Eccentricities and Psychopathologies

Girls and Handsome Dogs

By Andrew Steinmetz

A review of Girls And Handsome Dogs by Norm Sibum

Published on April 1, 2002

Girls And Handsome Dogs
Norm Sibum

The Porcupine's Quill
$14.95
paper
128pp
0-88984-230-2

Girls and Handsome Dogs by Norm Sibum is an eccentric work. Halfway into it, I confess I felt like the lady in Sibum’s poem “A Bash at Aginthorpe’s” who is not shy to admit to her host: “I haven’t the foggiest/As to what you could possibly be on about.” Yet, preparing this review, I found myself copying out line after line, quotes that I coveted as guarantors of Sibum’s talent.

Sibum – born in Germany, now living in Montreal, he published his last two books (he’s been at it since 1972) with Carcanet Press in Manchester, England – writes narrative poems. Many have a heroic quality about them even though, apparently, they are about ordinary lives set in ordinary times: “everyday time, time that harries/Waitresses, bank clerks, cops…” If so everyday, then why the overt formality and mannerism of Sibum’s voice? To what effect? Irony? Clearly not. Consider the grandeur of these opening lines (from “The Song of Nickles the Artist”):

I do not know what governs
Our business in this life.
I suspect a tin god speaks
For the old sovereignty of chance.

Behind the vision is a poet who “pleads eccentricity,” and who is “in transit/to an amorous spoor.” This poet is an odd creature, extravagant, yet as often direct and colloquial: “Once I read history for the knowledge/now I read it for the smut.”

Often Sibum manages to sound mystical, nostalgic, stoic and modern all at once. This has to do with his ability to link old and new worlds, to juxtapose aesthetics. In “Hypatia,” he invents a small town, midwest agora, where the commerce is not in neo-platonic ideas but in routine fate between folks in baseball bats and sneakers:

Edgar, a gentleman, was all rank and
file, his hands – like crumpled
spiders – resting
On a six-pack. We’d send out James
for smokes.
Condemn the times and one deserves
To be condemned an amateur.

Some may find this contrived, others I suspect will praise a highly original voice. In poetry, as in figure skating, marks for artistic impression reveal as much about the judges as the object judged. Whichever the case may be, I found much here to admire. Take Sibum’s description of a waitress in a diner, who “tramps/From booth to table/And back again – Like a California brush fire,/Like a fund-raiser.” mRb

Andrew Steinmetz is Vehicule's Fiction Editor and a poet.

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