A review of What Does a House Want?
by Gary Geddes, Red Hen Press, Sacramento CA, 2014
“…giving imaginative shape to vanishing legends, mine and yours.”
Gary Geddes: The Writer as Witness, from Out of the Ordinary—Politics, Poetry and Narrative, Kalamalka Press, Mackie Lecture & Reading Series No. 6, 2009,p. 99
Geddes writes with a sureness of hand that is remarkable, never a syllable wasted. His view is global, his compassion wide open to the world. Yet with such a wide-ranging view, he never loses his grip. As the book jacket quote from Billy Collins says, “It comes as a relief to read work by a poet who appears to be at least as interested in the world as he is in himself. Here, we are happy to be conducted by Gary Geddes out of the glass dome of the ego and into a wider, more capacious world of culture, history, and even erudition.”
In his essay, The Long Poem as Potlatch: Going the Distance, Geddes makes an eloquent argument for a return to the long poem, that vehicle of epic and history as old as humankind. The past 50 years of poetry have been dominated by the lyric, that short burst of eloquence not given to epic proportions. But Geddes sees the tensions of the times leading us back to an enduring poetic form that had fallen out of vogue. He sees a role in poetry for the narrative.
“All poetry, whether narrative, descriptive, lyrical, meditative, documentary or imagistic, is someone’s story,” explains Geddes. “In the case of very fine poets, though, the story takes on the character and proportions of myth and becomes not just someone else’s story, but our own, the story of us all.” Since the work of Joseph Campbell we can no longer be ignorant of the subterranean power of mythology. Mythic archetypes resonate at the very root of what it means to be human.
Geddes then adds to the force of archetypal myth by alluding to the incantatory power of poetry, quoting American poet Robert Hass. ‘Because rhythm has direct access to the unconscious,’ says Hass, ‘because it can hypnotize us, enter our bodies and make us move; it has power. And power is political.’ Primal rhythms—whether of body, speech or music—bypass the intellect and go straight to the gut, the heart.
But to do that effectively in poetry you have to be a clear communicator, as Geddes is. This business of using language as a kind of toy, pretending to high art by clever but muddy use of language, won’t do here. This is a man who has at least travelled to some of the world’s hotspots to see them firsthand—Lebanon, Africa, South America. In that sense Geddes is our roving microphone of poetry, recording the world with wit, humour and an empathic understanding. Why read the New York Times when you can read What Does A House Want? With corporate journalism the motive is profit. With Geddes the motive is compassion. In thinking that the long poem is “too long” for a 21st century reader to absorb, we’re looking through the telescope the wrong way. Turn the argument around, say instead that by reading well-crafted long poem sequences about world events, we’ll at least get the heart of the matter, the soul. I love good journalism—I work as a journalist—but I can only give readers facts. Poetry can give them the soul of an event, person or scene.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been as gripped reading the Vancouver Sun, the Globe & Mail, or the New York Times as I have by reading these poems. What Does A House Want? is that rare event in poetry—a page-turner. This is a poet as witness to his times, who understands that his petty personal concerns pale in comparison with, say, children in Gaza being shot in the face. Or a hapless bystander at Kent State being shot by paramilitaries. Or even a ghost Chinese army, rising to tell stories millennia old but hitherto unheard. Though it might be tempting to call this poetry as journalism, the vital difference here is that the poet carves away all irrelevancies to pare down to the bone, the raw human truths of tragedy or transcedence. To me, this is far more interesting than a rambling diatribe about one’s pub crawling exploits. This is a poet whose scope of thought and heart is the universe at large. As Billy Collins said, how refreshing!
Geddes’ poem ‘Hanan’ in What Does A House Want? is a heartbreaking commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is even more poignant now that Israel seems to be in the final stages of its genocide in Gaza. He deftly fuses the cultural and religious imagery of Christian, Jew and Palestinian, like squash tendrils overgrowing a garden. He uses a protagonist named John, evoking the clash of both apocalyptic and millennial visions. “I keep / thinking, if redemption’s / your game, travel by donkey.” It becomes clear just how hopelessly entwined this walking apocalypse of pain and death is, how despite the differences that are used to justify murder on all sides, they are fused by history, fused ironically by the conflict as though by a death grip. As if to illustrate how polarizing this conflict is even to non-Jews and non-Palestinians, Geddes inserts an apologetic, self-deprecating editorial note decrying his “tyranny of words (used) to victimize others and distort reality…”
Even here, in a volume of poetry, the long reach of the international pro-Israel lobby is felt, with its witch-hunting zealots combing the world for “anti-Semites.” It’s not hard to hear an echo of medieval inquisition in these campaigns. Yet as Geddes writes here, both races consider themselves “sons of Abraham” and both are of Semitic origin. The writing here displays the best of poetic compression, creating a vital narrative that pulls you along almost against your will, like a spectator watching a horrific accident unfold. And as always, Geddes’ hand on the tiller of language is sure, precise, even when steering us into comic relief or sexual imagery, as when writing of a pianist he remembers:
“He’d lean into the fragrance
of that rose and remember the sweet funk
of sex, the flowery combat of nerve endings
that caress ivory might also coax music
from tired flesh.”
(An Eye for the Ladies)
It’s fitting that this sequence ends with What Does A House Want? at a time when Palestinians are being hemmed in and exterminated, their houses bombed and razed:
“A house has no unreasonable expectations
of travel or imperialist ambitions;
A house wants to stay
where it is.”
It’s a reminder that in war even that most sacrosanct of spaces—the home—is no longer spared. And it’s a potent metaphor, both in the poem and in reality. Home, with its connotations of connection, rootedness, spirit of place and history calling down through time to make a powerful bond with those who inhabit.
In ‘Roots of Heaven’, from the Falseworks sequence, Geddes links the tragedy of a massacre of elephants in Chad with the accident that brought down the Second Narrows bridge in Vancouver during its construction. Having read that book I can tell you it is a masterpiece of voicing and historical narrative in poetry, worthy of the great poetic epics:
“…Before I slid
open the glass doors he mouthed
the word accident. O God, not my son!
I screamed. I was that leathery
beast bellowing her pain, trunk
raking the air for the scent
of her newborn.”
Geddes’ poetry demonstrates just how vital the craft can be at a time when poets have too long been their own worst enemies. The cult of the obscure, the use of language to obfuscate rather than communicate, the endless blind alleys of Narcissism, all of it has succeeded only in alienating audiences from poetry. As political and environmental crises mount, people become hungry for meaning. In Letter from the Grand Canyon, Geddes cites Karl Shapiro’s view that poetry “is a way of seeing things, not just a way of saying things.” People need something to feed the spirit to keep from succumbing to chaos.
If we are to be relevant as poets in the 21st century we need to be a witness to our times. We need to be willing to speak to the spirit. As Geddes concludes, “Poetry, for all of society’s indifference to it, is central to all of our lives. It’s a verdict, a call to arms, a message from the heart, an urgent final communication. Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz believes that poetry is as essential as bread. Octavio Paz, another Nobel laureate, insists that ‘a society without poetry is a society without dreams.’ We all possess the poetic faculty; it’s that which enables us to intuit, to sense beauty and danger, to see through to the essence of a person, an event, an emotion. It’s our way of naming and celebrating and shaping our world, giving it, as Conrad says, the permanence of memory.” Geddes—one of our modern poetic masters—offers us just such a gift.
The permanence of memory—despite our unwarranted faith in technology, there is still no substitute for using our mental faculties. Like any other muscle they too must be fed or they wither and die. Epic poets from the Gilgamesh poet to Homer to Chaucer to Shakespeare and onward have given us memories beyond price, mirrors of ourselves it is vital not to turn away from. Collective memory—archetype—passes the forms down the generations; poetry passes on the details, the human dimension, the Vox Humana that does not drown out all the other voices we share the world with, that does not stare obsessively inward but turns its gaze honestly, compassionately on the world. A gaze reflected back to us, as in this collection, in poems so lucid, “so transparent you can feel the ghosts / of children pass through them…”