Carl Watts Reviews James Arthur’s The Suicide’s Son
There is more than one kind of in-betweenness happening in James Arthur’s latest collection. Arthur writes in the tradition of poets who are both Canadian and American (he grew up in Toronto and now teaches at Johns Hopkins). Coming after Charms Against Lightning, which appeared on Washington’s Copper Canyon Press, The Suicide’s Son—just published by Signal Editions—deals in the sort of formally adventurous yet also traditionalist poetry Signal editor Carmine Starnino has long been associated with. Fittingly, there are many interesting wrinkles and contradictions in Arthur’s subject matter and in his craft.
The book’s first few poems showcase a minimally identifiable formalist style. For Arthur, that means haunting internal rhymes marked by a trace of metrical regularity—like in “Frankenstein’s Monster,” when steady iambs give way to a metrical shambles that’s nevertheless marked by the familiar dactyls of the poem’s namesake:
The other day I walked from Cleopatra’s Needle
to the far side of the Harlem Meer, thinking
about the Rockefeller Center, and the gigantic
armillary sphere balanced on the shoulders
of the Atlas statue there. My pants
are fitted. My beret advances everywhere
like a prow. My name isn’t Frankenstein.
Frankenstein was my inventor.
The irregular regularity often works well, even if the satire can be a little hoity-toity. “The Death of Captain America,” with its mockery of popular culture, is sometimes a little too pat (“Did he believe in the right to bear arms, / or in big government?”). But even in the most just-so passages, there’s often a weirdness, like when bug collecting somehow enters the equation:
Cap never drank, never smoked, was straight
as a bug-collector’s pin,
but many a crooked man will walk a crooked mile
now that Captain America is dead.
Poems like “The Death of Captain America” fit well with the book’s title and premise—according to its press, it deals with the “personal histories that parents inherit, add to, and pass on to their children.” All of these things indicate that male-centric meditations are to be expected here. And yet poem after well-constructed poem asks whether playing with these constructions ends up merely sustaining them. Perhaps some readers will find this kind of irresolution outdated. Either way, Arthur’s formalist tinkering with tradition seems able to grapple with this conundrum and to suggest that discomfort is precisely the point.
Then comes “In Al Purdy’s House,” which signals not only Arthur’s holding of an A-Frame Residency in 2017 but also a potential problem for the formalist set. Work like Arthur’s ostensibly challenges “mainstream” free verse. Then Purdy staggers in with reams of the stuff:
I read your autobiography
while lying in your bed, trying to imagine Roblin Lake
and this lakeside piece of land
as they were sixty years ago, when you and Eurithe
built the A-frame by hand,
with no experience of carpentry, using salvaged lumber
and whatever materials you could find.
It feels like when a musical subgenre has yielded wave after wave of revivalists until the shades of a distinct aesthetic have dissolved into fleetingly identifiable, yet entirely mainstream, reference points.
Similarly, the A-frame, once an indicator of Purdy’s own quasi-rebelliousness, is now a literal institution. That institution seems inclusive in its support of a range of emerging and mid-career voices. So why shouldn’t poets whose formal attentiveness makes them distinct from Purdy take part, even if doing so draws them back to the old A-Frame itself, both geographically and in the seemingly obligatory Ameliasburgh meditations that result from the residency? At this point we’re left with a picture of containment that afflicts much of the poetry world. But the whole point of a traditionalist-formalist poetics is that it’s not out to reinvent the wheels that make a poem move.
So while The Suicide’s Son won’t be for everyone, it’s an intelligent and striking example of a poetics that’s more self-aware than it’s given credit for. And, anyway, if a collection can end on a poem like “Roar,” whose staggered long dashes and abrupt conclusion at once evoke and torque Stevens’s “Earthy Anecdote”—
Inside, the leaves
grind down to dust. But flying there, they’re so
delicate. Dragonflies, butterflies. They
skitter across the air—
—I’m happy that Arthur’s failed to make any radical break with the past.
Carl Watts holds a PhD from Queen's University and teaches at Huazhong University of Science and Technology. He has published a poetry chapbook called REISSUE (2016) and a short monograph called Oblique Identity: Form and Whiteness in Recent Canadian Poetry (2019), both with Frog Hollow Press.