“Is this about style?” On Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet

by Jennifer Moore

Methodist Hatchet. by Ken Babstock . Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2011. 101 pages. $14.95 softcover. ISBN: 978-0-88784-293-1.

Reviews of Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet have been mixed. Most have more or less mentioned the book’s difficulty; that Babstock is “no longer intelligible” and “wilfully obscure” (Shane Neilson); that the poems are at times “so thick with sound it’s difficult for the reader to find a way in” (Abby Paige), and the sense is of “eavesdropping on a conversation of which the reader is no longer part” (Nick Mount). All of these claims are pretty much spot-on. There are some strong moments, though; unfortunately, those moments don’t make up for the book’s deficiencies.

The first poem in the collection, “The Décor,” functions as its central thematic piece, a small-scale version of the book as a whole. The reader’s initially struck by its not-so-subtle critique of conspicuous consumption, and along with that the baggage of style, money, class, and value. While the poem considers the role home décor plays in offering a picture of status and wealth to the public—“a visual/of earned leisure” (2), this concern with style extends beyond this scope to the role of style in poetry. Babstock writes “Nothing now eases the buzzing/suspicion I’m being signaled to from across/a great distance” (1-2), and we feel the same way; but it’s Babstock signaling to us through the “clutter of//the manifest image” (4). However, what he wants is clear: for the reader to

 

Slide an arm right through

the surface of this picture,

into whatever spatial realm lies

behind the illusion of depth, to hold

the hand of the person

 

wanting so badly to be seen precisely

as they feel themselves to be (ibid)

 

One hears John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (“One would like to stick one’s hand/out of the globe, but its dimension,/what carries it, will not allow it”), and Babstock’s interest in the visual arts (Jeff Wall, Jeff Koons and Robert Rauschenberg show up later) is clear. However, where he wants his readers to see “whatever spatial realm lies/behind the illusion of depth,” often all we’re given is that illusion. At one point he asks, “Is this about style?” (3). We worry that’s all it’s about. Throughout the book, the reader peruses the design, which has supplanted the structure itself. Methodist Hatchet is built out of surface material and little else.

Most of Babstock’s strong moments occur in the book’s first half. For example, in “Radio Tower” we read: “Everything’s the colour of rabbits, scissored/from another world and pasted on thin” (37). Or in “Nottawasaga”: “Sky a motif of cowslip in clear ice, /mayflies make moon-dials of the flagstones” (77). And in “As Marginalia in John Clare’s The Rural Muse”, a hospital is the setting for a consideration of ailment, perhaps the same sort Clare suffered while finishing his last collection. Here, Babstock depicts a view:

 

Hexagonal window, the moon

 

penned in it, and a segmented swarm sucking

up peonies (5)

 

The beauty here lies in its simplicity. Where the language is clarified, pared down and precise, Babstock succeeds. That kind of gracefulness is minimal in this collection, its resonance oftentimes drowned out by the buzzing of so much else.Another strong poem is “Caledonia,” a political piece centered on the protests regarding the Grand River land dispute in Ontario in 2006:

 

Then we came out in numbers. Organized as Canadians

we came out in numbers with flags. With flags aloft

 

and hooting we stepped out in anger and in numbers. In

numbers as Canadians we came out drunk and threw rocks.

 

We threw rocks and golf balls as our patience had come to its

natural end. As Canadians we threw rocks past our flags aloft. (10)

 

Again, where Babstock is strong is where he is able to pare down both language and lineation. Here, the result is a poem in couplets that works on the logic of pattern and variation, whose repetition and circling indicates a kind of futility. “Caledonia” enacts through language the difficulty in affecting political change or social action.

Where the poems are unsuccessful is where they lapse into wordplay (“Que Syria, Syria”), overwrought syntax (“Bathynaut”) or longish narratives with little momentum to carry the reader through (“Coney Burns,” “Russian Doctor”). His poems range in topic (sugar gliders, video games, Lee Atwater) as well as in formal choice (tercets, quatrains, sestets, longer stanzas, end rhyme), but this wild variance slips around the halfway point of the book. As Babstock writes in “The Living Text,” “the slipknot of visuals begins to undo” (20), and at times it’s hard to see why these poems exist in a volume together. At best, Methodist Hatchet is kaleidoscopic; at worst, it’s haphazard.

But what I’m most struck by here is the ambivalence Babstock seems to have regarding his status as a writer, and where he stands among other writers. Many poems cite figures: Theodor Adorno, William James, David Foster Wallace; the Johns Clare and Ashbery. Other writers pop in and out like snippets of conversation: T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Antonio Gramsci, Don DeLillo. At times the effect is of name-dropping, and one notices a pattern in those referenced: mostly literary or philosophical figures, and all men. In this book I hear an anxiety of influence—a man trying to understand why he does what he does—but in doing so, he overdoes the poems themselves. The reader is left with “the fuzz of bafflement” (84), surrounded by so much stuff, but with little understanding of the significance of the stuff. I wish I felt this was deliberate on the part of Babstock—that he’s making some comment about how hard it is to live in our bewildering contemporary moment—but the poems don’t resonate beyond their own boundaries. The effect of the book is kaleidoscopic, but there’s no center focus to hold the dazzle together.

 

Ken Babstock is the author of three previous collections of poetry: Mean (Anansi, 1999), Days into Flatspin (Anansi, 2001), and Airstream Land Yacht (Anansi, 2006), which was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize and won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. His poems have been anthologized in Canada, the United States, and Ireland and The Oxford Anthology of Canadian Literature. A former poetry editor at Anansi Press, he lives in Toronto.

Jennifer Mooreis a PhD candidate in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and serves as Poetry Editor for Another Chicago Magazine.