Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Mathias Svalina, _Destruction Myth_

PHILIP ROTH? WHY is there a drawing of Philip Roth's head in the lower right-hand corner of the corner of Mathias Svalina's new book, and why is the drawing reproduced full-page size on the flyleaf? And why does Roth have two sets of eyes? And who is the four-eyed gentleman in the drawing on the final page? Ralph Ellison? No, no moustache.

Roth's four-eyed presence on the cover is only the first enigma in a volume that presents a good many. Forty-four of its forty-five poems bear the same title, "Creation Myth" (twenty-four of these were in his New Michigan Press chapbook, Creation Myths). The classic function of the creation myth is to explain how things came to be as they now are, but the explanations in Svalina's myths tend to deepen rather than dispel mystery. They begin sometimes goofily ("In the beginning everyone looked like Larry Bird"), sometimes ominously ("In the beginning everyone wanted to fight to the death"), sometimes astonishingly ("In the beginning people had cornfields rather than sex parts"), then proceed down passages with many beckoning doors, plunge down the one you least expected, and leave you in perplexed enlightenment:

"Every night the President appeared on TV to wish every person goodnight individually. 'Good night Meredith,' he said. 'Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith.Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith.'"

William of Ockham held (I am told) that God is "absolutely omnipotent: He can do anything that is not self-contradictory." The creative power in Svalina's creation myths, I am delighted to report, suffers no such limitation, and the self-contradictory flourishes.

"In the beginning there was nothing. But the nothing smelled like bacon. No one could figure out how nothing could: a) have a smell & b) smell like bacon."

So, not only does this cosmos of nothing smell like something, but beings are present to smell the smell that emanates from this cosmos of nothing and speculate about why it smells as it does. An empty cosmos already populated -- which may reflect the affinity between creation myths and the world of our early childhood. In creation myths, as in the world of early childhood, there are only a few objects; the world is uninhabited save by a countable number of people, pieces of furniture, toys, yards, and so on. Svalina's myths capture that simplicity. But they also paradoxically assert -- again in a way that reminds us of early childhood -- that this new-born world has nonetheless a dense history, is more populated than we know, has already been home to more conflict and pain than we can imagine.

Creation -- at least among us of the west -- implies fall, and some sort of a turning, collapse, shift, or fall marks all of Svalina's myths: "Soon the people lost their nouns"; "On three they all pulled. / It was the first ripping sound / the world ever knew, / this world used to cutting"; "the people unwrapped the final wrappings that held the mummy. Inside the wrappings there was a hive of wasps."

Sometimes, Svalina's own childhood flickers by ("My mother & father are both chemists"), but the poems are not about childhood so much as they recreate worlds like those of childhood, a hard-won, shadowed second innocence like that of Cosmicomics, a connection Svalina seems aware of having conjured: "In the beginning / there was a book / by Italo Calvino."

The forty-fifth and final poem is "Destruction Myth." In attempting to convey a Vision of Closure that is both sublime and ridiculous, both hilarious and terrifying, Svalina has some august and hard-to-beat predecessors in Daniel and John of Patmos, but he rises to the occasion. My favorite line: "In the end the mimeograph machines will begin to produce originals."

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