It’s a truism that books come from other books. Shakespeare, for instance, borrowed storylines from classical antecedents. In the hands of a good writer, such appropriations become original works in their own right. I’m thinking here not only of Shakespeare’s plays, but of such brilliant latter-day adaptations of them as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Aimé Césaire’s post-colonial version of The Tempest. Sometimes, however, adaptation takes on a parasitic tinge, either trivializing or leaning too heavily on the source material. Harold Rhenisch’s Free Will belongs, unfortunately, to this latter class…
His “freeing” of Shakespeare takes many quite arbitrary liberties, as for example in the five “Uncollected Sonnets of Mr. W.S., Translated from the English.” These aren’t true sonnets, but 22-24 line poems in couplets, brought “into the world of prime time sitcoms and cop shows.” Why Rhenisch has opted for this gimmicky transposition is not clear (except perhaps in his credo that “Randomness … is all”), but the mere fact of it is not the greatest fault here. Rhenisch is in some ways true to the gaminous spirit of Shakespeare’s imagination, but he would do well to learn something from the Bard’s mastery of technique. One of the useful things about the sonnet form is that its tight constraints force a poet to be concise. Rhenisch’s quasi-sonnets, though not long per se, are rhythmically slack and padded with prosy phrases and inconsequential details. Rhenisch unwittingly casts himself as Polonius in this book; his delivery is often prolix and awkward (“all the symbols of a life now passed/we cannot find our way to down any hall.”) and this reader started to feel as though he was serving “a sentence/in a syntax that would not end.” Several poems running from 60 to 135 lines should have been trimmed for the better of poem, reader and forest alike; we are also treated to no fewer than “Seventeen Stagings of a Play Within a Play.” Especially interminable is a section of poems imagining 10,000 monkeys at 10,000 typewriters; a clever idea with a few bright spots, but beaten to death by Rhenisch’s infatuation with his own cleverness. The vast majority of this book is essentially light verse, only its levity has been lead-shod by its author’s reliance on prosy vers libre for its vessel. Occasionally, Rhenisch does display sensitivity to the expressive potential of rhyme (“There is a pounding on the lid,/from inside out./A trout, you think,/my god, a trout!/ It rills and trills,/a thin shrill voice”), but he is never able to maintain this kind of energy through an entire poem (his “Ballad,” though it rhymes, is metrically flatfooted), and he becomes downright boring when he shifts gears from quirky weirdness into a more serious mode, as in “Gertrude’s Version.” All in all, this book is a negative lesson that in poetry free will is hazardous if left unchecked by the brakes and counterweights of discipline.
Winner, Critic’s Desk Award for Brief Review in 2006
review appeared in Arc 54, Summer 2005
award announced in Arc 56, Summer 2006