The So – Called Sonnets
By Bruce McRae
Silenced Press – $14.00
I was recently assigned to write a persuasive article on the validity of poetry. Persuasive in as much that poetry, unlike algebra and psychology, physics and media studies, is no longer taken seriously within the curriculum of learning. Where one even begins to embark upon such risible explanation, might, in assorted quarters, be considered an arduous and rather pointless task.
Like painting and to a certain degree, philosophy, poetry is one of the few mediums wherein the currency of modulation is without value. Anything goes. Anything is permitted. Anything that is, except for the duplicitous repetition of vacuity. Indeed, the potential of poetry’s virginal canvas is as provocative as the whole wide world itself – a world where entire platoons of literary oysters are to be caught and revered and devoured and pondered upon beyond resolution. Though even here, within the wide-open cathedral of contemplation, there may still be room for more.
Having reached the point where a kaleidoscopic collection of couplets beckon, there may still be a place from which to sanctify a cluster of souls from the premise of ones’ own truth.
These seventy-seven sonnets by the Canadian poet, Bruce McRae, is just such a place. A place where everything matters, and nothing but nothing is not as it is sequentially written. For such is the result of kloof induced wounding, (otherwise known as) the curse of poetry, it’s not often one stumbles across a writer whose sonorous substance, takes precedence over that of iambic pentameter.
So welcome to Bruce’s world: a place where everything is possible, just so long as you’re prepared to embark upon a syntax adventure of all things free of regulation and regularity. A place where all the dancing horses and juggling mermaids and ever-lasting shooting stars – will entice you unto a world of words, where political abstraction and social inhumanity, simply cease to exist (as the world is a better place without them).
By way of a fistful of home truths, and a combination of sharp-left/right hooks into the complacent face of ignominy and indifference, McRae writes with all the hyperventilating finesse of a stalwart poet, succinctly steeped in crystal candour. All topsy-turvy and upside-down and inside-out and outside-in, these sonnets are akin to a roller-coaster ride through the back pages of T. S. Eliot and Kathy Acker’s last chance meeting: razor-sharp sadness amid a waste land of lost souls one minute, trapeze like euphuisms amid the blood’n’guts of hit’n’miss reality the next.
Indeed, welcome to Bruce’s world – where Allen Ginsberg looks fondly over his own shoulder in the proud knowledge that ‘City Midnight Junk Strains (for Frank O’Hara)’ really didn’t go unnoticed after all. All hookah and hooker and honourable and hooligan and having lived a menagerie of lives in a menagerie of places (Niagara Falls, Toronto, London, Bristol, Vancouver), McRae’s vatic vision is inseparable from that of his own heart. So even though much of the work contained herein is counter-balanced by far more information than most of us could ever attain to comprehend, The So-Called Sonnets is one heartfelt, circumvolution of cryptic analysis and contagious beauty. The thread of which – while quintessentially s(t)eeped in tradition and (perhaps) schooled in suffering – is centrifugal to that of a linear incandescence.
In other words, within these pages lies an erudite contingency of nigh everything life has to offer. From love and lust to flags and flowers, from sex and snakes to pain and poetry. It’s all here – plus a whole lot more besides.
* * * *
While the trajectory of the language, for all its icosahedral and infinite quiddity of a kinematical persuasion, might be one thing; the sanctity of the poetry, for all its complicit and comprehensive understanding of the human condition, is clearly another. Yet as the twain continue to invariably meet, McRae is the first to desist the notion that poetry resides amid the dusty nonchalance of a mere after thought:
Everywhere the great poets are dying,
dropping like hints before a birthday,
like the mercury in a Siberian thermometer,
like concrete slabs from a highway overpass;
dropping like trousers at a military medical exam
or names among celebrities.
True to his word, design and his (and your) belief system – if such systems are ever truly aligned – here we have a writer who, luckily for us, shoots straight from the hip and the heart. In so doing, he simultaneously stings with all the chutzpah of a Viennese philosopher high on funk – replete with ablutionary hurt and melancholic mayhem.
In poetically deciphering a contingency of life’s hideous vilifications, varying strands of looming darkness are throughout, wholeheartedly addressed.
One such strand, being the elongated residue of society’s savage silence in relation to the politically correct, highly inept dogma of a freefall, broken civilization. A landed, seasoned, brain-dead gentry, immune to anything other than a knuckle-dusting lottery of a clockwork orange. All fist over communicative correlation, within a smattering/battering of jocosely placed teenage kicks:
Witness the removal of an apparent spine.
Strike a blow toward a bumptious rib.
Kick another hole in what purports to be a man.
This fever either kills or cures you.
The human rainbow, it requires rain,
it needs the sunlight tearing through us.
Death, it doesn’t touch me now. Nor living.
‘Death, it doesn’t touch me now. Nor living.’ Anaesthetised beyond redemption, these eight words are key to the sonnet’s provocative, existentialist stasis. So piquantly placed at the end of the nightmare, the end of the line, the end of the world, the end of civility (all of which we are so emphatically accustomed to both containing and flaunting) ensures there is nothing to be gleaned from such a persistent bloom of redundant youth. Nothing that is, other than a self-induced macabre resolution, the fever of which ‘either kills you or cures you.’ That’s it.
No futuristic flowers of opaline opportunity to be found in this particular garden. A barren expanse of defoliant complexity that only ‘requires rain’ and ‘sunlight.’ Which, as McRae purports, is just too much to ask.
That these particular shrinking violets, are doused in petrol and regularly ignited by a self-perpetuating media morass – more intent on pushing sales, hate and apathy, than peace, love and understanding – is no surprise. The petulance of rage (of which we are all capable) and the sting of hurt (of which we are all susceptible), stems from a tiny, tiny kernel of apathy, which, like alcoholism and drug-abuse, is chillingly addictive. The manifestation being, the countless sex grenades and myopic warriors of tomorrow’s fraudulent impregnation. A fallow, yet ultimately glutinous aberration of all that God has bestowed – as the initial seven lines of the above sonnet shows:
We have no belly for this kind of thing,
our hearts are white, we’ve the guts of kittens.
A hard wind blows from the mouths of babes,
even the messenger saying nothing, cowering
on the low steps of an unattended temple,
in floodwaters of apathy
fed one urinous drop at a time.
So regardless of how many goody-goody two-shoe politicians and hippy-dippy social workers continue to howl from the rooftops of oppugnant opulence; within the killing fields of ignorance, heroin hoodlums will continue to corroborate and kill at random. As what, in the switchblade light of day, is going to stop the opiates of malfunction from kicking one another to death?
Being ‘fed one urinous drop at a time on the low steps of an unattended temple,’ won’t do it. That’s for sure.
But true to his word, design and his (and your) belief system – if such systems are ever truly aligned – McRae appears to have lived several lifetimes of high-octane observation (over and over). All of which are conducive to the sanctity and the reality of poetry. Much of which ‘we have no belly for […].’ As unlike the current hip and glib and surely unsustainable perusal of highfaluting media studies – wherein the young and the (preferably) beautiful embark upon such solipsistic career paths as self-absorption ad celebrity infinitum – were poetry to be a tad more pronounced, a tiny modicum of melioristic thought, might, somewhere along the line, be allowed to breath.
If not truly prevail.
After all, if religion is the opium of the masses, then surely ignorance and celebrity cleavage is the morphine of the Western World. A dire and rather relentless state of affairs, all the more condoned by the sabre rattling empty heads of (disgusting) power and persuasion.
As such, the circus of life continues to run amok amid the hopelessly haphazard rainbow of pain, pathos and the pre-ordained complexity of denial:
The Dean networks with a phalanx of
agents, publicists, and very personal
assistants. Big lights cast big shadows,
give off more heat than light, illuminate
the constant bullroar. The graduates go
on to work in me-me-media. Their CVs
sexed-up, legendary, ghost-written.
…on the make, on the fake, on the nickel and most definitely on the take, ‘Cum Laude’ says far more about today’s morally bankrupt groove guns, than a plethora of vacuous documentaries and Reality TV shows combined. Yet within the ever so staid, crimson ideology of happiness indeed being a warm gun, here we finally find a poet with more than just a finger on the trigger. A writer of sonnets, who, although currently anchored way beyond the Rottweiler reach of the tempestuous spotlight, continues to refute the idea of pulling a quick one.
To be sure, such sham is invariably best left to the likes of the cloying lap dogs of considerable contempt: all slipstream’n’salacious’n’shallow’n’not a whole lot else to be honest. So roll over Grief Counselling and tell William Shakespeare the news. Even if poetry (in perpetual motion) isn’t always the answer we seek amid our moments of lamentation, its petals of enlightenment have occasionally been known to bequeath consolation amid the sadness. Be it at the pulpit of echoing heartache, or the death-drenched trenches of the recurring Somme. Be it the young policeman’s delivery of bad news in the middle of the night, or the lowering of a small baby’s casket into the cold, dark earth – poetry is capable of reaching out like nothing else on earth.
And those in need of a little tenderness could do a whole lot worse than embrace the veritable dignity, benignant delicacy and open-heart humanity, contained herein.
* * * *
By way of both frenetic and fideistic contemplation, Bruce McRae has transformed an otherwise hopeless and somewhat linear world, into a concord of quasi-abstract, regal possibility. Life is after all, far too complex and too beautiful and too harrowing and too confusing to be merely joined by numbers.
This may partially explain why the poet has ostensibly refused to deflect life’s punches, by way of fraudulent cooperation and cordial concordance.
He instead, invites the reader to enter a reflective and somewhat self-introspective process of pronouncement. He instead, opts to take life’s prism of counter-punches on the chin – much to the malignant chagrin of apprentice pretenders and all those who profess to being the real deal.
In and of itself, this is surely a mode of cultural, commendable behaviour, which, if nothing else, delivers these so-called sonnets unto a poet’s plateau of considerable depth, wit and discernment. For which read: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the translucency of society’s myopic endeavour(s).
Reason being, pain is always pain – regardless of constitution.
Having come to terms with, and ultimately overcome the decrepit virtue of social greed and misapprehension, may (by way of subliminal affectation) be partially responsible for having lured McRae into continuing bouts of inexorable literary liaison. He’s a humanistic sponge of vernacular observation and sensitivity. He’s in possession of having written somewhere in the region of over six hundred sonnets. This would suggest he is a veritable contender of the highest order.
A poetic pugilist – who can take a pot-pourri of punches, but land even more:
A braid of knotted horsehair,
and I waist-deep in my immodesty.
A suave sonnet socialist – who can defy all the disbelievers, but luckily, retain enough idiosyncratic innocence to continue fighting the good fight:
You could catch flies, a mouth like that.
You could fit your entire fist in it.
(Zip Your Lip).
A romantic terrorist – who, upon discovery, would sooner detonate life’s cancer, than embrace its trembling temerity:
snow as black as a miner’s lung
and flung from a brain-grey sky.
(An Empire In Ruins).
Many of these sonnets scream from within their own parameters of iridescent humility. Some enlighten. Others behold. Some invigorate. Others reveal. But never is there a foregone conclusion. Never is there a two and two makes four. Life just isn’t like that. Life, by way of immaculate emancipation, really is, quite something. Whether it’s George Harrison singing: ‘’something in the way she moves,’’ or American President, Barack Obama, proclaiming ‘’yes we can.’’ Life, for all its heartbreak and struggle, really, really is quite something.
It is this something, which The So-Called Sonnets fundamentally addresses.
Not only do these variations of volta, kneel at the altar of life’s circumnavigating enchantment. They understand it. They embrace it. They subscribe to it. They bow down to it. They respect it. All of which is far more than can be said for those who are paid vast amounts of money, to do nothing other than consciously fritter life away:
It’s nights like this I ask myself,
what is a flag? A fluttering
symbol of a nation’s amplified
psychosis. A blood-drenched rag
dipped at the passing catafalque.
A handkerchief to wave at the
soldiers marching off to war,
marching against human failure.
Concurrently tough and delicate, this gut-wrenching and immaculate piece of work, is thankfully, totally bereft of any crackpot, jingoistic sentiment. It is so utterly aligned with the beating heart of mortality; it’s nigh flawless in constitution.
The fact that the first line evokes ‘night’ rather than day, suggests turmoil. That the question ‘what is a flag?’ is immediately asked at the outset of the second (and therein equated with the word ‘fluttering’ at the end of the) line, further substantiates said turmoil. ‘Flag’ rhymes with ‘rag,’ but the difference is almost tantamount to blasphemous preponderance – especially when viewed through such an altruistic lens as McRae’s.
As for the rag in question, being merely ‘dipped’ into the ‘passing catafalque,’ suggests that ‘it’ is of far more importance, than the son or daughter, husband or wife, brother or sister, father or mother who lies within the coffin. Alas, the trajectory of grief pales into seething insignificance when placed alongside the importance of a flag – does it not? Thus being the case, explains why the rather odd, mouthful of a word ‘catafalque,’ appears where it does. Its poignant placing at the end of line five, expedites the ghostly, ghastly imagery of what is being conveyed.
The accumulation of which, amounts to nothing other than a mere ‘handkerchief to wave.’
By way of the word ‘wave,’ McRae’ manages to associate both flippancy and despondency with a subject, which might otherwise appear a tad too mean, (c)lean and controversial to be tampered with. Let alone addressed. A cheery, unknowing toddler waving a stick in the air with a piece of coloured cloth attached, is as inadvertently inflammatory as that of the bedraggled millions, passing beneath the words Arbeit Macht Frei.
If this weren’t enough, a fluttering flag of disregard also acts as a diversionary smokescreen, by way of which, society is condoned in behaving disproportionately naive. Does the term ‘soldiers marching off to war,’ not in essence, really mean: soldiers marching off to kill or be killed? Which, by way of the nineteenth-century hymn, ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers,’ was, probably still is, so joyfully sung by thousands upon thousands of chipper school children (the length and breadth of the western hemisphere).
Talk about ‘marching against human failure.’
Were it not for history repeating itself, one might be in the enviable position of being able to refer to McRae as a grouch of the day. A cynical sourpuss of the most disconsolate persuasion. As is, many might view him as a gun-slinging sage of the most considerate persuasion. One not too afraid to stick his neck nor his pen out – as is evident in the remaining, second half of ‘Flag.’
Run it up the pole and see who
salutes it. Use it for swaddling,
a bandage after an accident, to
mop the feverish brow of one
unwell. A thing to dry your hands
on after throwing in the towel.
Perhaps this altogether circumnavigating palette of ‘human failure,’ this acute ability to observe the everyday promotion of inhumanity and degradation, this most profound sense of his own place in the world, has enabled McRae to survive. To survive not only amid the madness and the pollution, the corporate saturation of artistic ingenuity, the drop-dead teasers, pleasers, tracing-paper minstrels, liars and town criers; but to (thankfully) remain inspired enough to bequeath an array of sparkling majesty upon oh, such an unsuspecting world.
So welcome to Bruce’s world: a place where everything is possible, just so long as you’re prepared to embark upon a syntax adventure of all things free of regulation and regularity. As the agglutination of McRae’s moral inclination and literary prowess, really, really is quite something