blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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Review | Boys Whistling like Canaries, by Jorn Ake
                Eastern Washington University Press, 2009

spacer Boys Whistling like Canaries, by Jorn Ake

We are all mythmakers, storytellers, our beds of feathers / and horses chasing what is freer than we,” writes Jorn Ake in his second published collection, Boys Whistling like Canaries. Rooted in the unflinching self-interrogation of his acclaimed Asleep in the Lightning Fields, winner of the 2001 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Boys Whistling like Canaries confronts the human need to explain the twentieth century’s legacy of violence and extremism in order to make life bearable, even to restore it to its redemptive power.

Ake, informed by a three-year residency in Prague, turns his eye from more autobiographical landscapes to a world-historical field. His poems repeatedly struggle with their own stake in, yet distance from, abjection and horror. The speaker of “Watching Hogan’s Heroes in German,” for instance, finds his own prejudices coming into focus as he lies, unwell but heavily medicated, on a couch in his Czech apartment, while a dubbed rerun of the popular ’60s comedy series plays on the television set:

                                      for all we know

every ja ich perhaps a cruel joke on us,
the classic American paranoia, I think,
that every foreign language begins:

Two stupid Americans walk into a bar and . . .

I hear German every day, and each time
I think Nazis!
even though I am not a Jew.

This is not bigoted, but irrationally anxious—indeed, the speaker says, “I think for a moment / I might need to check the locks on the door // lest the SS come looking for my wife.”

How rational are we ever in addressing the past? Wandering the concentration camp of Terezín, the speaker of “My Emptied Valise” considers, “I am an idiot that I cannot see / where I am when I am / and dream only of where I am not— // You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth. // Am I interested merely in death and its astonishment?” But while we cannot forget history’s tragedies, we long to undo them, just as the speaker in “Losing the World Championships” watches a pole-vaulter on television fail in his leap and recognizes the man’s “wish only that he could go back and return the bar to its delicate pegs,” then says, “I feel this wish . . . alone in a city where the rain is falling like a failure that never stops coming down from the skies. I want to help him back up, the way I wanted to help Freud in the short movie about his flight from Vienna.”

Of course, the sympathy, the humanity, with which we react to tragedy is, itself, conditioned by distance—via media presentation, cultural bias, or simply space and time. Does this make each of us nothing but a “shameless tourist of conscience”? Ake, in writing about tragedy, necessarily alters tragedy; writing never equals what it portrays—not that anyone would even want writing to replay tragedy exactly as it was lived. But the poet cannot therefore take whatever liberties he chooses. His place is the difficult one of altering events while simultaneously respecting the lives involved, not sentimentalizing or otherwise cheapening them—the impoverished Ukrainian maid of the speaker in “Natalka” explains, “This is not poetry. / This is what we make for ourselves out of life.

Yes, there is “nothing metaphoric about getting blown up,” for instance, but how does one convey to others such an experience? We fall back on the structure of poetry—“The air explodes like a motherfucker.” A poet may have the urge to document “everything in its place // now that everything is guilt” in a world haunted by crimes, but the impartial reporter does not truly exist. For this reason, Ake experiments with the role of the storyteller, leading his readers into a scene only to reveal its grave dangers. We thus become conscious of the possible culpability of our own expectations for poetry to create beauty even from the dreadful:

I was sleeping, then there was fire
. . .

the metal roof flapping open, crying
like a baby lost among the stars,

until I realized it was a baby
blown upwards into the limbs of the tree.

No story will lead us to the truth as such, but we can approach the truth through careful attention to the ways in which we tell and interact with stories. Consider this excerpt from “Great Pickup Lines of the Twentieth Century”:

In 1909, Albert Kahn spent his fortune
on 72,000 autochromes lumières, a color process
made of starch rolled onto a glass photographic plate,
convinced people would not destroy
what they could see was made of flesh.

This was followed by World War I.

World War II.

And Kodachrome.

So much depends upon . . .

History is presented as a string of non sequiturs—the fact that early color photography did not impress people hardly explains World War I, just as World War I alone is an insufficient explanation of World War II; and the invention of Kodachrome is not exactly the result of military conflict, just as the success of color photography did not spur the writing of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” But one must at least attempt to understand history, and because one must begin such an understanding somewhere, any starting point is as good as another.

What makes Ake’s storytelling different from that of the garden-variety historian, however, is his willingness to take responsibility for manipulation, not only of his stories themselves, but of his audience, for he understands well the power of the story to effect change. In the book’s title poem, the speaker tells a heartbreaking tale of political mass execution, captivating us with poetic detail—“a canary perched at the top of its tree / its breast splitting open the sky with its lime-green, / singing the only tune that had ever been in its head”—but his ultimate assertion delivers us over to ourselves as moral agents:

If you like, I can confess that none of the details here are true,
a crime for which perhaps I should be shot,

but you cannot deny the canaries singing at the top of each tree.
And if there are canaries, consider whether each note

might not be a body
buried someplace

no one remembers,

except for that one note
you just heard a canary sing

right overhead—  end

Jorn Ake’s first collection of poems, Asleep in the Lightning Fields, won the 2001 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 2002. He is also the author of the collection The Circle Line (Backwaters Press, 2009) and the chapbook All About the Blindspot and Other Poems (Popular Ink, 2007). Ake lives in New York City.

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