Ezra Pound advises the poet to charge language with meaning "to the utmost possible degree." Critic Harold Bloom posits that poets, inspired to write by reading other poets, produce, as a sorry result, work that is derivative, weak, soon forgotten. The influence of great predecessors is, he says, like influenza, "an astral disease," an anxiety-causing barrier to originality, and hence immortality, against which strong poets must protect themselves.
Montreal-based Michael Lista, in Bloom, a first collection of poems, heeds Pound's advice, outs Bloom's anxiety, ambitiously appropriates James Joyces's Ulysses and, according to your perspective, "misreads," translates, covers, eclipses, parodies or fucks with a choir of contemporary poetic voices.
A day in the life of Canadian physicist Louis Slotin lends the book its narrative structure. May 21, 1946, a lunar eclipse and Slotin, a member of the Manhattan Project's atomic bomb team, is training his replacement, Alvin Graves, to perform a test that involves placing two half-spheres of beryllium around a plutonium core. The goal is to bring the core and uranium as close together as possible without triggering a chain reaction. The core is the same that irradiated and killed a colleague, Harry Daghlian, only months prior. It's a risky task, referred to as "tickling the dragon's tail."
For some reason, Slotin makes it riskier. Ignoring safety limits, he separates the half-spheres using a screwdriver. It slips, the core goes "critical," and Slotin receives a lethal dose of radiation. Seven other men in the room are over-exposed. They survive because Slotin's body eclipses most of the so-called "bloom." Some think his actions heroic, others irresponsible.
Bloom has placed Lista in similar danger. He has taken Joyce's multi-voiced classic - the richest canonical plutonium of the 20th century - adopted its complexities and concern for simulacrum and metaphor, and cross-bred it with a body of his own double-written poems. Placed together, these influential elements collectively produce some beautiful new verse and an explosion of questions. Is writing poetry a team sport? Is Lista copying or creating? Does Bloom contain bona fide memorable poetry, or is it plagiarism, a weak counterfeit?
Here's Ted Hughes:
She never once invited, never tempted./ And I never stirred a finger beyond sisterly comforting. I was like her sister./ It never seemed unnatural. I was focused/ So locked onto you, so brilliantly/ Everything that was not you was blind-spot./
I was never tempted/ To touch her except in brotherly comfort. Like siblings,/ We never let our wonder wander from interest/ Into incest./
Here's Irving Layton:
he thinks happily of the neutron bomb,/ his face taking on again/ the proud and serene look/ that once brought women in their hundreds/ clamouring to his bed/
Happily he thinks of his atomic bomb,/ His happy Trojan horse,/ His lips now breaking/ Into the famous grin/ That still dispatches women by the bed-load Into Bedlam, into bed.
These offspring are, I think, worthy of their parents.
Born out of a fascination with what motivated Louis Slotin - recognition perhaps on Lista's part of something similar found in himself - Bloom reflects on fate, choice, immortality and the afterlife, and attends to the parallels that exist between inventive scientific and literary endeavour, and the re-organizing and re-arranging of set structures and elements. With it, Lista shimmies a screwdriver between left- and right-brain hemispheres, rendering this reader, at least for a time, paralyzed, caught in the friction of competing desires to understand logically and appreciate emotionally. From this, slowly, thoughts arise, gather, connect, multiply, form new patterns and explode with new life. The act of reading Bloom replicates the process of creation.
Lista has here brought together potent ingredients, at once harmonious and dissonant, in a container with metal enough to withstand blasts from poems being split apart and reincarnated.
There is much to take from this collection. Not only is its face beautiful, its body yields clues both to the genetic makeup of poetry - the process of parenting and birthing it - and the purpose of life.
Standing on the shoulders of giants, Lista has moved the great conversation forward. The pleasure and challenge of reading this book lies in trying to figure out how he does it.
Nigel Beale is the owner/publisher of literarytourist.com. He blogs at www.nigelbeale.com.