by Christian Bok
Reviewed by Salvatore Ruggiero
"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" is one of the most famous descriptions of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in all of literary history -- a woman whose looks and infidelity caused the Trojan War and birthed the deaths of thousands. Doctor Faustus may be fawning over her spirit in Christopher Marlowe's play, but Canadian poet Christian Bok won't allow for such approbation of beauty:
Whenever Helen sleeps, her fevered rest meekens her; hence, she re-emerges enfeebled -- her strength, expended; her reserves, depleted. The extended fevers, when severe, entrench her enfeeblement. She clenches her teeth, then exerts herself; nevertheless, she feels strengthless (her meek self rendered even meeker). Her strengthlessness dejects her. She sneezes; she wheezes -- then she spews phlegm...
Homer would never have allowed Helen to sneeze or spit, whereas Bok focuses on her human element. Helen "begs her defenders: 'defend me'; she begs her redeemers: 'redeem me' -- then she decrees: 'never desert me -- lend me renewed verve.' "Helen becomes human and almost humorous in Bok's able hands. The mythology that surrounds her is uprooted and disregarded, and as our suppositions are rendered inadequate, we allow Bok to bask in a retelling of perhaps the most celebrated story of all time -- a daring move for both him and us.
Moreover, if you haven't noticed, the quotations above are restrained from using any other vowel but E. The project behind Eunoia is simple: Each of the five main prose poems is restricted to one and only one of the five vowels of the English language. "Chapter A," for example, describes a man named Hassan and his culinary interests, solely using the vowel A in all of its words. An introspective look at the writing process is found in "Chapter I," a chapter that obviously uses the vowel I, which in English inherently lends itself to first-person singular narration. "Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks -- impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils," this chapter starts, as if it's metafictionally looking at and judging itself from the beginning, belittling this massive undertaking.
The concepts of these parameters were birthed out of the Oulipo, a group that writes with intensely constrained techniques. Famous members have included the Italian fabulist Italo Calvino and the French puzzler Georges Perec, who resonates quite soundly with Bok's Eunoia project. Whereas Perec created an enormous novel without using the letter E in A Void -- a feat that seems almost impossible because most French words employ the letter E -- Bok fills this void by creating several poems whose only vowel is E, such as his retelling of Helen of Troy's story or the Perec-dedicated "Emended Excess," a poem which encompasses expansive ground from street peddlers to writing rules.
Reading Eunoia, one feels as if the poet could narrate these stories and poems forever, even with such rigid restraints. But what is most impressive about this book of poetry is its inherent sense of rhythm and its genuine delight in playing with words. Eunoia triumphantly shouts why reading, writing, manipulating, and listening to words sometimes is both magical and mythical. It's a paean to the pliability of language itself.