1373 The ventriloquist speaks

The Ventriloquist: Poems from the Womb of War
by Gary Geddes

Oakville, ON: Rock’s Mills Press, 2022
$22.00 / 9781772442403

Reviewed by Art (Sean Arthur) Joyce

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The Ventriloquist Speaks: Making Meaning as an Act of Cultural Defiance

In this post-everything era, for a writer to seek meaning is practically a revolutionary act. Poet Gary Geddes has bucked the nihilist trend throughout his long career and the result is an impressive body of work with genuine staying power. Yet another of many repackagings of Geddes’ poetry, this collection compiles his long-poem series Letter of the Master of Horse, War and Other Measures, The Terracotta Army, and the Hong Kong Poems. By its very nature, war is an anonymizing phenomenon — it subsumes the individual to the massing of social and militant forces. The role of the artist then is to restore the individuality of those lost lives, both the dead and those who (barely) survive. In that respect, Geddes in The Ventriloquist is taking back what the coercive state has erased, giving individual soldiers, nurses and others caught up in the maelstrom the voices and faces they lost. And it’s the poet’s defiant cry that no, war and mass death and maimed bodies is not inevitable — history need not move in only one direction.

Geddes, The Terracotta Army (Oberon Press, 1984)

Geddes is a master of personification in poetry, hence his use of the ventriloquist metaphor. In the Afterword, he explains: “Someone would later coin the phrase ‘ventriloquism of history,’ referring, I suspect, to all those voices from the past that take you by the throat and demand their story be told. It seemed to describe perfectly my process as a poet” (p. 179). Geddes was part of a contingent of six Canadian writers who were among the first Westerners to see China’s famous Terracotta Army discovered in 1974 by archaeologists. He writes of how these historical voices gripped him, leading to the writing of this compelling long poem sequence: “At night, mid-winter, sitting in my converted chicken coop and horse barn in eastern Ontario, I felt one of those soldiers, a charioteer, trying to tell me his story… When the charioteer had finished with me and slipped back into the realm of silence, it seemed as if the whole terracotta army had got the message and was lined up outside my office-barn door waiting to be interviewed” (pp. 178–79). Geddes also invented the character of the master sculptor who created the terracotta figures, Lao Bi, whose voice becomes the thread holding the various other voices together.

The process Geddes describes reminds me of what happened about 25 years ago when I was doing research on my maternal family line, particularly my maternal grandmother Maree Evelyn Hazie. Her early death at age 41 from alcoholism had left a veil of shame over family history that threatened to obliterate her legacy altogether. I decided it was time I learned more about her and contacted an aunt who happened to be both Maree’s daughter and a genealogist. Before long, poems about Maree were tumbling out, and in their wake came several other of my female ancestors, all wanting to tell their stories. The ease with which these poems “arrived” is fascinating in itself, again suggesting that the poet is less an originator than a conduit or proxy for the voices of history — both personal and international. I have heard this described as “being the hollow bone the universe sings through.”

Geddes, War & Other Measures (Anansi, 1976)

Geddes has always had a knack for coining original and memorable metaphors and images: “My hands fascinate me, two / live animals at my sides” (War and Other Measures, p. 28). Nurses in a military hospital are “Beamy, deep-keeled girls, more / stable than basic industries” (War and Other Measures, p. 35). “Cut flowers bleed slowly / into pickle jars” (War and Other Measures, p. 48). Here, rather than being a cheery, colourful comfort to convalescing soldiers, the flowers are a reminder of the life force trickling out of the dead and wounded. As the trauma of war crushes in on a soldier’s consciousness, it’s the tiny, suddenly stark details such as this one that acquire poetic, healing resonances: “Where is the blind / flower-girl, who keeps / your image in her fingertips?” (War and Other Measures, p. 55). And given our current crisis of political leadership all over the world, these lines become not only newly relevant but perennially axiomatic: “…these caricatures of leadership, / performing their obscene dance / along the brink of meaning” (War and Other Measures, p. 59).

In The Terracotta Army, Geddes the poet seems to be vying with the ancient sculptor for the ascendancy of their respective arts: “A poem lives on in the ear, but a single push / will topple all of these” (The Terracotta Army, p. 78). Here again the capacity of a poem to be endlessly relevant no matter the current political situation is revealed when he writes: “The illusion of full knowledge / gave us a sinister edge. We became the crassest / of materialists and would tolerate neither doubt / nor disturbing hypothesis,” illustrating perfectly the Covid dystopia, wherein medical and government authorities sidelined all scientific debate and civic discussion for an addiction to “The sorcery / of a fixed idea” (The Terracotta Army, p. 94).

Geddes, Letter of the Master of Horse (Oberon Press, 1973)

And finally, I loved the poem ‘A Warning to Literary Fifth Columnists,’ (p. 111) an apt refutation of postmodernism that employs Geddes’ own arch cleverness against the self-conscious cleverness of deconstructionist literary theory. Interestingly, he brings literary critic Harold Bloom into the poem, whose book The Western Canon so thoroughly debunked postmodernism and the coming wave of ‘woke’ literary politics way back in 1994. It appears both Bloom and Geddes were well ahead of their time, as only now are some academics realizing the terrible mistake they made buying into this nonsense[1] which, as Camille Paglia puts it (to paraphrase) has destroyed the minds of generations of students. In fact, she goes so far as to call Western academia’s wholesale adoption of French post-structuralism “mass suicide”: “Their works are going to be consigned to the rubbish heap of history.”[2] Not so the poems of Gary Geddes — thankfully he kept his head while all about him were losing theirs. These are poems built to last, poems that dare to seek meaning among the chaos of war and its aftermath.

To get back to Geddes’ poem, like Paglia he makes it clear he sees through the academic ruse: “You’re not the least bit interested / in how I think or feel or express myself; / what you want to know is how to eliminate me / and my words and replace them with your own version / of things…” (Hong Kong Poems, p. 111). Thus in one deft stroke of the pen Geddes exposes the inherent narcissism of this school of thought, which as I have said elsewhere, puts the focus on the poet’s intellectual cleverness rather than on the poem itself. It privileges the messenger over the message, and indeed, it became anathema in this philosophy to allow writing to have any kind of “message” at all. As one Seattle postmodernist artist retorted to me: “It’s arrogant to ask the artist to create meaning.” But not arrogant, apparently, to flick the middle finger at the audience and say, effectively: “What I do is for me alone; you can go jump if you want my art to relate to you.” Nihilist and narcissist at the same time!

Gary Geddes lives of Thetis Island

Meanwhile, Geddes turns the “subversiveness of the text” espoused by Derrida & Company against them: “Because I know your plans / and because I have no intention of being supplanted / by you or your rival text, I’ve mined this poem / with booby hatches, trapdoors, pitfalls / and anti-reduction devices” (Hong Kong Poems, p. 111). To me it’s never been any great surprise that the rise of postmodernism in art and literature was coincident with the ascendancy of corporate-dominated political power in the West. Historically artists and poets have been the ones to critique power, even if they had to do it in veiled terms during the most repressive regimes. Instead of turning their cleverness against the audience, it invoked them as secret partners in the game, as if to say: Do you see the clues I planted here? Can you see what I’m really saying? Humans are meaning-making animals, so the attempt to subvert the artistic fifth column served no one but the power elites. As Paglia explains, it made artists unwitting dupes in their own undoing. This has led directly to the rampant nihilism we see in popular culture today, which – unsurprisingly — runs parallel with soaring rates of depression and suicide. As Carl Jung pointed out, humans cannot exist without a sense of meaning in their lives. Or as the late great Lawrence Ferlinghetti put it, “Don’t destroy the world unless you have something better to replace it.”[3]

So who’s arrogant now? Not Gary Geddes. He emerges as the proverbial craftsman who hones and polishes his instrument so the voices of the lost may pour through unadulterated by his ego. In this age of social and cultural collapse, we can be grateful such poets still exist. — Art Joyce

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Editor’s note. Gary Geddes adds the following note: “The Hong Kong Story and the Royal Rifles and Winnipeg Grenadiers.”

“Hong Kong Poems “ is the central narrative in The Ventriloquist. Here’s how it came to be written:

Doug (Peter Douglas) Elias, from the Museum of Man and Nature in Winnipeg, used to visit me in Victoria once a year for a brief escape from frigid Manitoba winters, and we would talk all night while wrapping ourselves around various quantities of good single malt scotch. On this particular visit, he told me about the museum’s collection of interviews with Hong Kong veterans and the sobering story of their deployment and defeat.

Two battalions that constituted ‘C’ Force, the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada, 1975 soldiers in all, were sent on a wrong-headed and ill-fated mission to defend the Crown Colony of Hong Kong against the possibility (read inevitability) of a Japanese attack. They arrived in Hong Kong on November 16, 1941, poorly trained, lacking weapons practice and without their military transport. The Japanese began their invasion on December 8, following a devastatingly successful attack on Pearl Harbor.

Vastly outnumbered by well-equipped and war-hardened troops, the Grenadiers and Royal Rifles fought bravely, but didn’t have a chance. The battle raged for seventeen days before Hong Kong surrendered on December 25, not exactly what its defenders had in mind for Christmas. What followed for the surviving Brits, Canadians, Rajputs and Hong Kong Volunteers, now prisoners of war, were three and a half years of torture, slave labour, starvation and disease. Many died in captivity.

This tragic story and the others in The Ventriloquist demanded to be told, and as powerfully as possible. I had little choice but to comply. The effort was at times unsettling, but the research, writing and shaping provided me with a degree of equilibrium.

At its best, poetry speaks to the wound in each of us, the part of us that is damaged, incomplete, and so often in ruins. Which is exactly what Dylan Thomas, a poet with as many problems as gifts, had in mind when he wrote: “Out of the inevitable conflict of images—inevitable because of the creative, destructive and contradictory nature of the motivating centre, the womb of war—I try to make that momentary peace which is the poem.” — Gary Geddes

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Art Joyce

Art (Sean Arthur) Joyce has been a freelance writer and journalist since 1990, working since 2005 as a reporter and Arts and Culture Editor for the New Denver-based Valley Voice. His poems and essays have appeared in Canadian AuthorThe FiddleheadWhetstoneThe New Quarterly, Acumen (UK), Quills, CCPA Monitor, New Orphic ReviewHorseflyElephant Mountain Review, and elsewhere. Among his books are A Perfect Childhood: One Hundred Years of Heritage Homes in Nelson (Nelson Museum & Historical Society, 1997); Hanging Fire & Heavy Horses: A History of Public Transit in Nelson (City of Nelson, 2000); Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West (Hagios Press, 2014); The Charlatans of Paradise (2005), Star Seeds (2009), The Price of Transcendence (2015), and Poems for the Home Children (2018). Editor’s note: Art Joyce has also reviewed books by Brian D’Eon and Ernest Hekkanen for The Ormsby Review. His novel Mountain Blues (2018) is reviewed here by Caroline Woodward, and his epic narrative poem Dead Crow & the Spirit Engine is reviewed here by Roger Lewis. Art Joyce lives in New Denver.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors in all fields and genres. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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Endnotes:

[1] See, for example, Roosevelt Montás, “Great Books Are Still Great,” published in Aeon, where she relates her initial reaction to reading of Socrates’ Defence: “I did not need to be rich, privileged or cultured to find in those words something that spoke to the deepest sense of my own being. And I did not need to be white or European to be startled by the claim that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.”

[2] Camille Paglia, Provocations: Collected Essays (New York: Vintage/Penguin/Random House, 2018), pp. 225, 305.

[3] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poetry as Insurgent Art (San Francisco: New Directions, 2007, originally published 1975), p. 40.

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