The Quilliad continues to review small press books, and today’s offering is Adam Abbas’s A State, A Statue, A Statute, published by Steel Bananas. A mix of formal poetry and digressions into highly rhythmic prose poems, Abbas’s book is a complex—sometimes difficult—and technically impressive read that sometimes becomes too opaque for comprehension but retains an elegance of form throughout.
Part I is composed of sestinas, villanelles, and prose poems. The sestinas and villanelles are clearly constructed with care—the rhymes emerge naturally, and the author can turn an eloquent phrase. Many of these pieces contain examinations of memory and moments of poignant melancholy, unfortunately sometimes obscured by the obscurity of much of the text. That said, Abbas clearly knows his craft.
My feelings about the prose poems are similar. Allusions and (pop) culture references abound, both hinting at themes and bewildering in their variety. Odd juxtapositions resist interpretation—a “Berber Gerber baby”, dryads, “the Hymn of the Hyena’s Hymen”, and the cross-dressing “Chris Christ [ . . . ] with his Stockholm Syndrome” all jostle for space within “Supper as the Linoleum Curls”. These poems are held together with relentless rhyme and a rhythm that both exhilarates and leaves the reader feeling a little rushed. Each sentence is stretched beyond its grammatical limits, creating a sense of urgency that makes events and characters blur. Caught up in the flow of words, it’s hard to pause long enough to grasp what’s happening, and even closer examination can leave the reader none the wiser. In some ways, it’s like reading T.S. Eliot again, with that sense of having missed the point because the references are too diverse to follow while conceding that everything must somehow fit together. As a fellow reviewer has pointed out, these poems are reminiscent of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, and in the same way that one can simultaneously appreciate the linguistic acrobatics of Bök’s writing and be frustrated by the distance between the words and a comprehensible meaning, I found myself admitting Abbas’s talent while wishing I could find something just a little more solid to hold onto in these poems. I’m still unsure as to whether all the sound and fury signifies anything.
As the collection continues, however, the reading gets easier. Part two is a bit of a breather, with poems that clearly state their focus if not their purpose. The section’s opening poem about the writer’s place in the world and a piece on family ground the collection in a more recognizable voice. “Poem for Sammy Yatim” brings the political undertones of the collection to the forefront, finally voicing the discontent that whispers throughout the beginning of the collection. Part three returns to formal constraints, opening with a ghazal that lets us further into the speaker’s psyche and continues the theme of memory and loss. While still challenging, the pieces in this section are rendered more accessible by their form rather than less, as sequences of couplets give the reader time to absorb each line. Echoes of the playful strangeness of the earlier prose poems are tempered by a more meditative, less frenzied rhythm. The beginning of “Bailey”, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, is dark and quirky, showing off Abbas’s taste for the bizarre while supplying the narrative so yearned for and denied in the prose poems: “The family went outside as it snowed softly/And the drunken father sang an ode softly/For their pet spadefoot toad who died of wanderlust/Whose gorgeous eyes always glowed softly”.
In the final section, several pages of haikus and haiku-like stanzas form a fragmentary and evocative poem. While the earlier prose poems suggest but do not deliver a coherent narrative, the haiku’s brevity encourages contemplation, while extra spaces between stanzas seem to reassure: there will be gaps in your knowledge, and that is simply part of the experience.
While the opening section of A State, A Statue, A Statute can be daunting to approach, persistent readers will be rewarded. I’d recommend this book specifically to those who appreciate formal poetry and the merits of playing with constraints.
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