Marrow Review Re-Seen: Robert Priest’s Previously Feared Darkness (ECW, 2013)

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What Shines: The title (Priest has some of the best in the biz). The cover with its spotlit bubbles swallowing the lettering into dimness. Priest’s combination of a consistency of stylistic word play, fascination with the prose poem and persistently aural politicking found in books from 1988′s The Mad Hand (a most influential collection) to 2008′s Reading the Bible Backwards with an always renewed approach to contemporary issues translated through a deep bee-bop idiom and an allusive tracery that stretches from Harper to Conrad. “And Poetry Started to Rush Out” begins the collection with a crucial whoosh that finds its counterpart past the initial political jabs with the tribute to Milton Acorn, “Acorn’s Oak” which asks for a tree to be planted where “Acorn broke the law/when he shouted I shout love.” The philosophically-tinged humour in lines from “Leonard’s Koans” is then potently echoed by lines from “Micro Poems” that close the book like “I can see into the present” and “The only true poetry is the longing for poetry” and of course the Meme Splice pieces also resonate rapidly off each other, one side of the binary often more powerful than the other in its slippages, with irony being the memorable displacement rather than iron (“I have several ironies in the fire”) and forest more than force (“she was a forest to be reckoned with”). I think that Priest is most brilliant at the engagingly playful yet utterly serious prose poem. “Book of Jobs” and “Poemem” both assail mass tendencies towards  conformity in relation to religion and statistics with a punchy unfolding of satire: “Experts claim that the public will heartily reject this poemem. They will not read it in droves.” And “What is the Word for Word” along with “Just a Wee Bit about Fucking” are the most erotic and yet funny poems I have read in a long time. O yes, “We want to word until our lips are sore. We want to stroke one word against another until the friction almost hurts.”

What Stumbles: Well, of course Priest sometimes takes it all too far. It’s hard to resist playing with language to the nth degree and on occasion, as in pieces like “Give us the Floor” or “Rights Left” an original premise of sound and meaning is perhaps taken past its fullest power, a tendency also evidenced in the visceral rants, “The Waistland” and “Asshole Sky” where the metaphor is dragged beyond its Ex-Lax catharsis into a realm of the runs-off at the mouth. But you see, just his willingness to be both a juggler of language and a speaker of truths is worth a read through all of Priest’s diverse oeuvre.

What it Echoes: jazz (“I give you a brass version of grief”), medieval banquets, nursery rhymes, Edward Gorey, The Song of Songs, Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum.

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