by Jason Guriel
(Biblioasis, 2020, 216 pp. $14.95)
When I imagine the Canadian poet/critic Jason Guriel being asked to describe his Forgotten Work, my heart goes out to him. He could take the easy way out and simply say it’s a novel in verse. But that would be like saying that the Odyssey is a poem about a trip. Nothing for a reviewer to do but to take a deep breath, square the shoulders, and attempt a more adequate description of this most unusual book.
First of all, it’s . . . a novel in verse: 216 pages of rhymed pentameter couplets (which, given their deployment in a narrative on this scale, are legitimately “heroic”). If your inner warning sign is flashing fusty, not to worry: Guriel’s rhythms and diction are wholly contemporary. And the story he tells puts “contemporary” in the rearview mirror.
We’re unaware of this at first. Not until fourteen pages into the book are we given even an inkling that something unusual is up with it. A college student has had his fill of a dorm room bull session:
But Hubert, waving off the bong, soon left.
A life-sized holo Scarface followed him,
Machine gun swivelling.
[Holo Scarface? As in hologram?]
…………………………………………At home his dim
Room, sensing movement, raised the lights a notch.
To raise his spirits, Hubert liked to watch
The sort of film his classmates liked to hate
Or label “problematic.” “Ziri, 8
½,” he said. “First scene.” He yawned and sank
Down on his futon. In his fauna tank,
A sleeping bonsai panther wagged its tail.
The mail had yet to beam down on the mail
Pad by the door.
The bonsai panther is out of the bag. We’re in a future where mail is “beamed” to its recipients. (And where Siri has been renamed Ziri, the first of the book’s myriad indications that someone or something named Zuckerberg has taken over the entire technosphere. Blogs are zlogs, tweets are zweets, and Uber, now a Star Trek-like beaming service instead of a driving one, has become Zuber.)
Forgotten Work’s back-cover copy says the book is set in 2063. Guriel seems to center his story in the 2030’s, but in either case the world he depicts is hugely more futuristic than would be conceivable in the 20-anythings. (Maybe this unlikeliness is intentional, Guriel’s way of suggesting, in a kind of extended hyperbole, that a Star-Trek future is more imminent than we realize.) I don’t want to give too much away about the book’s futureworld—being surprised by yet another techno-wonder is one of Forgotten Work’s great pleasures—but I’ll at least say that Guriel’s posited future isn’t uniformly bright: not to go, for instance, by the presence of a crater that once was Montreal. And yet this future is also, in its dark way, magical. In an advance on Google Glasses, for instance, many people have chosen to replace their natural eyes with artificial “smart” ones:
A postcard flew through Patti’s field of vision,
Then paused, afloat: “Your piece in June edition
………………..“Flag for later,” Patti mumbled.
The postcard, foxed and sepia-tinted, tumbled
Into her inbox, represented by
A folder in the corner of her eye.
(A “foxed and sepia-tinted” virtual postcard: now there’s a technology—and a writer—admirable for attention to detail.) In a richly visualized tableau of robot servants that/who have outlived their usefulness, darkness and magic merge. A few of these humanoid bots are sitting on a curb:
………….their knees tucked to their naked chests,
Their fingers knit. Beside their feet, their shoes
Stood, as if worn by spirits [. . . ] It was cheaper
To turn loose a bot and start “grim reaper”
Mode than change their programming to meet
The needs of some new master. Thus the street
Was destiny. The servant’s brain would fill
With strange, unbidden thoughts. They’d walk until
They reached their house’s curb, then duly strip,
Sit down, and wait. A Zuber truck would ship
Them up to heaven.
In an article in Lit Hub on the writing of Forgotten Work, Guriel says he hadn’t originally intended to set his story in the future. Why it occurred to him to do so is, as with any such inspiration, a mystery—Guriel says the idea came to him “on a whim”—though less of one, perhaps, than his ability to populate a conjectural future with marvels whose profusion many science fiction writers would envy. How did a neophyte sci fi-er manage it?
Consider, in this connection, Hubert’s “bonsai panther,” clearly a triumph of authorial imagination—yet without the immediately preceding reference to a “fauna tank,” would this wondrous creature ever have been imagined? And who’s to say this tank didn’t ride into the poem principally (or more) on the back of its rhyme with “sank?” In his Lit Hub piece, Guriel talks about a passage evoking Hubert’s love of things retro: some eyeglass frames, for instance, that were
As quaint as whalebone corsets, hunting foxes,
iPhones, and those primitive Xboxes
That weren’t implanted but, instead, sat on
Your furniture. He loved the off-brand dawn
His window ran, recorded when the sun
Could still be seen.
Guriel remembers “having no clear sense of what it meant that the sun could no longer be seen; I just liked the sound of that ‘off-brand dawn,’ and anyway, I needed at least the ‘dawn’ because the Xboxes of the future no longer sit ‘on’ furniture. (You can start to see how the rhyme scheme wasn’t just a collaborator; at times, it was a dictator.)” It’s a commonplace that searching for rhymes leads poets to words they wouldn’t have thought of. Here’s a case where searching for a rhyme led a poet not just to a word but a world (or at least an important part of one). It turned out, says Guriel, that “that missing sun, a throwaway prop, would throw its shadow over the rest of the book. After all, and as I discovered a chapter later, humans of the future have been careless. They’ve teleported so much trash into the exosphere, the trash [including, presumably, those decommissioned servant bots] has cohered into a cloud and come to obscure the sun.” Guriel calls rhyme a “dictator.” Where Forgotten Work is concerned, he could as well have called it an enabler (in a non-pejorative sense), or even an empowerer.
So: a verse-novel set in a sci-fi future. Guriel wastes no time in acquainting us with a subculture there, one whose members indulge a fascination with, of all things, obscure rock bands. (Not least of Guriel’s achievements, from my Bach-besotted perspective, is his making me ask myself why one wouldn’t be fascinated with obscure rock bands.) Of particular interest to this cultish contingent is a band called “Mountain Tea” (“the Mountain” to its admirers). Edgy, grungy, yet sophisticated both musically and lyrically, this group experiences early and well-deserved fame, only to be driven into obscurity over the ensuing decade by a toxic mix of vicissitude—two of its members perish when their bodies fuse in a beaming accident—and a Beatles-like outgrowing of their initial togetherness.
As with Mountain Tea, so with its recordings, which have fallen so far off the grid as to be unfindable. Few of the band’s afficionados have heard even a note of its music. But back when the group was starting out, their debut album had gotten a review which is findable, a rave that’s inspired a fanatical interest in—even, somehow, devotion to—the Mountain’s lost output.
Or is it lost? A few recordings are at least rumored to exist . . . Forgotten Work is the story of a globe-spanning search for them. This search is conducted in a general sense by the hive mind of the Mountain’s fans, but in particular by a smattering of the most obsessed of these, sometimes in collaboration with one another, sometimes in competition, sometimes alone. (One way Guriel keeps his story moving is by introducing a new one of these superfans-squared in each chapter.) While their search is targeted at music, these searchers are into a number of the other arts as well: a reflection, clearly, of the breadth of Guriel’s own artistic interests. How could the author of these lines about Hubert, a searcher we’ve already met, not be penning a self-portrait as well:
…………………………………………….He loved such stuff as Fun
House, Horses, Astral Weeks, The La’s, Pet Sounds,
Thomas Disch’s essays, Ezra Pound’s
Translations [cordoned off, one notes, from his other work], Orson Welles as
(The Third Man), poetry that dares to rhyme,
The books of Paula Fox, the bass of Carol
Kaye, that moment when the [Canadian] poet Daryl
Hine compares some “love-disordered linen”
To “brackish water.”
Among the arts that get Guriel’s attention in Forgotten Work is the art (as he clearly sees it) of criticism. In considering this aspect of the book, a little background is helpful. Beginning a decade or so ago, Guriel triggered a controversy around the absence in Canada of negative reviewing. As the poet Michael Lista said in an online conversation with Guriel, “The consensus among Canadian writers is that it’s undesirable to write critically about books. Motivated by compassion for other writers (and therefore a healthy dash of self-interest), writers have revolved so far leftwards on the spectrum when it comes to criticism that they’ve arrived on the extreme right—and on the side of censorship.” Guriel took public issue with this kid gloves consensus, and to go by his recursion to the topic in Forgotten Work, still has a scar or two to show for it.
I mentioned that interest in Mountain Tea’s music had been reawakened by an old, rave review. But the author of this review, a critic named Patti (she of the artificial “smart” eyes), was also a frequent contributor to a “pop up blog” (US-based, Guriel pointedly points out) whose title tells you all you need to know about it: Hatchet Job. Her take-downs in its pages make her a target of a group called
………Authors for a Safer World, whose mission
Was to snuff out snark in criticism,
Which they felt was harmful. Harsh reviews
Of works of art—reviews that left a bruise—
Could bring their wrath. Their membership remained
A mystery, their tactics unrestrained.
(They’d torched three men.)
Guriel could be accused of riding a hobbyhorse into his tale in these lines—and maybe he is—but he puts this beast to effective work by hitching it up to some plot machinery. The habitually hatchet-wielding Patti returns home one evening to find her apartment building in flames. She runs toward it. (Remember, in reading what’s related next, that Patti’s eyes are of the “smart” variety:)
A scroll flew into Patti’s line of sight.
She batted at it [with her eyelids, we’re to understand], but the scroll kept pace
And as she sprinted, got up in her face [a deft blend here of meter, rhyme, and colloquialism]
And, like a shade tugged by a ghost, unfurled
Itself—“from Authors for a Safer World”—
Its parchment rippling as it tried to match
Her speed, the wind effect a clever patch
Of code. She blinked and blinked. It wouldn’t close.
The scroll unwound a few more lines of prose:
“We know about your Hatchet Job reviews.
And yes, we are the ones who lit the fuse.”
As if this act of vigilantism weren’t terrible enough, the blaze consumes not just Patti’s apartment but, among its contents, an iPod containing some of the few surviving recordings of Mountain Tea’s music.
But just how good is this music? Here’s a description of a song widely taken to be the Mountain’s best, “The Dead.”
………Over reverbed brass and strummed
Guitar, as choral cowboy voices hummed
Spaghetti-Western-style, the singer read
A list of lost, neglected bands in dead-
Pan: “Felt” (pause) “Plush” (pause)—each pause punctuated
By piano chord. The choir abated,
Giving way to H.U. Hawks’s bass,
A pulse that emphasized the empty space
It echoed in. Two vintage theramins
Began to moan. A ghost—George Harrison’s—
Possessed guitarist Louis Reid and made
Him play a riff a Beatle might’ve played,
A spectral solo that was mesmerizing,
Masterful, low strings slowly rising,
Singer Dennis Byrne imploring—crying—
“Raise the dead!”
One theramin would be enough to send me fleeing a rock concert with my hair on fire . . . but then (he starts to second-think) “The Dead” is elegiac, so maybe the theramin’s sepulchral creepiness would be apt (as might that past-evoking chorus of cowboy voices ) . . . . On further further thought, I wonder if there’s the slightest chance that the entire description is a put on, an ascription of greatness to the manifestly awful? (That list of neglected bands is read in “dead-pan,” after all) . . . But no, I think the description is meant to be taken as straight praise, lest the whole premise and surprising power of the book be undercut. Besides, when it comes to rock, I trust my taste about as far I could throw a roadie.
The story of the unfortunate Patti is the first in a series of episodes (some cleverly intertwined) that constitute the principal business of Forgotten Work. Each recounts another fan’s attempt to find at least a trace of the Mountain’s music. (Some of these fans suffer fates that show Patti to have gotten off easy.) These ventures culminate in a rivetingly cinematic descent into the crater-that-was-Montreal:
The Crater was a massive, depthless bowl.
The bowl was lined with ridge-like rings, rock ledges
You could walk—assuming that the edges
Didn’t spook you. Stairwells let you snake
Or ladder, up or down, at will, and make
Your way to different rings[ . . . ]
……………….Floating lanterns laid their glow
On sections of the spiral; otherwise,
It corkscrewed into darkness. Swarms of flies,
In spring, tornadoed in these lit-up spots.
So desperate are the seekers of the Mountain’s output to find even a scrap of it, and so convincing is Forgotten Work’s depiction of their desperation, that we become emotionally invested in their success: a testament to Guriel’s success in his—in any novelist’s—central task of making us care. (You don’t think I’m going to tell you if the Mountain’s music is found.) Like the bumblebee that flies even though it shouldn’t be able to, Forgotten Work’s amalgam of epic poem, sci-fi novel, and deep dive into rock-fandom gets improbably airborne, a feat attributable not only to its author’s large and multifaceted talent, but also to his winning infatuation with the diverse realms his story inhabits. I can’t think of a book that’s more patently a labor of love.