Maiden Voyage Flounders on Lack of Distinction
kensai's ambition outruns his ability
By Leonard Ng
Even before opening kensai’s Maiden, one can gather quite a bit about what kind of book this is going to be. “Poetry by kensai”, it says on the spine. “Book One of the Correson”. Now this reader has absolutely no clue what a correson is, and kensai certainly isn’t telling us. A search in a Spanish dictionary turned up nothing. I assume, however, that it’s a legitimate Spanish word, if somewhat obscure, denoting a certain song form. Spondee.net provides some examples of kensai using the word in the titles of his poems, back when he was still calling himself Augustine Chan. But already the careful reader can deduce three things: firstly, that the work will have a tendency towards obscurantism and, possibly, the exotic; second, that a Book Two is already in the works, denoting a certain breadth of ambition; and thirdly, that the book will, at best, suffer from affectation, and at worst, from vain pretension.
(In case anyone was wondering – this reader certainly was – kensai is a Japanese word denoting a sword master, or a sword saint. It’s currently being heavily overused in Role Playing Games (RPGs) of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons variety.)
None of this, of course, really matters, as long as the book delivers. And a cursory flip through the Contents page seems promising enough: we’re treated to a three-page list of times and places, starting with Atlantis in 5000 BC and ending with Tenochitilan in 1325 AD – at which point, I suppose, Book Two will take over. It looks good. It’s sweeping, adventurous, and promises to pull no punches in terms of epic scope. At the very least it won’t involve confessional navelgazing, which is very welcome indeed. Time to turn down the lights and bring out the popcorn.
Then abruptly the prologue begins, in short-lined free verse, written entirely in small caps. It describes a wild battle between an angel (with the odd name of Avedra) and a demon (with the improbable name of Ronin). During the fight both, somehow or other, become physically one, “A MATERIALIZED BODY, A COMET OF FLAME AND ASHES.” What a way to shock someone out of their comfort zone. The Prologue’s followed immediately by a quotation from Milton – the last eight lines of Paradise Lost, to be exact, describing Adam and Eve’s departure from Paradise. This, in turn, is followed by a page-long chunk of prose. It’s a description of the war in Heaven, in which Avedra is revealed to be one of “the newly created devas”; one who had loved and admired Satan, the Radiant Angel, but now stands, torn in two, in the royalist ranks. It’s certainly an attempt at the epic genre (definitely no navelgazing here!), and one must applaud kensai’s courage in choosing this riskiest of genres for his debut. Unfortunately, however, to this reader it sounds like the stuff bad fantasy is made on; that’s a matter of personal taste, though, so you might not want to take my word for it. Stylistically, however, I do have a grouse or two. kensai tries to speak in heightened language, tries to adopt a tone in keeping with his subject; but sadly enough, he fails. There’s an important distinction between heightened prose and a bunch of bombastic adjectives plucked randomly from a thesaurus, a distinction kensai still apparently lacks the necessary linguistic agility to make. (Want a sample? Here: “Satan, overweened on pride and fury, had failed in his bid for ultimate power. Within her nucleus of solitude, Avedra persisted in her obdurate melancholy…”) In this attempt at describing Heaven, at least, our writer’s reach appears to have exceeded his grasp. It proved tremendously disappointing for this reader, who’d hoped for more. But still. We haven’t begun on the poems yet; and those are what the book’s supposed to consist of, right?
So: the poems. Each entry (“959 AD Constantinople”, to take a random example) contains two poems printed on facing pages. That on the left is always written entirely in small capitals, using very short unrhymed lines (e.g. “MY ROOMFUL OF WORRIES/ PLUNGES/ INTO/ THE/ SUN-DRIED VESTMENT SEA”); that on the right, always in italics, keeping strictly to a template of fourteen unrhymed lines (such as “fulcrums of ferment lie in discolor/ lurid and pagan like offended mobs”). The poems are, ostensibly, love poems, with the left-hand poem written in a female voice and the right-hand one using a male persona. The entries are arranged in neat clusters of five, punctuated by prose entries which range from the continuing saga of Avedra and Ronin (including the cringe-inducing sight of the two spirits chucking asteroids at each other, as well as an account of the creation of planets from the wreckage of Paradise) to autobiographical anecdotes about an archaeological dig the writer was involved with. The whole book appears to be carefully structured according to some strict system. I’m not entirely certain what this structure might involve, but it looks very neat, very disciplined. I like the focused structure: it helps tighten the work and give it a kind of unity in which everything has its place. However, it also seems to have been taken just a little bit too far.
Because all the poems sound the same. In mitigation, it must be admitted there are only so many things one can do with a love poem, and kensai tries to cover them all: here are poems of desire, of longing, of first sightings, embraces, devotion, the whole lot. But that simply doesn’t save them. kensai’s tone hardly varies from poem to poem, and the repetitive structure makes them feel even more similar. Perhaps that is precisely the point; perhaps kensai is trying to tell us that love is the same no matter where you are in time or space. But one can’t help feeling he might have provided a little more matter with a little less art.
Because the poems are, by and large, rather dull, and sound dreadfully monotonous after a while. And the endlessly repetitive structure only makes it worse. They lack fire. They lack pizzazz. Even when the subject matter is overtly sexual – and often enough, it is – they simply fail to ignite any spark:
One gets the feeling that these were poems written as purely academic exercises, chock-full of self-consciously “literary” turns. Try this one:
And what would life be without a little literary ambiguity?
Into practically every poem, kensai also tries to inject doses of local colour. Sometimes this results in fresh, surprising images:
But these are the exception, rather than the rule. Most of the time, “local” images feel as though they’ve been simply thrown in for the sake of being there, such as this one:
And so in 322 BC Athens we find “demagogue tremors” and the “myriad acropolis”; in the 300 AD Trobriand Islands we encounter a “bower of yams” and “volcanoes of taboo”; and in 479 BC Lu we find references to “my vermilion halberd” and “the Mandate of Heaven’s instruction”.
It doesn’t work. More than that, it feels somewhat insulting, especially to the cultures the images of which he carries away. It feels as though our poet, starved for original ideas, deliberately went out like some conquistador to plunder the poetic treasures of the places he mentions. It does appear that he carries out the wholesale looting of other times and places under the appearance of celebrating them.
And so the book’s ending – a selected bibliography of works which influenced the author, including Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and various volumes by Pablo Neruda – sounds a good deal less like an acknowledgement than a kind of erudite name-dropping, an attempt to bask in the reflected glory of these luminaries in a “look-how-much-I’ve-read” sort of way. In any case, even that doesn’t save this irredeemably flawed work. And all we, as readers, can hope for at this point is that this book is really nothing more than a series of practice exercises, and that kensai will, in his maturity, eventually produce work which takes advantage of the potential of what he’s written elsewhere.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002