Saturday, November 21, 2020

Paul Vermeersch, Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020

            Before getting to these answers, I first want to compare Vermeersch’s unconventional organizational method to the traditional New and Selected. The convention of the genre is that poets order their poems chronologically by collection. With Vermeersch’s unusual approach, we do lose one feature of the customary method: the ability to track his development as a poet. We are not given the chance to chart the evolution of his work from narrative autobiographical realism (Burn, The Fat Kid, Between the Walls), to a more imagistic, inventive, and visionary mode concerned with the arc of civilization from its origin (The Reinvention of the Human Hand) to its collapse (Don’t Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something) to its reimagining (Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy). At the same time, though, we do not lose the more important feature of the traditional New and Selected: the opportunity to read exemplary poems by a talented, distinctive, and prescient poet.
This small loss, the capacity to chart Vermeersch’s evolution as a poet, is minor compared to what is gained through his unique approach to the New and Selected. Why, then, has Vermeersch ordered his New and Selected by idea and mode of expression, gathering the poems under new titles in alternate collections? What, exactly, is gained? (“Ships, Silences, and Sanctuaries: On Paul Vermeersch’s Shared Universe,” Daniel Scott Tysdal

I’ve been curious to see Toronto poet and editor Paul Vermeersch’s long-awaited Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020 (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2020), in part due to my ongoing fascination with selecteds, as well as my interest in seeing the overall framing of the work-to-date of a poet I’ve been following since before the publication of his first full-length poetry collection, Burn (ECW Press, 2000). I suppose one could say I saw a teaser for this new selected when I reviewed his self-published chapbook Further Communiqués from the Imaginary World (A Saint Bigfoot Book, 2019) [see my review of such here] not that long ago.

It is interesting to see how insistent Daniel Scott Tysdal is in his introduction that this book was selected, ie: rewritten and reconceptualized, by the author. It is reminiscent of another Canadian poet who insisted they rework their own selected poems, as Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall reworked threads and selections from the length and breadth of his own published work as well, to assemble, not a selected poems, but “a selected poem,” the collection Guthrie Clothing:The Poetry of Phil Hall, a Selected Collage (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015). Otherwise, it would seem any author would be too close to their own material to be trusted to assemble such a collection. Instead, Vermeersch has reframed and restructured his published work-to-date, both highlighting his more recent directions as well as repurposing earlier considerations, perhaps expanding upon what had always been quietly there. What is lost, as Tysdal asks? A progression, I suppose, although I would suspect that copies of all of his previous trade collections are still in print, so the opportunities for seeking out Vermeersch’s progress is easily enough done. What is, instead, gained? Perhaps a way for each individual poem to live outside it’s original book-length context, and, therefore, more on its own merit, as well as part of this broader context of his current, more expanded, thinking.

Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020 selects and reframes poems from his six published collections—Burn (ECW Press, 2000), The Fat Kid (ECW Press, 2002), Between the Walls (Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 2005), The Reinvention of the Human Hand (McClelland and Stewart, 2010), Don't Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something (ECW Press, 2014) and Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy (ECW Press, 2018) [see my review of such here]—as well as a handful of newer, uncollected poems into thematic sections: “Psalms for the Metaoccult,” “Apparatus and Procedures for The Imaginary World,” “Suburban Hauntology,” “Creatures of Another Ark,” “(Post)human Origin Stories,” “Required Modifications for the Transhuman,” “More Poems of Prophet and Clairvoyance,” “The Imaginary World is Now Available in Your Choice of Two or Three Dimensions” and “Quickly, Into the Lightverse!”

In a 2018 interview for THIS magazine, conducted by RM Vaughan, Vermeersch reveals that some of the poems that ended up in the collection prior to this selected, Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy, were composed prior to the publication of his first collection, as though his books, somehow, had to catch up to encompass the entirely of his work. As part of the interview, Vaughan describes the books’ section “Nu Rhymes for Nuclear Children” as “a selection of nursery rhymes imagined from a post-nuclear war childhood. They are blunt and scary, and almost read like placards or protest songs.” Vermeersch responds:

I started writing these nursery rhymes in 1995, and they never really fit in with anything I wrote until now. I think they were waiting for this book. They’re all about 20th-century tragedies like the Kennedy assassination or the election of Ronald Reagan. I wanted to update the concept of traditional nursery rhymes that were about horrible things like tyrants and plagues. When the rhymes were redacted with thick black lines to hide parts of the text, they were finally ready for the 21st century.

It is as though, until the publication of Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy, there was a thread of his thinking, and even his writing, that wasn’t being included in his published books; a thread that veered into darker material, reflecting a future closing in or already here. And yet, it seemed the prior collection, The Reinvention of the Human Hand, might have actually been the pivot: writing a tighter first-person exploration of narrative lyric in a linear direction established from his first two collections, but one that was less about storytelling and memoir than about ideas. Those five years between his third and fourth collection might have been important, allowing for a shift in his approach, and his thinking; one that began to formulate a poetic more in keeping with his broader engagements. As “Psalm 2,” the second of the triptych “Psalms of the Metaoccult” reads:

I stand upon a Hill. I stand and know everything
the Hill knows. Green’ry and contour of the land,
the ancientness thereabouts, the inscrutable green

filagree of Hill genius, and áll things. Unless,
it’s Geoffrey—[S T A T I C]—Then: I am dumb. I know

only the theme song to another century: the clank
of tournament | olden swag | secrets of Game

and Variety, Gong and Show, and as above,
the commercial geists of relative good versus

relative evil. O beloved Lyceum, what the fuck
is happening? The world will end on X-Day. Say it!
klaatu barada nikto! | Gét slack! | Ask yourself:

Is eschatology ever that precise? Is epistemology
really all that difficult? Damned if I know. Praise Bob.

Despite whatever interest he might have in the futures described by such as Gene Roddenberry, Vermeersch’s poems are aware of something else, something darker, more macabre. Incorporating nostalgic space imagery and ideas of the future from decades past against an encroaching dystopia, Vermeersch’s first-person narratives write from a semi-optimistic pessimism, a joyful darkness; the future is here, and it is not what we had been hoping for. Nostalgia is, as they say, not what it used to be. In an interview conducted by James Lindsay for Open Book, posted November 6, 2018, Vermeersch responds:

Ah, the world of tomorrow! I admit to having real nostalgia for the optimistic futurism of the Space Age: the world envisioned -- in the popular imagination -- by people like Buckminster Fuller, Walt Disney, Carl Sagan, and Gene Roddenberry: the jet packs, commuter rails and fantastic buildings of a post-capitalist utopia built on the principles of scientific and intellectual discovery. Are these are the dream cities that Jane Jacobs alludes to? I don’t so much long for those dream cities, though, as a time when people believed they were possible. I was born and came of age when the Space Age was already experiencing its downturn, and for the majority of my life, it seems like the dominant mode of imaginative futurism has been the dystopia -- from Mad Max to Blade Runner to The Handmaid’s Tale. We’re far more captivated, it seems to me, by humanity’s capacity for self-destruction, and I have to wonder if our appetite for cautionary tales, rather than aspirational ones, is a symptom of widespread societal regression or one of its causes. I’m haunted by the question: if we spent more time imagining a better world, would we eventually achieve one? It’s this tension between hope and setback that’s at the heart of my new book, I think -- looking toward the dream city while standing in the wasteland, uncertain if the dream city is real or just an image on a billboard.

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