Shane Rhodes shows off an XXX-ly sexual, biochemically lexical textual dexterity in his latest collection of poems, Err. Everything we've seen so far from Rhodes sparkles with homophonic brilliance, and Err is no exception. The pleasure and challenge of Err is in the implications of its shifting dazzle. His poems, studded with puns and rhymes, shine with lights that turn from glitzy to seamy, from champagne crystal to syringe bevel, from the winking rivet of black leather machismo to the "wrench's chrome flash" of an auto mechanic's grunting masculinity. In Err, Rhodes dives into the Dionysian realms of drink, dangerous sex and dirty money, using his sensual speech to trace the movement of spirit and song through these worldly, dark and high-tech spheres.
The first section of his book, Spirits, plays on the intersection of spiritual animation and the effects of alcohol. Rhodes, like the classical shepherd baiting his buddy to a lyrical showdown, wants to make a drinking game of punning:
It's greasy grape-glut …/ It grabs you in the gut bucket/as a garish gardyloo/ from the gloryhole …
bang-up palabras palpate the beer-bombarded babber lips to a bebumped bebop of papaphobic Presbyteers
Rhodes' poetics are like your buddy's pool game, which you can't be sure hasn't been improved by becoming reckless when he has had a few. One wonders if these poems, which often go overboard on the onomatopoeia, were sponsored "in-kind" by the distilleries and brewers to which Rhodes dedicates them. Playful and impressive performances, these verses don't offer any sober take on the subject of alcoholism, even raising an arguably mocking glass at temperance.
The previous section's swaggering debauchery wakes into the next section's day-after. In Bodies, poems about cyber sex, gay sex and paid sex, and a healthy helping of tranny sex, are shot through with AIDS. Here Rhodes' sensual language is both infectious and infected. Rhodes captures the inseparability of excitement and viral risk in casual sex, and groans with the dark humour born of coming to a sense of community through communicable disease.
Overall, Err's tone is the loquacious, jokey wittiness of intoxicated talk. Words delivered with a jovial face veer sharply, unpredictably, into violence, cynicism or a maudlin self-sympathy that wants to make the whole room a sentimental "us." There are moments of genuine fullness, or full genuineness, in a few poems that give up some performative posing for a simple walk, in more pedestrian language, into conversation with his subjects. Err is a talented, drunken kiss from a silver tongue. It lingers … as a brilliant, but sometimes bitter, taste in the mouth.
Sonnet L'Abbé was recently short-listed for this year's CBC Literary Award for Poetry.