Early on in The Relativistic Empire, Samuel Andreyev’s second collection, he asks “when did things / begin to lose their cohesion?” a question that could serve as a motto for the book as a whole. Actually to talk of this book ‘as a whole’ is rather irrational, as the only facts that make it complete are its finite number of pages and its two covers; it lacks even a table of contents, giving the impression of a free-form group of poems placed together at random. The poems themselves are (mostly) short, and generally feature a kind of deliberate nonsensicality. A typical example reads, “a thin layer of ice / protects the tongs only / to grasp an elusive concept // flown into paradise with- / -out removal colliding /jeeps stuck in mud,” the sort of language sequencing designed to stymie meaning.
Instead the poems amount to loosely collected clusters of images. Confronted with “Innocence Forever” where “a sudden flash came / through the keyhole and blurted out a rather // stupid manifestation of reality” so that “one could only dream of supernovas // tilted at a rakish angle as the entire family goes / buckety buckety to the theatre” the point, I suspect, is not to understand the words as words but rather that they conjure a mood or series of suggestive sounds. Because meaning has taken a back seat to feeling the work often relies on purposeful absurdity, as when Andreyev interrupts “A Surefire Way to End Up with Nothing” to announce that “dozens of monkeys now spring out of nowhere covering / my desk and littering my papers with urine and feces as / i try for the 1,000,000th time to pen my memoirs.”
Andreyev has another life as a well-regarded composer of contemporary classical music and has said that musical composition ‘consists of eliminating things’ down to a basic essence, an approach that he explores linguistically in The Relativistic Empire. In this handsomely designed book, there’s a lot of white space on the page and the poems lack punctuation or upper case lettering, making them look physically small. Also many contain large caesuras within lines, giving a further impression that the extraneous has been stripped away. Sometimes the content will mirror this, as in “Little Circles” where “my thoughts are / stolen by the sly sky / & a hole appears.” Interestingly, for a poet whose work is so unstructured, he has an extensive concern for structure as a concept, perhaps a difficult-to-ascertain underlying structure below the seeming chaos. At times, he is “no longer able to recall / correct patterns of loneliness” or worries that snow’s “structure / was mostly random,” enjoys that music’s “basic technical apparatus / prevents initial seizures” but concedes that it would be “lovely if a / pattern were to emerge.” I could go on. Ultimately, because The Relativistic Empire is not designed to impart either narrative or conceptual meaning but invoke sensation, enjoyment of it will depend largely on a reader’s willingness to capitulate to randomness.
Christopher Doda is a poet, editor and critic living in Toronto. He is the author of two collections, Among Ruins and Aesthetics Lesson and is currently working on a book of glosas based on hard rock and heavy metal lyrics, to be titled Glutton for Punishment. He is also the Series Editor of the annual Best Canadian Essays.
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