The title of this post is taken from the middle section, 2. Call Me Coyote, of Paul Vermeersch‘s poem, “Three Anthropomorphic Studies” which appears in his 2010 collection The Reinvention of the Human Hand. In my head I gleefully refer to the whole poem as “The Looney Tunes Trinity” and, also up there in the mostly empty spaces, I sometimes subtitle the book as Notes Toward a Poetics of Reason.
Vermeersch’s collection has been on my mind lately as I examine my own approach to writing specifically, along with the artmaking process in general, in conjunction with today’s world. What follows is not a book review, or a piece of literary criticism per se, but an attempt to explicate by use of example the value of a rational (non-mystical) approach to the act of artmaking itself.
In the world we live in today, whether some choose to accept it or not, choose to believe it or not, we’ve outgrown mysticism and supernatural rationalizations and explanations for our own existence and the existence of the universe. One of the things that annoys me (there are many) is when people ask me—and this happens, though not always in so many words—how I can write poetry and not believe in some outside creative force, some universal spirit that I must somehow be magically in touch with in order to write something that makes them feel, something that touches them. I consider this magical thinking an insult to both me and them, to humanity, to life in all its variety; the notion that there exists an invisible and intangible agency that must infest us in order for us to appear to have volition in, apprehension of, and communication with the world.
It is that magical thinking, that life-denigrating urge to mystify, Vermeersch’s poems confront by the simple means of showing that awe and wonder are to be found all around us in a knowable world, that we don’t need the muddiness of religion in any of its forms, from the one-god fundamentalist fanatic deists through the karma-carping polytheists and tree and river-worshiping neo-pagans to the vague, wishy-washy, attenuated spirit-of-the-universe pantheists.
Vermeersch makes poetry out of anything and everything: the cave paintings of Lascaux, a Bosch landscape, anesthesia, a boy of an early, unspecified hominin species, and even Warner Brothers’ cartoons. This willingness to experience, examine, and synthesize the whole of life and culture is to me the essence of artmaking.
All art, since the first piece made by some unnamed ancestor of ours somewhere between twenty and sixty thousand years ago, references or alludes to in some way a preceding work or works (my mental shorthand for this is “all art is theft,” and that, and how making art is affected by the insanity of the currently existing concept of copyright are subjects for another post), and some of Vermeersch’s best poems in this collection do this matter-of-factly, offhandedly, and successfully to a wide range of forms and media.
For one example, the poem “Ape” in form and in subject matter alludes and responds to the Ginsberg poem, “Howl,” and manages to be a study in compassion and empathy. For another, in the section of the poem “Three Anthropomorphic Studies” from which I took the title for this post, Vermeersch not only references Moby Dick in the section subtitle but successfully has his assumed persona of Wile E. Coyote say, in part, this:
…I’ll come for you again today refreshed,
with birdseed loaded with buckshot
and a magnet that could rip the very iron
from your blood. I’ll grease my heels
and slide like light toward my prize,
unencumbered and missile-swift,
with dead-eye aim and avarice.
And patience, too, a patience so
unwavering it makes the mountains itch.
The creature in the sand awaits the canter
of your gait. The rock that watches you
watches you everywhere and knows….
Again, this collection, this fine thin volume “The Reinvention of the Human Hand,” was built and speaks from a rationalist perspective and never deigns to descend into the muck of mysticism. In concept and execution, in its pure poetry, it is the best collection I know of published in at least the last 10 years. The additional fact that within it are hints that it refuses to take itself seriously only heightens my admiration for it and for Paul Vermeersch.