Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

From Cold Mesmer to Spiral Agitator: Some Thoughts on Steve Venright

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Originally from Sarnia, Ontario, Venright moved to Toronto in the early 1980s. Since then, he's been producing poetry that explores what he refers to as “domains of existence vivid and compelling beyond even this miraculous reality we call the world.” Venright also happens to be one of my favourite Canadian poets— and he’s disastrously underappreciated. (That may be a cliché thing to say about any author, but that doesn’t make it any less true in this case.)

Spiral Agitator (Coach House, 2000) and Floors of Enduring Beauty (Mansfield, 2007) are works from what I’d call Venright’s mature middle period. In Spiral Agitator, for example, Venright distinguished himself from his surrealism-influenced peers in one key way: he’s far less skeptical of structuring a poem around repeated rhetorical and syntactic patterns.

The good news is the century is almost over.
The bad news is that another is about to begin.
The result is that there’s nowhere to hide. . . .

The good news is the government has fallen.
The bad news is that it has fallen on us.
The result is that everything will always be the same forever (not that it ever wasn’t). . . .

The good news is that the Kingdom of Heaven is within.
The bad news is that you can’t find the damn thing.
The result is that you will redecorate your apartment.

(from “The Long and Short of It”)

This sort of thing amplifies Venright’s social satire; it transforms invective into wit. Elsewhere, Venright uses rhetoric and syntax to push sense to absurd limits; however, he never submits to the egotism of meaninglessness. For example, here’s an excerpt from “The Unedited Word of God”:

For I say unto you: it would be easier for …

a camel to pass through the eye of a needle ...
an octopus to smoke a cigar ...
a hammerhead shark to win the Kentucky Derby ...
a garter snake to drive a cab through the streets of Dublin ...
a dwarf hamster to eat the Great Wall of China ...
an emu to cook a Spanish omelette ...
a pollywog to translate The Hunting of the Snark into Ojibway ...
a Persian cat to have sexual congress with a walrus ...

than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Ultimately, Venright is in a line of surrealism proposed by Breton but one not often investigated: that is, a surrealism propelled by “ridiculous formal justification.”

By contrast, with Floors of Enduring Beauty, Venright seems more interested in subjecting literary and popular genres— self-help, the epistle, the aphorism, the ballad— to his processes of “spiral agitation.” On the whole, the book is consistently marked by a philosophical bleakness, as illustrated by these selections from the poem “Distended Aphorisms,” for example:

There’s a time and a place for everything, but it’s not now and it’s certainly not here.

What goes around comes around, but don’t expect to get any of it unless you’ve already got too much.

The Lord works in strange and mysterious ways, but then so do serial killers and plumbers.

Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but death is a short certificate written by a sensible fellow with a degree in forensic pathology.

There’s an abundance of excellent work in Floors of Enduring Beauty, and I implore Open Book: Toronto readers to check out poems like “The Turbulated Curtain” and “Beautiful Thoughts.” However, there’s clearly one poem in the collection that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, and that’s the final poem in the collection, “Manta Ray Jack and the Crew of the Spooner.”

I’m on record elsewhere as saying it’s one of the best poems by a Canadian. EVER.

The prose poem is a ballad-like tale of an evening’s saturnalian romp in a lighthouse— lots of sex, farts, and overall scatological fun. And every sentence of the 21-page prose-poem includes at least one spoonerism. In addition, the poem is (to borrow a term used by Jed Rasula in the context of poetry) dysraphic. Venright supplements his verbal hijinks a la Archibald Spooner, Lewis Carroll, and Dr. Seuss with a translation of the poem in the most “practical language” imaginable. The top half of the page includes the spoonerist text; the bottom half of the page includes the literal translation. The former is a formal exercise in pure pleasure; the latter is a parody of reason.

Here is the poem’s second paragraph:

The focused light in the idle [lighthouse] tower shone with the intensity of a locust fight in the tidal hour. In its creeping beam could be seen, far below, a brash hick hawking his wares (a hash brick) while walking his hares, a mock duck and a dairy fox covered in dock muck on the ferry docks, a fawn buyer and a lane mobster at a bonfire eating Main Lobster— “hand-caught and canned hot!”— and a pretty girl with a Yorkie puppy admiring a gritty pearl with a porky yuppie. Also visible in the roving light was a sprawl of schoonerists whose ship, now docked, was covered in the scrawl of spoonerists.

Compare the first and last sentences above with Venright’s literal translations:

The source of radiance within the still columnar structure cast its sharply defined beam with all the force of a battle among large swarming grasshoppers at a point in the day when the sea rises or falls due to the gravitational influence of the moon and sun, or perhaps some cataclysmic juncture in a history not yet known to man or so long past as to be lost from collective awareness. . . . Another thing revealed by the traversing beam was the haphazardly dispersed crew of a schooner at anchor, which appeared to be decorated in the graffiti of punsters or dyslexics.

What’s wonderful is that the translation is so ridiculous as to produce its very own sort of daemonic glee. Ultimately, Venright transforms the page into a classic comedy duo: the spoonerist funny man and his straight-man partner -- in those figures, nonsense and sense meet-nice.

Having said all that, I want to quickly look back to Venright’s very first book of poetry, published fourteen years before Spiral Agitator. In 1986, Toronto’s Underwhich Press published Visitations, which included poems Venright composed between 1982 and 1985, when he was in his early twenties (Venright was born in 1961, so these poems pretty much qualify as juvenilia.). The book was edited by Michael Dean, typeset by Stuart Ross (who edited Floors of Enduring Beauty and included Venright in the anthology Surreal Estate), and printed at The Coach House Press.

Venright’s first book shows an early interest in the prose poem. There are lots of invocations of surrealism by way of flat, abstract terms like “hypnotic,” “dream,” and “mesmerized.” In other words, conceptually Venright knows what he’s going after; however, the diction and imagery aren't yet as developed— they're not quite as brazen as in Spiral Agitator. There’s a lot of violence presented in the book: “Sleep devours you from the inside in the same way a horse might devour a shark.” In addition, dogs are recurring figures: they are either vicious wardens keeping humans in check, or metonyms for slobbering humans— either way, they appear as figures of the night or of sleep.

The book is framed by two poems: “Nocturnes [1]” and “Nocturnes [2]” and it ends with a ’pataphysical “Glossary.” In between the two “Nocturnes,” there is a series of twelve prose poems followed by a series of twelve short, untitled lyrics, ranging in length from 3-7 lines.

The relationship between the prose poems and lyrics hints at Venright’s later interest in the dysraphic, as displayed in “Manta Ray Jack and the Crew of the Spooner.” The lyrics are based on words used in the prose poems, ie. the first prose poem is source text for the first lyric’s diction; the third prose poem is a source text for the third lyric’s diction, and so on and so forth. Venright’s work here predates Gregory Betts’s plunderverse project by about 20 years— though as far as I know, Betts hasn’t ever acknowledged or recognized Venright’s early effort.

For example, here’s the poem “Justice,” excellent in its own right as allegory (the title encourages that sort of reading):

‘Get up,’ they said. ‘Get up.’

I was lying on the floor of the train, between rows of empty passenger seats. They found me there, nearly catatonic with bliss, clutching a nervous sparrow to my breast. What they did not know is that that morning I had sharpened my teeth against the bones of my childhood and was ready for any adversary which might try to steal the gift of my joy.

As the train pulled into the station I was led away without resistance, concealing the glint of my weaponry behind a smile. Outside, on the platform, we could hear the sound of a sparrow flying desperately and repeatedly against the closed windows of the train as it made its slow departure along the track. I knew then that justice would be done.

On the other hand, here’s the short lyric derived from “Justice”:

on the floor of empty bliss
a sparrow of my childhood was ready to steal one
glint of closed windows

Sometimes, the shorter lyrics are atrophied versions of the prose-poem; other times, they reveal new lines of imaginative flight. I’m fond of this one:

the suburban cacti are waiting
for art and life to make conversation with the laughter
of a dog unnerved by wood and blood

tossing the bed across the room, I broke
the hysterical foot of morning

The best poem in the collection is the longest, the prose-poem “The Grace.” It clearly indicates the promise Venright later makes good on. (“The Grace” was originally published in 1984 by Spider Plots in Rat-Holes as a single-poem chapbook. It was published in an edition of 222. It’s 7 x 5 ½ inches leaflet that flips open. The front and back cover designs are simple: they each include an image of a puzzle piece). It begins:

We spent that morning in the living room, searching for the previous evening as though it were a dissevered cobra, the sections of which were hidden here and there about the room. . . No matter how cleverly we sought, however, we couldn’t seem to find the head or the tip of its other extremity, the tail; so we were by no means certain of the creature’s real dimension, of how much there was left to uncover. Even when we checked behind what we all thought to be the object which might most obviously conceal a clue— a curiously slashed landscape painting which hung at a disconcerting angle on the fruit-splattered wall— we found nothing but a pair of immaculate formal gloves nailed to the plaster.

The poem is about the search for meaning, and it's self-reflexively resistant to a mode of literary exegesis based on accessing “deeper” truths. The poem’s “searching” conceit is only a mocking pretext, a MacGuffin.

What’s interesting about the poem is, in fact, happening on the surface. Venright compares the “previous evening” to a “dissevered cobra, the sections of which were hidden here and there.” Immediately thereafter, the figure of the cobra becomes literal— it takes on a “real dimension” (even if its altogether absent). In general, Venright’s especially interested in poetry as the linguistic event in which the literal transforms into the real.

On the whole, in terms of language, Visitations is marked by a “coldly mesmeric quality,” to borrow a phrase from Venright. Nonetheless, it’s an important starting point to any appreciation of Venright’s later work.

Finally, I want to draw attention to one more single-poem chapbook from Venright: 1993’s “Instructions for Disposal,” published by Pangen Subway Ritual (90 trade copies, ten deluxe copies). The poem lacks the rhetorical structure that makes Venright work in Spiral Agitator so rich; however, the satire and invective of those later poems does appear in this earlier work.

The poem’s speaker begins: “I read this book in which the author, a Dr. Tetrau-Porren, claims that over two hundred people are buried alive each day in the United States of America. I find that to be a rather conservative estimate.” In the paragraph that follows, the speaker proceeds to tell the story of an office co-worker who was herself burried alive:

[ . . .] two days later she was back at work. Showed up at the office covered in filth, embalmed and wearing false eyelashes. Burried her with her cellular phone, so when she came to, she called the office managed from her coffin. He came and dug her up, gave her coffee and donuts, brought her in and set her down at the terminal, and away she went, fast as ever. . . She was just glad to be back at work and have the whole thing behind her.

This is Venright’s take on the zombie trope, making it about fifteen years ahead of its time. It’s also a nice observation of willful amnesia that leads us ever closer to everyday simulacra.

Ultimately, I’m not quite sure why Venright isn’t more popular— I’m embarrassed for our literary culture when it can’t appreciate something like “Manta Ray Jack and the Crew of the Spooner.”

More than most Canadian poets, he captures the “vacillations between distress and euphoria to which the human spirit is so frequently prone,” and ultimately that’s what I love about his work.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alessandro Porco

Alessandro Porco is the author of two collections of poetry, Augustine in Carthage (2008) and The Jill Kelly Poems (2005), both published by ECW Press, and the editor of Population Me: Essays on David McGimpsey.

Go to Alessandro Porco’s Author Page