My Kind of Party
Irregular Numbers of Birds and Beasts, Cecil Helman
[91pp, $12.00, Quale Press, 93 Main Street, Suite 2, Florence, MA 01062]
Quoting from Cecil Helman is rather like giving away a punchline. His one-shot prose poems go off like fireworks, raise the same fleeting enjoyment and excitement and then vanish. That's not supposed to be faint praise: I love fireworks. Witness the beginning of 'Thousand Kings':
A thousand men declare themselves to be King. Each one is crowned. They
divide the kingdom into a thousand pieces. On each, a magnificent castle:
towers, turrets, standards fluttering in the breeze. They pass laws, imprison
peasants, declare war on one another...
Helman is a South African poet who lives in London. He is also a medical doctor. His prose poems are concise, witty and inventive, c.f. Russell Edson and Maxine Chernoff. More distantly, this is the Surrealist prose poem as practised by Francis Ponge and Max Jacob - and frequently maligned by the more severe experimental poets because it's funnier than they are. Helman does this kind of poem with a particular brevity; never longer than one paragraph, never more than a hundred words. They explore a single idea or inversion with great alacrity and attractive, graspable images, and then they leave. They're like really good party guests. If you don't like a particular conceit, you'll be onto the next one pretty soon - without having to wade through page after page of philosophical exposition and the kind of breathless, tedious detail that has come to characterise the prose poem in some quarters - like novels with no editorial input; Steven interrupted the narrative to describe every item on his desk, twice.
At times the tone is so refreshingly buoyant it brings to mind Lee Harwood's lightness of touch - as in 'Swimming Pool':
At one end, the sharks race for a hundred meters, then race back again.
A whale waits to eat the winner.
The perspective exercise in 'The Flag of Our Country' reads like George Perec condensed: 'On the flag of our country, a black barking dog. Painted on the side of that dog, a large map...' The focus zooms in and out with disorientating gusto - and it's funny, too. 'Flour', transcribed here in full, is another example of Helman's ability to stay on-message, to explore one idea per poem without any distractions:
A man made of flour writes his biography. It's about his inner life, but
also about his outer form. How he was once bread, then became biscuits,
then occasionally cake. It tells of his days as a tart, his years living abroad
as a baguette. It's the story of who baked him, who ate him, who spat him
out. Which ones mixed him with butter and milk, which ones sweetened
him with sugar. It's a tale of burnt toast, but also one of marmalade.
'Flour' sends up the pomposity of autobiography with a consistent allegory. If a poem leaves you wishing you'd come up with the idea yourself, it's a good poem. Certainly, it's light-hearted. But so what? You got a problem with that? Why don't you write a poem about it?
Only occasionally does the carefully controlled surrealism slip into tweeness: 'Love is Blind' begins:
She falls in love with a brontosaurus.
You don't say? Hey, why don't you tell us about what her family make of this brontosaurus! I'll bet the repercussions are pretty zany!
Her parents don't approve.
And so it goes. Time and again, the old adage is proven correct: 'The only bad Donald Barthelme story is the one where porcupines go to university.' This is a problem in Edson's work, too - and perhaps in all absurdist fable: the form is always threatening to overbalance into bad student comedy, usually courtesy of anthropomorphism. Maxine Chernoff, however absurd her subject matter, always avoids such excess - her voice and imagery are so strong that even a talking broomstick doesn't seem out of place. Helman, like Edson, is more plain-spoken, more situational - thus a dud situation reads like a bad joke, and there's barely a metaphor in sight to make up for it. It's all a bit bow-ties and raised eyebrows. Still, in a collection of prose poems that never outstay their welcome, this isn't really a problem. Next!
Irregular Numbers of Birds and Beasts is not without its serious moments, like 'Graves on an African Farm':
Nearby, in the warm Magaliesberg winds, a long line of bluegum trees
sway and sigh. Like mourners.
Helman uses full-stops with rhythmic precision - which is always good to see in a prose poem.
So, for the most part, hats off to all involved. Quale Press has done some wonderful stuff recently - among which is Holly Iglesias's Boxing Inside the Box; a jeremiad against the male-dominated fabulist school of prose poetry. If we follow Iglesias's thesis, this runs from comfortable, bourgeois irrelevance to casual misogyny. This latter - her identification of a surreptitiously misogynistic tendency in the fabulist parable - is the most salient point in a rather formless book. Iglesias is mostly criticising the poets who write in the style of Russell Edson: the school that Robert Pinsky calls 'One-of-the-guys Surrealism'. Cecil Helman is quite an Edsonian. This doesn't bother me in the slightest - but every now and then, I can kind of see Iglesias's point. Check out 'Mad Woman', transcribed here in full:
Mad woman, wild hair, smelly clothes. Short white socks and broken
shoes. Says she's the Queen of England. Or the King. Declares herself
to be the Pope. Or Popess. Assures me that she's Napoleon. Or Josephine.
Declares war on America. Or peace. Claims to be an astronaut on Mars.
Or Mercury. Says she's a psychiatrist. Not a patient. Everyone agrees:
says she seems quite happy in her delusions. Or maybe not.
I'm not going to get on my high-horse about mental health as amusing subject material for a dumb-ass '1 or indeed 2' squib. Although, having said that, maybe I will... Yep. From up here it looks pretty lame. Might as well do this thoroughly; 'Poetess at a Party' is pretty uncomfortable, too - a portrayal of female hysteria that verges on the clichˇ:
Yes, that's the one I told you about. Over there, shouting and struggling,
as they carry her out the door. Always the same woman. Always the same
This is such a text-book example of Iglesias's point (covering the same territory as T.S. Eliot's prose poem 'Hysteria') it's amusing that their books were published more or less alongside one another by the same press. I guess it shows admirable editorial breadth. Oh, and then 'Art Class' depicts a nude female model at a life-drawing class:
Meanwhile, standing at my easel, I am caressing her with my long piece of
charcoal, gently tracing the outline of one thigh, then the other. Curving
softly between her legs, and then underneath her small breasts, dotting each
nipple with [etc, etc.]
Hmm. I'm going to assume that Helman has read Helene Cixous and is commenting on the male gaze. Anyway, at times my overriding thought was Ohhh boy, Holly Iglesias would HATE that - which was pretty enjoyable in itself. I don't mean to be puritanical: what are you going to do? Stop poets from saying that anyone is smelly or annoying? Stop them from saying anything mean about men or women, or that they enjoyed ogling a life model? Whole careers have been founded on saying how annoying and smelly people are in a variety of beautiful ways. My fundamental issue here is that I don't care: Compared to the rest of Helman's work, these observational poems seem flat, whimsical and pointless. There isn't the usual inversion or moment of clarity. In 'Restaurant Scene', for instance, the poet undercuts the heightened description of a woman diner in a Greek restaurant by introducing himself into the scene in the last line - and it's a pleasantly jarring conclusion I am loath to spoil by quoting.
'Wolf Novel' is the one I read out to everyone I know (any collection worth the paper it's printed on should contain at least one poem that you want to read to people) As far as prose poems about wolves go, I'd rather hoped I had the monopoly, but am happy to concede to Helman. It begins 'A man who is half-wolf writes a novel.'
On one page the hero is singing a love duet with his woman, on the next
he's savagely tearing open her neck.
It concludes with the man's wife pondering, 'is my husband a great writer, or merely a mediocre wolf?' 'Wolf Novel' handles anthropomorphism so much better than the brontosaurus poem - because it's funny and smart and about something other than just 'Wouldn't it be wacky if...'
While we're second-guessing the opinions of bellicose American critics, I suspect Ron Silliman doesn't like these poems either. He would say they suffer from 'Max Jacob syndrome' because they are too short and probably dismiss some of them as Soft Surrealism. Helman's work is certainly playful and readable enough to qualify for this - and all the better for it. It is the exuberance and wit of Helman's writing that will have me returning to Irregular Numbers of Birds and Beasts as I do to Richard Brautigan and Maxine Chernoff. The ideal illustration of surrealism done well.
© Luke Kennard 2006