It’s no surprise that found poetry is popular in an age of jump cuts, hyperlinks, tape mixes and cross-media mashups. In a way, an erasure poem is no different than a Youtube video that recuts Mrs. Doubtfire into a horror flick: both manipulate core works to confuse, intrigue, entertain or denounce. Too often, however, found poems barely aspire to footnote status since the original art is subsumed without a corresponding vision.
Enter the cento. This particular sub-form of found poetry has traded lines for seventeen hundred years, so it not’s exactly a johnny-come-lately. Cento in Latin means “patchwork garment,” which describes its process and pattern: intact lines from different poems are stitched together until the poet is satisfied with the new garb. The cento could also be considered an anti-form, or a form, if you will, for poets who typically eschew rigorous intercrop technique. Narrative choices, or rhythmic ones, after all, only have validity once a line in the cento’s enjambed hookwork. This isn’t entirely fair, however, since any good poem still needs an organic unity of sorts, even if it appears slapdash. Mary Dalton, in her book of thirty-eight centos, Hooking, has, I’ll argue, taken great care in presenting a coherent thematic accruing in rage and environmental lament. In the cumulative weight of bounty asunder in the midst of physical and spiritual decay, one is reminded of George Trakl, no mean feat in structures built from an A to Z of moods and sentiments.
As in other poetic forms, makers of centos have been stimulated by bending initial rules to fit contemporary concerns or personal preferences. John Ashbery’s 1998 “The Dong With the Luminous Nose” is a cento title of Edward Lear’s poem, and its cento body is composed of (mostly) nineteenth-century British poets. Many think of Ashbery as mildly transgressive, but here he pays tribute to Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist linemakers. Rather than simply jamming excerpts together, Ashbery accepts, and succeeds with, multiple responsibilities: maintaining tonal adroitness with Lear’s poem; concocting a narrative sequel; and arranging lines from thirty-nine poems into a largely seamless caper.
In Hooking, Dalton ups the ante—she has taken the Oulipian route of restriction. In each of her centos, every line comes from the same numbered line in the original poem. For example, “Gauze” is composed of twenty-seven lines from twenty-seven poems from twenty-seven poets, and each line is the fourth from those poems. This brings up the obvious question. Why? Wouldn’t eliminating this restriction free up many more possibilities for better linkages? Perhaps, but it’s also possible that by forcing oneself to hunt far and deep, the cento maker can eventually steal a better line than a quicker perusal would permit. Here are the first six lines of “Gauze”:
He built his own cages.
And their fine lines singe
his monkey-trellis of language.
Gone the dear chatterer,
his nerves of metal and his blood oil.
Pretend it is a ritual.
When I first read this, I was at sea. Dalton anticipates this response, and has some fun at the reader’s expense (as well as her own, since she put in the lengthy spadework). How so? Lines eleven and twelve—“Waves come to the sea wall, fall away— / monumental, hard to read.” It took a second go-round for me to smile, but the smile was a grim one, since it poked at my own weakness for seeking meanings too rapidly when reading lines for the first time. Confusion is a concern throughout Hooking. It’s not for purposes of evasion, nor is it a sadistic tactic—one favoured by many postmodernists—for mocking the rational impulse. Dalton is instead commenting on the scope and seriousness of her moribund surroundings. “Further down the valley the clustered tombstones recede” precedes the two lines quoted above. So the tercet-ending “hard to read” may chide (or sympathize with) us, but it also reflects on indifference, distraction, ignorance and death.
Am I reading too much into a poem that wrenches its lines from their original settings in poems by D.H. Lawrence, Patrick Lane, Rachel Hadas, Michael Clement, Sylvia Plath, Don Coles, H. D., R. S. Thomas and Leonard Cohen? Dalton’s centoing may seem like a ridiculous way to suggest feelings and thoughts that she might better express by conjuring her own associations. But it’s no different than what poets have always done: using the infinite possibilities inherent in words to express obliquely what would otherwise result in flat declaration or cliché. Dalton’s “Gauze,” its arrangement and completion, is a testament to the powers of imagination.
“Hesitant Silhouette” might be a better example of what I mean. Here it is in its entirety:
Condemned irretrievably to his own time,
from the bombed-out bridge,
the melting corpses of farms,
he pursued a vision of wholeness by means of collage.
There was a darning mushroom, the last bead of an abacus,
and someone brought out old fireworks,
and language, and garbage. The dog spit sealing up the view.
ink attentive to the rhythms of beach rose,
stories that seem to correspond to it –
remember how to suffer,
here on the grass,
the white screen between you and the living.
There is no telling –
But at every gesture they made,
writhing for air,
comparing snapshots on their mobile phones:
the wood-block baby that gobbles up everything,
the hesitant silhouette
and the secret thing in its heaving –
the light on,
sounds loud and close.
Seats in the examination hall are staggered.
One’s afraid to close one’s eyes.
No mark survives this place: you too will yield.
The apocalyptic current traveling throughout stanza one is suffused with a curious interiority in stanza two, and then the whole poem turns on that stanza’s ultimate line, “There is no telling—.” In Dalton’s brilliant arrangement, the phrase severs the cento’s skein of thought. It ends the downward spiral of an observer implicating himself or herself into the scene they’re describing. But the terse expressions and reluctant shifts in stanza two also point to a knowing failure—in communication, ecological maintenance, human ingenuity—which can only end in that “no telling.” This also plays into the cento itself. Here’s how: The line is taken from Billy Collins’ “My Unborn Children,” an emotional and aesthetic mess that compares the poet’s aborted poems to imagined offspring. “There is no telling—” is a typical (for Collins) strategy for absolving himself of any trace of wan mawkishness in the idea. What follows that line in Collins’ poem is the completion of the poem-as-unborn child metaphor, imagining one of his unfinished poems as “monk in a gray robe/walking back and forth/in the gravel yard of an imaginary monastery,//his head bowed, wondering where I am.” No telling the shamelessness of a poet conflating his own untapped powers with yearned-for enlightenment.
If I’m hard on Collins, it’s to make a larger point. “Hesitant Silhouette” ends in a scathing damnation of narcissism in the face of environmental tragedy. Remarkable in its difficult yet skilled navigation through disparate sources, Dalton’s cento concludes with “you too will yield”—the “you” being the techno-loving tourist as well as the well-meaning reader. Whether or not Dalton chose every one of the nine hundred seventy-nine Hooking lines from devotion, those source poems still exist as separate entities which can’t help but to awaken, or reawaken, curiosity in the reader as to their force and—where individual poems fit the designation—place in the canon. If Collins’ poem is awful, then, it at least acts, ironically and amusingly, as an in vitro egg to a healthy fertilized cento. Or, to torture the analogy further, Dalton’s service can be seen as a cell correction to Collins’ germline mutation.
Contrasts in meaning, and therefore mood, can often be striking when a line in its cento placement is compared to its appearance in the original poem. But when considering the differences between Dalton’s efforts and her sources—cultural and historical contexts, thematic concerns, voice and character peculiarities—it’s also striking how often the larger metaphysical problems are carried from old poem to the new one. John Burnside’s thrilling iambic pentameter, “of afternoons marooned against a clock” from “Out Of Exile” burrows deep into the imagined remorse of a neighbourhood, yet the poem ends ambiguously with the narrator inventing “children at the door, with bags and coats,/telling stories, laughing, coming home.” Dalton’s “The Old Masters” follows her Burnside line with, “and the children—silhouettes in a snowy field,” which not only echoes dire images in “Hesitant Silhouette”, but also troubles with its play-darkness contrast, suggestive of Burnside’s contrast of silence with children’s laughter.
Faults in Hooking? They’re there. Consistency in rhetoric and narration falls apart at times, in no instance more so than in the otherwise exceptional “Vertical Panel.” Like thirteenth-century cathedral stained glass, the first six quatrains are lit up in gorgeous touches over multiple arcs. “Wild caprices and bouts of pulse / weave and dive like Stukas on their prey, / the darting thing in the pile of rocks.” These lines captivate as one is captivated when gazing on wavelets playing over midnight moonlit water. There are other ideas-in-images expertly hooked together in these stanzas, as well—on mortality, routine, divinity—but the poem crashes with the bizarre choices in the last stanza:
“Who says? A nameless stranger,
American or Canadian.
A vertical panel with him in it—
and the polar bear, is he here too?”
I have no idea what this may be about but, aside from meaning, the rhythm falls apart, the only two images (“panel” and “polar bear”) are without support, and the questions seem flippant.
One grousing about the “unoriginality” of the cento procedure might sarcastically joke that Dalton must have burned several hundred barrels of midnight oil in order to select the lines she did for Hooking. Dalton’s reply would be in the book itself. (“Holding the phone out the one small window / to tell him where he is/in the next myth” is from “Markings.”) A surprising document in artistic daring and purposeful orchestration, her centos take us out of the facile language tics of topical media drive-bys on the environment, and onto (and into) the difficult ground that that language tries to evade. Dalton’s provocative ventriloquism transcends temporal concerns by citing, in apt and intelligent sequences, interesting or sublime lines that furiously challenge the superficial and complacent of any age.