Guest Review: Begnal On Wayworn Wooden Floors

by Mark Lavorato

As many do, when a work by a writer previously unknown to me crosses my desk, I read the blurbs in order to get a sense of context.  When I was asked to review Mark Lavorato’s poetry collection, Wayworn Wooden Floors (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2012), I learned from the back cover that these “frank and thoughtful poems” would be “penned in accessible, unpretentious verse, which is as clear as it is varied in form, tone and vantage”.  What, though, does this really mean?  What is inherently valuable about poetry that is supposedly “unpretentious”?  With a number of notable exceptions (Bukowski being one example that comes to mind), I have to admit that I’m not always that much of a fan of “accessible” poetry, anyway.  Accessibility, important when the rhetorical moment calls for it, is not an inherent virtue.  Accessibility is also subjective: what is difficult for one reader may not be for another.  Personally, I tend to like poetry that forces me to do a little bit of work.  Not that poetry should be deliberately “inaccessible” — again, such a question of comprehensibility will depend on the contingencies involved in such considerations such as the process of the composition and audience.  And for that matter, poetry or language that might initially appear straightforward can often be deceptively complex (take William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”, for example).  But when poetry such as that in Wayworn Wooden Floors seemingly wants to pretend ignorance of certain formal developments in the field over the last hundred years or so, its stated subject matter of “the tragedy and the comedy endemic to daily existence” does little for me.

Certainly, Lavorato is sincere here.  As he writes in “The Shades of Your Black”, an ode to a crow, “all I want/ is what you have/ freedom so pure it’s invisible”.  But is it possible, in the aftermath of postmodernism, to convincingly put forward poetry that “reward[s] readers with poignant, emotionally genuine vignettes” (the back cover again) without at least some awareness of how the medium might skew the author’s attempt at “genuine” emotion?  The poet and critic Johannes Göranson, for one, would say no.  Writing on the Montevidayo blog about “the new sincerity,” he recently averred,

One part about this rhetoric of sincerity that really makes me resist it, it’s the way it seems to remove the troubles of language. . . . Another thing I dislike about the sincerity discussions is that they seem to be kind of normative.  People are sincere when they write poetry about a certain — acceptable — range of emotions. I.e. you’re sincere when you’re kind of sad, or kind of funny. . . But the second you get too intense, perverse, ludicrous etc you become somehow insincere. . . . This leads to boring poetry that feels very restrained to me, poetry that seems involved in a humanist idea of interiority.

Now, there’s probably more that could be said about “sincerity”, but I understand where he’s coming from on this.  I do also think, to go further, that it’s eminently possible for an awareness of the limitations of language and a desire for sincerity to play off of each other and for these different impulses and awarenesses to coexist in a successful work of art.  In their essay “Notes on Metamodernism”(2011), Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, while among the voices sounding the death-knell of postmodernism, allow that the metamodernist paradigm that now supersedes it moves between different poles: “metamodernism oscillates . . . between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, . . . unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity. . . . One should be careful not to think of this oscillation as a balance however; rather, it is a pendulum swinging between . . . innumerable poles”.  Thus, a possible weariness with “postmodern irony/fragmentation” does not mean one has to (or can) dispense with the awareness of language as a medium.

The only thing is, it doesn’t appear as if Lavorato in Wayworn Wooden Floors is very much aware of this ongoing conversation at all.  Whatever about a “new sincerity”, he seems never to have questioned the “old” one.  While the poem “Recordar” eschews stable truths and end with the lines, “Every word ever written/ is a fiction/ Necessary, pulsating, wondrous/ fiction”, the implications of this are not acted upon in most of the rest of the collection.  “Camino de Santiago”, about the famous pilgrimage route, aims to impart some deeper meaning but ends with a cliché: “It is the miles we amble/ not running from anything/ not searching for anything/ that we find”.  Elsewhere, insights are baldly stated, where they might instead have been implied through the often skilful work of the poem itself.  For example, “Harbour Seal” is rife with engaging imagery, but the need to then deliberately, overtly explain the meaning of this encounter between man and seal (“I thought about the exchange. . .”) left me feeling underwhelmed.

Any book review is subjective, obviously.  I’ve put my cards, or at least some of my own present concerns about poetry, on the table, as much as I can in such a short piece.  Perhaps those with other concerns (or none at all) will be able to read between the lines if they wish, because as much as I find aspects of this book problematic, it is not to say that it lacks merit.  This is the début collection of someone who the biographical information suggests is primarily a novelist.  His powers of description and his obvious facility with words serve him well here, from a “desert of saturate light” (“Swallow”) to the “Sun dangling bald from an unseen wire, gestapo-bulb sway” (“Ninth Street North”).  And who is to say that there aren’t readers out there who simply look to poetry to touch them on some common, comprehensible (“accessible”), quotidian (“daily existence”) level?  The argument is often made that the “difficulty” or “obscurity” of much contemporary poetry is what has led to its marginalization.  I don’t think it’s at all as simple as that, but perhaps for many this is true.  If Wayworn Wooden Floors is somehow able to reach a wider audience than the dwindling one that “experimental,” “avant-garde” or “other” poetry has supposedly been reduced to, if it can touch the broad swath of people that the phraseology of its back matter suggests is its goal, then I would certainly be happy for it.
Michael S. Begnal’s new collection is Future Blues (Salmon Poetry, 2012).