The Case Against Happiness, Jean-Paul Pecquier
[80pp, $14.95, Alice James Books, Farmington, Maine, USA]

I'd like there to be a term for poems made of long blocks of lineated text apparently following no narrative, temporal or logical sequence, and which zip haphazardly from one thing to another. Then I could have written that while Dean Young's X___s are peppered with vacuum cleaners and hammers, Jean-Paul Pecqueur on the other hand populates his with references to Locke, Shelley, Aristotle, Emerson alongside (since this is what he calls in 'Patti Suddenly' the 'parched soil of the Po-Mo world') hamsters, blood oranges, a beach wearing 'thick / luxurious hair' ('On Wasting Time').

Pecqueur's X___s have two distinctive characteristics. The first is an elegant, controlled and sweeping syntax, which is what enables him to sustain long sentences encompassing changes of focus and asides. Here's a straightforward example, the first stanza of 'Long Distance Communication':

     When my mom calls late Friday to say
     she found the stereo's remote control hidden
     in the hallway closet under one of Murphy's
     favourite western shirts, the one whose mother-
     of-pearl buttons stand out from the turquoise
     rayon like a hermit thrush in a clearing,

He slips from a clause of 'where' the remote was found, to a descriptive clause about the shirt, whose simile about the hermit thrush is unlikely to have been the speaker's, and then recaps on the first line to continue

     what she wants to say is that the old blue
     dog is sick, will probably die soon, with
     or without her help, and that she's tired
     of living all alone...

this is his interpretation of the phone call remember, but it continues with a typically Pecqueur simile - his own, not mom's - leading you just about out of sight of where you started:

                            a minor character
     from some plot-bare English novel who learns
     thirty years too late that security is really
     a bad pun on a polysyllabic Greek word
     forever lost when some inquisitors decided
     the best idea would be to burn Alexandria.

How can he get this poem back on track? By discussing what's been going on here. The next stanza opens

     There are sentences with no appropriate context.
     What I mean is that my mind is an informal entity,
     multidirectional as light. Then there are sentences
     where the arrows equals its mark. The man
     in the second row exclaimed that he expected
     the remote control to return, but he really meant /....

Multidirectional's a good word for what's going on in many of the poems, but they work because they're in the grip of masterly syntax, a syntax which he can make work unpunctuated, writing again, I think, about his own writing in 'Closer to Home'

   The idea was to exude words
   like pheromones
   salts or attitude then
   to abstract from these a style /...

Nevertheless, among all these densely descriptive, skittering, allusive poems, I have that turquoise rayon shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons stuck in my mind. And this is the second striking characteristic of the poems: how non-visual they are. There's very little stuff like that shirt; this is head-stuff. 'A blonde voice'? ['The Only Justice is Love'] - no, that sort of thing isn't visual. Sometimes there's stuff for the ear as well. 'On Wasting Time' sets up an expectation for a visual description, opening, 'The figure could be described as in repose' but meets that expectation not with visual exploration of the figure but with a heady examination of that preposition 'in':

     The figure could be described to be in repose
     in the same way that men are said to be in love
     or actions in vain, each swelling to fill its abstract,
     ill-conceived element, air or other, with novel strains,
     forms harmonious, as waves would fill an ear.

Pecqueur revels in words, and will pack them together like they've never been before. This, from 'How to Make the Case Against Happiness':

     The enthusiast's dream is a rapt idol,
     an escape module fashioned like a second head
     from government surplus neoprene.

What is that neoprene doing in there? Sometimes his own enthusiasm for words seems to get a bit out of hand. But not the syntax, never the syntax.

        © Jane Routh 2007