Friday, November 19, 2010

Review: Clockfire, by Jonathan Ball

I knew Jonathan Ball a little bit during my time living and studying in Winnipeg, and a few years later he was gracious enough to include some of my poems in a chapbook anthology he put together called The Martian Press Review. Clockfire, published by Coach House Books here in Toronto, is Ball’s second full-length collection of poems; the first, Ex Machina, was released by BookThug last year.

Clockfire is a collection of poetic renderings of what are essentially unstage-able plays. It’s a clever conceit maintained throughout this slim volume and taken to a macabre and absurdist extreme. The stated intention of the book is to undermine our traditional notions of theatre and what it’s capable of doing for us, to render obsolete the very pathos that the stage is supposed to provide. From the collection’s opening salvo:

You know before you sit, before you turn your attention to the stage, that nothing you see shall impress you, nothing in this darkened room will change your life … You want something from the theatre it cannot give. You want to be hammered by anvils and shaped by fire.

To this end, Clockfire answers its own charge. Here we find an array of theatrical musings that subvert our expectations of the possible and twist our brains into postmodern pretzels. We have a play where a magician makes the audience disappear and won’t bring it back (“The Magic Show”); a play where the audience is systematically slaughtered as part of the performance (“Like Lambs”); a play where the audience has its memory wiped clean (“Tabula Rasa”); a play that spans several generations of audience members, an idea oddly reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (“Seven Generations”).

One of the best plays is one where the audience is told at the beginning to turn off their cell phones during the duration of the performance, and then the unseen actors proceed to make frantic and repeated calls to each audience member’s silenced phone, mimicking the voices of their loved ones: “Improvising disasters. Begging for answer … When every voicemail box is full, the curtain falls.”

Some of Ball’s plays have downright gruesome premises, more akin to a horror novel than to an august collection of Canadian verse. But all the while, the collection is constantly challenging our imaginations.

Of course, the unstated intention of this book is to subvert its own subversion, which it does in subtle and beautiful ways. The temptation with a premise like this book’s is to eschew the idea of pathos entirely and glaze these poems in what might best be described as ‘postmodern crypticisms’. But it’s a temptation that Ball, for the most part, does not give in to. My favourite poems here are the ones that fragment or distill some aspect of the human condition, thus revealing a new perspective on it. I loved, for example, “The Mirrored Stage” (a fairly self explanatory title) and the play “Eight Minutes”, which is set immediately after the destruction of the sun, in those eight minutes that it takes for the last of its light to travel to Earth.

The most impressive aspect of Clockfire is that Ball is able to build suspense or tension with just the lightest brushstrokes of words. Unlike so many other poetry books lately that use some trendy, gimmicky conceit to hold the collection together, Ball’s work is an unmistakable page turner. Clockfire is a cogent, confident book, oddly uplifting and rarely caving in to the more cynical side of its postmodern premise.

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