Friday, February 15, 2008

Unsettled Review

John Mutford has posted a review of Unsettled on his blog, along with a sharply chosen soundtrack to accompany the book. Nice to still get the odd word about the book more than three years after its publication. John, being an Iqaluit resident and an employee of the very airline I worked for, has some insights not many other readers would have. And he got the "hydroponic cucumbers" reference in "Nomads"!

I won't say much about the review, since silence on these matters is almost always the best policy, but I will answer his complaint that there's no glossary or notes page. I thought about doing this, but decided against it. An early self-published chapbook version of the book, In Exchange for a Piece of Rock, has a pretty extensive notes section. But since doing that chappie in 2001, I became annoyed with notes in poetry collections. I figured that this is strange territory (hence my epigraph from the Book of Exodus, "I have been an alien in a strange land") and the odd arcane detail or piece of foreign language should be left unexplained. When you wander in a foreign city, you don't have a historian hovering over your shoulder explaining each new thing you see--unless you take one of those annoying guided tours. When you make a new friend, that person doesn't reveal everything about herself right away--nor even over the course of a life-long friendship--but through long-term acquaintance you come to know her well.

Most of the things left unexplained in the book are available to the assiduous reader. John cites the specific case of "maqtaq," which appears in my poem, "Bowhead." As he says, I think context gives a pretty good idea of what this mysterious and malodorous substance might be. Consider also this news item, available to anyone with access to Google (I think that might actually be the whale that inspired the poem; the timing's right). Granted, it's a Nunavut newspaper, but still, there's no explanation of what precisely "maqtaq" is. Trawl a little farther on Google, and you'll find this item, which offers a definition.

Part of a poem's reader's work is ferreting out unfamiliar references. I have no great fondness for poems so clogged with such allusions that the plain everyday sense of the thing is impenetrable on a first or second read. But I also don't like it when the odd indecipherable moment is explained by the author, either in the poem itself or, slightly less bothersome, in notes at the back of the book. (And the problem is, once you start annotating, where do you stop? How much obscurity is prerequiste of a note? In a book like Unsettled, rife not only with localisms but also with literary allusions, a notes section could easily run to ten or twelve pages.) Once the poet has finished writing the poem, the balance of the work has to be done by the poem's readers--should they feel so compelled. Some of those readers might be scholars, who will gloss the allusions a casual reader might not get; but if that casual reader is reading the scholarship, it's a sign already that they've found the poem worth diving into. A poem is like anything else in the world we come upon; it stands or falls as it is and if it needs guywires or buttresses to keep it upright, it's probably better just to let it collapse. For me, providing a note is holding the hand of the reader too much, and potentially depriving the reader of the pleasure of seeking out those answers on their own. I know I personally love the "eureka!" moment when a long-mysterious allusion in a poem I love comes clear to me years after first encountering.

Anyway, that's my justification for leaving things unexplained, and I'm stickin' to it!

1 comment:

Lynda said...

I agree with your position, Zach, for all the reasons you cite; all the same, I would argue for notes (without that being a criticism of your choice not to include them).

Why? Readers new to poetry might find poetry more inviting with at least some endnotes (foreign phrases and the like, but not every allusion -- that would be silly).

Though people can Google almost anything now, there are still numerous readers without technology to access that perfect word chosen by the poet. Notes allow them a speed-efficient means to check what they need to know.

I usually read end or foot notes (sometimes thoroughly, sometimes not) when they are provided; however, I have also enjoyed it the other way even though it wouldn't have been my first choice. (But then, I'm a reader who -- horrors! -- reads the ending of a mystery novel before I start it, though I never shake or peek my at my Christmas presents. Just so you know what you are dealing with.)

The clincher for me is this: When notes are provided readers have a choice. (The reader who wants it to dawn years later doesn't have to read the notes; the one who wants the answer immediately merely needs to flip.) If they aren't given notes, they don't have that choice.