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Extraordinary Poetry

Doerr's Debut Collection Order of the Ordinary

There is strife in contemporary poetry between the experimental and the classical. Poets know there is greatness to be had in both; however, if poets are too experimental, they risk coming off as ignorant of their craft-too classical and they risk being considered blasé. Joe Francis Doerr's debut collection, Order of the Ordinary, demonstrates solidly how the experimental and the classical can complement one another without becoming gratuitous.

Order of the Ordinary
by Joe Francis Doerr
Salt Publishing, September 2003

A quick flip through Order of the Ordinary reveals a range of poetic forms: sonnets, acrostics, long sequences, runes, prose blocks, excerpts from historical documents, letters from a soldier at war, couplets, footnotes, lists and musical scales. Needless to say, Doerr's poetry is anything but ordinary.

There is high Modernism in this work: a mixture of Ezra Pound's storm of language, David Jones' love of obscure allusions and Robert Lowell's tendency to break from these two modes and deliver a moment of emotion in more ordinary terms and by more ordinary means. This isn't to say, however, that Doerr's poetry reads like Pound; rather, it reads like an exciting fireworks display of language where the past explodes into the present. In Doerr's poetic world, the reader begins by encountering Brother Byhrtnoth, who lists the hierarchy of animals on vellum that he has carefully prepared (echoing poetic labour), and ends up in "stricken ghettos where Jack the Ripper strolls / hand in hand with Harpo Marx and Jesus."

In his long sequence "FUTHARK2K," written in tercets, Doerr employs the runic alphabet to uncover how thought becomes chiselled and preserved in written language, as if to suggest that behind each symbol thrives a whole world. In "[thorn] The Thorn," he writes,

Thanatos & persistent memory
kept it stabbing well into the Xian
era, though misread by moderns as Y.

It's said it's the thorn that pricks everyone.
It's a torn blouse too, and a tricycle
no one rides; a size 7 barbed wire crown.

None but Thalia can feed it now, fickle
dragon preening atop the hoard of time.
It's the lisp in "scythe" & sweep of the sickle.

The "hoard of time" is important considering Doerr doesn't ever let us know where we are, exactly, in time. In his time machine, the mind journeys to encompass the correlation that exists between different epochs. There must be, Doerr's poetry asserts, a constant that pervades every human era, and this is why mythical warriors find themselves in modern-day bars in "Epistolary Suite: Three Letters For Friends Gone Missing," why New World explorers inhabit the same plain as T. S. Eliot in "Letters to Woodhenge," why Dylan Thomas and Old English occupy the same poem in "Corrigenda" and why "some Minotaur / switches signs and a Vauxhall clips a Ford. / Time stops-shares with Space insurance info." Doerr delivers Orféo in the same vein:

Orféo's up from the underworld sans
the prize but he's got a kick-ass new style,
his own talk show, and a shitload of fans.

 In Doerr's landscape, every person, every era is a plank and every plank fits smoothly into another. In "Making a Harp," Doerr compares planks to human anatomy:

The tree is felled in early winter
and cut up into planks the thickness
of a woman's wrist, the length of man,
and the width of a couple abreast.

 The theme of interconnectedness is most beautifully articulated in "Sand Years":

Yet here,
above the dam
where the frosts of Calhoun
set sloughs to percolate with seasmoke
in the dead of March,
there is a site wholly
unlike others where a house was loved to pieces
and remembered together again
by a crew of careless draftsman

who'd never learnt their numbers,
believed the creed of interchangability
applied to everything with parts
so that each nuanced tongue
& groove once chiseled
with precision in the spines
of fitted planks was hammered
cold. Uncalculated space.

Doerr is the poet who remembers for his readers, who fits planks of words and lines together to craft for us an elegant architecture. Doerr writes that "[t]he language of the sky's an eloquence / few men can understand." Doerr's poetry demonstrates that he can understand this eloquence and, moreover, communicate it skilfully.

In the poem "The Delta Queen in Dire Straits," Doerr describes a landscape with "[b]luffs like chiseled gauze." Doerr's poems can be described in similar manner. When reading Doerr, one senses that he has done his homework. That which he knows, he knows well, and he knows a lot. His writing transforms solid rock into delicate lace. What we read is beautifully designed from a foundation of scholarship. This isn't to say that Doerr's learning lacks a humorous side. His humour is relayed in a manner that is in keeping with his cleverness: "Only husks of words fill the doomed men's ears: / blah blah FORTUNE yadda RAPE blah blah WIFE / yadda yadda VENGEANCE blah blah SEVEN YEARS."

In a world where "even the / facsimile is an illusion / when time has passed," Doerr reminds us that,

The scholars are sufficiently vexed: half
translate the lacuna thus ["apple tree"]
while ["penis"] is picked by the other half.

So the odd game remains a mystery.
Its outcome, unfortunately, does not:
we've bones, teeth, numbers to tell the story.
 According to this logic, there is, regrettably, no language to tell the story. This is a pity because history, that "vast and fractured sounds of sound," should prefer poetry and poetry should prefer history, as only poetry can lend history the mythic dimension for which it yearns. Of course, Doerr realizes that he is indeed delivering history through poetry, and Order of the Ordinary is the perfect convergence of these two. The mundane is mythical and the mythical is mundane. The promise of Doerr's poetry is that each of us is heroic, and our times epic, if we can focus our sight just right.
Jenny Boully is a renowned young poet and critic based in New York. Moveable Type appears every other Sunday.