Issue 3 |

rev. of The Carnation by Paul Hannigan


In "A Microtome," Paul Hannigan suggests "naming each orgasm after a famous magician." Sleight-of-hand seems to me the key to the poems in
The Carnation: sometimes the drone of conversation or the montony of the mind just rambling is inexplicably transformed into vision -- clear, hard, wrought vision; sometimes a sort of camp nonchalance or cute slapstick is alchemized into a desperate sense of exile or a cosmic puppetshow in which the reader and the poet have their strings tangled; sometimes the farce of not wanting or not being able to write the poem you are writing suddenly becomes your whole life, trapped on a larger stage.

The Italians have a word for this:
sprezzatura, making the extremely difficult seem almost accidental, making a kind of built-in modesty the emblem of an exquisite and hard-won craft. For instance, Hannigan will soften us up with a joke that is only a joke:

Nature Poem

I took down my trousers

And sat on the Xerox machine

And then, when we least expect it, the same tenor of grotesqueness, of easy jocularity, burns itself permanently into our minds. The fifth section of "Study Aids," first printed in
Ploughshares # 1, has been bugging me for months: it is so funny, and so absolutely correct, and so dismally unhappy:

In learning your own language

There will be words you can never learn

Cut them from the pages

With a razor

Swallow the paper

Choke on it

Envy the termite

And the silverfish

And yet what makes
The Carnation strong as a volume is the immense range and variety of the poems. They are not all Dark Vaudeville or Rabelaisian Epiphany. There is also a strain of straight lyricism, as in "Paradise Album," "The Burning Babe," "Melisma," or "First Love." Hannigan is best when he follows his own ears, and lets the poem sing itself. I like his work least when he is trying hardest, as in the parody "Wallace Stevens Song." His most successful "experimental" verse seems to me "Microtome," containing one hundred chapters each consisting of only a drifting pharse; the intensity of each varies, but the cumulative effect is overwhelming.

And beneath, or above, it all we see the poet himself: weary, horny, in love and out, hungering, scoffing, or just remembering. Musing over an old photo album he wonders (these are the best lines in the book, to my mind):

And what fraction of your lifelong boredom

Is owing to these just claims of ectasy?