How to Dance in This Rarefied Air
Sri Lankan–Canadian poet Rienzi Crusz signals his stylistic affiliation in the title poem of his latest collection. In the lyric’s first third, Crusz presents a portrait of an antagonistic character who “jabs his thick forefinger / into my poetic” and “cups his eyes / against my passionate burning.” This heretofore nameless figure promotes a sensibility typified by aridity and desiccation: “What he wants / is wasteland: / white, scrubbed, frontier; / whose poems / must deconstruct to bare bone, / the flesh and blood laid out separately / to dry like fish / in the noonday sun.”
The word “wasteland” gives the game away, but for anyone who has not yet cottoned on, Crusz makes himself explicit in the poem’s fifth stanza: “Noble Eliot, you might as well / rest in peace, / your ransom will not be paid.” Having rejected the 20th century modernist’s poetic innovations, Crusz goes on to identify those poets who provide him solace and true inspiration, among them Shakespeare, Neruda, Tagore, Gibran, Rilke, and Vallejo.
What these poets – along with fellow Sri Lankan Michael Ondaatje, name-checked elsewhere in the collection – share in common is a romanticism verging on sentimentality, a tendency Crusz indulges frequently, not least in the poems dedicated to his wife, Anne. “Love, if you wish to say to me: / ‘I love you darling’ / Don’t! / Just hug me,” Crusz writes in “Only the Gesture, My Love”; the overwrought sentiment is exacerbated by the rather awkward repetition of the word “love” in the first two lines.
Such a lapse is startling for a poet in late career (Crusz is now 91 years old) whose verse has been widely praised for its sophistication and attention to language and rhythm. “The Elephant Who Would Be a Poet” opens with a cliché – “High noon” – slides into an intriguing metaphorical image – “The piranha sun” – then immediately reverts to cliché – “cuts to the bone.”
Yet it is impossible to read this collection – which contains selected poems alongside new ones – without recognizing the fraught relationship the poet maintains to his subject matter and its mode of expression: “We embrace words / as we would weapons, / a pin, a shotgun, a machete / for each fighting day.” Crusz acknowledges his poetic muse, whose name he thinks to write “only in graffiti,” and admits to an almost antisocial obsession with the verse of those who serve as his inspiration: “Pablo, compatriot of sun and rain, the good earth / please, please stop seducing me / with your magic metaphors.”
How to Dance in This Rarefied Air opens with a poem of childhood, and closes on the down-slope of old age (“I am / a dying voice / shaping words / for a wilderness”); in its totality it offers a kind of ars poetica for Crusz’s career and his trajectory as a poet and an immigrant. Nor is he above acknowledging the more materialistic, ego-driven desires of a poet in a contemporary Canadian context: “After the KW Writer’s Award #2” begins with the speaker considering a regional award he has been bestowed (he imagines his wife assessing “the practical use of the trophy’s weight / for breaking coconuts”), and ends with the poet sitting down to work, “chasing after the Governor General’s Award.”
In her introduction to this new volume, University of Toronto professor emeritus Linda Hutcheon refers to the epigraph from Roland Barthes, and its emphasis on individual style that forms “a self-sufficient language … which has its roots only in the depths of the author’s personal and secret mythology.” In this collection, Hutcheon suggests, the “mortal poet becomes the immortal poem; its language, its imagery are what will remain of the poet.” How to Dance in This Rarefied Air provides an overview – flawed and at times noticeably sentimental, but nonetheless engaging – of an individual poet’s approach and philosophy, and a roadmap of the inspirations that chart the way he got here.