Reviewed January 6, 2012 by Joshua Marie Wilkinson.
“If what moves you must have one way through time / So must thunder,” writes
Cyrus Console in The Odicy (Omnidawn 2011), which casts a shifty set of spells through a poetic line that oscillates between sounding like a drugged Milton and an incredulous outsider. It is an evil-obsessed work comprised of peculiar sonnets, in a loose blank verse with some weirdly insistent rhymes. Nothing quite like it really comes to mind.
Broken into five sections, The Odicy has a kind of investigative zeal for artificial sweeteners, toxic chemical admixtures—and somebody called Anthony, the mercurial protagonist of Console’s compacted epic, who’s working to sketch all the plotpoints onto the map and slyly talk us through the journey. And perhaps the odyssey at hand is Tony (as he’s called throughout) wending his way through the dross of American culture back to the diminished world of the animal.
Culling as it does from Homer and Milton, somehow The Odicy isn’t merely derivative of anything. Console’s voices are enchanted, funny, and arresting as they are drunkenly awestruck, as in an early line: “So what if the dead arts’ practitioners / saw the scythelike arm of this our spiral / Galaxy in glory.”
It strikes me that one of the distinguishing features of The Odicy is that its verbiage doesn’t sound like poetry; it sounds, instead, like some earthen language, wrought from an essential skepticism, but still curious—a kind of lament or a counter-spell against the dissipation of the natural world. Yet, it’s hard not to imagine Console’s concepts in lesser hands, as The Odicy’s themes are indeed biblical, pre-apocalyptic, and anti-corporate; these could be read as 21st century American poems for the Occupy set. What elevates this to the status of poetry is Console’s unusual line, as the book opens with the following sestet:
In its careful metaphors (the “illness / Of the garden” and the Mountain’s “bright garment”), these chiasmatic descriptions sound almost as if plucked from another era. The master of this trope was Dickinson, of course, whose natural metaphors (think of “A Bird came down the Walk—”) somehow transform the basest characteristics of what we recognize in order to foreground their otherness and see them oddly anew. What Console’s lines accomplish is to perform two things simultaneously: to lay the blame of environmental devastation at the door of the human—without, however, any banal screed. Instead, he does this by characterizing that “dissolution” of the gardens and mountains by humanizing the very nonhuman things that human beings have destroyed. The effect is uncanny, not unlike DeLillo’s smog-laden sunsets that inspire simultaneous fear and comfort.
A long epigraph from Schopenhauer sets up the vantage point of the book, and it concludes, “It can truly be said: Men are the devils of the earth, and the animals are the tormented souls.” These words may stage the journey from the corporate imagination to agribusiness—through the detritus of American popular culture—back to the so-called land. But that’s too simple a story for The Odicy. Console’s is a poetry of inquiry, too; and its pleasures don’t arrive from resting on any apparent straw system against which the poems throw empty Molotovs. What the poems do instead, is lure us into lovely, almost scripture-like language—from strip mining (“All Nevada wept ill-colored water”) to our sugar-addicted culture (“Black seltzer roiling in a glass / Of ice cubes brighter than the first / Water”).
It would be an oversight not to mention perhaps the most jarring aspect of Console’s verse: its patchwork of diction mentioned above. Here is but a sample:
Using the “vacant sentences” of literature (here the opening sentences of The Stranger by Camus are emptied out, and “Mother” is simply replaced by Jesus), Console creates an overdetermined mythology—gleefully mischievous. The poet manages to swerve from the expectations of a book on the evils of corporate culture by his deployment of this serious play: a collage-like mash-up of contemporary and antiquated speech (with a predilection for the 1980s, perhaps above all) that destabilizes the whole journey. Console’s compaction is funny, and his syntax is peculiar as he comically fuses Arthur Rimbaud with John J. Rambo of the “First Blood: Part II” variety:
Beyond the absurd combination of the iambic Rimbaud and the trochaic Rambo, what we get is this artful (if silly) conglomerate: reminding us that Rambo is backlit and filmed from below in this godlike luminescence—as savior, liberator, ultimate warrior—to show how images of the divine have been co-opted by fantasies from Hollywood. And perhaps the connection to Rimbaud is through that same oracular quality we bestow on certain poets—in this case, the prototypical savant, who, after writing some of history's most imaginative poems as a listless adolescent, sort of walked off the face of the earth—or so the myth goes.
By the time we get to Console’s line of Homeric dactyls (“Bedwetter, Horsebreaker, Firestarter, Champion”) we feel the daffy trumpets trumpeting our own interpolating aura—godlike master of the animals (“Horsebreaker,” and straight out of Troy) set against little godlike Rimbaud, uncaringly pissing his bedclothes, in turn set against “Firestarter,” another 80s movie, which fuses them both: the divine child (Drew Barrymore in 1984) with a godlike aura, a savant pyrokinetic herself—the Rimbaudian celebrity as childstar in her pajamas harnessing one of the elemental forces of god for good.
Have I gone too far? Yes. And so has Console, and that’s part of what makes it a remarkable book—reminding me of his lines: “Another shitty thing about the eighties / You never knew whether it was a movie / Keeping you awake or just a song.” So, here is the song come back to haunt the poet—and exactly whence the song?
As far as I can tell, the title of the book works twofold: as a reference to the Odyssey—the Homeric journey home from the Trojan War by Odysseus—as well as (when the words are placed together) to the term theodicy: a concept formulated by Leibniz to account for the presence of evil in a world created by a benevolent, omnipotent god. And these make sense together for a fraught work of lyrical beauty and mischief. Split back asunder, The Odicy might signal the journey through evil to better know God, all the while reveling in the mysteries of his myriad works.
Joshua Marie Wilkinson's most recent book is Selenography. He lives in Tucson, AZ.