Rain Taxi celebrates Eunoia

Eunoia, by Christian Bök
By Salvatore Ruggiero
Rain Taxi
February 15 2010

'Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?' is one of the most famous descriptions of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in all of literary history - a woman whose looks and infidelity caused the Trojan War and birthed the death of thousands. Doctor Faustus may be fawning over her spirit in Christopher Marlowe's play, but Canadian poet Christian Bök won't allow for such approbation of beauty:

'Whenever Helen sleeps, her fevered rest meekens her; hence she re-emerges enfeebled - her strength, expended; her reserves, depleted. The extended fevers, when severe, entrench her enfeeblement. She clenches her teeth, then exerts herself; nevertheless, she feels strengthless (her meek self rendered even meeker). Her strengthlessness dejects her. She sneezes; she wheezes - then she spews phlegm'

Homer would never have allowed Helen to sneeze or spit, whereas Bök focuses on her human element. Helen 'begs her defenders: 'defend me'; she begs her redeemers: 'redeem me' - then she decrees: 'never desert me - lend me renewed verve.'' Helen becomes human and almost humorous in Bök's able hands. The mythology that surrounds her is uprooted and disregarded, and as our suppositions are rendered inadequate, we allow Bök to bask in a retelling of perhaps the most celebrated story of all time - a daring move for both him and us.

Moreover, if you haven't noticed, the quotations above are restrained from using any other vowel but E. The project behind Eunoia is simple: Each of the five main prose poems is restricted to one and only one of the five vowels of the English language ... An introspective look at the writing process is found in 'Chapter I,' a chapter that obviously uses the vowel I, which in English inherently lends itself to first-person singular narration. 'Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks - impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils,' this chapter starts, as if it's metafictionally looking at and judging itself from the beginning, belittling this massive undertaking ...

Reading Eunoia, one feels as if the poet could narrate these stories and poems forever, even with such rigid restraints. But what is most impressive about this book of poetry is its inherent sense of rhythm and genuine delight in playing with words. Eunoia triumphantly shouts why reading, writing, manipulating, and listening to words sometimes is both magical and mythical. It's a paean to the pliability of language itself.

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