Walid Bitar. Divide and Rule. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2012.
Readers familiar with Lebanese-born and Toronto-based poet Walid Bitar will find few surprises in his most recent collection. Divide and Rule bears an especially strong resemblance to its immediate predecessor, The Empire’s Missing Links (a book I reviewed in Arc 62). The similarities are thematic—power and its breakdown are preoccupations of Bitar’s—as well as formal: the poems in each book are set in quatrains and range from sixteen to thirty-six lines in length.
It isn’t just repetition that makes a comparison unfortunate. As I said in my review of TEML, range is not a forte of Bitar’s; because his poems don’t vary much, it’s crucial that they be chosen judiciously for a collection. While D&R contains only forty-two poems printed on fifty-five pages of text—brief by contemporary publishing standards—it is nonetheless a good one-third longer than TEML (thirty poems and forty pages).
Coach House’s cover copy calls D&R’s pieces “dramatic monologues … each in rhymed quatrains,” but, leaving aside the headscratching fact that most of the stanzas are actually unrhymed, the poems might have been more accurately labelled “static monotones.” One hallmark of a dramatic monologue is a voice distinct from the poet’s own and from that of other monologues. There is no mistaking the velvet-smooth Duke in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” for the manic Fra Lippo Lippi, and while you’re never sure exactly who’s speaking in a Bitar poem, virtually all of his speakers seem to be emanations of a single, albeit lyrically prismatic, persona.
There are important differences between the books. For all its surface order, D&R reads like an entropic “after” image of TEML. In poem after poem, Bitar employs grammatical solecisms (especially comma splices and run-on sentences) to wrongfoot a reader’s expectations, so that it isn’t only difficult to determine who’s speaking, but often to parse what they’re saying. In this, again, lack of range and selectivity are bugbears, as is the wrongfooting itself, which becomes paradoxically predictable and therefore less effective.
Another card played too often is the deliberate cliché. To repurpose Dr. Johnson’s critique of Shakespeare’s fondness for puns, stale idiom is to Bitar what luminous vapours are to the traveller … sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. “Mission Creep,” the book’s first poem, proffers an oblique manifesto: “Words often fail / at the last minute that arrives too early. / Seems you’re currently at a loss for them; / here they are.” In this and many other examples, the strategy pays off by making us see formulaic phrases afresh, but too often the clichés are scarcely less banal in their poems than they would be in sidewalk small talk. But even had he deployed all his clichés equally well, their overuse—call it technique creep—would come to feel self-indulgent.
All of this is a pity because Bitar is a poet of real skill and intelligence. Considered in isolation, Divide and Rule is not a bad book—but it is a disappointing one, in context. To readers unacquainted with his oeuvre, I would suggest looking up Bastardi Puri and The Empire’s Missing Links.
Zachariah Wells (www.zachariahwells.com) lives in Halifax. His collection of critical prose, Career Limiting Moves, will be published in the fall, as will the poetry chapbook Baffle.
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