impasto or ornament. A book of raw wire in the city: edgy, tense, sharp, angular, dangerous— in the electrified, computerized grids of cityscape we inhabit, and in the boxes we place each other in and peer out from; pole to pole down the dirty low-rent boulevard, in back alleys, out to suburbia, as we attempt to touch through wires and wireless interfaces, en face, live and in person in an age of celebrity cast-off culture and relationships.


At the heart of the book and appearing late in the accumulating narrative—the overall alienation we 21st-century zombie citizens feel facing globalization and its feral children—is the story of a dissolving relationship, the man too earnest and accepting; the woman raging and fading into madness. But nothing is cloying or mawkish or sentimental, or even confessional; instead we shift easily from a sort of Special Victims Unit episode of macro family skeleton news:


Then there was cousin
Billy (Edinburg)
down the shop for smokes
Wife and baby daughter
at home for five
minutes


READ THE WHOLE REVIEW in the Pacific Rim Review of Books (10th Anniversary Edition)

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