1.

Trapped in Montreal one winter night, John Ashbery, Ambrose Bierce, and Ethan Coen rented out the brain of Gabe Foreman to produce the pretty-witty A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People. It’s cleverly alphabetical. Genres are parody-checked (a Coleridge with marginal annotations, a Mad Libs poem, and – fittingly enough for our Generation PowerPoint – a piechart divvying “Bad Apples” into Average Dudes, Jerks, Jerks, and Jerks). There is a narrator who occasionally allows himself the first person – he lives, it appears, in suburbia, is oft disappointed in love, and knows that we are going to die. Formalism allows for well-constructed complaints against the universe:

the fact that you got dumped

on your anniversary means nothing to the cops

kicking at your office door. Life is not that fair.

When hinge and lock implode, you’re not there.

The pseudo-encyclopedic anthropology allows for surprising observations. Kleptomaniacs goes like this:

As long as you keep an open mind

about the thing you seek,

it’s always in the first place you look.

It’s in the second person, of course. The reader: you or me.

It’s all worth reading. I laughed and thought, dipping my dipper into this shining well. It’s a Kuriosenkammer with a host I hope to spend more time with. Strong feelings were not awoken. Who knows whose fault this is – maybe mine.

2.

Those who reinvent themselves as ethnopoets envy those with a culture that crouches in the guts from the very moment of birth. Ishion Hutchinson was born in Jamaica; his multi-layered, deeply textured Far District chronicles the voyages of a boy becoming poet and immigrant even before he leaves his home country. There is much to admire here and I’m not done with the book yet. In the first few pages, the jewel New World Frescoes is cut to a known pattern (I am sure Derek Walcott has been here before) but placed in a setting all its own.

To paint the great frescoes of the new world,

he uses the woods and the hills for saints,

local dirt unnamed by Adam, its faint,

fecund sex breeding yams; the holy word,

 

a mitred worm holing to the island’s

sulphorous heart where aboriginal deities

sleep another century, worrying volcanologists

who study in mists the peaks of the Pitons.

His preoccupations are mirrored in these verses: the speaking, living, breathing-breeding genus loci, the foreboding divine. (To be honest, I don’t think “study in mists the peaks of the Pitons” is too subtle here by any rate…)

3.

So there is Canadian anthropology of the wit (part of Foreman’s charm is his north-of-the-border exotica – one poem is called Jumping the Queue) and Caribbean anthropology of the apotheosized volcano.  The comparison is unfair. But here they are, both books, in my bag. What else can I do but compare them?