Review by Andrew Kozma
THE CATWALK WATCH
by Eric Basso
Leaping Dog Press
PO Box 90473
Raleigh, NC 27675-0473
218 pp., $15.00
The Catwalk Watch is Eric Basso’s second collection of poetry, published long after the fact of writing—twenty years after the final poem collected was written. According to Leaping Dog Press/Asylum Arts and the blurb on the back of his book (possibly composed by the same), Eric Basso is a surrealist. A surrealist who also “plants us firmly in the quicksand of a vast dystopia.” Which would seem to imply that his poems are not, in fact, surreal, but severely based in the real and, through that basis, create a new, understandable, but strange, world for the reader to inhabit. They also state that the poems showcase the absurd.
But for writing to be surreal or absurd, it generally has to be more surreal or more absurd than something else, which is why there’s a tinge of the real in most of the surreal. Take Magritte’s Empire of Light, a realistic painting except for the juxtaposition of a daylight sky and a nighttime house and forest. Eric Basso’s The Catwalk Watch is the second of his collections of poems, and they would be better referred to as areal rather than surreal since they are less concerned with negating the logic of this world through dreams or juxtaposition than establishing moods through strong voices.
Indeed, the best of Basso’s poems evoke mood and atmosphere without creating a world out of whole cloth. They haunt precisely because of the sparseness of details, and in this and the mood evoked they echo Kafka, the poems filled with oppressive mystery, promising not solution but eternal deferment. Even disappointment would be a confirmation, and a reason for hope. In these poems, his constant refusal to use punctuation (except dashes and question marks) works to force the poem and the reader into indeterminacy or, more precisely, into a situation where he or she has to make sense of the lines, has to be the interpreter of Basso’s voice.
Here’s one of those poems, The Cellar:
I was often ordered to the cellar
down a ladder past the empty kegs
taps veiled dry under webbing and rust
it had been my job to descend in search
of old company books or to wipe
the dust from peeled calf-leather bindings
with a chamois rug—I read
the tarnished names of old scriveners
where the lettering held I breathed
and made it shine again
who knew why the company kept its records there?
each ledger was huge and there were no indices
to the stacks—I had to inch my way between them
sometimes for many days until
I lost all track of time
down there under the bare electric bulbs
toe-deep in soft debris with the mice
pattering about on their hind legs in a corner
no one—never a human voice
and the ledgers they sent me after
were seldom if ever found
Here, those few details given sketch just enough of a skeleton for us to determine the form of the living poem. Partly, this is a result of the straightforward narrative, and the confident voice that leads us through that narrative. The images used are concrete and hold onto the imagination like tar. Even though the idea imbedded in the poem is faint, and the poem ends at a null point, the poem is effective because the mood—etched in by the narrative, voice, and images—satisfies the reader (this reader, at least) with the feeling that something has happened. There is some truth here, even if it’s buried like the ledgers, purposefully lost so that we have something to search for.
Poems like this are few and far between, however. If you get a chance to flip through the book in a store, I suggest the following poems, in addition to The Cellar, to test your appetite: Detritus, Three Relics, Secret Service, Arc, LXXII, and Elephant Graveyard, all but the last of which is part of the book’s first section, The Watch, and which goes a long way towards suggesting that The Watch would have made a great book on its own. That section provides a skeleton for the poems to build a body on, and one that’s not obvious, that doesn’t scream thematic shoehorn. For this reason, perhaps, the poems in The Watch generally avoid a common trait of the poems in the rest of the book, which is an ending that seems to go nowhere. Again, assuming you’re flipping through the book right now, that you’ve printed this out for reference, turn to page 159 and Duke Humphrey’s Adventures for a key example of the above.
In fact, reading the whole book, the poems become more than a little boring. There is probably nothing more damning that I could say, in my own hierarchy of measurements. It is not, in this case, that the poems are boring, or suddenly turn boring like a werewolf in full moon light, but it is the grouping of poems that glazes the eyes, so many, so similar, without any real poetic plot to hold the whole together. In some way, it might be better to consider the whole a single poem, broken into parts, or an anthology—which, frankly, is how the book is presented, despite the sectioning.
To be specific, by subtitling the collection Poems: 1977-1979, the whole is identified as an anthology more than a book, the difference between a thematic structure and an organic structure. Basso’s book, I believe, would reward a piecemeal style of reading vs. the straight-through approach, since the latter leads itself to exhaustion, the former to meditation. And if I thought that was Basso’s intention, it would be easier to respect the book on those terms—but there’s a clear aim for form, even if the target isn’t fully constructed.
In addition, Basso lists every poem with what can only be assumed to be the date of composition, which promotes a faux naturalism. Is the reader (i.e., me) supposed to assume that these poems are presented exactly as first fixed on paper except, of course, for spelling and grammar corrections? If so, does this say more for the genius of the writer or his or her belief that this is what the reader wants: inspiration transmitted directly from the muse, sans shaping, without the interference of the conscious artist? Still, if that was the case, then why wouldn’t the poems also be in order of composition, so that the artist’s growth and ideas could be traced as they developed in his art?
and let the apple roll away
like a severed head across the grass
its sap within gone dry
hardened and crumbled pith
into dust and brief decay
the visionary grim geometer
broken pith and marrow
on a skeleton clockface
The above are representative passages from The Catwalk Watch, and if you can get inside these bits, chances are you will find a lot to like in the book as a whole. However, I’d like to end with a non-representative ending, to the poem Secret Service, that showcases what I think of as the best that Basso does in mood-building:
one of us traced fingerprints on gauze
the lines when he finished
even by the light of our mosquito lamps
were easily recognized—but now
there is something vaguely inhuman
Andrew Kozma received his M.F.A. from the University of Florida and his Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Iron Horse Literary Review, American Letters & Commentary, and Lilies and Cannonballs Review, and a non-fiction piece will soon be published by The Iowa Review. His first book of poems, City of Regret, won the Zone 3 First Book Award and was released in September of 2007. (www.andrewkozma.com)