||A Review of: Intimations of a Realm in Jeopardy
by Michael Greenstein
Montreal poet Norm Sibum's narrative poems are not everyone's cup
of tea; they are, rather, bottles of wine that have been sitting
in cellars, collecting the dust of meaning and growing in complexity
and peril. His characters and situations are reminiscent of Robert
Browning's, but instead of breathing air they exhale and inhale the
exhaust of apocalyptic times. This can be seen in the intriguing
vagueness of Norm Sibum's title, Intimations of a Realm in Jeopardy,
which, in turn, is re-enacted in each of the twelve long, lyrical,
impressionistic poems in this latest collection.
Reproduced on the cover is a detail from Mary Harman's painting
Tavern. Three huddled figures steal glances at each other, suggesting
the partial conversations that fill this realm that Sibum intends
to write about. The black spaces between the faces also prepare us
for the pauses between the words and lines in Sibum's distinctively
colloquial poetry. The fuller painting of Tavern is inserted at the
end of the penultimate poem ("Dinner Hour") to reveal
four additional grim-faced figures seated in couples where no one
sees eye to eye but instead gazes into a void.
The first poem of the collection, "Bird with Yellow Plumes"
establishes the disconnected, muffled atmosphere of the paintings
and poems that follow. Drawing on Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale"
and Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird",
Sibum opens his dramatic monologue-and the book-abruptly, "God
his bird in its cage on the balcony as a "reactionary in
feathers" and an "arbiter of taste". The bird replies
in kind: "You say, for heaven's sake, throw back your shoulders,
/ You say, art is ten per cent will and the rest, / The rest is
surrender. How touching." Veering between clich and transcendence,
"for heaven's sake" picks up the opening "God help
me" and prepares for the next stanza, "The gods are all
in their ivy lair."
Their exchange is a good example of how Sibum's poems operate both
through parallelism and through a metronome-like oscillation between
abstraction and the vernacular. These are poems, in other words,
that hover between the bird's cage and the gods' lair, between
ordinary music and faery lands forlorn. The most powerful of these
poems neither whistle nor warble, but instead "sneer"
their way into the world with a downward glance at the street.
"All thought is ego," Sibum says. "And we extract
from each other such trivia, I said, / As helps maintain our
progress." After the Romantic ode and Modernist waste land,
Sibum's ambition is to find a form able to catch the mood of monotony
in this weary, absurd world. After the poem climaxes, an anti-climax
sets in: "I don't know what caught my eye: insect or glinting
speck of dust, / But when I looked again the bird was gone, cage
Absence is always catching Sibum's eye, even as an insect or glinting
speck of dust catches his ear in a deafening silence. The bird's
disappearance signals the world's displacement, a world drained of
all colour including yellow plumes-a phoenix descending into its
own jaundiced jeopardy. Sibum, however, holds conversations not
only with birds, but also between himself and Romantic precursors.
"The Disputant" for example takes off from Shelley's poem,
"Julian and Maddalo", with Shelley's lines flowing into
The gardens we passed in the light of the evening
Give steerage to fabulous birds and cats.
A fairly ordinary, horizontal first line gives rise to a vertical
second where lowly "steerage" carries fabulous birds.
Alliterations reinforce this verticality: "You and I floated
on the fragrance of flowers." A synaesthetic post-Romantic
background accompanies the lovers: "Lilacs stippling brick,
residential barracks." The mid-line comma hints at other
fissures between nature and the harshness of brick barracks, for
Sibum's cadences, like Shelley's, break the flow.
The abrupt shift from the mundane to mythic-and back again-is Sibum's
most characteristic gesture. "The Disputant" alternates
between moments of romance and brutality, avarice, and dominion.
In these cruel times his lover's beauty makes her seem anachronistic:
"This time whose contending moments / Are each unstintingly
providential." Like stippling brick, these contending moments
form part of time's dispute; likewise, the woman's straw hat with
pink rosettes crowns her head and parts space. "Roses licked
sheds, fences, lattices," but blooms rust in time, underline
entropy, and mimic chaos. Subtle syntax, shifting cadences and line
lengths, slippage between concrete and abstract modes, allusions
to Shelley and Stevens, quotation marks and italics-all form part
of "The Disputant's" realm of jeopardy.
If the district that the lovers walk through contains an oxymoronic
"lush pettiness" that is inexpressible, their relationship
is similarly fraught with contradictory impulses-the tension between
silence and over-expressed verbiage which is itself the dark resonance
of Harman's Tavern. In a manner reminiscent of Donne, Sibum sees
love as an "argument", as he prepares for a vanishing act
at the end of the poem: "And we kissed and promised to meet
again / not necessarily in the afterlife / And the rain came
down." Objective correlatives and pathetic fallacy add to the
mood of Sibum's brooding meditations during his own long walk through
"Lariana's Eyes", the final poem in Sibum's collection,
seems to inhabit Tavern. Set in a caf where the poet drinks with
his friends, Aimsley and Lariana, it is a world of flowers and
birds where the threesome is "Inseparable, flower-like, /
Clustered on the terrace." Of course, in its progress the poem
will separate out each character since it sees "A bush with
its lonely rose" has being "The arbiter of the place."
Just as this lonely rose mitigates companionship-itself a signature
Sibum insight-so the threesome is accompanied by a yellow bird
perching on an empty chair, "as though it were a prop of some
That bird gives rise to an apparition and spectre that the book's
earlier pathologies of "cold and dark calamity" have
prepared us for-pathologies which exist in contrast to the serenity
of Lariana's eyes with their Old World beauty. A decrepit stranger
takes a seat at their table, while a Bunuel-esque moon sails in the
sky and a rose dances on a bush-a surreal atmosphere of specifics
and vagueness where music spills into the street as their waiter
pours more wine. The wine tastes of bloom and comic highlights, as
they try to rid themselves of their unwanted stranger amid urban
decay and remnants of nature.
The point of this poem is that the poet-who prattles on, an
"Urchin of no school"-sees in Lariana's eyes a truth that
supersedes his own truths, a truth that reinforces the surrealism
of his "cheap epiphanies" and "light comedy."
Similar moments recur in the intervening poems like "King
Vitale", "The Woman in the Gazebo", "A
Conversation on the Lawn", "Suspicion and Orange
Chiffon", "Mrs Orlow and the Romans", "Yellow
Begonias", and "Dinner Hour". By the end of the
book the characters are "at sea", drifting; somwhere a
bird hoots, a wind sweeps desolation through the streets.