On the Poetry of George Slobodzian
This past New Year’s Eve I pulled down a couple of poetry books from our host’s bookshelves and shared two favourite poems with the collected company: William Carlos Williams’ “The Sparrow” and George Slobodzian’s “Woodlawn Excursion” from his Clinical Studies. As I flipped through this collection from 2001, I was struck by how much difficulty I was having choosing just one poem to read, every one was so different and so accomplished. I was moved, then, to try to rectify how unjustifiably unknown and undervalued Slobodzian’s poetry is. To that end, I post here a very slightly emended version of a review I wrote that appeared first in Vallum shortly after Clinical Studies was published and in answer to the dismissal, remarked below:
Gertrude Stein writes somewhere that one writes for oneself and strangers. However much today’s poet might feel he or she writes for that audience of one, the reviewer — or this reviewer, anyway — finds himself as isolated. Our literary culture is so atomized, the reviewer needs to don a pedagogical, before a critical, role to avoid being merely partisan or indulging the amateurish ad-copy that passes for so much of our critical discourse. This pedagogical demand is acutely apparent in the case of George Slobodzian’s Clinical Studies. Its publication met with a singular critical attention: one relatively immediate derisive dismissal, and belated inclusion in an omnibus review. This reception is understandable. Slobodzian’s lyrics are difficult and challenging, not because they toy with the intentional obfuscations of our latter-day avant-gardistes, but because of their hyperbolic understatement. They are so conversational, so unassuming, their wit, irony, and music are too subtle for most. Their classical clarity and lyrical euphony are balanced by their being often quite literally obscene, presenting what is conventionally “off-stage.”
A reader with time to reflect might well note this thematic harmony in the volume’s title, that of the first poem, and its subject matter. Clinical Studies and “Clinical Studies” both begin
Upstairs among photographs
we were not allowed
to view them…
These photographs are medical, documenting “…the single / and half-breasted women / of medical science” and “human genitalia / eaten beyond recognition”. The poem’s persona, who takes “such pleasure turning / neighborhood stomachs / with” his father’s stash of forbidden pictures, dreams of becoming a surgeon himself to lift away the photographed anonymous subjects’ censor-strips and to “give them back their eyes”. The collection’s title-track suggests an approach to the volume as a whole. The book is an album, shown us, yes, with an impish delight in our squeamish shock, but one bound by at least two sensibilities, one clinically objective, the other humane and caring, imaginably even empathetic.
This attention to the body is often itself bawdy, in the best tradition that stretches from the outrageousness of Catullus, through the scatological hilarity of Dante, Chaucer, and Rabelais, to Joyce, Gottfried Benn, and others. This ubiquitous reference to the body and its functions reminds us corporeality is the inescapable condition of human experience in the first place, regardless of the repressive resentment against incarnation like that of Calvin “contemplating hell-stench on the shitter”. A topic as respectable as History is presented in the forms of the last Passenger Pigeon reflecting over Doughboys who “…sink deep / into their own shit / in the trenches” and a tour guide repeating his memorized spiel about a Classical “unguent basin, carved / out of solid excrement”. Howard Hughes appears with his “bottled urine”, “fingernails / beginning to curl”, and “bedsores”, watching for the umpteenth time his favorite Cold War thriller Ice Station Zebra. Even biotechnicians make an appearance, culturing “[h]uman skin. / From the foreskins // of newborn men”.
Slobodzian’s physicality is as sanely salutary as it is satirical: twenty-three of the book’s forty-five poems concern that extended body made up of family and lovers. Slobodzian is at his funny, gentle, tender best here. The three elegies for his mother, the poem for his father’s wedding (he, an “…old bull / in his winter meadow, / balls hanging low and blue”), and Slobodzian’s trademark “Zoëms” (poems for his daughter Zoë) are at the heart of the volume. The “Prayer for Zoë” is a tour de force whose rhythms echo the Hail Mary and whose invocations reincarnate Her as the literal mother she sublimates and hypostasizes. She becomes
Our lady of excrement,
of multiple comings
and goings, generation
and decay, perpetual
motion, wholly cloacal,
mother and father of slime,
the glistening slime
rimming the fetal pool…
Of course, there would be neither mothers, fathers, family, or lyric poetry without desire, and Slobodzian’s love lyrics are as full frontal and technically adroit as those addressed to relatives. They range over the delightful play of courtship (“If I Were Your Papuan Suitor”), warm sensuality (“Nuca”), the bitter ashes of burnt-out love (“Cold Fusion”), and the softening tints of nostalgia (“À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” and most notably “Sustain”).
Of course, despite many protestations to the contrary, poetry is not merely some special subject matter, but what the German Romantics called “the mother-tongue of the race”, that — as Carlyle reminds us — whereby we “sing what we have to say”. An appreciation of the sheer linguistic craft in Slobodzian’s poetry demands an excursus all its own. Suffice to say here, it both revels in its own lithe sinewy power and in its delicious sensuousness. The former might be best exemplified by an example I do not even have to read to transcribe, it has stayed with me so over the many years I first heard Slobodzian recite it. His early poem “Suffrage” is about overhearing two young women in the bus seat ahead discussing the Cosmo they are reading. The poem’s last lines are a judgment on the debasement of the Human Form Divine and a justification of the persisting need for lyric poetry:
it occurs to me
that love must be
a stalwart beast
to haul such crap
and remain intact
The tongue of that beast that hauls the delights of love and sheer human being into the present is capable of delicate musical delight, too, such as the reflective pleasures of “Credo Tropicanum”, the first lines of which I leave with you:
Spooning papaya uterine rind
onto genital tongue
and holding it there
For those whose taste has been whetted by this review, the latest and densest sample of Slobodzian’s poetry can be found in the recently published Show Thieves 2010 anthology.