Intimations of a Realm in Jeopardy
Published on October 1, 2004
Intimations Of A Realm In Jeopardy
The Porcupine's Quill
Norm Sibum, a winner of the A.M. Klein Award, is best at defining atmosphere. His characters, who seem detached from any context, meet in cafés, bars, and living rooms, talking chitchat occasionally lit by portentous flashes of political observation: “Peter the Piper, mathematics man, a five-day-a-week bureaucrat, / Said that space was curved and the state crooked.” The American Empire comes in for some justifiable slagging. This is a world of spiritual death, of ennui, in which the discovery of a corpse is no more important than the preparation of an orange chiffon cake. A great poem of spiritual aridity, Eliot’s “Gerontion,” uses similar methods – but with distinction. Eliot speaks of characters like “Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians”; Sibum says that “Levitt hissed as we sat among / The ambassadors of politics and art.” One of Sibum’s problems is that he has written an 86-page book about virtually interchangeable characters. The banality of their lives and opinions perhaps reflects the acedia of our times, but protracted boredom bores, as Heidegger might have put it.
“Mrs. Orlow and the Romans” is one of the better efforts, describing an ordinary but entirely credible woman sweeping leaves in front of her shop with no thought of empires or Roman poets; petty thieves and crooks are her concerns. The sentiment is worthy of Thomas Hardy. Her sweeping becomes almost cosmic, but the leaves will “gather and reoccupy the ground of faith.” She has a vitality lacking in the etiolated conversationalists of the other poems: perhaps it is significant that she grunts and smiles but never says a word. This poem comes near the centre of the book. Sibum concludes his work with “Lariana’s Eyes,” a poem whose characters would be decadent if they had the energy to do more than drink and talk. The last lines are too symptomatic of the work as a whole: “And she [Lariana], as elegant as ever, and Aimsely, pickled -/ They were near slumbering now as I prattled on, / Urchin of no school.” Let Eliot have the last word: “Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.” mRb
Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.