1763 A street kiosk of masks

After Villon
by Roger Farr

Vancouver: New Star Books, 2022
$16.00 /  9781554201877

Reviewed by Harold Rhenisch


After Villon is a delight. These shape-shifting poems are playful and challenging and a bit like dealing cards from the bottom of a deck with a knowing wink.

The Villon of the title was a poet of the streets of 15th century France, a member of a ring of thieves who wrote in code to mislead and evade the police. Even Villon’s life story is an evasion. His portraits of himself, his crimes and his loves may or may not describe him at all, yet they are emotionally precise. The voice is fully modern. We know François Villon, even though he is a fiction.

Roger Farr admits that he can’t read the poems in their original, but that’s actually not a surprise. No one really can. It was coded slang. It’s not a disadvantage, though. These “versions” of Villon are superb police interrogations of the ability of language to hide its deceptions in plain sight. “I know where the deck lizards take a powder,” Farr writes, and “I know the Queen of Spades from the Queen of Hearts,” and then the refrain: “I know everything but myself.” [from “Everything But Myself”]

Farr has tapped a deep vein of words navigating political resistance. It’s not just him. The rappers Lexus Legal and Idengo, for example, were recently jailed for song lyrics they wrote in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A couple of generations ago, journalists from West Berlin in solitary confinement in “The Blue Hell of Bautzen,” East Germany’s high security political prison, were kept alive by the songs of Wolf Biermann, that country’s Bob Dylan. Long before that, as a young woman in a society that offered little public voice to women other than to display (or hide) objectified images of their bodies, Mary Wollstencroft Shelley wrote Frankenstein about the riddle of body and soul. Today, social and genetic codes of gender and identity unravel a related knot. Farr enters this fray with verve. “For every electro-pony a quail-pipe,” he writes, “for every dolly spot a fullam toss / For every dissy-do a docent shop,” and then the coffin nails of the refrain: “For every pleasure desires eternity.” [from Ballad of Erotic Misery]

Roger Farr of Capilano University and Gabriola Island

Villon’s poems were street ballads, sung in criminal communities for 150 years before they were written down. The genre celebrated moral stories about amoral crime and public punishment. Performance in street markets included an assistant with a pointer (Think Vanna White), translating the song’s words into images on a banner. Villon’s specialty in this game was advice on how to save your neck from the noose.

Eventually, the genre morphed into silent film, Soviet surrealist theatre, television sitcoms, the gothic genre we call The News, and the poet of the Spanish Civil War, Gabriel Garcia Lorca, who was shot for being gay, a socialist, or both, or neither. Now even the News is a melodrama with popular heroes and villains. Like intuitions about Lorca or Farr’s interrogations of Villon’s masks, the News can be read as truth or fiction, whatever you like.

Enter Farr, with a street kiosk of masks. An accomplished clown, he wears several at once, writing of the street within an academic context, while bluffing at authority to throw it off his track. Like any clown worth its salt, it’s hard to say if he is laughing or crying. Here’s the lead up to another of his great refrains:

In vinyl acetate a.k.a the Communist Hypothesis
In balm of selenous acid
Or in pillows misted with puffs of diborane
In droplets of zinc phosphide, to draw out the rats
In hydrogen sulphide skimmed off the Athabasca River
In two parts sulfur dichloride, one part ethylene
In magnificent cathedrals of sulfur tetrafluoride
Shall all standard language be fried!
……[from “All Standard Language Shall Be Fried”]

In these kaleidoscopic changes, Farr’s poems don’t translate Villon’s words. Instead, they jolt the shadow of Villon’s character into life by mining standard modes of translation and dumping contemporary street slang, gay slang and Google translations into Villon’s early Renaissance texts. They taunt and delight, like a busker playing a living statue for tips.

We all know this story well. It is the dominant literary genre of our time: The Case. You know: The Killing, Trapped, The Murdoch Mysteries, Suits, and even New Amsterdam and Dr. House. All reveal hidden selves from obscure external clues.

Spicer, After Lorca

The poet Jack Spicer started Farr on this Bon Cop Bad Cop routine. His After Lorca (1957) is a collection of mistranslations and letters to a dead man. Spicer attempted to unify himself with Lorca, through a spiritual sense of language. To Spicer, a lemon in, say, Spain, and a lemon in California both live on within words, and can be tasted there. Farr follows Spicer’s game of hides and reveals by changing word-for-word correspondences into essence-for-essence ones, the kind of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t things words only reveal when cracked open so their perfumes evaporate.

Farr follows Spicer’s model well. His letters to Villon mourn contemporary poetic debate in Canada. For example:

Most of my contemporaries hate poetry. They get up early, write their poems in the dark, bear down on the meaning of every word, churn the words around in their mouths, gargle with different words, then spit it out in an email addressed to someone doing the exact same thing across town.

This loving jibe places Farr squarely in US poet Kent Johnstone’s infamous “Poetry Wars,” in which Johnstone mocked poetic homogeneity with surreal interjections. Johnstone, Spicer and Lorca are gone, but we still have Farr, which is something to celebrate. As he writes to Villon later (making sure that we can overhear):

I agree, we have the means to transform Tradition into what it is to be, because we would rather become poetry’s aims, not the means of its disclosure. That is the job of rhetoric, & rats. Our poetry will establish, through these weak, dissatisfying letters, a new temperament, a new Testament.

Well, that’s up to us, but it’s a splendid challenge.

From the back cover of After Villon

The noose that Villon continually avoids is not just a physical hanging but what a noose represents. A noose stops air and severs nerves, literally separating body and mind. The poetic noose of literal translation risks breaking the connection between Spicer and Lorca, and Farr and Villon, and us from all of them.

Fortunately, that doesn’t happen here. Clown that he is, at the end of After Villon Farr leaves us hanging and walks off. Just as Villon escaped from the law into anonymity, Farr escapes from poetry into silence.

The book closes like a descending guillotine. Fate is stopped. The book cannot go past the book. I wanted it to go on for weeks. One reading is not enough for this kind of a rumble. As Farr writes:

White skin won’t help so die
on that Hill if you want. Nothing to
smell here except your own nose.
Better change your Handles quickly
Before the Hangman ends your poem.
……[from “Ballads in Jargon, V”]

The prickly modernist Ezra Pound said that the goal of writing was to use language so precisely that words meant something clearly and the social order could be aligned well. Farr has a different goal: to use language to clearly delineate the shadows, deceptions and inscrutability that are human identities by recreating their life in the context of a different time, society and language. The effects are startling and often laugh-out-loud funny.

This work is very much in the modern literary genre called The Heist. In this case, the form is filled with a modern reenactment of Frankenstein, the artificial body that goes where conventional identity cannot follow but can only look at in bewilderment, knowing it has been duped, but not by whom.

Your honour, I know it all.
I know how to dead-lurk a crib & I know the score
I know when to fold, & put an end to it all.
……[from “Everything But Myself”]

It is a sophisticated and delightful, queer, liberating and mind-bending performance.


Harold Rhenisch

Harold Rhenisch has written some thirty books from the Southern Interior since 1974. He won the George Ryga Prize for The Wolves at Evelyn (Brindle & Glass, 2006), a memoir of German immigrant life from the Similkameen to the Bulkley valleys. His other grasslands books are Tom Thompson’s Shack (New Star, 1999) and Out of the Interior (Ronsdale, 1993). He lived for fifteen years in the South Cariboo and has worked closely with the photographer Chris Harris on Spirit in the Grass (2008), Motherstone (2010), and Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2016), as well as on The Bowron Lakes (2006), all published by Country Lights; and he writes the blog Okanagan-Okanogan. He is working on Commonage, a history of the Okanagan region, highlighting the American history of Father Charles Pandosy and situating the roots of the Commonage land claim in the North Okanagan in American colonial practice in Old Oregon. Editor’s note: Harold Rhenisch has recently reviewed books by Stephan Torre, Don GaytonCalvin WhiteGarry GottfriedsonSusan Smith-Josephy & Irene Bjerky, and Bill Barlee for The British Columbia Review. His recent book Landings (Burton House, 2021) was reviewed by Luanne Armstrong; The Tree Whisperer (Gaspereau, 2021) was reviewed by Adrienne Fitzpatrick. He lives in Vernon.


The British Columbia Review

Editor and Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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