Viral Suite by Mari-Lou Rowley, Anvil Press, Vancouver, 2004
100 pages of cerebral-corporeal poetry are divided here into 5 subsections entitled Boreal Surreal, HomeoPathoLogic, Elucidata, InArticulations and Infiltration/ Transformation. Already in these titles the playful and articulate use of language and Rowley’s attention to capitalization are apparent. Each subsection includes a series of poems which explore in singular formal experiments the intricate interweavings of nature, body, scientific study/naming, life and the proximity of death.
The question of knowing becomes embodied and articulated in naming, delineating, knowledge and sensual contact and coupling with the other or the natural landscape in this book. For example, in Sex in Space Time—part of the Elucidata series where each moderately short lined free verse poem explores or elucidates a principle of physics or biology after which the author comments on the actual scientific property in an explanatory endnote—Einstein’s general theory of relativity is explored/critiqued in a universe of physical couplings. Rowley asks the reader to:
Consider the curve of space
the swell of a breast, the concave
bowl of belly pooling droplets of sweat.
It’s as simple as this, Einstein said
think of gravity as geometry, not
a force to be reckoned with.
A body freely falling […] (p47)
In the end, Rowley concludes:
Sex, gravity, quantum theory
are merely the play of
matter and energy, radiating
waves of photons dancing here and there
..........the pull and swell of bodies
.........in motion. (p48)
As elsewhere, the poem ends in a place where change is still taking place, things are happening, in part because of the rhythmic tidal swell of her language. Most often in this collection things are happening to bodies. Sometimes the body is awaiting its own demise or ravishment, as in these final lines from Cantharsis in the HomeoPathoLogic section: “Spread-eagled on the mossy floor/under a phalanx of trees/she waits” (p 25). Here the “she” is either waiting for the beetle powder she has presumably ingested to cause “pericarditis /death” (p 25) or for the powder’s side-effects, “frenzy, rage,” and her “inflamed genitals” (p24), to lure the man with the “budding pecs, the taunting cupola/ of crotch” (p24) to come couple with her.
In this deftly written book, Rowley’s sensual poems are at times less overtly sexualized and yet the poems are constantly imbibed with the intimacy of physicality in their precision of detail, their tantalizing word choices. As another Canadian poet, Lisa Pasold, would put it, these poems have amazing mouth feel. Reading, especially aloud, we taste Rowley’s delectable and at times complex Latinate vocabulary and these poems seduce us, lure us dangerously close to love or to an awareness that will transform us forever. Consumed in reading, we risk our own consumption by the world which surrounds us and which Rowley’s poems remind us is eternally awaiting to reabsorb us into its elements. For example, in “III” an untitled right and left-justified dense prose poem from the first section of the book Boreal Surreal, Rowley describes the intense attraction to a set of berries in the wild which are “not recommended for eating” as we learn at the end of the poem. Yet, like the poem itself, the narrative “She” “puts them into her mouth and begins to chew.” (p13) The berries are at once appealing and repulsive, absorbing thought—the warning in their bitterness, perhaps an old instinctive alarm signal, is ignored as the “she” of the poem tastes them. But the confrontation with an evident predator causes the surprisingly life-saving reaction of spitting out the berries. As Rowley describes this tasting of the forbidden fruit:
They form a dryish pulp, inhibiting mastication. The fruit absorbs her concentration. She doesn’t hear the other footsteps, contrived, stalking. The bitter fruity odour hypnotic. She feels a low growl emerging from deep below her larynx. Primal guttural vibrations of dorsoventral membrane. She turns to the sound of dead branches snapping. Spews out the bitter pulp. Its dark blood drips from her mouth. (p 13)
Here, one death is averted, and yet another will take place, witnessed by the speaker who will discover/ uncover the body. The “she” who is being saved from the consumption of the poisonous berries by an encounter with a (presumable) bear finds 3 weeks later “his body” “consumed by the forest” (p13). Yet the transformations, life to death, predator to prey, are not so easily delineable in this poem: the “she” transforms from potentially being a person consuming a poisonous plant which can thus consume her by killing her off to being (perhaps) a growling bear who “rears up, fearless” (as Rowley writes a little farther along). Thus the “she” may be in fact an animal confronting another predator—perhaps another bear—as a human is rarely described as “rearing up” so the question of where danger lies and who is in danger are increasingly complexified by these metamorphoses.
The book itself ends with what can be read as a place where global or even universal destruction is underway—or where, alternatively, phoenix-like this destruction will link to a rebirth. The final poem Casual Mythology IV states:
Hey big boy down here we’re
waiting for the long one, bombast, outroar.
Shafts of ion spray in the face.
Cummon. Throw it.
If you’re so pop-god high-energy luminous
let’s see some major cloud-to-ground strokes,
let’s feel those electrons jump,
those discharge papers burn
Again, the reader cannot miss the sexily witty sensual(ized) language use, suggesting ejaculation in the “shafts of ion spray in the face” or the taunting but inviting-the-lover closer calls of “big boy” “Zeus baby” “Cummon” “Throw it” and use of “let’s see” and “let’s feel”. There is a dual big bang underway, and Rowley makes us laugh at the fun and funny obviousness of that combo. In fact, the final section of the book is chock full of playful language acknowledging its own popular cultural word spins on old-time Romantic notions of mythological gods, as “pop-god high-energy luminous” or “”Zeus baby” demonstrate.
What is fantastic in this last poem is that it takes Rowley’s ethical and aesthetic explorations of the individual universe, the self as held and contained in a body subject to its own always proximate mortality and frailty potentially on the verge of being returned to an elemental pre/post being state in the molecular and physical universe to a plane where that larger molecular, elemental universe is also subject to its own re-big bang—able to be discharged, recharged, split apart like an atom. Or else we can just read this as a call for lightening, the speaker yelling up to Zeus to send on down one of his big ionizing bolts (which again have the potential to char broil the individual mortal). So perhaps the earth, perhaps the speaker, perhaps the book and poem and thus “discharge papers” will burn here if Zeus responds to the speaker’s taunting. All this awaits to be seen, post or pre book—and therefore the reader again is reading, living caught in “this minute, each moment / a closure / a closed /loop.” (p85) as Rowley states in Nietzsche’s Lullaby where that closed loop is “resilient in / returning” (p85).
I, too, enter into or become that loop, returning to reread the poems of Viral Suite where I explore the interactions and curves and circlings of Rowley’s language, delecting in its sensual-intellectual gymnastics.
Viral Suite by Mari-Lou Rowley, Anvil Press, Vancouver, 2004 ISBN I-895636-58-2 ($16 Canadian or $12 US dollars on their website http://www.anvilpress.com/Books/viral-suite)