Review by Joshua Blackman (@josh_blackman)
Ostentation of Peacocks by Daniel Kane (Egg Box Publishing, 2008)
Of all the poets, the nature poet is perhaps the most risible, being the most concerned with seeing and the least able to really see. S/he observes the ferns, the foxes, the darting swallows and fluttering daffodils and hammers them into order, recreating nature’s majesty. Yet this model, for all its romance, its apparent rationality, involves assumptions which are deeply problematic. What, for instance, constitutes seeing? How subjective is subjectivity? What is out there, and more importantly, what is ‘out there’? In Ostentation of Peacocks, the first collection by Daniel Kane, these questions are posed in the most exhilarating fashion. Rules are transgressed, dichotomies demolished, the ‘natural’ is questioned, sparrows are ‘lubed up’ and ‘fucked in the ass’--everything, from fish to Battlestar Galactica, is caught in a joyous and anxious state of flux. The material world, so often taken as a given, here figures as a thrilling and tenuous possibility. It’s a flurry of shapes, colours, feelings, a swirling interplay of abstractions, in which subjectivity finds no anchor, is endlessly fractured and rebuilt. Poems proceed not according to some preconceived metrical scheme, but on impulse, by a process akin to free association. As Kane writes:
A group of peacocks is called an ostentation of peacocks a muster of peacocks there is mustard and there is stuffing oh the beef we kill the cow to eat its meat I render a cloud a buzzard hornet whatever the sky knows what to do as long as I tell it to […]. (page 3)
Rather than being recorded by or invited into the poem, nature is brought jaggedly, ecstatically into being--partly by the incantatory powers of language, partly by the reader’s own personal distortion of that language. The world alters Kane’s voice and Kane’s voice alters the world, so thoroughly that the two become all but indistinguishable. Yet it is not (as is the case in much Language poetry) that subjectivities are lost to gratuitous poststructuralist play; on the contrary, they figure prominently, in partial, agitated states, invigorated by the world’s beauty and yet oppressed by its complexity:
The fly doesn’t flap her wings she doesn’t flutter them
what does she do what does the fly do what does the
hummingbird do for I have seen the hummingbird
suck from the bluebell or is it even bluebell […] (page 6)
Whereas typically, the nature poet trusts in language, believing it to adequately encapsulate reality, Kane worries excessively about the precision of his poetry, and whether it can really do justice to what he sees. Do verbs accurately describe movement? Does language reflect or distort the world? What distinguishes a bluebell from other similar flowers? Such questions go unanswered because they can’t be answered. To think that they can is perverse. Indeed, in those rare instances in which the poet does ‘read’ nature, the results are not just bizarre, but conspicuously parodic:
Swans are violent creatures. Never approach a swan for a loan.
A parrot is practically designed to entertain. (page 8)
Which is true: for all their stateliness, their pride and luxurious plumage: swans are lethal, just as parrots are great fun. And yet, at the same time, they’re not. They’re just birds, vibrant matter, systems of drives and instincts lovingly assigned human traits. Kane, throughout this book, is clearly mindful of such problems, unravelling the assumptions that poets so often make, yet at the same time he manages to rise spectacularly above them, expressing a distinctive and pleasurable worldview in a distinctively pleasurable way. Like Lyn Hejinian, to whom his deconstructive tendencies are indebted, he recognises that ‘language is nothing but meanings’, while at the same time believing ardently in the potency of voice--its ability to impress the reader, to demystify experience. As such, we hear, in ‘Ostentation of Peacocks’, a plethora of other voices from throughout the American canon, including the breeziness of O’Hara, the meditativeness of Williams, and even, now and then, the garrulousness of Ginsberg. Yet here, they sound altogether different--funnier, more playful, drained of their usual hubris. This is because, for Kane, poetry is not a serious endeavour, a grave and pensive craft which culminates in Truth; it is rather a light and mysterious activity, which like nature is dynamic, unmasterable and, crucially, fun.