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Recollecting Eli Mandel
by Chris Jennings

Just over ten years ago, Essays on Canadian Writing devoted a double issue to the work of Eli Mandel. Julie Beddoes introduced the mix of memoirs and essays with a sense of embarkation, writing that "[i]t will be fascinating to see, over the next few years, where the valuable new work on Mandel will be located, and which, if any, of the theoretical directions taken here will come to govern future critical storytelling." Her fascination has met with little more than silence. In 1993, the year after Mandel's death, two books addressed his work, the first by Dennis Cooley, a frequent proponent of Mandel's work and influence, the second by Andrew Stubbs. Only W.H. New's 1994 contribution to Canadian Jewish Studies followed. The ascendant question on Mandel now is whether he is being ignored or simply forgotten.

If the latter is the case, then Stubbs's and Judy Chapman's two-volume collection of his poems may be a first step toward reviving the optimism of Beddoes and her contributors. They collect Mandel's six books of poems: (Trio [1954], Fuseli Poems [1960], Black and Secret Man [1964], An Idiot Joy [1967], Stony Plain [1973], Out of Place [1977]), his Mary Midnight "oratory" (1979), and the poems and prose journals of Life Sentence (1981). They also include the two volumes of selected poems (Crusoe [1973] and Dreaming Backwards [1981]), his early contributions to a publication called Third Person Singular, and 90 pages of unpublished or uncollected poems. As a reminder of what he wrote, his use of traditional forms, myths, and allusions, his experiments with open forms and private realms of association, The Other Harmony restores Mandel's poetic presence. Cooley's blurb submits this as cause for optimism: "Now that we have these collections of texts that for years have been scattered and out of print, we can begin to see the kind of writer Mandel himself was." One vote for the failure of memory.

That said, The Other Harmony was published in 2000 and a renaissance of enthusiasm has yet to make itself felt. A comprehensive enterprise can provide as much evidence to confirm a negative opinion as to counter neglect, and even Cooley felt an initial dislike for the tortuous syntax and obliquity of the first Mandel poem he read, "Estevan Saskatchewan". This is a typical complaint about Mandel's early poems. In 15 Canadian Poets x2, Gary Geddes called them "well-turned, polished pieces, [that] often lack conviction, as if the weight of the traditional masks weakens, or stifles, the poet's own voice." In Canadian Literature, John Ower criticized the work of the first three books for "the relative narrowness of its emotional range" and included An Idiot Joy in his claim that Mandel's poetry "seldom rises beyond a rhetorical utterance to the lyricism which is the mark of the fully integrated poetic sensibility." Assumptions change, they may have shifted away from the primacy of lyricism, but the combination of technique and reserve that fed both Geddes's and Ower's remarks left its impression on Mandel's reputation.

Seeds of aversion develop when the strictures of the traditional forms Mandel once favoured wrack his syntax or when his voice lacks the strength to make referential leaps cohere. "Minotaur Poems" suffer from the same mythopoeic tangle of allusion and anachronism that gives the sequence its energy. Sometimes, reinvented myth resonates. Theseus wanders a modern labyrinth, complete with janitors and wastebaskets, where "after many stories," he comes upon "a man with the face of a bull." Icarus learns modern aerodynamics:

My father was always out in the garage
building a shining wing, a wing
that curved and flew along the edge of blue air
in that streamed and sunlit room
that smelled of oil and engines
and crankcase grease.... (1-6)

A Welsh miner performs a literal version of Orpheus's descent to the underworld that leads to an explosive, miner's version of Orpheus's death: "Who found his body and who found his head / And who wiped god from off his eyes and face?" Mythic narrative coordinates the contemporary experience, but sometimes the allusion falters. The "prodigious pun" of the fourth poem (bull-headed infant Asterius being named "Bull of Minos" for the king who was bovinely cuckolded) makes only riddling use of the myth, while the youth taken as tribute ("III.") and the anonymous Athenian ("V.") never really materialize. Mandel deploys them systematically rather than effectively, and his more subtle borrowings shield the poems in a layer of obscurity. He may be exploring a rift between the contained analogies of the first group and resistance to analogy in the second, but the tension that animates such a relationship never develops. Instead, Geddes's stifling masks spring to mind.

Similar challenges attend every stage of Mandel's poetry. Different influences and fascinations (Fuseli as gothic muse, for example) roll through his poems like tides, producing waves (sometimes he could ride them, sometimes they pushed him under) and always leaving some mark of intellectual exertion. In one of his interviews, Mandel asserted that "it's very important to connect [his] criticism with [his] poetry" and you can see what he means by trying to track these marks. They are the forensics of a poet struggling to make his craft harmonize with his thinking. Mandel's agile mind aggravated that struggle as often as it made harmony possible; some poems remain a record of the conflict rather than a resolution, and sometimes that appears as failure.

In Myth, Origins, Magic (Turnstone, 1993), Stubbs warns against reading a progress from mythopoeic modernism toward a process-oriented post-modernism in Mandel's poetics. His caution seems prudent, but it would be hard to read The Other Harmony without conceiving some sort of narrative out of Mandel's paring away of the formal from form. Traditional forms stop, spare lines and white space supersede the tetrameter or pentameter line, enjambment frees subordinate clauses to balance syntax against the line. Punctuation marks gradually vanish. Early poems with very minimal punctuation push in a direction that becomes a trend in Black and Secret Man. By An Idiot Joy, almost half of the poems forego punctuation, by Stony Plain almost all. Punctuated poems reappear occasionally as exceptions. Stripped of every formal brace or marker, the poems depend on the authority of voice, on cadences to wrestle a sequence of words into sense. The evaluative connotations of "progress" may be too strong, but this is the kind of significant change that results from a poet making decisions about how best to proceed.

A qualitative shift parallels this change, caused by it or not. An Idiot Joy won the Governor-General's Award in 1967 but Stony Plain is the major book, an achievement not to be ignored. Published in 1972, its roots in time show in poems "On the Death of Ho Che Minh", "On the Renewal of Bombing in VietNam December, 1971", "On the Cultural Revolution", and "On the 25th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz: Memorial Services, Toronto, January 25, 1970 YMHA Bloor & Spadina". They resonate with one another, harmonize with the several poems focused on Trudeau and the invocation of the War Measures Act. The imagination weaned on mythopoeia and honed in conspicuous intellection finds coherences in these eventsłthe suspension or abolition of personal liberty, the ethics of war and memoryłand gives them voice.

The book's working title, War Measures, emphasized thematic unity. "For Elie Weisel" catches the book's central thread in its opening lines:

bear witness:
live it all
again content though source
be pitch and sewer
skull place golgotha

a thread that "Envoi" echoes:
politics pierce my heart
on a floor littered with history
I shiver while wardens shovel in
lunatic sentences, rag on rag

The spectre of Auschwitz in both poems recalls the book's core, "On the 25th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz", with its implication that there is no such liberation from witness to this history: "the gothic word hangs / over us on a shroud-white screen." Stony Plain is haunted, full of elegies, full of purpose. Like the story of Goya at Trueba, waiting for the right light to sketch corpses (Mandel tells the story twice in "Goya" and echoes it in his Bosch poem "The Garden of Delights"), Mandel answers the challenge of looking at history and horror without the protective distance of masks, and writes of it in his most effective and unaffected verse.

If Out of Place is not equal to Stony Plain, it is at least a fit mirror. More personal, more localized in its focus, it achieves a different kind of success. Mandel gnawed at his Jewish heritage and his connection to the prairie throughout his career, and they finally link to become his central subject. Memorials are as important here as they are in Stony Plain, but now take the form of a community graveyard, of petroglyphs, or of rusted-out springs on a discarded bed frame. "Pictures in an Institution", reprinted from An Idiot Joy, closes the volume as a reminder of Mandel's persistent struggle with these two inescapable aspects of his identity:

These names I rehearse:
Eva, Isaac,
Charley, Yetta, Max
now dead
or dying or beyond my lies

till I reeling with messages
and sick to hold again their bitter lives
put them, with shame, into my poetry.

The poems in Life Sentence and the previously unpublished or uncollected poems are the continuation of work begun here and in Stony Plain. They are, sadly, the scant culmination of a career that had found two remarkable and complimentary paths. If Mandel is being ignored, it may be because he didn't have time to elaborate on these achievements.

The virtues of collecting all of Mandel's poems are clear enough, but questions of audience arise from the presentation. Stubbs and Chapman avoid editorial intrusion so thoroughly that their edition has little value as an academic retrospective. They provide no introduction to the often demanding poetics of Mandel's diverse career, which is a curious omission considering that Stubbs has already done the work (has he reconsidered his earlier stance?). The back covers and two minimal prefaces include some basic biographical and bibliographical information but omit relatively trivial details like the original publisher of each book. They are no substitute for more synthetic gestures, like comments on the relationship between Mandel's poetry and his work as an anthologist and critic. Similarly, because Mandel was both so allusive and so firmly rooted in the specifics of time and place, the nine pages of notes drawn primarily from manuscript marginalia in the University of Manitoba's Eli Mandel Archive seem minimalist if not insufficient. This is particularly the case for the 123 poems that appear at least twice because they were included in Mandel's two selected editions. Some are variants ("VI. Orpheus" has been pared, tightened, for its appearance in Crusoe, and restored, with some very minor alterations, for Dreaming Backwards) while others are replicas, intact ("Estevan Saskatchewan", for example, which faces the variant "VI. Orpheus"). Rather than track changes and fidelities, The Other Harmony limns the ground for others who want to do the bibliographical leg work.

On the other hand, there is something pleasantly Spartan about this absence of intrusion. The poems remain free of gloss ("Take away your Talmudic trees / commenting on the stone Torah of our streets", "Psalm 124"), preserving not just the words but the experience of encountering them for the first timełthey remain pure Mandel. The sometimes-difficult task of following Mandel's mind has not been diminished by excess assistance that might strip the poems of one of their principal attractions, their balance of work and reward. They remain poems to be read and enjoyed rather than studied, though that is not a distinction Mandel would have made. ņ

Chris Jennings is a poet, a former poetry editor with Calgary's Filling Station Magazine, and a student of the dramatic monologue. He lives in Toronto.


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