The Calligraphy Shop

by Ben Downing
ISBN: 1932023097

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A Review of: The Calligraphy Shop
by Chris Jennings

The Calligraphy Shop's most consistent subject is writing, and two of the first four poems employ translation as a metaphor for intimate communication. In the opening sonnet, "No Rosetta Stone", lovers share an "inside idiom", a "middle lex / of gist and balderdash" that "bridge[s] the dialects / between [them]." The logic here is slippery though. Whether the speaker's "hermetic alphabet" and the "cryptic glyphs" of the "dear / Egyptian scribe" describe a real linguistic or cultural barrier or not, the poem seems to argue against its title. The "inside idiom" becomes their Rosetta Stone by bridging between their "dialects." Emotional effect seems to override logic, except that the rhymes in the sonnet's octave establish the thematic territory-the fragility of language compared to the immediacy of emotional connection. (Good theme for a sonnet, given the tradition of Petrarchan conceits.) The octave's two rhyme sets are "here", "clear", "dear", and "share", and "dialects", "alphabet", "delicate", and "lex". In the scheme of the Italian sonnet, the first set envelopes the second, a larger/smaller organization of key words that prefaces the conclusion that love communicates more effectively than language. This sense recovers the title by transforming "inside idiom" from a literal-but-private language to a figure for the deeper medium. No Rosetta Stone is needed because the lovers' communication is beyond language.
There are less generous ways to say that this is not a novel observation. The same familiarity afflicts "Saudades". In this short anecdote, a Brazilian student describes the emotion of parting from the speaker with the title's untranslatable Portuguese word. The word shares something with the colloquial sense of "missing" someone or something, like "pining / when applied to absent people, or homesickness / where the land's at stake." In a magisterial gesture, though, the speaker resolves any ambiguity in the word (to someone with no Portuguese) by generalizing its emotional root as "love". True enough, probably, that "love in any language comes out clear," but the generalization dulls the more interesting proposition that the Portuguese saudades has no English equivalent either linguistically or emotionally. I find a pleasant irony in the thought that the magisterial speaker will never actually know the precise emotion the student feels for him or her; Nostalgic sympathy for a charming buffoon' may be within the word's orbit. As with no "No Rosetta Stone", though, form matters. The blank verse "Saudades" seems haunted by an earlier version in rhyme. The first two decasyllabic lines would end on "he'd feel" and "Brazil" if the title were the first word of the first line as well as the sentence. Rhymes slip farther from the ends of lines thereafter, but they are there. Subtle schemes suggest that Downing let the rhymes slip to record the imprecision his speaker ignores in translation.
The Caligraphy Shop is a short book, so the number of poems that focus on writing make self-reflexiveness rather insistent. "On First Looking into Bate's Life of Johnson", for example, is a sequence of poems about a book about a poet who wrote books about poets that borrows its title from a different poet altogether. The "Two Husbands" whom Downing mocks (gently) are Dante Gabriel Rosetti and John Ruskin respectively; and Richard Burton is "The Amateur Barbarian". "Black Book" describes the scribbled revisions of an address book as a concrete biographical poem, though the poem itself is a sonnet, and the title poem, in terza rima, implies a comparison between the caligrapher's art and the poet's carefully ornamented lines. "The Caligraphy Shop" is one exception, the spiralling script of a particular scroll mimicked in the spiral of terza rima, and "Aeolian Kazoo" is the other, where sudden shifts between lexical registers record the anti-Romantic sense of the poem, its dream of "a lifeguard muse of meat / and homefries, not ambrosia, with blood / instead of ichor in her veins." The (to paraphrase) hot-blooded Baywatch muse turns the poem back toward our battle of books:

Parnassians, vamoose: the old amplitude

of paranormal sponsorship has shrunk,
quaint casualty of our vogue to debunk
the very credences that once sustained
these rhapsodies. The wind is now the wind

is just the prolix, tenantless breeze;
a quondam host to pixie orchestras
who played us adventitiously because
we expected them to, its deities

have skedaddled like a rock band breaking up.

That last line dramatizes the debunked credences by reducing the pixie orchestra (supernatural and classical) to a defunct rock band (deleteriously natural and contemporary). Sweeping out the Parnassians (an in-joke for the editor of Parnassus), though, jars with the hint of nostalgia in "the wind / is just the prolix, tenantless breeze," with the carefully rhymed quatrains, and with the general elevation of even the ordinary' language. Downing affects rather than adopts the colloquial voice. The poem concludes by suggesting that the real difference between the Parnassians and the speaker lies in the meaning of the word "inspiration" rather than in the way that inspiration is realized: "as the Latin saw goes, When there's no wind, row,'" meaning, of course, that you can produce the same effect by less windy, though more laborious, means.
For Downing at his best, this means inviting sustained attention to his emotional and intellectual content, then rewarding that attention with the dexterity of his craft-as in "Fontanelle" or "Manhattan Piscatory", or "The Beauty of Coincidence", poems that are, like coincidences, "pleasing to the core, / beause they clarify, whatever else, / our sense of life as something meshed and merged, / of earthly links and eldritch parallels." In almost every Downing poem, the sense of a challenge set and met is one of the chief pleasures. In his best poems, it is a secondary pleasure, part of what you appreciate rather than the object of your appreciation, but it is never inconspicuous.

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