Review of ‘Serpentrope’, Angle: Journal of Poetry in English, by David Davis

Norman Ball
White Violet Press, 2013

serpentrope1If I told you that most of the poems in Norman Ball’s Serpentrope are metered and rhymed, with four-fifths of them sonnets, you’d probably get the wrong idea. So we’ll consider that a bit later. Instead, let’s begin with the eclectic nature of the book.

I believe Serpentrope is the only poetry book published to date that contains poems on the topics of: Civil War battle fatigue; formal poetry in its relation to a famous wardrobe malfunction; and Aleister Crowley’s Cult of Lam. The poems often display a love of detail—historic and current—as in this excerpt from ‘Observations of a Civil War Surgeon As Night Falls’:

Cattail and catgut duel within the marsh
that clads the Susquehanna east of York.
Two minstrels, facing off, interpret harsh
conditions with guitars. The river’s fork

accompanies with stiff, percussive reeds.

Ball’s poems stem from an obvious intelligence, and that seems appropriate. Often they mimic the way that neurophysiologists characterize our thinking process: as the firing up of nodes of meaning that excite other nodes in a sort of spreading activation, until a whole pattern of nodes—perhaps previously unconnected—fires together, leading to new connections and novel insights. None of this, according to the theory, is sentential. Sentences come later. This mental commotion underlying conscious thought is echoed in Ball’s poetry in passages such as this from the poem ‘Formal Spat ‘:

… One dares

not ride a colleague’s time-worn rhyme. Left-hand feet
may dangle. Diction may rankle, stubborn
with vague intent. Relax. Sonnets can’t meet
the rent with a metered stick…

Or this, from ‘It Was A Totter From The Start’:

The duty steeped itself in stand-up time,
a rope to drag the day upon itself
with busying to coax the febrile mind
from thought, to book, to browse, to empty shelf.

Many of Ball’s poems employ puns, allusions, and apparently unrelated content. The result is that they often excite neurons in our minds that, at least for me, are firing together for the first time. This type of mental fireworks can be fatiguing, and it may be that the best way to read Serpentrope is to limit oneself to two or three poems a day.

I may have mentioned that Ball’s poems take on a wide variety of subjects. Serpentrope includes poems centered on: the cartoon character Dilbert rendered in a Hilbertian sonnet; dropping poems by airplane on Afghan villagers in wartime; and ballerinas with bulimia. And often the poems render their subjects in witty, punning, allusive lines. Like these in an excerpt from the poem about Dilbert, the cartoon engineer working in a cubicle in a large corporation:

 … Dilbert stirs this pot with lead

balloons. His poker-face is barely drawn
by nine. Outside the box, Big Bosses rake
trapped miners over coals while overhead
a phosphor-fingered entity has sawn

animal spirits squarely down to size —
three taut frames. Dilbert’s zeppelin subsides.

Of course, like real-world explosions, explosions of meaning can do damage if not controlled, and Ball is an explosives expert. These poems are nearly all contained in meter and rhyme, and now that you have a feel for the content, it can more fully be revealed that most of them are in sonnet form. The interplay between the subject matter, the allusions, and the forms adds another dimension to the experience of reading Ball’s work — a dimension that I believe elevates the wild content by the mere fact of being under such control.

Given the eclectic nature of Serpentrope (I should mention that it contains poems on the subjects of: belly fat; the fate of a member of the band REO Speedwagon; and the turbulent life of the prophet Isaiah), it should be noted that the book also contains some recurring themes.

The most explicit is that of the snake Ouroboros, a topic treated in several of the poems and the subject of an essay included as an appendix to the book. The image of the snake with its tail in its mouth, sometimes curled protectively around the earth and sometimes a part of it, has, according to Ball’s essay, fascinated him for years. In the poem ‘Ouroboros,’ Ball portrays the snake in a menacing way:

 …The proper name’s Hell-

that cool, wrapped bitch— trite circle. Let her clasp
sweet tail in teeth. All gray divides sell
foot-in-mouth diversions. I will have
my foe just-so. Discrete obsession. Damn

all demons who arrive. The golden calf,
zirconia stalking horse, is lamb

I dressed for slaughter…

But it is not always so. Sometimes the snake is a hoop snake rolling along, and sometimes it is a snake completing a cosmic circle.

Another theme in the book is that of human relations. Serpentrope does not contain a love poem as I understand them, but there are multiple renderings of soured or difficult relations between couples. The concluding lines from the poem ‘Endure’ are one example:

… We gratify
what synapses are lit. Hullabaloo
is all that floats above—mere atmosphere.
What anchors? That’s a fixity less clear.

The reader of Serpentrope will soon see that Ball is no sentimentalist.

Poetry itself forms another theme in the book. There are multiple poems on the topic of poetry, a theme that first appears in the inscription that begins the book:

Teach a man to write poetry
and he will starve forever.

Ball begins the poem ‘Twickenham Stadium’ by stating ‘I’m not so much a poet as a wit,’ and then proceeds to compare himself and his work to the career of the American baseball player Harmon Killebrew, a Hall of Famer who, nonetheless, had some years with low numbers of runs batted in. Poets writing poems about poetry can be trying, but Ball pulls it off—in this case, with extended comparisons between his work and baseball. Let’s consider two techniques that I particularly admire in Ball’s work. The first is the clever enjambment, and the second is the killer concluding couplet. One of my favorite poems in the book is the sonnet ‘At the Funeral of a Former High School Crush,’ which begins with the wonderful enjambment

I memorized her purple halter top
to bottom…

The poem then describes time shared together in physics class, and concludes with this couplet that brings us back to the funeral of the title:

They found her with her head arrayed in glass
flung forward like a weightless, prescient gas.

I love that couplet. And many others in Ball’s book. One more example. In the poem ‘Slither,’ that begins with a quote from Coleridge referencing Ouroboros, the narrator learns that a walk with his lover is actually her way of finding a suitable place to terminate their relationship. She has chosen the bookstore where they met to end things in Ouroboran fashion, and the poem itself concludes:

… All along,
this princess had availed a serpent-guide.
I was the frog to her formaldehyde.

Serpentrope is a book of formal poems that really doesn’t feel like one. It treats a wide variety of topics (I should mention that Serpentrope contains poems on: the antediluvian apostasies of G. H. Pember; the difficulties in Ireland; and the nature of testimony in the aftermath of the mortgage meltdowns). There are wonderful gems, couplets, and full poems that sparkle and explode. Serpentrope is a virtuoso performance by a poet of wide-ranging intelligence whose careful use of form adds considerable impact to his work.

–David Davis

Review of ‘Serpentrope’, Angle: Journal of Poetry in English, by David Davis

The Teratogen Sonnet Series (Essay, Sonnets & Video)

Previously appeared at The New Formalist, Poetry Life & Times, Cinemension. Teratogen sonnets 5 and 7 appear in the anthology, ‘The Phoenix Rising from the Ashes‘.

“The death camps were not built in the Gobi Desert. And when barbarism challenged, the humanities, the arts, philosophic thought proved not only largely impotent but often collaborative with despotism and massacre,”–George Steiner, from ‘A New Literacy’, The Kenyon Review, 24:1, Winter 2007, 10-24

Though culture has, to date, been a broad disappointment, our new up-close planet beckons with both the peril and promise brought about by advances in human proximity. Evil works best in the shadows. Should a mass awakening break out, culture and its potential for edification may yet serve as a prototype for meaningful civilization. Such an awakening would belie centuries of stony sleep. But it could happen.

As the oldest cave art dates back over 30,000 years, practically all things human happened on culture’s watch. Alas the latter has been largely impotent against the inhuman aspects of human community, perhaps even as Steiner suggests, actively collaborative. Grassroots proximity is relatively new. Yes, plane travel and commerce have nibbled at the edges of collapsing distance. But the Internet could be a cultural epoch-maker in the sense of advancing proximity with a vengeance.

This then is the progressive manifesto, with a technologist’s bent, put forward by an admittedly darkened heart. In truth I am, like Steiner, rather sanguine on our prospects altogether. The race to annihilate one another, at ever more vast distances, is still in full-swing aided, much like the nearness movement, by some deadly new toys. Evil is a coward. Intimacy requires courage. We are in a pitched battle between the drone and the webcam. Which will win?

One particularly lurid setback came recently for me from a group of photos that I have frankly been unable to erase from my memory banks ever since, those of Afghan and Iraqi babies who, it is alleged, suffered horrendous birth defects as a result of weaponized depleted uranium. I call the sonnets (mini-exorcisms?) that resulted, The Teratogen Series.

According to a teratogen is “a drug or other substance capable of interfering with the development of a fetus, causing birth defects.” Some of the babies I review here may have been dead on arrival. I cannot say. There are also intimations on the Internet that some of these gruesome deformities are not the result of uranium at all, but perhaps abortions and other unrelated defects. Frankly this sort of rearguard polemic affords me small comfort. The fact that these deformities are, in all likelihood, the result of some human-induced predations, either on the environment or on ourselves, is cause enough to shrink back in reflexive shame, before an us-versus-them mentality is allowed to poison the well yet again.

I confess also to being sickened by my complicity, my ‘tax dollars at work’, etc. on what amounts to a well-funded island for Dr. Moreau. Why haven’t I put down the pen and taken up a sword against the Black Iron Prison? I question as well my inclination to drum these tiny monstrosities through yet further exploitations. Come admire my gratuitous trespasses, all neatly metered and rhymed!

I can only address the process as it came over me. In the manner of slowing down to observe a gruesome freeway accident, I found each sonnet gradually falling under the discrete orbit of one picture and one baby. The overtly ekphrastic nature of this sequence was thus evolutionary and not conscious.

These sonnets deliver me beyond the extremities of my own comprehension. I can’t help feeling we have finally drilled beneath some tabooed substrate. The pictures repel me. I resort at times to black humor in an effort to disarm the already-disarmed. Humor blunts despair. You have to chuckle a bit at these un-embraceable little ewes or go crazy considering the sheer improbability of their existence. My sense of disgust, I am sorry to report, at times exceeds my sense of compassion. I suggest my inhuman reaction may be a human response that seeks to acknowledge our post-human nexus—or is that too many humans in one independent clause?

There is an implicit Rubicon here. I am aware of viewing these pictures and reacting to them from the crossed side. Am I too retreating into the distance? No longer content to do endless doughnuts in the parking lot, the World Uroborus is making a last supper of its tail. The circle has been broken, by and by, Lord. We await now the moon falling out of the sky and the tides’ apocalyptic cessation. One wonders, how much more end we will be asked to endure? There is no getting back behind the horror of these malformed conceptions. We inhabit a brave new world. Why? I believe because we were not brave enough to avert it.

teratogen sonnets

Teratogen 1: Sex on the Brain

“Thy nakedness shall be uncovered,
yea, thy shame shall be seen…”—Isaiah 47:3
This mission is a sin. What kind of spaz-
tic draws vigor from pornographic veins
or penis-headed parodies of ass?
But you’re no baby, Baby. Holy weans
alive, I could not diaper your fine mess.
You soil all metaphor. I’ll author blame:
My labs, my country tis of thee. My shame
is writ uncovered on your face. No less
you’d scare Sears’ portrait guy.
And yet I’m drawn
to parse the prick that promenades your head.
They warned us, Horus, Set, the Golden Dawn:
a Third Eye—neither naked, neither dead
of shameless form would, near the end, arrive
cursing those whose fear brought it alive.

Teratogen 2: Cabbage Patch Moll

“Hence world picture, when understood
essentially, does not mean a picture of the
world but the world conceived and grasped
as picture.” –Martin Heidegger
You vandalize distress at no small cost
through nylon skein and cabbage patch
disguise. This manhunt though is long since lost.
All have been found. First paparazzi snatched
unguarded moments. Then we watched gray puffs
televise precision. Your face
is pixelated aftermath that stuffs
everything in the close-up. Common place
covers all bases. Where’s the intimate
to hide? The convict is a partial judge
on all subjects of visual merit. Split
my screen and your forehead suggests a smudge-
print. We share the mounting headcount’s ripe bruise.
For I no longer feel eyewitness news.

Teratogen 3: Thumbelina, Dance

We vet foot bills. Are pissed-on borders worth
a mongrel birth? doG gone us Pentagon.
Hotdog Girl rolls so we might rule the earth?
Our barking men of outrage are all gone.
Lassie’s come home to her unleashing hour.
Stream? I cannot stream out into the streets.
Fluoride neutered all my upright power.
I’ll litter no more dog-days in these sheets.
Poor pup, you play dead well. No, we’ll not lift
you up. One burp and you could well explode
across complicit shoulders. To the swift
life opens up. As for an honest road
with cars to chase, let’s first define your legs.
Right now you are a thumb. How motion begs.

Teratogen 4: Waterboy

Suffer this baby floating on the earth
amphibious. Grace alone can mend
fluidic pustules. Please make haste. No berth
so wide of God, nor time-belabored End-
time should deflate ascent. Prospects look grim
for due speed. He must tire of boils and sore
Procrastinating seraphim,
whitewash no more. There’s too much to restore.
All dirigibles must rise. Christ draws nigh.
Please hear, oh Lord, the water-boy’s bleak cry
whose isotopic lungs cannot advance
beyond collapse. How does he stand a chance
of reaching Heaven waterlogged on Earth?
Our New Disorder liquefied his birth.

Teratogen 5: Burpee Girl

Christian soldier, you battle your mortgage
with Abd al-Chuckee puppet-strings away,
sculpted like a Mujaheedin porridge
from amber waves of O, so gamma ray.
Our acronym-cadavers cyphered this.
The Pentagon got wind of ill-wind skies.
Re-baseline victory. All vectors miss
these eyesores too contained to leak out cries.
Children! Don’t play! The cradle robs the grave
before the grave has time to rob your wild
unripened stare. Uranium defiled
His altered mud. God’s breath, we henceforth waive.
Dead verse tomatoes horror. Who’ll baptize
the Burpee Girl with ovulating eyes?

Teratogen 6: Improvised Existential Denouement (IED)

Up close you could be anybody’s child-
care scandal. Hamburger Hill limps beside
your fresh pink meat. While no one looked, life
your backstroke down to blisters. They will hide
your books in study hall. Who will arrest
this mutant form now terrorizing cells?
Without a clear and sewn-up threat the West
cannot hold the line. Deformity spells
doom. No tight-knit group of key advisors
props up your bloated puppet-string regime.
Sit up. Exude malevolence. Your sores
must find themselves else war will lose its steam
pressed irony. Don’t make us make Big Macs.
Cater our events. Weather our attacks.

Teratogen 7: Baby Skeletor (Brought to You by Masters of the Universe )

Before ill-winds impinged on faultless weather,
I had a barrow glazed with rain for you.
I’d wheel you to the bus-stop, but why lever
a father’s guilt atop your unhinged glue?
I’m loath to hold you up for God to see,
nor shower you with blue comforts. Why not flee
my too-short arms, your wails so out of key?
You scream small monster none the least at me.
I’ll prop you up at school if you insist.
But upright kids are cruel. They will resist
the womb’s last weapon, shrunken in their midst.
The universe is cruel. You are the grist
for chemistry swept under Mattel ® rug,
a Hazmat spill, the morning-after drug.
The Teratogen Sonnet Series (Essay, Sonnets & Video)