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Ken Babstock, On Malice
Toronto: Coach House, 2014.

There is something extraordinary about Ken Babstock’s ability to infuse, appropriate and intermingle his own voice with other poetic voices, while at the same time remaining true to his own fancy. “Perfect Distant Blue Objects,” Babstock’s poetic response to William Hazlitt’s 1822 essay “Why Distant Objects Please,” is a poem with a great deal of energy, profusion and risk taking, cutting into the metaphysical task of poetry itself (“Camera in pen. Lens”, or “We are not separated, / we are beforehand”). Courageously, Babstock also takes on John Donne’s theological defence of suicide in “Biathanatos,” and includes an opening sequence of 39 sonnets called “Sigint” which, according to Babstock, “occur inside [an] abandoned NSA surveillance station on the summit of Teufelsbergand (‘Devil’s Mountain’) in Berlin.” Walter Benjamin’s archived records of his son’s language acquisition ‘occur’ in the same sequence. While Babcock appropriates these authors’ vocabulary and ideas, and in the case of Donne limits himself to the poet’s exact vocabulary, he also invents his own quite idiosyncratic style, which is for the most part readable, and enjoyable for the poet’s innovative use of grammar, structure, and personal tones.

With or without having read Hazlitt and Donne, Babstock’s book may come across as a tireless undogmatic philosophical approach to perception. The Babstockian narrative, for all its deeply structured networks of underground support, is broken down, sharp, jagged and terse, like shattered glass, a portrait of poetic thought at work inside a real person, with plenty of forethought and afterthought. Thoughts cut up and rebound together, visible poetic stitching, ladders of idiosyncratic repetition, allowing particular words to reappear in diverse contexts. “Between interests lie objects,” Babcock writes. The real relation, it would appear, is between poems, the object/subject of the poet himself: “Imagine lying between adventures / a strain in the interim.” What is a book of poems, I ask and answer in the same breath, but a man’s life? Naming and expressing the very one who lies between its words and pages.

Everyone thinks Lord in relationship
to animals. Relation to substance, perhaps, often…
as we say [Lord] again, facing southeast.
Where ribbons the peach and violet
meteorological summa. My form bleats.

On Malice is innovative, dense, decisively ambulatory, mindful, ambitious, personal, and strategically repetitive. Attempting to liberate himself from story, Babstock writes:

I meant to deny the work of order,
I meant to deny the the work of order
I meant to deny the buried in story,
I meant to deny the to contradict fire
I meant to deny the by loving a particular
I meant to deny the contempt.

In William Hazlitt’s 1822 essay the writer states “Distant objects please, because, in the first place, they imply an idea of space and magnitude, and because, not being obtruded too close upon the eye, we clothe them with the indistinct and airy colours of fancy…” In the same essay Hazlitt writes, “prejudice and malice constantly exaggerate defects beyond the reality.” Meanwhile, in “Perfect Blue Distant Objects” Babstock appropriates Hazlitt’s projected defect from the point of view of the objectified subject, characterizing his own poetic journey as a kind of between-space malice: malice because it is the sentiment that creates space between. Babstock writes: “juiced on malice. We are / what ignorance makes of a defective reality,” and a little earlier, amongst his sequence of sonnets he writes: “Suppose the weirdest bed is between / Heaven and Earth, and school / roams days between.”

Echoing Hazlitt’s theory of perception, Babstock shows how one’s sense of smell and sound and vision contribute to the perception and recollection of objects, including oneself: “Remembrance sometimes smells longer / than a chain of visible servers” or “When I smell that mind I want home” or “the smell of scarcity and perpetuation.” According to William Hazlitt “Sounds, smells, and sometime tastes, are remembered longer than visible objects, and serve, perhaps, better for the links in the chain of association.” Babstock fills these links by appropriating Hazlitt’s own text with surprising results.

 

Since 2013 David Swartz has lived worked and studied in Lisbon, Portugal. In 2014 his reviews and translations appeared in the Malahat Review, Vallum Magazine, Absinthe: A Journal of World Literature in Translation and the Prairie Journal. His co-translation of the University of Lisbon’s 2014 conference AND Painting: Questioning Contemporary Painting, will appear online this summer.

 

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