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Book Review W. Scott Howard
Human Crying Daisies: Prose Poems
Ray Gonzalez
Red Hen Press, 2003 ($13.95)

Following the genre’s emergence in Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit (1842), Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris (1869), and Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1872-76), the prose poem (in France as well as in America) has developed primarily along two lines of achievement and influence: cubism and surrealism. For cubists, such as Max Jacob, the form articulates abrupt juxtapositions of simultaneous perceptions and experiences; for surrealists, such as Paul Eluard, the genre limns rhapsodic (often nostalgic) lyricism.

Ray Gonzalez’s Human Crying Daisies gathers eighty-eight prose poems that evoke both of those strains, as attested by the book’s endorsements. On the one hand, John Bradley underscores the poet’s “lethal and life-giving” modalities: “Ray Gonzalez plays the prose poem like a guitar designed by Miro made from insect wings, Coltrane’s sweat, Robinson Jeffers’ tombstones, Santana’s Walkman, the clay of copulating Aztec grave figures, and the tongue of a dog named Rimbaud.” On the other hand, Morton Marcus highlights the “truths and wonders” in the poet’s work: “There is a sacred river that runs through the cosmos composed of all knowledge past and present. Only shamans and bards of the rarest order are able to approach its radiant waters and to utter the visions they encounter on its banks.” At their best, Gonzalez’s texts in this trim volume succeed on both fronts and convey dimensions of experience and knowledge not accessible via more restrictive forms of either prose or verse. The works collected therein, however, are not always representative of this poet’s best accomplishment. (Note 1)

Human Crying Daisies is a mixed book of compact works: most of the poems do shine—some quite brilliantly—but a handful of the texts are obscured by their composition. My principle concern with the volume, however, is that this collection lacks a definitive gesture that might lend more coherence to the work as a book rather than as a gathering of disparate, uneven texts. The book’s division into four sections seems artificial; the sequence of prose poems, arbitrary. At the same time, though, many of the strongest texts here are endowed with a luminescence emitted by the “invisible patterns of living things” (“What Is This?” 31), which suggests, I believe, a phenomenological grounding for the collection. In my reading of the book, I’ve noted four recurring themes, which correspond with that emphasis: talismans; reverse epiphanies; fields of experience; and invocations. Across those themes Gonzalez’s texts employ some of the poetic devices commonly associated with the genre—syncretic appositives; compressed imagery and sustained intensity; rhythmic and figural repetition; and ekphrasis—often to startling effects.

Within the cluster of works (such as “The Grape,” “Snails,” and “Parenthesis,” for example) that explore the significance of talisman-like objects, “Max Jacob’s Shoes” seems particularly strong. This homage to Jacob reveals the predominance of the cubist line of influence for Gonzalez, which the poet in fact acknowledges by way of his own statement of gratitude to Eduardo Galeano, Julio Cortazar, and Max Jacob (among others) for “a lifetime of inspiration toward the prose poem” (6). Gonzalez’s syncretic appositives here shape contiguous frames of perception: the discovery of Jacob’s shoes “out of a mountain of trash”; the new walker’s realization that “he wore the shoes of a poet”; the shoelaces’ recitation while the man sleeps, “the poems drifting out at night” (45). In the morning, the shoes convey the man to a church “Jacob never would have entered” where their mysterious power again transfers to another host:

The new owner of the shoes went into a church for the first time in over thirty years, the shoes echoing across the silent sanctuary where a surprised priest waited, sensing the approach of Jewish shoes. After the stranger revealed his sins to the priest, he emerged from the dark confessional and looked down at his bare feet. He went back to the tiny chamber, but Max Jacob’s shoes were gone, their hushed disappearance casting a steady light of awareness on the barefoot man, the helpless priest, and even the two mice in the sanctuary who revealed themselves to no one that night as they busily gnawed on a pair of twisted shoelaces. (45)

In “The Quest”—one of my favorite texts in the book—Gonzalez’s layered appositive phrases verge toward a stream-of-consciousness effect achieved through compacted imagery and sustained intensity. This piece unfolds a reverse epiphany in a fashion comparable to Gonzalez’s method in “He Calls His Dog Rimbaud,” “Bamboo Face,” and “The Bird Of Dreams.” The enigmatic situation in “The Quest” suggests the aftermath of both childhood play and a destructive fire:

An old GI Joe doll, arms cut off, tied by the legs with shoestring to a roller skate, his face crayon green, wheels on the skate wide enough to slip a small baseball bat in between them, the handle decorated with comic book covers glued onto the wood, Superman twisting around to meet the jump rope tied to the bat, one end dragging a stuffed Mickey Mouse [. . .] the whole mess found inside a cardboard doll house, most of the walls burned off, the roof intact but full of holes pounded with a fist that made sure GI Joe and Mickey faced each other in their tight spot, their mouths touching, the crayon signature on one wall unreadable when I stepped into the ruins and took a look. (68)

In my reading of this book, the majority of texts attempt to convey simultaneous fields of experience—some in the mode of Jacob, others in the manner of Eluard. Most of these efforts are effective and exciting: such as, for example, “As If Talking,” “History,” “The Gingko Tree,” “Man With Blue Guitar,” and “Post Terror.” Rhythmic and figural repetitions play a key role in these cases, inflecting strings of images with patterned syntactical and tonal motifs. The book’s title poem, “Human Crying Daisies,” unfortunately strikes me as the least successful text in this thematic gathering—perhaps because of the work’s excessive reliance upon the rhapsodic strain. In addition to repetitions of sound and imagery, Gonzalez’s pieces that portray divergent and convergent planes of experience also frequently utilize ekphrasis, as in “Staring at Rodin”:

The severed head of John the Baptist lies in the glass, eyes of shock looking at The Thinker whose massive feet are gnarled against the rock of what you live through when you see how Rodin mounted the body against the blackness of the inescapable cord—the fiber of the fused man and woman who twist out of the same maze of bone, lovers leaving their brains under the great weight of Rodin’s hands. (73)

Virtually all of the prose poems in this book include representations of visual content; ekphrasis thus plays a pivotal role for Gonzalez—as it often does across the genre’s diversified tradition—charging the interplay between poetic themes and devices with intense, productive ambivalence. Note especially, in the block quotation above, the effect resulting from the combination of appositive phrases set within the larger context of pictorial representation: each abrupt syntactical shift contracts and intensifies the emotion conjured by the stark images. Gonzalez’s invocation poems (such as “When You Visit Me,” “What Reason Could I Give?,” “Joan Miro Threw A Stone At God,” and “Underneath”) also employ ekphrasis as a vehicle for merging characteristics of subject and style. The first of these invocation texts, for example, signals the yearning for presence through a variable refrain—“When you visit me . . . When you come . . . When you arrive . . . When you visit me” (21)—set within a nostalgic collage of rich images: a bowl of fruit, grasshoppers, hummingbirds, and boats “waiting at the dock for one of us to appear” (21).

The poetic themes (i.e. talismans; reverse epiphanies; fields of experience; and invocations) and devices (i.e. syncretic appositives; compressed imagery and sustained intensity; rhythmic and figural repetition; and ekphrasis) that I have underscored reflect, of course, my own particular interpretation of what seems to be an implicit phenomenological crux for Human Crying Daisies. By exaggerating certain tendencies in the prose poems themselves, I have endeavored to offer a synthetic reading that also illustrates, I hope, the degree to which those matters of subject and style apply not only within but (more importantly) across the categories of poetic theme and device fashioned for this review.

This last reflection upon the relationship between critical and creative writing ultimately returns to the paradoxical and playful substance and significance of hybrid forms of literary art. Should a book of prose poems be organized according to a unifying principle? Or must the prose poem remain aloof, disparate and resistant to standardized notions of genre and the book? Gonzalez’s texts would seem to reply ambivalently to both of those questions with a series of gestures that devise literary tradition as a working context of and for artistic change.

1. Ray Gonzalez is a prolific and celebrated essayist, poet, and editor. Some of his recent publications include: a collection of essays, The Underground Heart: A Return to a Hidden Landscape (Arizona, 2002), which received the 2003 Texas Institute of Letters Award for Best Book of Non-fiction; a book of poetry, Turtle Pictures (Arizona, 2000), which received the 2001 Minnesota Book Award for Poetry; and an anthology, No Boundaries: Prose Poems by 24 American Poets (Tupelo Press, 2002). Professor Gonzalez currently teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at The University of Minnesota.