Publishers say the darnedest things. Steven Price’s new book is a “revelation” in which “every page astonishes.” Must a book be a revelation in order to succeed? I sometimes wish we could deescalate the tone around book promotion. That said, Price’s new book actually is revelatory in a St. John-esque, or perhaps Jungian, kind of way. An unexpected imagination lurks here, reaching up from a macabre soup of the unconscious; or better put, as Johnny Cash sings it, I see a darkness. For instance:
The weed is dark inside and wetbrained.
All night drifts down cold waters,
lolls like a child’s skull in the swells
then washes up here: unboned eelthing,
stiff searoot, tough resined tentacle
risen from what brackish dream.
What rough beast, indeed. This is a poem about bull kelp, by the way. Thankfully, the poet had the sense to call the poem “Bull Kelp,” just so we wouldn’t wonder, and the title anchors our attention nicely. And not to be outdone, here comes another bit of west coast iconography, the arbutus tree:
were given shape would it grow like this
in horror of limbs, and headless—
Abruptly up to gripped rock it
gives, groan on ingrained
groan, it writhes, waterworn and weathering
the weather of its own wood
while the shelf of the world shivers.
What’s new here is the way Price blends such iconic west coast nature imagery with such dark mythos. The Anglo-Saxon consonance wraps (raps?) the poem in a queasy mystical sensibility; it feels like poetry to me. Perhaps I’m not “astonished” by every page, but clearly the poet is astonished by his subject. There is an adept awareness of the sound of words, and his imaginary is brimming with coastal existence: “you unfold both fists in the charred coastal dusk, watching / a white chill krill across their skin.” Also, “The night oysters in tight around her. Colder black winds shoal hard her latched gate.”
But something more ambitious powers the book, and this is where I’m less certain. The book references folklore (Gardeners’ Curses and Curses of the Blind), myth (Icarus and Orpheus), literature (The Inferno and Dr. Johnson), and even Greek tragedy (there is a lugubrious chorus that pipes-in at regular intervals). But I’m not sure what this amounts to except the creation of a mood. If Price had left out his amorphous and more abstract Greek chorus, for example, the book might have been just as successful. This focus on mood makes me wonder if Price has attempted to gesture at a great significance that isn’t actually present in the book. The book begins with a poem important to the theme entitled “The Crossing,” as of to mark a journey—“you carried Hopkins all though Spain, wanting to get closer to something. His dark Jesuit suffering”—and offers human elegizing—“We believe we are living one life and learn too late we have been / living another.” What the bigger something is, is uncertain. Although the book is jacketed with the significance of a long poem, it doesn’t quite achieve unity and actually seems like a collection of discrete poems to me. Nothing wrong with that; the poems stand on their own. The interjecting chorus makes me wonder if I’m missing the something (perhaps I am). This leaves the reader searching for a greater significance among the beauty and terror of Price’s vision, when, overall, the wilderness present in his language is enough.
Paul Tyler’s book A Short History of Forgetting (Gaspereau Press) won the 2011 Archibald Lampman award, and his poem “Mr. Doom” appeared in Arc’s children’s poetry issue. He lives in Ottawa.