Hogarthian Hijinks

The Lover’s Progress

By Edward R. Smith

A review of The Lover's Progress by David Solway

Published on April 1, 2002

The Lover’s Progress
David Solway

The Porcupine
$14.95
paper
76pp
0-88984-229-9

Readers are advised to ignore everything about this book from the title and the preface and go directly to the poetry. David Solway makes a better impression here than anywhere else, as a verse technician able to turn his hand to a variety of forms and most pleasing with a traditional rhyme-and-rhythm effort like “The Hostess.” The poem is a description of a woman’s apartment, and is typical of this collection in having the static feel of someone seated in a room, noting things. But that doesn’t matter, its musical qualities carry it.

The lack of movement begins to matter when the poem is also structurally underenergized, as with “The Penitent,” whose Herbertian title and couplet (“shame and dread – merited”) and sonnet form promise a conceit, or at least a complete argument. The result is something else: a string of clauses that restate an emotion, and then a prosaic conclusion. A number of poems are like this, a catalogue capped by a middling epigram or an opinion sneered away with invective, but not properly developed and closed.

The low pulse owes something to the prevailing subject: an old roué dwelling on failure and loss. If the poems are a blues cycle about diminishing sexual returns, the underwhelming sensation makes some kind of sense, and a few poems take off. “The Phantom” describes the mood from the inside; “Sour Grapes” gently deflates the lover. A good descriptive title might be Don Juan’s Confession, from another item in the collection.

Except Solway has already supplied a title after Hogarth, and a 2500-word preface (in a short book of poems, remember) to explain why. There are also two pages of “itinerary” based on the eight Rake’s Progress engravings in their four states, yielding an eight-step Lover’s Progress run four times with a “progressive darkening of theme.” Or that’s the intention. The poems are so consistently keyed to looking back and not getting anywhere that they can only be made to fit the schema by being deformed. If “The Hostess” is successful on its own terms as step number five, first state, it’s conspicuously not amplified by or serially connected to its neighbours. The author says he’s “transposed” the original, with divergences. He also excuses the narrative’s balkiness by claiming the difficulty of Hogarth, which only reminds one how richly The Rake is connected by visual puns and allusions, and how far it moves.

The schema may work at levels beyond my comprehension, or it may be a gag. Solway has done such things before. A lot might be said about the part aggression plays in the academic in-joke, not to mention how little it has to do with being funny. The preface’s supremely arch style may be part of the joke, or a way of distancing the persona from the author, who resembles him at least in his “literary dabbling.” However you take it, the preface gives the poems a disagreeable professorial aftertaste, like a palate not cleared between courses. Now you notice a favourite hoax being brought out and shown round again, a snigger at popular culture (lover@nowhere.q.e.d: the title says it all), and the odd polysyllabic abstraction that tramples all over the rhythm (“It torments you with its evasive availability”).

The problem may be nothing more than poems being asked to do too much. Perhaps we should applaud the ambition. Still, I’m reminded of a high school gym exercise in which a dozen tires were laid flat in two rows and we were made to hop through them. The drill may have improved our agility; but only a cruel person could have enjoyed it as a spectacle, or thought it more graceful than running. mRb

Edward R. Smith is an Ottawa editor.

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