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Corpses, Brats and Cricket Music

George Faludy, Corpses, Brats and Cricket Music, W. Hoffer / Tanks, 1987

Recently, sitting on the Granville bus with me, a friend pointed to one of the display ads that ran above the seats across the aisle. The ad he pointed to – similar to the kind that line hockey rinks, though much smaller – contained an excerpt from a poem by a local poet.

"I cannot bear these fucking poetry ads. The self-involvement. The overt sensitivity. It sickens me."

I nodded.

"I’ve never read one of these fucking poems that can stand up to the other bus ads."

I didn’t say anything. He glared at me. "Have you?"

"No."

"Can you think of any BC poets you’ve read recently that could hold their head up in a bus ad?"

And right then I couldn’t. But later, back at my apartment, I thought: Of course. George Faludy.

Faludy isn’t much read now. But his poems contain a flavour, a bitter savor, that contemporary poetry could use. Reading him is like biting into one of those dark sausages smokers like to eat: you get a strong taste of Europe. As it happens, he was born in Hungary, and in Canada continued to write in his mother tongue; and I find something distinctly "old world" in the way he masks himself in order to get the effects he wants. He is a poet who has quite deliberately given himself over to a kind of casual, manly role that allows little room for emotional and psychological nuance.

I can’t think of any Canadian or American poets who really resemble Faludy in this. Robinson Jeffers reminds me of a little in some of his more mellow bits, and so do a few of the poets of the American south – Robert Penn Warren, say. But that is about it. In the end Faludy comes out of a European tradition in which the poet is accepted as someone with an insouciance and dramatic flair that ordinary writers don’t have.

I suppose the key word here is accepted. This tradition has never caught on in Canada. Here, poets irritate people; as a result, they tend to be a lot more reflective and self-examinatory that the members of the romantic European school Faludy belongs to.

Two good things follow from this romantic role. First, it gives Faludy a blunt confidence that comes from having a sense of his place. Second, it allows him to cultivate a taste for the erotic and an eye for viciousness and amusement that I find appealing.

Not that everything is great. When I read Faludy’s poems I have a divided reaction. On the one hand, the persona he cultivates (the romantic husband, the sensual man of the world, the thoughtful adventurer and political prisoner: all with a lazy wink), this persona seems to me simple, almost stereotyped. On the other hand, the persona serves his purpose: it allows him to write poems with enough panache in them that they could indeed stand up to the bus ads for Fruitopia and Puma bags.

An excellent example of what I mean is the title poem of the book, a narrative written in a colloquial style. It works like this. Faludy, his wife and a friend named Andrew are walking through the streets of Marrakesh, "hotly arguing," when they come upon a dead man and a bunch of "howling" street kids, one of whom is "hammering at the skull/ of the dead man with a rock". Faludy realizes that he knows the boy – "his swollen lips, his skin of smooth raw silk" – and he poem comments: "Poor kid! He had no toys to play with. Now/ he’s found himself a wonderful cracked head".

Then understanding comes. The three realize that they have walked into the scene of a murder and that the violence is still going on. Stones are thrown at them; Faludy gets "a brick on my left kidney." Too paralyzed with fear to run, they "walk and walk," followed by the screeching boys. Eventually they end up on the rooftop of a courthouse with other friends and wait for a seige that doesn’t come.

A humiliating experience: the next morning Faludy is in a cafe drinking absinthe, "which, in time, could make my teeth fall out," and trying to write about it. "But how can I tell in verse/ what really does not suit a poem? I sweat."

He drinks absinthe; he writes; at his feet a street boy plays a simple little musical instrument. The street boy taps his knee. Faludy bends down and looks at him; he recognizes the boy whom he had seen the day before hammering at the dead man’s skull.

The boy "quite sharply" orders him to take a matchbox which he holds out. It contains a cricket. "What must I pay for it?" Faludy angrily asks. "It is a gift," the boy says, and "with a royal gesture of rejection" leaves the coffee house. Faludy finishes his poem, then takes the cricket and frees it "below the city walls of Marrakesh, where they bathe the camels ina lake." "It is a long and dusty walk," the poem ends, "but one/ must pay for being born to the race of man."

A vivid piece of writing. It makes clear that Faludy doesn’t have any of the problems with being a poet that Canadian writers face. He isn’t worried about being obvious or overly sentimental; neither is he worried about using phrases that are perhaps sharp but a little inadequate. (He tells us, for instance, in another poem, that he has come from the "sadistic" East to the "masochistic" Western, summing up the entire complexity of East-West relationships with these two words.)

All this is part of his insouciance. I like it; but I have to admit I am sometimes left cold when I read his formulaic expressions, or encounter a lyricism in which I hear the quiver of a cafe violin ("I draw her throbbing breast to mine./ the day has ended,/ the sky become a violet banner"). His poetry works best when he has characters to portray or when he projects himself into another character (as he does in three of the poems in this book); then the sense of drama he has at his fingertips expresses itself with elegance and a hard, saving vulgarity. Here he writes as Villon, addressing a potential patron:

…it’s a bugger not to have a sou;
you sway in the wind as if you’ve been strung up,
and when the pig spits you don’t open your yap,
and your ass slides loose inside your pants.
Well, one word from you, Sir, would hit the spot
and decide if Villon’s belly should rumble or not.

A footnote. The translation of the poems was done by the late Robin Skelton in collaboration with Faludy. It seems able. But the same thing can’t be said about the "Preface" Skelton provides. In his eagerness to establish the importance of Faludy’s work, Skelton ends up sounding ludicrous. "Of all the poets of our century," he writes, "Faludy is the most wide-ranging, the least parochial….He is both comedian and tragedian; he laughs delightedly and he grieves deeply. He is historian and prophet; he revitalizes the past and warns of the future. He is Shakespearian in his ability to combine vulgarity and grandeur, satire and sentiment, and in the middle of all the pain, the confusion and the comedy, one always hears `the still sad music of humanity.’"

This kind of prose clings to Canadian reviewing like English ivy. It does Faludy’s work a disservice. Faludy is a vulgar writer: in his vulgarity lies his strengh. The late William Hoffer – may he rest in peace – deserves a metaphysical kick for letting it pass, and also for allowing Skelton to spell "jail" as "gaol," a Britishism which – coming as it does from a man who lived in Canada for decades – riles me as an example of our colonialism: it makes me think of knee-length khaki shorts and a baa-baaing voice going on about the wogs.

July 13, 2004

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Bruce Serafin

Bruce Serafin lived and wrote beautifully about Vancouver until he died in June 2007. His first book, Colin's Big Thing, was published in 2004. A posthumus collection of essays, Stardust was published in October 2007 by New Star.

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