Reviewed by Marion Stocking in The Beloit Poetry Journal
Vol. 55, No. 1 & 2 (Fall/Winter 2004/2005)
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A very different poet-centered book is John Canaday's The Invisible World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002, 66 pp., $16.95 paper). Like Nikolayev, he is drunk on language, not only English (lagan, clypeal, carnallite, mondaines) but enough Arabic to require a glossary. Like Hoagland, he translates the self into verse through the medium of a disarmingly self-conscious sense of humor. There the similarity ends. Canaday's book is an account of a year in Jordan, either "tutoring the children of American expats" ("Entrée") or, according to the bio on the back cover, "tutoring the children of King Hussein and Queen Noor." Royalty (or indeed students) are not mentioned in the poems, which record encounters with a memorable cast of characters, mostly Muslim men. As a storyteller, the poet admits to a faux self, and I have to admit that even when I suspect I am being manipulated, just as the poet was manipulated by a native acquaintance, he proves so spellbinding a narrator and so skillful with sensuous detail, I hang on every word. I am also seduced by the prosodic skill of these poems: blank verse, heroic couplets dropping off into free verse, a ghazal, slippery rhymes, and WCW's triple-step dance. Although I'm a sucker for such prosodic virtuosity, on first reading I hardly noticed the texture, rushed along on the current of the narrative. Right in the middle come fourteen pages of a mock-Dantesque expedition, "Impostors," in colloquial terza rima. Canaday's Virgil, an acquaintance named Ghazi, entices the poet to his home, where he and his henchmen strip their guest to his jockey shorts, costume him as a sheik, and pile into his rented car for an outing. The fastidious New Englander, too polite to resist, allows himself to be led on an expedition through a comic hell, each circle more unpredictable, more humbling, than the last. When the poet finally relaxes into a comfortable companionship in a pool at the top of a waterfall, a vision of Dante appears:

                                  I'd almost swear
he spoke then, in the voice of a Bedouin:

"Get up now. Even in your underwear,
you're still a tourist in this life; your art,
like mine, rests in not resting anywhere.

No Paradiso in this Commedia. The poet later makes a Biblical pilgrimage, having

driven up the Jordan Valley road
to look for Jacob's oil-soaked pillow stone,
the pillar he'd erected like a . . . well,
a finger pointing out the path to God.

He is rewarded, it would seem, by another vision, this one grotesque—an oracle from the mouth of a dead goat. "Doubt is the angel of our time," he muses, but concludes, "Why doubt the goat could speak? You heard yourself / the dead words whispered in your inner ear."

Although the subject of this book is the poet's groping to experience and understand a strange place with its strange culture, its true content is an adventure in self-exploration. In a prose paragraph within a poetic sequence ("Shit"), Canaday acknowledges the premise of his writing: "Because language is metaphorical, the self can be seen as separate from the seeing. Language provides a space outside the self in which the self performs." Exactly right.

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