Saint Sebastian was a loyal Roman soldier despite his tendency to preach Christianity — a practice the emperor Diocletian could not tolerate and so ordered Sebastian shot to death with arrows. Sebastian survived this death sentence, but was eventually cudgeled by Diocletian’s men. His body was buried in a garden along the Appian Way, dug up, divided and dispersed throughout Europe. His head remains in Luxembourg.
Sebastian’s body, riddled with arrow-wounds, has been a popular subject of European art ever since. Artists as dissimilar as Raphael and Schiele have painted the saint, pierced and holed. His body’s metaphor is particularly interesting now when so many people are voluntarily perforating themselves. The trend recognizes the link between surface wounds and depth. In his new collection of poetry, Telegrams from the Psych Ward, Burlington writer Marc Awodey works the same vein. He reminds us of the corporeal’s importance and how, any time a surface is punctured, the hidden is exposed.
This piercing, that brings the inside out, aids in understanding Awodey’s poetry. Throughout this collection, he explores the ambiguous relationship of inner to outer, drawing, then erasing the borders through poignant juxtapositions. Dark and light, sane and insane, Canada and the U.S., past and present, diluvial and dry. This dichotomizing appears even in the two opening epigraphs — one a stoic description of lyric poetry from a 1913 textbook and the other a quote from Jean Cocteau that reads, “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.”
After an opening epigraph like stanza that details a bruised pastoral scene of the end of Eden, the title poem reads,
It is too windy to
sit in sunlight.
Saplings would go indoors
if they could.
Birds cannot manage.
No one strolls the green this
Cirrus words rush
as if trying to elude
All that has come,
will fall from the sphere
fruits of the World
ripen sooner each year
in measures beyond
in measures of failed
Awodey gently teaches the reader how to approach and prepare for a broader comprehension of the deeper relationships between form and image: The psych-ward setting, a world in constant collapse that question what is container and what is contained, and the notion of insanity as a wound that exposes the hidden. These are apparent in passages such as:
Father sat seized like The Thinker
at foot of his daughter’s bed.
Mother watched wretchedly alone
a few feet away from her result.
I caught them from a hallway
while returning to my room,
I accidentally looked in
in an abrupt pebble of a glance
Awodey’s words transport the reader to a position of stability amid instability. That is, he introduces the reader to his idea of revolution that encapsulates both meanings: battle and cycle. Themes return altered, perennial images resurface diluted and eroded by the submersion in Awodey’s watery world. “Let ego lap,” is one refrain in his title poem. It establishes the littoral stage for the poems that follow — the shoreline where opposing ambiguities exist simultaneously.
Water is everywhere in Telegrams and, as in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” there is no redemption despite so much water. But unlike in Eliot, there is no need for redemption. Awodey draws from a tradition outside the black-and-white of Christianity. Instead he deals with the paradox that allows destruction to be a simultaneous creation, that allows a wound to be beneficial.
The 17 poems comprising this collection are culled from Awodey’s independently published “booklettes,” which are available throughout New England in his poetry vending machines — reclaimed cigarette and tampon dispensers. The movement of his poems from dispersed to collected and back again mimics the same shifting borders that cross notions of surface and skin. His poems simultaneously hold up place and state of mind and spin the distinction into a blur until there is no distinction at all. For example, Awodey sets his poem “Quebec” on the snowy “Plains of Abraham,” where mud, deer and maples exist alongside cars and street lights. But from this surface erupts “New France” and the French and British generals of the Battle of Quebec, “Montcalm and Wolfe” — the place’s past. This poem that harbors both past and present rewards readers by allowing them to become unhinged from reality or corporeality to a corpor-unreality. It has the illusion of solidity yet slips loose from a linear passage of time, arriving at the closing stanza:
No one can say
or conceive of what
the next revolution may bring.
Awodey toys with time and liberates language. This fooling and foiling with past and present is a suitable technique, as his poetry invokes everything from medieval lyric to Celan’s dark moods to Lorca’s deathward-leaning duende to Ginsberg’s howl.
Awodey’s lovely poem, “The Poetry of Place,” is presented in three parts: “Ruin,” “A Majestic Girl” and “The Winooski Bridge.” A confused weave makes a complex tapestry, challenging readers to pull disparate threads together. All three sections are condensed into one poem — a collection of oddities which selects three of the tiniest positions to represent a cosmos. This pointillism is beautiful, particularly as the three sections eventually create the portrait of a river.
“Memoria” takes a similar approach, but allows an even greater distance between points. Skipping from a dusty childhood’s “Nirvana of banana seats” to the Memphis of Isis and Osiris to the Memphis of Elvis to fish cleaning to the lunar landing, these poems cut a roomy swath for the reader. They permit wandering until the closing line, where Awodey focuses attention and demands his meaning:
I saw the first gulls
I had seen in months, while you
were making love somewhere else.
What has come before in this poem — the ruminations, the portraits of place — now, in light its final line, resonate on an entirely different note.
Secrets under a surface, whether it be water or “under the rose,” abound in Awodey’s work. “Shibboleth” says:
Finches’ beaks are sharp as knives
their shrill notes pierce warm days
The fruit of song birds is inarticulate flight.
The fruit of flowers is faded color.
Between the crestfallen quivers of
a few red, barnacled leaves — who
the shibboleth of my name
gone yellow, gone brown, once
This final stanza can be viewed from all sides and still not yield its secret entirely, because it is hidden in the promise of new seasons and in the turn of language. Derived from the Hebrew, a shibboleth literally means either an ear of corn, a flood or a stream. The “sh” sound was impossible for the fugitive Ephraimites to pronounce, and so the word became the Gileadites’ test to locate outsiders. This same sense of a hidden word is found in Awodey’s poem, “This Lake Has No Name,” a haunting tribute to Lake Champlain where once again the secrets of the past, known only to the dead, are invoked.
A shibboleth is a succinct metaphor for Awodey’s poetry all together. These poems are the shibboleth that separates his broad knowledge of history and literature from that of the rest of us. His poetry is not for the lazy reader, but the curious one who is willing to reference a variety of traditions, styles and levels of meaning in piecing together their rich stories.