Bad Poem of the Week: "Vanitas Mundi" by Robin Ekiss

I’m happy to introduce a new feature here at UR: Bad Poem of the Week.

For those not in the know, there’s a site called Poetry Daily – with the wonderfully ’90s domain name “poems.com” – which posts one recently-published poem from the lit-magazine circuit every day. Occasionally you will see something good on Poetry Daily, but for the most part it offers a typical selection of contemporary academic verse, ie, tripe.

It’s been a while since I regularly read PD, but my recollection is that at least one in seven of its little gems tends to be not just bad, but so stupendously bad that criticizing it might offer a kind of redemptive hope, a feeling of hitting bottom, a sense that there’s nowhere to go but up. There is a kind of charm to really awful poetry. I trust I am not the only McGonagall fan in the room. “For the stronger we our houses build, the less chance we have of being killed.” McGonagall, in other words, was bold enough to take disaster as a learning opportunity. And which of us is too good to learn from him?

Without further ado: Vanitas Mundi by Robin Ekiss. Click the links to see poem and poet in their natural habitat.

The poem begins in a very popular way, with a little dropping of scientific wisdom:

To make perfume from an iris,
you have to mash the roots
but leave the petals intact,

Now, anyone who’s read the godlike Luca Turin knows that iris root is an important ingredient in the perfumer’s palette, but I wasn’t aware that any of today’s scents come with actual flower petals in the bottle. But to be fair, I don’t exactly keep up with the fragrance market.

We continue with

as in vanitas mundi, skeletons
are made of fruit and flowers,
not the dour bones.

Here the poet is informing us that she’s aware of what Google tells me is a common theme in early European painting. I trust the Latin is not too opaque to my readers. She probably trusts the same, which is a pretty smooth move. Right away we know we’re in the presence of a sophisticated mind, because we have fragrance chemistry and art history in a single sentence.

Yet the poem is clear as glass. I especially admire the adjective “dour,” clearly the lightning that beat out so many mere lightning-bugs. Suppose she had said “greasy” instead? “…as in vanitas mundi, skeletons / are made of fruit and flowers, / not the greasy bones”? You can see the difference right away. This is the mark of a true poet.

On to

It's this way with any form
of pleading: please begins
with plea -- linguistic insurgency

driven by a sense of urgency,
not the sort of error in logic
a "war on terror" implies.

Clearly, botanical chemistry and art history weren’t the only two classes our poet took at Stanford. She also seems to have some background in linguistics and military strategy. The poem becomes a kind of assault along a broad front, a towering steamroller of knowledge, Napoleonic in its sheer gravitas.

And a touch of auditory craft creeps into the verse here. The repetition of “pleading,” “please,” and “plea” reminds us that all three of these English words derive from the same Latin root. The assonance of “insurgency” and “urgency,” “error” and “terror,” lends a compelling musical note to the steel trap of the poem’s inexorable logic. These are not rhymes, exactly. But they remind us that language is sound, that before we can reason, we need to learn to hear. A timely and unusual message. And sure enough,

Hidden inside: the ornamental
edge of understanding,
returned to us through language—

moving, but rootless,
like spent blood
circling the veins.

Language! Now we are at the heart of the poem: language. Of course this is not “language poetry” per se, but a touch of the ol’ German philosophy is just the way to remind us that there’s a real sausage inside the bun. Depth, as they say, is nothing without substance.

I particularly like “the ornamental / edge of understanding.” I think I will try and use this phrase in a code review sometime, or maybe in a comment. It has a little more poetic pizzazz than /* you are not expected to understand this */. But “spent blood / circling the veins” is pretty poetic too, we have to admit. It’s a tough choice. Anyway, the poem continues for a while in this vein – so to speak – and winds up with the moving conclusion

what can we know
of the world
but every measure of regret

carried in a word
with the gravity of air:
begot, beget, begin

I think I speak for all when I say, “Ah.” All the best poems these days end with a question – it is a sort of participatory, democratic invocation, like asking the reader to sing along. Eliding the question mark leaves a particularly delicate pregnant pause, like the hush of a falling cherry blossom, or sakura, a quiet in which each of us can breathe, quietly, with the gravity of air, and measure our own regrets.

And note that unlike “pleading,” “please,” and “plea,” “begot,” “beget,” and “begin” do not share the same root. They have nothing to do with “beg.” The first is a conjugation of the second, whereas the third is an Israeli prime minister and former member of the Irgun, which was both an insurgency and, arguably, a forerunner of the erroneous war on terror – almost certainly why these words are italicized. Is it still possible, after Auschwitz, to beget, to be begot? Can we still Begin again? If I say “Menachem,” will you say “Gesundheit?” The poet leaves these questions unanswered, and yet, in a way, answers them.

And that’s all for this edition of “Bad Poem of the Week.” If you have any suggestions for next week’s selection, please drop them in the comment box to your right.

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