Intimations in a Realm of Jeopardy

by Norm Sibum
ISBN: 0889842493

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Intimations of a Realm in Jeopardy
by Michael Greenstein

Montreal poet Norm Sibum's narrative poems are not everyone's cup of tea; they are, rather, bottles of wine that have been sitting in cellars, collecting the dust of meaning and growing in complexity and peril. His characters and situations are reminiscent of Robert Browning's, but instead of breathing air they exhale and inhale the exhaust of apocalyptic times. This can be seen in the intriguing vagueness of Norm Sibum's title, Intimations of a Realm in Jeopardy, which, in turn, is re-enacted in each of the twelve long, lyrical, impressionistic poems in this latest collection.
Reproduced on the cover is a detail from Mary Harman's painting Tavern. Three huddled figures steal glances at each other, suggesting the partial conversations that fill this realm that Sibum intends to write about. The black spaces between the faces also prepare us for the pauses between the words and lines in Sibum's distinctively colloquial poetry. The fuller painting of Tavern is inserted at the end of the penultimate poem ("Dinner Hour") to reveal four additional grim-faced figures seated in couples where no one sees eye to eye but instead gazes into a void.
The first poem of the collection, "Bird with Yellow Plumes" establishes the disconnected, muffled atmosphere of the paintings and poems that follow. Drawing on Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" and Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", Sibum opens his dramatic monologue-and the book-abruptly, "God his bird in its cage on the balcony as a "reactionary in feathers" and an "arbiter of taste". The bird replies in kind: "You say, for heaven's sake, throw back your shoulders, / You say, art is ten per cent will and the rest, / The rest is surrender. How touching." Veering between clich and transcendence, "for heaven's sake" picks up the opening "God help me" and prepares for the next stanza, "The gods are all in their ivy lair."
Their exchange is a good example of how Sibum's poems operate both through parallelism and through a metronome-like oscillation between abstraction and the vernacular. These are poems, in other words, that hover between the bird's cage and the gods' lair, between ordinary music and faery lands forlorn. The most powerful of these poems neither whistle nor warble, but instead "sneer" their way into the world with a downward glance at the street.
"All thought is ego," Sibum says. "And we extract from each other such trivia, I said, / As helps maintain our progress." After the Romantic ode and Modernist waste land, Sibum's ambition is to find a form able to catch the mood of monotony in this weary, absurd world. After the poem climaxes, an anti-climax sets in: "I don't know what caught my eye: insect or glinting speck of dust, / But when I looked again the bird was gone, cage and all."
Absence is always catching Sibum's eye, even as an insect or glinting speck of dust catches his ear in a deafening silence. The bird's disappearance signals the world's displacement, a world drained of all colour including yellow plumes-a phoenix descending into its own jaundiced jeopardy. Sibum, however, holds conversations not only with birds, but also between himself and Romantic precursors. "The Disputant" for example takes off from Shelley's poem, "Julian and Maddalo", with Shelley's lines flowing into Sibum's opening:

The gardens we passed in the light of the evening
Give steerage to fabulous birds and cats.

A fairly ordinary, horizontal first line gives rise to a vertical second where lowly "steerage" carries fabulous birds. Alliterations reinforce this verticality: "You and I floated on the fragrance of flowers." A synaesthetic post-Romantic background accompanies the lovers: "Lilacs stippling brick, residential barracks." The mid-line comma hints at other fissures between nature and the harshness of brick barracks, for Sibum's cadences, like Shelley's, break the flow.
The abrupt shift from the mundane to mythic-and back again-is Sibum's most characteristic gesture. "The Disputant" alternates between moments of romance and brutality, avarice, and dominion. In these cruel times his lover's beauty makes her seem anachronistic: "This time whose contending moments / Are each unstintingly providential." Like stippling brick, these contending moments form part of time's dispute; likewise, the woman's straw hat with pink rosettes crowns her head and parts space. "Roses licked sheds, fences, lattices," but blooms rust in time, underline entropy, and mimic chaos. Subtle syntax, shifting cadences and line lengths, slippage between concrete and abstract modes, allusions to Shelley and Stevens, quotation marks and italics-all form part of "The Disputant's" realm of jeopardy.
If the district that the lovers walk through contains an oxymoronic "lush pettiness" that is inexpressible, their relationship is similarly fraught with contradictory impulses-the tension between silence and over-expressed verbiage which is itself the dark resonance of Harman's Tavern. In a manner reminiscent of Donne, Sibum sees love as an "argument", as he prepares for a vanishing act at the end of the poem: "And we kissed and promised to meet again / not necessarily in the afterlife / And the rain came down." Objective correlatives and pathetic fallacy add to the mood of Sibum's brooding meditations during his own long walk through this realm.
"Lariana's Eyes", the final poem in Sibum's collection, seems to inhabit Tavern. Set in a caf where the poet drinks with his friends, Aimsley and Lariana, it is a world of flowers and birds where the threesome is "Inseparable, flower-like, / Clustered on the terrace." Of course, in its progress the poem will separate out each character since it sees "A bush with its lonely rose" has being "The arbiter of the place." Just as this lonely rose mitigates companionship-itself a signature Sibum insight-so the threesome is accompanied by a yellow bird perching on an empty chair, "as though it were a prop of some staged miracle."
That bird gives rise to an apparition and spectre that the book's earlier pathologies of "cold and dark calamity" have prepared us for-pathologies which exist in contrast to the serenity of Lariana's eyes with their Old World beauty. A decrepit stranger takes a seat at their table, while a Bunuel-esque moon sails in the sky and a rose dances on a bush-a surreal atmosphere of specifics and vagueness where music spills into the street as their waiter pours more wine. The wine tastes of bloom and comic highlights, as they try to rid themselves of their unwanted stranger amid urban decay and remnants of nature.
The point of this poem is that the poet-who prattles on, an "Urchin of no school"-sees in Lariana's eyes a truth that supersedes his own truths, a truth that reinforces the surrealism of his "cheap epiphanies" and "light comedy." Similar moments recur in the intervening poems like "King Vitale", "The Woman in the Gazebo", "A Conversation on the Lawn", "Suspicion and Orange Chiffon", "Mrs Orlow and the Romans", "Yellow Begonias", and "Dinner Hour". By the end of the book the characters are "at sea", drifting; somwhere a bird hoots, a wind sweeps desolation through the streets.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us