Dave Russell on
Gift – God Runs Through All These Rooms
Hog Press 2020
The central core of this collection is the principle of contrariety. In his poem 'Como', Voorhees describes himself as ‘Scholar of catastrophe, student of earthquake’. He struggles to find the positive in a seemingly overwhelming negativity: 'Journeys over nothing embrace stability.'
This stance has linguistic repercussions. In true Joycean spirit, he breaks key words up into their component syllables; some separated syllables go off on tangents, while others form contraries to the original compound. Puns and homophones can also express contrariety:
Gardens need more guards—/violets violated, robin eggs all robbed.//Future’s days seem few./Verse can’t restore Universe:/ penalty-clogged pens.//World’s orbit is whirled . . . Peace sounds in pieces, the hole is found in the whole.
Accords between meek and might are accordions/ compressed and stretched, stung and tortured between locks and boxes:
Some of us are burden, some are bird . . . How divide pacifists from their fists?
pile/driver process piled/river chaos divide the warrant and the judge from the general and the war/rant
Many of the poems have a strong graphic feel, such as Escher’s Sharks and Rose Couplette. He is always ready to experiment with traditional forms: 'Your Task, Haijin' is a series of haikus, although with beginning-and-end-rhymes.
Voorhees certainly does not flinch from the funny side of his language games: 'Airy Poppings' –'Super caliph/rajah/mystic/rex: be all atrocious.'
INSURANCE FRAUD: A COMEDY IN THREE ACTS (précis)
ACT I. Invalid invalid can cancan, cha cha, go-go.
ACT II. Patient patient stayed staid.
ACT III. Con fined, confined.
‘Unanonymous assassin’ is an interesting coining. He can play clever games with alliteration and syllable manipulation: 'who windowed the world exiled the wind' – after all, windows were originally designed as wind-breaks.
Ethereal Material: An Echo Tech’s Sfumato expresses cosmic chaos in something like garbled computer speak: technical hiccups can generate some highly original vocabulary:
In our hevenell shadoworld
where mounplains look like rivered deserts
and stonewind is the same as starsand as fireice
abovebelow the Styxky in winterspringsummerfall,
no one can tell earth from pearl.
Mornoonight of presentpast:
At this smudgedge moment of Ex(isn’t)ence,
who of us can distinguish
one goodbad angeldevil from another?
The collection has a wide emotional range, from dark profundity to jocularity. With 'In Munster', he takes the Limerick form, and scrambles the lines as continuous prose.
Some black humour with 'How to Become a Sword-Swallower'. 'Suit for Every Season' is the cleverest poem I have come across using playing card imagery: ‘Clubs for the living, spades for the dead. Diamonds for the rich ones, hearts for the poor.' Also a supreme witticism: 'Sailors and gamblers all die between decks . . .’
In 'A Pathology of my Apathy; Or, The Anatomy of Inaction', he pokes salutary fun at aesthetes’ self-indulgent escapism, resenting the affairs of the world for disrupting ‘the state of Zen . . . cool mediation’.
Its total perspective is truly cosmic, embracing the essential features of Physics and Chemistry. There is strong emphasis on the relativity of time: 'We all live in tomorrow’s yesterday . . . We all live in yesterday’s tomorrow . . . my future lies still in my past.' There is even a reference to generational relativity: 'at which when did we become our parents?'
In 'Buckeye Boys' he makes a savage indictment of redneck racism. Likewise, in 'Angels’ Allies', he attacks the wave of violence, arson and murder, rife in the United States: '. . . torrents of TV blood and horror/ entombed the country’s slumbering shame and guilt/ beneath accumulations of mud and silt.'
Even in peacetime, he has a bleak view of the brutality of big-city bustle, as in 'The Collared Man Ponders His Fate': '. . . pedestrians processed like meat butchered by shadows . . .' A further comment on inner urban squalor in 'Slumber O Slum'.
He also shows no reticence about the seedy side of relationships, especially in 'Damned on Demand'. Hispanic jealousy and potential crimes of passion get lurid coverage in 'The Don Comes After The Knight'. And 'Juanita? She Stays in Bed'. This candour extends to his own offspring, as in 'Constructive Advice to my Daughter Sarubia' – severe but realistic? This contrasts with 'Sweaters, Gloves, and Rubber Tires', which warmly celebrates enduring married life, and with 'Paintbox, Baby', which takes a benign view of muses and poetic inspiration.
He astutely appraises the role of conflict in the human ethos:
I said: Patriotism’s the formula for a love that crosses the borders of the personal./ You said: And war is its necessary antidote./I said: Duty’s the polestar of civilization. You said: Warfare, its magnetic opposite!
In 'Declaration Manifesto Palimpsest' he examines Utopian visions. A Palimpsest involves two layers of writing, where the submerged layer remains visible, and the substance of the two layers can be fused. It begins with the rhetoric of the post-revolution Classless society, and then makes an abrupt switch to ‘We, the ruling class . . .’ and a trenchant parody of the American Constitution/Bill of Rights, which spells out brutally the principle that ‘might is right’. And then a ‘twist’: when a government becomes destructive of the needs of the people, there is a right to abolish it. There is finally a suggestion of a benign constitution.
As the diametric opposite of these visions, Duane sometimes evinces a deep, pessimistic stoicism, as in Re: '. . . there is no/ remission, no alternative /course, no distinction, no discrimination, no/ recourse, no/ petition, just the endless repetition repetition/ of that single truth,/ fused so tightly in our sockets it can’t be ignored, can’t be/ refused.' Indeed, 'tramp we must amidst our dust battalions.'
But then, in 'Most High', he makes a scathing indictment of an anthropomorphised God, akin to an utterly capricious, self-indulgent film director: 'So God proceeded to split CinemaScopic seas from Technicolor earth.' But then he goes one further, and reverses the principles of creation: 'and then mirrored himself in the clay and carved himself from the ribs . . .', then fell asleep afterwards! That satire is reiterated in Who Says God Is Dead? – '. . . spends His dime in His new chromium karmamachine,/ awaits His electric ice.'
Interesting gloss on the expulsion from the Garden of Eden in 'By Leaving Paradiso'.
His cynicism about the Godhead, naturally enough, extends to the Priesthood, as in 'Grace Means': 'Gifts Received at Christ’s Expense': their attitude is thoroughly brutal and extortionate. Their protestations are the purest cant and hypocrisy: 'This Assisi coos his sermon to his pigeons,/ who flock from their coops to seek out their new Gideon.'
Concomitantly with this, he can say, in 'Como': 'poets are: Godlings! Who add fingers on the feet—/ who abuse order like cops upon the beat—/ who abandon our good grammar’s delight/ just to make what’s left sound right.' Conversely, 'The Day Frank Came Alive' shows the funny side of a poet’s struggle for expression, his difficult responses to nudges and his complicated feelings about his role models. 'My Reading' captures with extraordinary acuity a ‘live’ poet’s struggle for self-expression, the sense of ‘groping in the dark, and all the sub-texts of stutterings. 'The History of our Art, Illustrated: From Madonna and Child to Mud on a Windshield' depicts the Sisyphean task of exhaustive reading of erudite tomes.
'Good News' laments the tendency of the world’s journalist to edit out the awkward and difficult aspects of experience. But in 'Mean Time', he takes the contrary view: 'news in type/ bears no promise/ save of strike/ and head lined gore . . . ink of scribe/ has no memory/ unless petrified/ in blood and stone . . .'
'Headlines, and What Happens to our Myths' extends this lament in the form of a verbal collage: one line in the form of a mock-headline, the following line in the form of a wry comment or sub-text, sometimes indirect. Again, homophones and punning are used to great effect: '. . . cyclops in smog will O.D. on eye drops . . . giants can’t beat the brains out of science . . .'
In 'Castiron Ocean', the cosmos and the elements ironically provide metaphors for man’s abuse of the ecosphere. Human beings are (probably aptly) described as Edison’s children, after the great pioneer of electrical engineering. But in 'An Open Letter to the Critics of The Dawn' he can express naïve appreciation of nature as supreme spectacle, supreme theatre.
'One Almost Had It All' is a condensed, poeticised life story, from youthful exploration and adventure to middle-aged cynicism. 'Dogs I Been' is a charming panorama of the canine world, with all its many different breeds, and some quasi-human qualities.
Voorhees's feeling of being a ‘divided self’ is encapsulated in this poem, which I feel I must quote in full:
I AM DETERMINED
I am composed (heroicoward)
of genes and bones, (godevil)
family and habitat, (saintyrant)
disease and chemistry. (patriotraitor)
I’m a mosaic (anxioustoic)
of history and destiny, (assiduousluggard)
passion and intellect, (youngeezer)
language and location. (sawood)
An amalgamation (coperp)
of planning andcircumstance, (doveagle)
id, ideology, identity, (diamondull)
economics and character. (doveagle)
A confederation (conquerorefugee)
of carbon and quarks, (laughowl)
caste and opportunity, (windowall)
rule and randomness. (wolflock)
A collage (monogamouswinger)
of gender and pigmentaion, (foground)
of luck and morality, (piusinner)
profession and appearance. (hatchetree)
Jigsaw puzzle (anchoreacher)
of luck and morality, (honesthief)
chromosomes and archetypes. (masculineunuch)
David Russell © 2020