Reticent Bodies, by Moez Surani
Reviewed by Ingrid Ruthig
New poetry collections lacking craft yet overripe with irony and self-regard are, sadly, ubiquitous. Conversely, those that do not trigger a chorus of snores or complaints are few and far between. That one of those ‘few’ might even sit a reader up straight in her chair, or tilt her perspective of the world, seems too much to expect. However, four years ago in Lichen Arts & Letters Preview, Toronto’s Moez Surani published work that hinted at a writer worth keeping an eye on. Now, his debut book of poetry, Reticent Bodies, shows that he has been honing an imaginative and imagistic use of language, as well as developing his own ‘tilt factor.’
The collection is comprised of four parts. The first section, “Kingston Poems”, leaps into the hyper-imagistic, using an epigraph snipped from Neruda’s “I’m Explaining A Few Things” as its gateway. With both stage and mood set, Surani’s “The Captain’s Garden” begins:
Carry myself across the library
hold open his volume
read and reread
as I revisit the line caught
in a pencilled circle and the tug
of a woman’s adjoining scrawl
This is what’s happened to us […]
Just as the late-night silence and “the tug of a woman’s adjoining scrawl” has “caught” the narrator, the tight focus and the mystery behind “what’s happened” catches the reader.
If well-crafted poetry demonstrates skill with form, music / play in language, and layers of meaning or mood, Surani has a good grasp of the tools of his trade. He captures singular moments like this first one, building a larger tableau, with poems that are not the long lyric. Rather, they lean toward pared-down necessary elements that work toward a flash of clarity.
The second poem, “‘A Quiet Man’”, attempts to recreate what photographer Eugene Louie (who is quoted at the end) failed to capture on film — the image of the Tibetan Thupten Ngodup, who, in 1998, publicly protested China’s occupation of his homeland by setting himself on fire. The result is powerful and painful.
Body expanding into bright rhythms
carrying the amorphous billow
spine flinging this way
and that loosening
minute bones that
slept within neck
a shrieking lamp
dancing in New Delhi
like a shutter
tip of pen releasing and
slamming back into case
Expanding and contracting on itself, the poem evokes sound as well as picture, and toward the end, echoes of Atwood’s hook-and-eye poem can be detected. The final five lines replay in the mind with a violence that’s difficult to ignore.
Throughout “Kingston Poems” Surani explores a variety of forms, lengths and situations. He examines and documents moments ranging from the contemplative (as in the first poem) to the revelatory (such as “Transit Friend”, about a fellow streetcar traveller) to the stenographic (“The Necessary Questions”, in which the poet magpies an overheard discussion between a writer and a reader). Striking images are plentiful: “All night // blowing rain // suicidal acrobats / weaving through high branches”, “His is a dignity I believe to be sewn into his chin”, and “leaving me / in my basket of laughter.” Even more tantalizing are glimpses of ‘off-the-wall’ set amid controlled intensity. The poem “The Missing Exchange” is a good example. It begins with the hilarious observation
It has occurred to me
that Jane Austen persistently avoids
talk of massive erections dragged
like luggage through the house […]
Halfway along, the comic shell of this piece cracks open — a reveal heightened by precision of word choice and uncomfortably placed line breaks.
There is never any rupture in the
manners that chain the air like
after shoving glares.
The frantic couple
and cartwheeling off together […]
This is now tragicomedy charged with the toll of emotional restraint, confronting the desperation of
[…] that reserved man
dragging himself from the kitchen
pulling free of his trousers
his pained whisper,
“Yes, my love.
I told you it was all in bloom.”
Then once again the mood modulates into “Several Idiomatic Demonstrations Of ‘Carbuncle.’” Multiple riffs redefine the word, egging on the reader to join in the fun. Something darker surfaces, but resubmerges too quickly to be identified.
Somewhere near Clarington, the engine began to carbuncle […]
When she drinks too quickly she enters that familiar carbuncular sphere.
“Breaking up with me because you hold some sort of grudge against
women for original sin is ridiculous — it’s a fucking myth — you get
angry for no particular reason and shut everyone out — “ “Carbuncle,”
he muttered, leaving the room.
The second section, “Fictions”, brings the reader to an interlude of sorts. It consists of two sequences that drop articles and dismantle poetry into a loose gathering of short lines and broken phrases. The first, “Ally Dolle” — with its mention of Etta James, 12-bar blues, and nightclubs, and its soundbite feel — evokes a bluesy, rhythmic mood that borders on the hypnotic, even though its narrative tends to the obscure. “White Tub”, the next sequence, slides into a more personal, almost hermetic space. “Some moods // cannot be re-visited with comedy / so they’re left to accumulate. / Tableaux of grim mannequins / figures stunned from dialogue.”
The final two sections, “Poems Against England” and “Reels of Joy”, have the feel of the unplanned roadtrip, with visits to allusive literary and global locales. Gravity and direction often seem relegated to the backseat, but the result can be amusing, as in “Packing For Montreal” where “the apples […] are upset that I am leaving. / They have been ignoring me.” The ride can also be intense — a trip to Moscow prompts ruminations on Anna Karenina, “men throwing themselves into trains” and “one / hundred sessions of rushed love.” And when the reader arrives at “ — The Last Poem / I Can Remember With Any –”, in which the narrator asks “What has happened / to Ondaatje’s Vietnam poem,” then goes on to describe “their pitch // irritating my slim glass my slim date / attempting casual gestures but // intrusive torso shoulders blocking / conversation then falls with the cloth upset // -ing soup and maitre d’ hand apologies / hauls away the exhausted // sack of hysteria and my girlfriend […]”, it is clear that language has stubbornly taken the wheel and a breathless, experimental momentum has been reached.
Throughout the book, epigraphs and allusions to the (mostly Western) canon testify to a string of influences — Neruda, Eliot, Flaubert, Rilke, Lowell, Kant, Basho, and numerous others. As with many first collections, they also signify the young poet’s literary rite of passage. While it is a natural and worthy progression, by book’s end the constant reminders of that journey can become tiresome. Twice “Was ist Aufklärung”, referencing Immanuel Kant’s essay of the same name, might sidetrack the unfamiliar reader off the intended trail. Eliot’s “Prufrock” resonates loud and clear within “How Do You Imaginate The Future”
Let us buy
a red boat
and push it
into bluest water.
The colours will be elemental
without doing anything astonishing to it. And the poem “Debt” is little more than a deep bow to Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” — the first two of its four brief stanzas are identical, and unfortunately, homage for its own sake is not enough.
The book’s second half is less compelling than the first. In part it’s due to a weakening sense of direction and weight. Poems here appear more anecdotal, less purposeful, and there is a perceived distancing from deep emotion. A sense of this is encapsulated in the poem “Realpolitik”: “I will not mourn the dying and deformed / because an idealist cannot be happy. / And I want to be happy.” The lessened impact also stems from the presence of a handful of ephemeral and unstartling pieces — for example, “Debt” (aside from its aforementioned homage), “Nocturne,” “Untitled 2,” and “Leonard Cohen” (more homage) — which simply don’t carry their weight in the grander scheme. As well, a few confounding semantic miscues — e.g. “what I have done is march my intellect in moods / across the length of a dime […]” and “[r]olling / and rolling in / cones of sleep” — fail to produce immediate, clear imagery. Nevertheless these remain relatively minor quibbles when looking at the whole and what it promises for subsequent collections.
All in all, Reticent Bodies is a heartening discovery, and each subsequent reading will yield a quiet pleasure. Just as his work four years ago suggested, Surani is a writer striving to express his view of the world in his own way, and he’s finding his ‘tilt.’ Readers will anticipate more.