The Visible Man

by Todd Hearon, Bostonia Magazine (Winter 2002)    [ Link ]

John Canaday swims into the sky of contemporary American poetry with this first book, trailing clouds of academic glory — the Academy of American Poets, that is, which last year gave The Invisible World the Walt Whitman Award. The book charts Canaday's travels in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, where he lived for a year while (among other things) tutoring the children of the royal family, and his return to his native New England. Many of the poems point to being "visible," then, in this added sense: a foreigner, his self-styled Holy Land-roving figure swerving between poetic "ambassador of sorts, / albeit penned in tourist class" and "post-imperial naf / in metaphorical Bermuda shorts." Throughout, Canaday exhibits both a developing connection to this new, Middle-Eastern terrain and a lasting communion with the old sod of American literary and religious tradition. (Seen this way, the "invisible world" is also the internal world of the poet's self.) Where else can you find a book of poetry these days dedicated to Jordan's King Hussein and Queen Noor, with an epigraph from Cotton Mather?

Perhaps it is natural that Canaday, finding himself in a cultural divide, instinctively reaches for metaphor — which Aristotle called an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars — making imaginative bridges for himself in a landscape dissimilar to anything he's ever known. The book veritably traffics in metaphor, is often consciously about metaphor-making. Consider:

And then the Six Days War spun Fortune's wheel
until its axle split. The metaphor
is mine, of course—an effort to bring home
the fat of their loss in a few lean words.
("A True Story")

But life is hardly ever like a poem,
until we dress our dingy, commonplace
experience in the exotic rags of metaphor.

No wonder we rely on metaphors.
Our deepest certainties are founded on
the rush of sodium along a nerve.
("The House of God")

The poems are often in allusive play with literary tradition. In the title poem, the poet steps out, lisping in Keatsian numbers:

One morning, when I fancied all the world,
from dewy sward to thorny spray, lay furled
before me, needing only proper words
said reverently to bare its pithy innards,
I walked into the desert, looking for
the choicest of great Nature's metaphors.

White space, then the bald: "The cupboard was bare." Bareness, however, becomes a boon to Canaday; in the desert places of his poems it registers a literary, even spiritual, ideal:

The scent of summer honeysuckle blinds
us to an everlasting emptiness
that mortal hunger only echoes. Praise
God for the deserts, famines, droughts with which
he seasons us when we wax fat. And bless
these vacant words as well. Inhabit them.
("A Fast of God's Choosing")

Those lines might have been spoken by Cotton Mather himself, or Jonathan Edwards for that matter. Canaday has gone a great distance to rediscover New England Calvinism. Or to return to Aristotle, perhaps it is the intuitive perception of similarity in cultures only ostensibly dissimilar.

Thus the typical Canaday poem unfolds. It is: 1. narrative, erected upon a scaffold of iambic pentameter (with refreshing exceptions — the ghazal, a Persian verse-form; some free verse); 2. rangy in diction, from vernacular to occult ("scram. No dice. / I'd hardly started feeding my own hunger / for the Orphic"), laced with Arabic terms (no fear: a glossary waits at book's end); 3. self-conscious linguistically, allusive as to literary tradition ("I'm no transparent eyeball: I see with / my eyes, not through them — pace Ralph and Bill" — that's Emerson and Blake); 4. thick, at times almost clotted, with metaphor.

This last feature seems at odds with Canaday's desired poetics of bareness, of desiccation. Yeats wanted a poem "as cold / And passionate as the dawn"; Canaday hankers after "a style / as clear and reticent as dust" ("In Situ"). Yet witness these lines from "The Empty Quarter":

The sun lowers its bucket,
though my body is the only well for miles.
A dropped stone calls back from the bottom
with the voice of a starving locust: Make it
your wish, habibi, and the rain will walk
over the dry hills of your eyes on tiptoes
as the poppies weave themselves into a robe
to mantle the broad shoulders of the desert.

Nothing empty about that. Even when Canaday denies a figurative dimension to the landscape in the book's title poem — "The cupboard was bare" — metaphors swell to the surface, bobbing visibly, as in the lines immediately following:

Each rock bobbed passively on the literal
swell of sunlight; each pebble and
every grain of sand

The world, "none-other-than itself," is here revealed — made visible — as something else entirely as we see rock and implicit cork bobbing in metaphorical tandem, as the "literal swell" of sunlight swells into a sea. The light of metaphor casts a shadow past the thing, granting it figurative depth; that double-self, both like and not, is the shadow-play of poetry. Canaday is to be applauded for his serious play; it's no mean feat to hold two cultures, disparate as loaves and fishes, in one net (metaphorical or otherwise). At his best, his net — the "invisible world" of words — holds up to us fresh visions of our world.

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