So Dance the Lords of Language

by Marius Kociejowski
ISBN: 0889842604

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A Review of: So Dance the Lords of Language
by Jack Illingworth

It is unfortunate that my copy of So Dance the Lords of Language, a volume of reprinted poems by Londoner Marius Kociejowski, did not reach me before his appearance at Toronto's Harbourfront reading series, earlier this year. His performance was the most convincing that I have ever seen. He is an elegant man and reads with a confident but understated grace. It is difficult to shun the temptation to review his poetry through the public face of the poet, especially since his public face is so appealing-as anyone who has read his flamboyantly charming essays in Books in Canada and Maisonneuve will attest. Given enough rereadings, however, his poems do slough his presence, and they do so without losing much of their appeal.
Kociejowski's poetry has never been easily available in Canada; most of his publications have been pamphlets and broadsides of the sort that are immediately snapped up by rare book collectors and seldom passed around. So Dance the Lords of Language is a combined edition of Kociejowski's two major British collections, Doctor Honoris Causa and Music's Bride, both of which were published in the nineties by the Anvil Press. It does contain one new poem, "Shiraz", but it is primarily a collection of work that has been circulating for years, or even decades.
There is no need to attempt to contextualize Kociejowski as a Canadian poet; this nationalist tic is a silly one at the best of times, and Kociejowski's geographical dislocations-he was born near Ottawa but has spent nearly all of his adult life abroad-make it redundant. His longer poems-particularly "Giacomo Leopardi in Naples"-bear some similarity (though, it must be said, no debt) to those of his friend, Montreal poet Norm Sibum, and he asserts his Canadian formalist birthright by including a birthday poem for George Johnston, but much of his verse is fundamentally English. His early cycle, "The Wolf Month", reads like a sparer version of Geoffrey Hill's "Mercian Hymns": consider phrases like "A cold periapt of sun" or "Flies will buzz, bow-like, / Across the heated amplitude of noon."
In most of his verse, Kociejowski steers a delicate course between an almost hieratic visual exposition and a murk of abstract pronouncements. The former can leave him frozen in a narrative halt (as is the case with a poem like "The Stag" where "The forest is a cathedral of light. / The sun swings a bayonet through the leaves." The first line is the clich material of travel documentaries, and its broader role in sanctifying the poem cannot redeem it; the second line obliterates it with a stronger but inconsistent image.) And the latter can mar even his best work. "Doctor Honoris Causa" mentions an illiterate carpenter who, we are told, can "converse in the hidden language of trees." This would make an obvious title for a middlebrow Canadian novel, but coming from the pen of a poet talented enough to draw good writing from the always unpromising subject of mass media and political propaganda -

"The smell of greatness must have been too much upon me,

For I was sent packing from village to village, shore to shore.
There was no place so remote I could not find your smiling features plastered everywhere,
A peeling icon sunned to pale greens and blues."

-it is as jarring as a glob of saccharine in a glass of dry wine. Most of the time, as with the above example, he does get it right; the exceptions are so notable only because they are genuinely disturbing when they are found in the midst of free verse that is, without pretension or luxuriance, astonishing in its sense of sound and cadence.
Kociejowski's longer, looser poems are considerably more compelling. "Doctor Honoris Causa", for example, is a consistently magnificent dramatic monologue, an Aristotle-to-Alexander diatribe on the education of a tyrant and the violent joy of civilization. The lines regularly overrun the margins, but there is no beat slovenliness in the prosody; this is a "Howl" for Parnassians.

"I taught you to see in the dark of ignorance
The shapes which certain words make and those words too
With which men who have something to hide sheathe meaning with mire.
I could not abide the way you handled a blade,
Yet glad I was when you moved with guile against your foes.
Who would not be proud to serve a boy who could bend with ease the bow of language?"

There is no stasis in this poem; our lecturer describes a Mesopotamian relief ("It could just as easily be the Thames or the Yangtze"), a depiction of a court ceremony in which a boy releases a sacrificial lion to be speared by waiting soldiers. "And death being close sends a message of ice through the boy's testicles. / A serious joy is to be had here."
The later sections of the book, which appear to have been drawn from "Music's Bride", are dominated by Kociejowski's vigorous long, long-lined poems. Music-its composition and performance-is a felicitous subject for a poet with a leem ear and a fondness for abstraction. Curiously, it lures Kociejowski into a narrative mode, more or less free of the regular stanzas which dominate the first half of So Dance the Lords of Language. Here, his lines often forsake the left margin and begin to dance around the page in the manner beloved of so many American poets. Even when he engages in a wilder sort of prosody, however, Kociejowski maintains his signature grace, as in this passage from "The Charterhouse at Valldemosa":

"Opening bars resonant of clear skies,
though to describe them so,
and not as the azure we carry inside,

or, if pointing to where the mountain gouges
the cloud's belly,
we ask what this man's playing has to do
with things as they are,

what we do is reduce the sublime phrase
to a squeaking weathervane;"

This poem is based on Frdric Chopin and George Sand's unfortunate stay in Majorca in the autumn of 1848-a trip that they undertook for the sake of Chopin's consumption, but which almost killed the composer. Poems about Chopin are the sort of thing from which most sensible readers recoil-there is something about poetry about composers that is consistently unsavoury, as though the poets are engaging in a very public kind of role-playing, arising from artistic dissatisfaction-but Kociejowski handles the subject perfectly, delivering his most sophisticated performance. He reveals a comic tendency as well, in "A Pavane for Sydney Housego", an anecdotal poem concerning a park busker ("Against whom Johann Sebastian Bach could bring a charge of murder in the first degree"), and an errant dog named Mojo.
Kociejowski has made a number of trips to the middle east (which have been worked into The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool, an account of his journeys is due to be published this fall). A handful of poems in So Dance the Lords of Language, especially the single new piece, "Shiraz", appear to have been drawn in part from these experiences. There is a different quality of richness in the language of these middle-eastern pieces ("A girl crushing darkness with a pestle"; "we glowed, stupid with intelligence") but there aren't enough of them here to create the cumulative effect of his musical explorations.
So Dance the Lords of Language is a remarkable performance and worth reading for its formal strengths alone; anyone who is interested in the formal possibilities of free verse (and how it can, in the right hands, be as deliberate a rhetorical medium as a sonnet) would do well to investigate Kociejowski's poems. While they are not avant-garde in spirit, they sometimes push the limits of the art in ways that most experimental writers are unable to approximate. Furthermore, Kociejowski is the very best kind of aesthete, one who uses all of his artifice in defence of civilization-and does so without an ounce of chauvinism. Yes, he is a charmer, capable of winning over anyone who reads him, but there is no sham in his charm, and that is a genuinely rare thing.

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