Carnegie Mellon University Press (2022)
80 pp. $15.95 (paperback)
“What is a poet? An unhappy man who in his heart harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans and cries which pass over them are transformed into ravishing music. His fate is like that of the unfortunate victims whom the tyrant Phalaris imprisoned in a brazen bull, and slowly tortured over a steady fire; their cries could not reach the tyrant’s ears so as to strike terror into his heart; when they reached his ears they sounded like sweet music.
And men crowd about the poet and say to him, ‘Sing for us soon again’—which is as much as to say, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul, but may your lips be fashioned as before; for the cries would only distress us, but the music, the music, is delightful.’”
Virginia Konchan is a poet who seems to harbor in her heart a deep anguish, but whose way with words transforms her moans and cries into ravishing—and funny, and poignant—music. Konchan has sung for us again with her fourth full-length collection, Bel Canto, and her poetic music is always delightful, no matter how harrowing the subject matter. Bel Canto is at once a hard night and a lullaby, a lovingly ironic joyride.
Go ahead, take it, the observable universe.
Take its buying, sighing, and dying rituals:
around here, we let the dead bury the dead.
That’s the only way to get ahead…
Here, Konchan blends two allusions, one secular, one sacred—Wordsworthian getting and spending, together with a biblical directive to attend to the living—and she delivers the allusive freight all rhymed and rhythmed with everyday speech.
Bel canto singing—as Konchan informs us in her afterword—matches register and tone to emotional content, highly articulates its phrasing, frequently alters tempo, and heightens the expression of words. The verse in Bel Canto passionately takes up all of these formal musical concerns almost as if they were assignments or challenges. Suffering inside her own brazen bull, she sings, and asks herself: Can I sing well about even the worst? And oh, she can:
Death: a dumbwaiter, carrying
dirty laundry or steaming platters,
plunging down to the rez-de-chausseé.
As if in solidarity. As if in recompense.
My multiple selves give zero fucks
who’s to blame. Death: litigation.
Death: a riding crop, stealthily beating
my draft horse heart. Death, I’m bored…
This darkly humorous passage begins at the end, in death, and then enlivens that final fact with deft repetitions, figures of speech from multiple languages (the French phrase for “ground floor,” which literally levels death) and multiple tonal registers (“dirty laundry,” “give zero fucks”), and then arrests the procession with a triple-stressed cadence that arrests the reader to almost a dead stop (“draft horse heart”), before delivering the killing blow to the great dead stopper itself, naming what is even worse than death: “I’m bored.” Such poetic and willful mastery abounds throughout this powerful collection.
Further along in Konchan’s afterword, she mentions that Ann Patchett’s own fourth book was also called Bel Canto, and it “explores the developing relationships between […] terrorists and their hostages.” Is this note a clue to how Konchan approaches her subject matter? I think so. In which case, is Konchan the terrorized or the terrorist? The trapped and tortured singer? Or the brazen bull herself?
Certainly, religion serves as one of Konchan’s brazen bulls. Christianity in particular is a major player in the poems, and it often shows up, if not as torture device or terrifying antagonist, at least as an excuse. “I love Jesus, I said, to explain.” But, in poem after poem, Konchan deftly sings through the injuries to her imagination that have been caused by her religion-damage. “Bad Shepherd, leading us astray.” “Sweet Jesus: nothing remains of your body.” “Heaven is a fraudulent quorum of marooned demigods.” And “God is the only one who matters, like a boss,” with the addendum to that phrase deflating the seeming piousness in a jocular vernacular. Konchan obliquely describes her religious upbringing as “a lifetime in the armed forces,” and then states, “I no longer want to serve the man.” Even her use of Christ as an explanation is revealed as mere role-playing in an act of BDSM (where one is tortured after all, but for fun). From within the brazen bull of religion, Konchan masters her terrorizer by making sense of the beast for herself. Like the true poet she is, she comes to her own terms.
Konchan’s mastery over her terrorizing religion-damage—a mastery that is not an escape from the bull, but a filtering of pain that sounds songlike and amazing—progresses through the course of the book toward the great poem, “Via Negativa,” a title which refers, tellingly, to the fact that we understand what is wrong much more easily than we understand what is right. The lyric begins:
When I stopped believing in God
I was struck dysphasic, insensate,
reflecting on the kitchen incident.
The bathroom incident. The bedroom
incident, incipience of useless desire.
Casting off her faith, the poem’s speaker impairs her own speech and physicality, and a welling up of domestic memory births her longing, in gorgeously resonant verse. And that longing in turn births an empowering poem which ends in the real (if ironic) comfort of a positive nihilism: “When I stopped / believing in God, nothing happened. / God would have wanted it that way.”
Konchan has clearly sat at the feet of the first positive nihilist, Friedrich Nietzsche, and she’s picked up his passionate atheism—not to mention many techniques of the philosopher’s searing and aphoristic prose—and she seeks everywhere to extend Nietzsche’s quest of finding redemption beyond belief, “beyond discourse, debate, interpretation: / beyond the centuries and their decrees.” And she realizes, à la Nietzsche, that the search itself, or rather, the music of the searching soul, is itself a form of redemption. Konchan’s stance is one of ambivalence, as she sings toward this redemption, and her tone sounds like bitter pleasure, “beyond vulva, mouth, joy, delight, / or whatever those pink things mean.”
Along the way to the beyond, Konchan is far too smart and far too canny to paint herself as solely a victim; she realizes, wrestles with, and repents how she exerts her imaginative forces. In short, she understands how she herself is also a terrorist, a brazen bull. Among Konchan’s hostages are her “inner voice,” which is “getting kinder, but it’s in enemy territory.” There’s also the past lover who betrayed her, whom she “greeted […] at the door with a knife.” As Konchan’s poems work to free her from her tormentor, at the same time they aim to liberate whatever she herself has tormented. A poem that begins, “Inside me is a black-eyed animal / struggling to get out, be free,” ends with the statement, “I want to discomfit, / then bring down, the house.” A toppling of hostages and terrorists, selves and others, all leveled into language and song.
Indeed, much of the book explicitly aims to level things, in both meanings of the word: to make things equal, but also to bring them “tumbling to the ground.” Perhaps Konchan has picked up on the imaginative strength of leveling from Patchett’s own Bel Canto, where the hostages and terrorists unite and develop close personal relationships, drawn together on the same level by opera’s unifying force. Regardless, Konchan’s imagination acts as a leveler throughout her poems. In “Babylon,” where the speaker/singer awakens “to the sound of leveling […] at the hands of marauders or a god,” she comes flatly to the realization of “devastating loss: the great equalizer,” and then humbly casts aside her potential negative feelings to land “in an empty field,” now a stranger to herself and finding restoration in remembering. In “Theophany,” another poem-of-leveling, we are invited to the “age of equivalence,” and asked, “which common denominator are you?” The culprit of our collective leveling, according to this poem, is capitalism’s “desacralization.” Konchan the positive nihilist then thanks “nothing, for protecting / me from the perils posed by belief.”
For the poet—the transformer of anguish into music—everything comes back to words, always, even if those words can’t ever be enough. As the speaker sings in “Hard Night,” “Part of the problem is lexicon: the different ways we describe…” Even Konchan’s sense of self is tied to verbiage, however ironically, as she laments in “Memoir” that she “never had enough vowels / to buy an item, nor an I.” This word-awareness is soon leveled with her religion-damage as she asks, “how then am I to be ensouled?” For the singer of the sassy poem “Psalm,” “language is other, and I’m without alibi.”
Realizing that none of the words she uses are entirely her own, Konchan does admirable work to remake those words in her voice and image. For instance, Bel Canto is refreshingly free of epigraphs. Who needs the undigested words of others when you can sing in their colors so brightly? And yet the “Notes” section nods to multiple sources and inspiring lines. Here’s a poet who has digested past influences, and sings them now like harmonics to her own compelling voice, in a language that is both “boa constrictor” and “valve,” both closing around and letting through possibilities and meanings, always highly attuned to the fine differences between meaninglessness and asignification. For instance, Konchan makes catalogues that range through “theatre, laughter, savage acoustics, makeup, teatime, [and] shitting your pants,” and the overall effect is a sense that “language has exceeded the site of its articulation.”
Toward that end—the exceeding of articulation--Bel Canto places multiple registers and tonalities into conversation with each other, but the form of Konchan’s heteroglossia is more operatic than dialogic. That is, her poems are structured less like conversations and more like songs—with flourishing intros, codas and resolutions, repetitions, internal rhymes, and phrases of similar cadence. In these songlike poems, a single self is singing, in a selfsame voice with “vocal chords enough for screaming, enough for veritable mime,” but that self sings with a holistic awareness, always contextualizing, always looking backward and forward and all around to find ways to a “you” who is sometimes God, sometimes the reader, and sometimes another, either real or imagined. That other is identified by many names—a “stranger,” a “beloved,” “Lord of Lords,” “muse”—and at times the “you” even shows up in Wallace Stevens’s garb, as “cher lecteur,” “mon bonheur,” or “my imagination’s sole figment,” or in Walt Whitman’s own “O Captain, my Captain.”
Finally, healing, singing, no longer hostage or terrorist, leveled with the terms of her world, and engaged in the process of redeeming herself, Konchan’s vision is a stripping away toward Stevens’s bare place of the imagination, where she acknowledges a new version of herself, a self she has made without the formative trappings of religion, careless lovers, lost fathers and Fathers, or the fear of death.
Tried to be a subject, but the subjects around me
object to me being anything but a void engulfed
by the negative sublime.
And she’s level-headed about this equalized state of things, as she is about everything. “It is what it is.” And “A headless, winged victory is still a victory.”
In Bel Canto, Konchan’s terrorizing brazen bulls—religion, together with the pains of life and loss—and the terrorized past selves and inner selves to which she herself has become a kind of brazen bull—are constantly leveling each other into a kind of mutual Stockholm syndrome—perhaps we should rename it Bel Canto Syndrome?—from which a symphony of mixed feelings issues and sings. And the music, the music is delightful.
GEOFF BOUVIER’s third full-length volume of prose poetry, Us From Nothing, is a poetic history that stretches from the big bang to the near future. It will be published in 2023 in Canada (Buckrider Books) and in 2024 in the United States (Black Lawrence Press). His first book, Living Room, was selected by Heather McHugh as the winner of the 2005 APR/Honickman Prize. His second book, Glass Harmonica, was published in 2011 by Quale Press. He received an MFA from Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts in 1997, and a PhD in creative writing from Florida State University in 2016. In 2009, he was the Roberta C. Holloway visiting poet at the University of California-Berkeley. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, with his partner, the novelist SJ Sindu, and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.