Sherod Santos in American Poet (Fall 2001)

If we think of translation in the broadest etymological sense as a form of travel—according to Webster's, the word comes to us from the Middle English, translaten, to transport"; and from the Latin, "translatus, made up by combining trans, ‘across' + -latus, ‘carried"'—then John Canaday's The Invisible World may be read as a kind of lyric translation of his richly internalized journey to the Islamic Middle East. Part travelogue, part cultural study, part spiritual autobiography, the metaphysical surge of its thinking flows like a watercourse through reflection, dialectic, meditation; and from its mock-Homeric "entrée" via a twenty-four hour flight to Amman, to the homebound "New England Ghazal" of its ending, its intrepid narrator keeps faith with the spirit of Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World: "I will venture to say thus much, That we are safe, when we make just as much use of all Advice from the invisible World, as God sends it for."

If Mr. Canaday's finely wrought (and decidedly God-haunted) attention proves a sturdy shelter against the perils that he encounters along the way, the "use" he makes of attention can also lead, like the insomniac's ramifying memory, to a self-excoriating wakefulness. As was the case with Baudelaire, Mr. Canaday is often tormented most by the very thing he disbelieves (or is it the thing he most desires?):

I would wager the silt and ashes of my flesh
for one glimpse of the withered pea
called faith. Here it is,' the dust cries,
and, yes, there it is, indeed, one moment, perched
like a pearl on a bivalve tongue,
or like a plastic Christ lapped in the crèche's
tinderbox of straw. I cup both hands
to my ears, wishing to drown out all sound
but this: the ocean murmuring its distant
heave and sigh, and in that slow, heavy seiche,
the camels, white as butter, and the goats
as they begin to speak.

As these lines suggest, Mr. Canaday has chosen to chart his course through the gulfs and abysses of a world which lies somewhere between Eastern mysticism and Western skepticism, between language and silence, self and self-annihilation, art and the chaos of random events. Characteristically, these antinomies converge in the "matter" of a mute particular—in this case, a beautifully modulated apostrophe on "stones":

Yet how to name them? How convey the fact
much less the substance of their mattering?
Sometimes language is a rich oasis,
sometimes a desert, where my mind repairs
and, willy-nilly, speaks itself in fits
and starts. I watch the random glyphs and sounds
fall into place as if of my free will
and grammar's sweet, pervasive eloquence,
in much the way (I trust) that quarks and leptons,
atoms, gravel, hills-our minds themselves-
have coalesced out of the tendency
of things. But am I merely tendency?
Or can I translate thought to action, find
originality in pattern, read in brute
experience some semblance of a self?

The adroitness with which Mr. Canaday records his journey is borne out in the range of literary devices he enlists along the way. In how many other first books these days are we likely to find a poet who is willing to cast an extended narrative in terza rima? Who feels secure enough in his or her materials to engage in metaphysical (or, as the case may be, metaphorical) debate with Dante, Stevens, the angel Gabriel? Who is sufficiently self-aware to deflect his soberest instincts with some wayward irony or epigrammatic sting? The demands of his subject and the range of his technical and intellectual skills are all the more impressive when we stop to remember—for rarely does the writing remind us to—that this is a first book of poems. With The Invisible World Mr. Canaday makes a remarkably accomplished debut.





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