Reviewed by Zackary Sholem Berger
Few things are as foolhardy as venturing a definition of poetry, but the history of poetry can provide safe harbor. One of many strands that has contributed to poetry is the song. Thus the reader seeing a poem for the first time, blessed or encumbered with common cultural baggage, would expect it to be something singable, or at least tuneful. If you claim that a poem can be nothing more than a virtuosic display of variegated wordforms, I can still ask where the music is. Though the question may be naïve, it is not illegitimate.
Trying to define the prose poem would be just as foolhardy, but the historical uses of prose provide one way to understand the genre's possibilities. At its broadest, prose has been whatever can be put down on paper, from lists of military conquests to the roll-call of the dead. So the prose poem is not the intersection of prose and poetry, but the use of prose in the widest sense of the word, in the way encompassing the most possibilities.
One way to explore these possibilities is to turn back the clock, imagining that the deadening effects of various contemporary uses of prose can be reverted. You can become a myth-maker, mining a spare but connotative vocabulary that has its parallels in the Bible or the French neoclassical playwrights: the same words, images, and ideas, repeated over and over again in different combinations, can cover the entire universe--just like (it is said) God took only ten utterances to make the whole world.
This mythmaking lies at the foundation of Irregular Numbers of Beasts and Birds, a book of prose poetry by Cecil Helman. Besides being a novelist and a poet, Helman is best-known for his medical anthropology. Story-archetypes, and the ways they are made concrete in lives and bodies, are his very bread. People falling in love, giving birth, dying, becoming insane--these basic stories appear time and again in Helman's research and his literature.
The most effective poems in Helman's book preserve the immediacy and vividness of such basic stories. It feels wrong to give away for free “The Second Ark,” the last poem in the collection, but it's hard to resist quoting:
The Second Ark
I think of Noah, his crowded Ark. The symmetry of it all. The neat geometry of design. The two-by-two of everything. Half male, half female. Two doves sent out. A Flood that lasts exactly twice times twenty days. Not more. All this symmetry makes me think that, somewhere out there, there's another Noah. In another Ark, on another Flood. A chaotic Ark, filled with irregular numbers of beasts and birds. A bewildered Noah with three wives, or none. Still floating. Sending out doves in random threes, or fives. A Noah who cannot calculate when it will all end. Whether the Flood will go on forever, or end the day before it began.
This prose poem encapsulates Helman's strengths: the cyclic nature of all existence that he can contain within these short pieces; the deceptively simple approach, beginning with a short remark ("I think of Noah . . .") that blossoms into an entire garden of observations. Here, a myth (the Bible's) with a definable beginning and end, destruction and redemption, is transformed into something more like our own experience, with an unclear destination and no promised rebuilding. Because Noah doesn't find his Ararat, because he might have to sail on forever, his experience is more like our own. But for that very reason--because the reader's eye does not light upon the expected redemption--this prose poem is wonderfully strange.
This is what Helman does throughout the book, bringing myths (scientific, romantic, religious) into confrontation with our everyday, whose cycles are less sublime. In "Relativity," we meet the woman who bends time: "Wherever that woman is, time either stops, or it runs too slow." Another woman (in a different piece) speaks hieroglyphics. In "Bar Scene," a "crowded bar[, s]moke and sweat, and juke box roaring" gives way to a series of images, and increasing confusion on the part of the narrator:
Woman in a leopardskin leotard, big earrings, peroxided hair, screaming into my ear. Who is she? . . . Behind the bar the barman pours me out yet another drink, shrugs. Why is he shaking his head?
For the reader fed on prose, such deceptively simple myth bust-ups pose a problem. When an image from the everyday is presented as an artistic unit, without enlivening context, it can seem only everyday--boring, trivial. The piece "Therapy" can be read as a sharply ironic portrait of a therapist ("Tick-tock. A plush Persian carpet. Uh-huh. I'm afraid our time's up. See you tomorrow, then. Same time. Tick-tock."), or, on the other hand, as a same-old-same-old therapist cliche. Sometimes Helman asks too much of such a reader, piling on the blunting cliches just when a piece is tapering to a point. "Relativity" ends with: "They say even Einstein was puzzled by her. And so am I." The last observation is unnecessary. "Artist" is a clever portrait of a renowned artist whose canvases are all blank, whose paints are untouched: "That's why they say he's a great artist. Perhaps the greatest abstract artist of them all. They must be right, I guess." Here too the last affirmation weakens the poem.
If poetry should be good prose, this should be all the more true for prose poetry. But this is a misleading supposition, especially if "good prose" is taken to mean (as it often is) clear, workaday, expository sentences. When reading a prose poem, we should expect different things from what our quotidian eye is trained to see. We want to strip away our layered expectations and arrive at a basic, mythic, immediate understanding. (At least, this is one possible way of approaching the prose poem. It could be called the Turgenev model, as opposed to Baudelaire's conception, rich, heady stews just this side of overwrought.) If this is the approach we want to take, we should give the prose poet some leeway, enough to let him use certain tropes ("And so am I") which have become cliched through careless overuse. We should cut him some slack as--we hope--he cuts away the weeds and leads us back to the myths which language was connected to in its earliest days.
The question is, then, how to appreciate Helman's book. The myths are powerful but the cliches are dangerous. If a balance can be struck, it might require the ability to synthesize the two: the familiar patterns of the expository in the service of poetry's ability to creatively undermine. This ability, in turn, might depend on the reader even more than the author. Which is to say that the reviewer (like this one) who felt impatient at this book's cliches should also be grateful for the myths dissected by Helman.