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While enjoyable, some of the poems in this skilled collection, left me cold. The reason many of us keep our noses in books is to keep from feeling alone. If a poet is too guarded, if he or she does not successfully create at least the illusion of a personal voice, then the reader remains alone. We need to recognize ourselves in the text. Otherwise, we remain on the outside looking in. Guriel pushes us away a little too much, the poems a touch too glib in places, with a bit too much self-reflexive guile. That said, these are very good poems. “Good” gets used too much in poetry reviews, (and is a pet peeve of mine because of its behaviorist overtones) but the word equates to “technically engaging.” Which these poems are.

For a book that uses such an emotionally detached approach, the first person narrative is surprisingly present. The combination creates a smugness of voice. (In fairness, only about a third of the poems use “I,” but the urbane narrator is lurking close in the more objective poems too). Some of the poems might have benefitted from less narrative intrusion, and more attention to subject. I understand that the “I” is ironic/dramatic at times, a comic “I,” attempting a self-effacing “royal” we. But mostly it irks. “The Storm is Over” is simply an irritating poem about poetry, of which there are too many in this book. “Soft Spots” is another irritatingly pompous poem about poetry in the vein of Alexander Pope.

the damper pedal that pounds
sonatas into mush
the critic Ezra Pound
would call, with a shudder, slush.

Yes, it’s clever, well paced, well lined, and rhymed. But it puts me off like a pedant at a party. The bright, shinny 1962 Mustang revealingly parked outside my neighbours house is an impressive thing, but what does it offer me? And how much credit should my neighbour claim for the Mustang’s existence? There’s no new insight on the world here, just someone pretending there is.

But there are other poems to admire in this book. A clear intelligence is at work. If Guriel would focus more on real things without tripping over his own cleverness, he’d get somewhere more interesting. Guriel's poems are strongest when he engages with people or events. “Dear Neighbour” is a superb poem, written as a letter to a former neighbour who has since moved (or died). An elegy to eccentricity, it maintains Guriel’s comic, urbane tone, and his attention to sound and pacing of line, but shows us something outside himself.

We miss when weeds
were allowed their fenced-in fathoms—
your yard a graveyard of garden gloves—
and prefer thick cobwebs cornicing
your ceiling’s corners.

This is good stuff. I find myself caring here about the subject. Strong work by a potentially strong voice.

Poetry is deeply related to spell casting. The poet, in each poem, casts an illusion of a self-contained universe. A reader’s willing suspension of disbelief depends on the poet’s skill. Tip the scale of a bit too much toward self consciousness, and the spell is broken. It's been said one must first invent the writer before writing the book. In Pure Product , the voice is divided between an invented comic literary device, and the author's own autobiographical voice. The autobiographical voice can work in the confessional mode, but Guriel clearly does not want to use the confessional tone. He has not yet created a convincing alternative, a purely invented comic voice that removes his authorial intrusiveness enough for us to care about his subjects.
poetryavenger | Jun 13, 2011 |