by Christopher Bakken
The Sheep Meadow Press 2006
Reviewed by David Sewell
Suffer the Kids
Smartly weaving archetypes into contemporary poems can result in all sorts of things—Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, getting a free pass on adorning your surname with an umlaut, hell, even interesting poems.
Christopher Bakken (who, if Coldfront had a fact-checker, I would claim is of Greek heritage [Bakken is not of Greek heritage —Coldfront Fact-Checker]) lives, at least some of his life, in Pennsylvania. As crazy as that sounds, his imagination seems often to reside in another place entirely—the cradle of international dreamboat Yanni, Greece.
The titular poem in Goat Funeral, Bakken’s second book of original poems, is a good place to begin. The poem (“Eclogue 4: Goat Funeral”) is one of several poems set in the land of feta and foam parties. For those of you who don’t know, an eclogue (derived from the Greek, by the way) is a poem in which shepherds (mostly) converse with each other or with the hills.
But your edification and my condescension aside, dear reader, we still have the poem to deal with. Formally introducing the goat, Bakken says, “The dead one was wreathed with olive leaves, / a pile of grain uneaten at the mouth.” Does Charon have an anti-goat policy on his ferry? Is the fare for passage a pile of grain? I don’t know. But that’s a wonderful image he’s sketched for us, and the poem is full of them. Here’s the opening:
I fled the tavern soaked with booze and gravitas,
stumbled into the scrub along the river,
cursing the whole crowd, their bouzouki kitsch,
the ardor of their mob confidence,
woke only when that shepherd Julianna
lit the pyre for her stillborn goat, wailed
against the spirit that claimed it too soon.
An auspicious start, no doubt. The funeral unfolds as we might expect a goat funeral to, including the entrance of the speaker’s characteristically human desire—lionized or, say, wolf-ified—near the end. It’s set in opposition to (and also co-opts) the bestial and the divine, thereby constituting the common classical trinity:
What choice did I have? The goat was dead,
the girl pretty, the river risen too high.
It was for her the animal inside me
rose from its lair, shook off its winter sleep,
and I took her in my arms, and stoked the fire,
and helped her burn—oh heartless god—the little beast.
Poets from Heaney to Pope to Spenser to Virgil have taken up the goatherd’s staff and loosed their yawps o’er grassy fields, and it’d be, perhaps, unfair and pointless to compare Bakken’s attempts with theirs, so I won’t. But Bakken’s eclogues, which comprise only one section (of five) in the book, are my favorites in the collection, and are a strong argument for poems (or their makers) booking passage on an Olympic Airlines flight ASAP. I myself would consider sacrificing a goat to Apollo, asking him to compel Bakken to write a full book of eclogues, but I’m a vegetarian, and it would be, no doubt, difficult to convince Hermes to visit the Keystone State, anyway.
It was perhaps misleading to imply that archetypes and things Greek are central to the book, for the majority of the book doesn’t actually reside there, and the Gods and their mortal minions don’t make all that many appearances—though the eclogues do seem to be rooted in another world/time. (That his cat is later referred to as a “Dionysian prowler” doesn’t really add much strength to the idea.) But Bakken seems to be strongest when he’s off in another world, dealing with all the problems of being human—full of desire and inertia, exposed often to the vicissitudes of Nature, spirits/gods, and other humans.
“Purgatory, a Postcard” seconds that emotion. “I attend the hangings. The library / isn’t half bad. I try not to complain.” Especially admirable are the matter-of-factness and the vibrant and fresh imagery in the poem (“I ate octopus with a survivor tonight. / We slammed vodka, compared tattoos.”), which result in a wholly successful (and mesmerizing) sonnet. The final couplet couldn’t be cleaner: “Though it’s much colder here than one expects, / things are, I must say, awfully beautiful.” Bakken is a capable and compelling poet, and poems like “Purgatory” and the section that contains the eclogues prove it.
The poems in this short collection (about 50 pages of poetry) never really fall flat, but some feel less capable of floating off to Olympus than others. With a handful of highly successful exceptions (“Ariadne [Postscript],” “Last Words from Elpenor,” and “Aegean: Flight 652” among them—all back in Greece, please note), most of the rest of the book consists of poems ekphrastically concerned with a “detail” from a painting or dedicated to channeling a dead writer or character (Pessoa, Milosz, Lawrence, William Matthews, Celan, Coleridge, and Quasimodo all have poems, often called “duets,” written for or about them). While Bakken’s talents are in strong supply here, too, I resent these poems—or their inclusion, at least—for making the book feel more scattershot than it might have felt had they been given harbor in another collection. Ditto the coming-of-age poem, the road poem, and the poem about the blue jay—not bad, just not as interesting, and perhaps a little rote.
There is the recurring theme of displacement, of wandering (and wondering), of traveling toward somewhere else—an unknown somewhere, perhaps—throughout most of the book that gives it a unified and captivating movement—“Always moving,” “Azaleas” begins. In the wonderful “First Objects,” he elaborates: “We might have stayed put, but couldn’t bear / the sense that we were rising, calm as geese / caught between the sights of a shogun.” If Bakken can, in the future, stay put in his resplendent Hellenic-inflected imagination for a good while, and avoid the art museum and his personal library, he may just write a book with the smell, taste, and texture of ambrosia. Goat Funeral isn’t quite that, but it’s not chopped liver, either.