“Something Like a Baffled Scientist”: A Review of Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet

Methodist Hatchet
House of Anansi Press
110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801
Toronto, ON M5V 2K4

2011, 112 pp, $22.95, ISBN: 978-0-887842-93-1

Pick a single poem from Ken Babstock’s fourth collection, Methodist Hatchet, and it will most likely be a tangled ball of poetics and argument that very slowly reveals its order, if it does at all. But if you consider the book as a whole, an uneven completeness emerges, with certain phrases or poems standing out as close approximations of a rough coherence. As in previous Babstock offerings, this collection is made up of intensely individual lyrics of no longer than a few pages each. Each poem, then, must be considered in a vacuum at the same time that it is considered in relation to the book’s general thrust. The result is a kind of imperfect fractal relationship between poem and collection, in which each poem could only have come out of this collection, but in which no one poem can be said to represent the whole. Take, for instance, “Light Sweet Crude.” This poem simultaneously leaves you frowning and confused while also generating an implicit profundity. It must be said, though, that like much of this collection, the poem is daunting and might require research. That does not mean, however, that this book is suited for poets only, despite what Nick Mount might write in The Walrus. More on that at the end of this review. For now, please note that the poem may not need to be read all that closely, and I’ll get back to that, too.

Light Sweet Crude

A return to when Destroyer
curled quiet in a corner of that rented room
waiting for the goat-white walls to shake.

In Prague they hear his Rubies
as Gottwald’s syphilitic blather, stashing
in their Pumas whatever it is Czech kids take.

Oh, to be rid of the rash,
the rye, the redux, the relentless interiority!
No one occupies me like me. And no one

makes me lonelier. Universal
compliance in the achievement of collective goods
is as much a fantasy as perfect competition.

Tin is ubiquitous. If I
were a tin mine—ugly, sweating into the riverhead—
I’d look out on the world through the wheel

hubs of articulated truck
beds and admit a paucity of spirit. My hole and ore.
My edge’s ring road describing a spiral

divisible from space. Spirochete,
nebulae. What’s more he’s self-taught, giddy
as Lautréamont, floating four feet above ground

running parallel to the unbuilt
pipeline, singing Mine, baby, mine, baby, mine,
baby, all of it is mind. This time in the round.

As occurs throughout Methodist Hatchet, there are a number of references brought together from all sorts of directions in this poem. One can assume these will be caught by first-time readers at a rate and randomness that reflects the disparateness of the references themselves. That is, we’re all over the place, but that’s how we think and live, so we’ll catch some and maybe we’ll have to look some up.

But before we do that, allow me to describe reading this poem for content without any knowledge of the referents other than what can be gleaned from the poem itself. This process is akin to navigating a dark walkway by the light of your cell phone, but there is some fascinating graffiti back there. The title, “Light Sweet Crude,” seems to suggest a juxtaposition at first blush: crude, as in crude oil, or as in “unrefined,” would seem to contradict ideas of lightness or sweetness. However, “light crude” also sounds like (and is) a specific kind of oil. In addition, anyone who has ever opened a gas can will attest to a certain sweetness therein. Then the poem starts.

A return to when Destroyer
curled quiet in a corner of that rented room
waiting for the goat-white walls to shake.

In Prague they hear his Rubies
as Gottwald’s syphilitic blather, stashing
in their Pumas whatever it is Czech kids take.

We begin with a seemingly ironic image of some entity called “Destroyer,” meekly “curled” and waiting for action to arrive. Then we jump—you’d better get used to jumps here—from that someplace to Prague, where we’re told that his—Destroyer’s—“Rubies” are, one: heard, and two: taken in the same spirit as “Gottwald’s syphilitic blather” by Puma-wearing Czech kids who are taking “whatever” drugs the youth indulge in there. If you do not know who Gottwald is, you might plausibly assume he is a Czech figure with some associated sordidness, due to his stated syphilis. So, we have two somehow troubled or gritty characters being compared through the prism of covertly drug-taking kids. This, then, is our first juxtaposition: Gottwald and Destroyer—destroyed, destroying, waiting, writhing—and kids: trouble making, free, new, and moving forward.

It seems odd to say that now the poem turns, because this poem has been turning the whole time and it never stops doing so. Nonetheless, there is a larger, more general turn here toward an “I” that more or less maintains itself throughout the rest of the poem.

Oh, to be rid of the rash,
the rye, the redux, the relentless interiority!
No one occupies me like me. And no one

makes me lonelier.

The turn towards the “I” is accomplished by means of a jump, this time into a wailing wish on the part of the speaker to be “rid” of many words that contain strong R sounds and might or might not make sense as a description of “interiority,” which causes the speaker great anxiety, as supported by the fact that the poem’s pace has just seriously increased. Then we slow down, as if the speaker is a mad man who has just realized that his audience cannot possibly share his frame of reference, and may be alienated by his ferocity. In simple language and in an even tone, we are told, “No one occupies me like me. And no one/ makes me lonelier.” These statements reverberate because the obscurity and franticness that precede them make us ready for the slowdown of an intimate confession; this is especially effective because the confession presents a paradox that we could, and probably will, sit with for a long, long time. For that reason, these words seem timeless, like they’ve been mistakenly cut out of a late Whitman poem. That I will occupy I is unavoidable, and for many, there’s a profound sadness in that unavoidability. Yet, there is also a palpable warmth to these statements; this is Babstock at his “we should be held and forgiven” best. But not for long.

Our next jump pulls us way out from both the self and warmth and into a cynical discussion of both the Right and the Left’s classic deficiencies. Then we quickly jump again.

Universal
compliance in the achievement of collective goods
is as much a fantasy as perfect competition.

Tin is ubiquitous. If I
were a tin mine—ugly, sweating into the riverhead—
I’d look out on the world through the wheel

hubs of articulated truck
beds and admit a paucity of spirit. My hole and ore.
My edge’s ring road describing a spiral

divisible from space. Spirochete,
nebulae.

Can we count on collectivity or “perfect competition?” No, it’s all hogwash, “fantasy.” “Tin,” on the other hand, “is ubiquitous,” and thus it demands our speaker’s attention. But our speaker is not satisfied with considering tin from the lonely, unavoidably self-occupied “I,” but instead imagines being a tin mine, “ugly, sweating into the riverhead.” By identifying his speaker with the mine, Babstock avoids the need to make a pronouncement upon the merits of such operations, instead allowing us to recoil at—not withthe speaker, who now is the mine and is thus free of moral obligation. What would you do if you woke up one day as a tin mine? The speaker suggests you might see the world through the prism of what is made out of you, such as “wheel/hubs.” You would have to admit, though, inhuman as you would be, a “paucity of spirit.” Of course, since you are now in a Babstock poem, you are not able to dwell on what that means for very long, just as we do not have much time to consider what it means that the speaker’s “edge’s ring road [is] describing a spiral/ divisible from space.” Not “visible from space,” but “divisible from space.”

Quickly, we are given another space image: “Spirochete,/ nebulae.” Nebulae is common enough, but spirochete? Unless you have some specialized knowledge, you’re pretty much lost on this one. These two words provide an important comparison, juxtaposed as they are, but if you are unfamiliar with spirochete, there is not much you can make of the comparison. So this part you will probably want to look up, but you can admit that the two-word fragment is a nice variation from the long sentences preceding it. Then we power through to the end:

What’s more he’s self-taught, giddy
as Lautréamont, floating four feet above ground

running parallel to the unbuilt
pipeline, singing Mine, baby, mine, baby, mine,
baby, all of it is mind. This time in the round.

Jumping forward, we are introduced to an unidentified “he” who is “giddy/ as Lautréamont”—whoever he is—running on air parallel to the not aforementioned “unbuilt/ pipeline,” and gushingly loving his ownership over “all of it.” Here is the joy of our dominion over the Earth, free of guilt and depressingly common. Finally, we get another simple sentence, casually telling us that we have just experienced “This time in the round.” That means there are other times in the round. How exhausting.

And that is exactly the point, if there is one: existence only gets loopier and more obscure the more we dwell on it. But at the same time, even before we attempt to clear things up by researching the references in “Light Sweet Crude,” the structure of the poem must be considered. As it turns out, this poem is an asylum with a roughly consistent architecture. What a relief. The poem’s eight stanzas fit neatly onto one page and are visually consistent. That visual consistency translates into a less consistent beat count that nonetheless rarely varies more than two beats from the mean established for each line position (the first lines mostly contain two or three beats, the second lines are the most erratic, ranging from three to eight, while the third lines vary only twice from their regular five beats). More comforting are the rhymes we can count on landing at the end of each stanza, as well as the seemingly chaotic but ear-catching sound patterns Babstock employs. These include runs of alliteration (“the rye, the redux…”), the cadences that result from Babstock’s generous use of spondees (used more in other poems than here and which, instead of becoming “ticks” as he fears in the interview in this magazine, serve as lighthouses in a rocky prosodic harbour), and other patterns that are probably best described simply as the work of a poet with a good ear for heavily stressed lines. Even the title is a nice-sounding anapest. Finally, there is the shifting sentence structure Babstock employs. Often in this book, long and convoluted sentences are followed by direct, short, punchy ones. This keeps us on our toes, getting us in the mood to follow the bizarre logic and content, and creating an unpredictable pattern that keeps surprising us with its congestions and reliefs.

But while the poem’s structure lends needed order to “Light Sweet Crude,” the poem cannot survive without some semblance of an argument. As we have seen, without bringing prior knowledge of the references to the poem, the reader can glean just such a semblance that is in parts bewildering, intriguing, troubling and touching. And there remains the additional layer of meaning that can be gained by better understanding the references, even if only superficially. But why not be content with whatever image “Destroyer” elicits on its own and move on to the next poem’s entanglements?

I must say that I was content with my initial, ignorant reading of the poem, but I was also eager to discover what further depth the references might unlock. All told, it took about a half-hour to track them down. Destroyer, it turns out, is a rock band from Vancouver with a rebellious and ambitious edge that did begin, as is suggested in the poem, with one guy sitting in the corner of a room, which was serving as a makeshift studio, waiting for something to happen. Something did happen: eventually he formed Destroyer. Destroyer’s Rubies is a recent album from the band, and the title piece does seem apt for wild and far-flung interpretations. Klement Gottwald, whose “syphilitic blather” is compared to Rubies, was the Stalinist leader of Czechoslovakia from 1948 until 1953, when he died in part due to his syphilis. Spirochete, meanwhile, is a spiral-shaped bacterium that causes syphilis, among other diseases. This is the most helpful piece of information to come out of the research process. Coming as it does before “nebulae,” and referring as it does back to Gottwald and his syphilis, spirochete might just be the linchpin of this poem, if not the book. It is tiny from a human perspective, yet it is set beside the hugeness of spherical nebulae and thus parallels the “spiral” of road, “divisible from space” that is described just prior to it. This puts the Earth, with its destructive mines and spiraling roads as seen from space, in the place of Gottwald’s syphilis, because spirochete is also a spiral. That circular image also reinforces the circularity suggested by interiority, the fact that Destroyer is “curled” in the first stanza, the “wheel hubs” made of the tin mine, with its “hole and ore,” and the “round” in which this all occurs. Like Methodist Hatchet as a whole, this poem is spiraling in all directions, but is not out of control.

None of these connections are particularly clear or linear, but instead exist in a series of broken cycles that return and depart from their starting points seemingly at random. We, meanwhile, perceive these from a position similar to that ascribed to the early French surrealist, Lautréamont: from a groundlessness, “floating four feet above the ground.” That is simply how the poem works.In the end, we do not arrive at a cumulative or explicit understanding in this poem. Instead, we come to understand the way the poem moves: by way of bizarrely apt comparisons—most often only implied—that end hanging in the ether from which they were conjured. Like air, this poem disperses and touches all, but while we are struck by what is touched, it is the connective tissue of the poem with which we are left. Ralph Ellison claimed that the world moves by way of contradiction. Babstock is claiming that it is perceived by way of juxtaposition.


At this point, you might rightly question if what has just been performed can be rightly described as a “reading.” True, it is more like an investigation. Indeed, in attempting to understand this book, I had the thought that I was doing something as specialized as scientific research. Of course, one hopes that if put to the test, these poems would resonate more immediately than would a detailed analysis of rock formations or cell regeneration, but the fact remains that perhaps one out of twenty readers would get through the first poem of this collection.

Surely, some will lament this continuing turn away from the concreteness of Babstock’s first collection. And they would have a point; the gritty and emotional content that leads some readers to love Mean as if it were an early album from a rock band (“After Ten, Pearl Jam just never had that raw sincerity anymore”) has been more and more clouded over in Babstock’s following collections. That core has not, however, departed, and the layers now revolving around it make up a rich atmosphere. Methodist Hatchet is not another Mean, nor does it come very close to achieving that collection’s grounded force.

Still, there is much to be gained from hovering, and gains in this collection do not only involve complication and confusion. Methodist Hatchet is also playful. Consider, for instance, the end of the strange “Five Hours in St. Johns:” “Never open a flick-knife/ in a poncho with one eye on the pole star” (notice the spondees there). Or, from “Que Syria, Syria:”

I could have
taken prisoners but lack administration skills,
all those numbers followed by letters followed
by answering to Amnesty and ghosts
bringing in ghosts that exit as corpses.

This is slightly darker, but still playful in a way that Babstock’s work has rarely been. At times, Methodist Hatchet is even downright silly. Take the opening lines of “To Inflame the Civic Temper,” which borrows its title from William James: “Hey, assface in the hydroplane!/ Nut-Vice in the Prius!/ Headcheese in the snowmobile!” (it goes on like this). These moments of levity may surprise devoted Babstock readers and make them wary. No need. They nicely balance out both the darkness of poems like “To When We No Longer Die,” which morbidly hints at a burned-out future Earth, and the depressing materiality examined in the opening number, “The Decor.” There are a number of other tones achieved by the poems in this collection, as well as rhythms and forms to match, far too many to count here. Quite often, a single poem, or even stanza, contains multiple shifts of register. In the end, the juxtapositions balance out the way a large jabbering crowd does.

Still, despite the book’s overall balance, nothing comes easy to the reader of Methodist Hatchet. Indeed, a truth-seeker coming to this book for answers can find little better than the closing lines of “The Decor.” The lines describe a “disconnected current gage,” that is quite reminiscent of the book itself: “Consult it/ and it shivers on a hash mark.” In other words, don’t come here unless you’re willing to consult with uncertainty, dread, and the immeasurable (but also don’t be surprised to find levity). The book’s final line says essentially the same thing, suggesting we prepare for an unknowable future.


In A New Theory of American Poetry, Angus Fletcher makes a distinction between poems that seek a consistent, logical truth and those that seek to represent a coherent, nearly chaotic vision that admits a complexity that it cannot fully comprehend. “Coherence,” he writes, “differs from consistent mechanical conformity” in that “coherence shares the property of completeness, as distinct from axiomatic consistency.” Consistency, then, must block out significant sections of reality in order to rely on an artificially demarcated truth. Coherence, on the other hand, allows for uncertainty to intrude and overshadow the speaker, leaving both reader and poet in a profound state of wonder. However, the speaker is not completely overwhelmed, and that is why the poem remains “coherent” instead of random or chaotic. Fletcher’s analogy for the coherent poem is an ecosystem, which is at once a whole while also being an infinitely complex collection of moving parts. The comparison is applicable to Methodist Hatchet, which is full of tenuous connections that somehow hold and work together.

This makes Ken Babstock’s fourth collection far more than a book that will remain sequestered in the poetic subculture, to be read only by other poets. That is what Nick Mount has claimed in The Walrus, and he is probably right that the book won’t circulate far beyond poetic circles. But whose fault is that? His review also argues that all non-poets can only “listen in” to Methodist Hatchet, but how can Dr. Mount feel excluded from a book’s conversation when he is participating in that conversation by reviewing the book, in a national magazine, no less? The suggestion is that Babstock has turned away from his reading-only audience, but I get the feeling that it is the other way around.

The strangest thing about The Walrus review is that its author really seems to respect and enjoy the book, and, as an academic, he should be well at home in a conversation between poets; so why the animosity? In addition, Babstock is in conversation with all sorts of people here; it is not just poets, but also indie rockers, philosophers, politicians, scientists, economists, oil men, cities, and so on. It should be noted that Mount also claims there is an unspoken poets-only conversation going on in Methodist Hatchet, but in what art form does that not happen, and why should that be a barrier to a critic? By criticizing a conversation in which he is supposed to participate, Dr. Mount sounds like a politician criticizing a government to which he has been elected, and so is charged to improve. Instead of complaining that Babstock seems to be speaking to Karen Solie between his lines, Mount should comment on that discussion because that could be insightful.

In any case, it is unhelpful to claim that Methodist Hatchet is too narrow in its target audience or that it fails to, as Mount claims, produce “diamonds” that might explain our time in the way that Auden did for his. Auden’s “diamonds” certainly deserve the description, but I doubt they could satisfy us. Global warming, which haunts Methodist Hatchet, is not WWII. This is an oversimplification, but Nazism was morally reprehensible and atomic warfare was and is terrifying, but these things were and are subject to human control; the melting icebergs, on the other hand, might end it all, and there’s not a single thing we can do about it. If you also consider the factors that have led to global warming, you will notice that our diamonds have dissolved. Today’s looming issues are so complex that we cannot even know how to think about them, and so we require a poetry that reflects this ambiguity. It is not that the connection between poetry and the world’s major events and ideas isn’t there, but that many readers do not follow the poetry that asserts those connections.

Case in point: reading an article in the New York Times about the Gulf Oil Spill, one year later, I came across a sentence that resonates now as I consider Methodist Hatchet. It read, “what has emerged in studies so far is not a final tally of damage, but a new window on the complexities of the gulf, and the vulnerabilities and capacities of biological systems in the face of environmental insults.” Replace a few words, and that could be a description of Methodist Hatchet. Given that the situation in the gulf is but one of a host of currently unfolding and equally misunderstood crises involving highly complex systems, we might do well to spend time with a book like this one. It may not teach us what we can do in the face of our current confusion, but it hits the mark on how we might approach it. Still, the how presented in Methodist Hatchet, while not impossible to understand, will certainly prove difficult to apply. Babstock, then, is something like a baffled scientist investigating the limits of our comprehension. One is left wondering if this book’s poetic voice, affected as it is with Attention Deficit Disorder, represents our greatest opportunity to make sense of a seemingly schizophrenic world.

 

 

 

E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He received his MA in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto in 2009. His non-fiction has appeared in The Detroit Free Press, Pucklife.com, Broken Pencil Magazine and The Puritan. He is currently working on a poetry manuscript entitled For the Ghost of Muley Graves and looking for a home for another, Still. He teaches and writes in Toronto. You might know him as Ted. He can be reached at emartinnolan@hotmail.com. Read more essays—on sports, music, politics and more—and check out some poems at emartinnolan.wordpress.com.

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