The Odicy, by Cyrus Console. Omnidawn. 80 pp., $15.95.
Cyrus Console’s The Odicy begins in a ravaged garden:
I returned, and saw that the garden
Had not moved from me but that some illness
Of the garden carried it away
From me regardless.
This ostensible return to paradise is surprising, because we realize that our fall from grace has ruined paradise itself. Console immediately counters the notion that some aspect of nature is safe from the decisions of mankind. The garden paradise myth assumes that when man is forced out, the garden remains intact, pure. This myth, though, predates the development of power plants, chemical processes that leach into waterways, and the spread of air pollution.
The opening lines on the garden contrast with the cover image for the book, a mountain of refined sugar in a poorly lit warehouse where Volvo excavators dig, overseen by a man in a bright orange safety jacket, dig into the pile. The image of nature is paired with the reality of industrialization. The relationship between farm, farmer, and consumer is mediated by the mechanized.
The book consists of five sections separated by excerpts from Arthur Schopenhauer, Jack London, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, E.T. Jaynes, and William Cowper. These quotations are set into the book without attribution until the endnotes. They thus become assimilated and integrated into the surface of the book, highlighting the issues the book raises: “The first words they had were over the sugar question. And it is a really serious thing when two men, wholly dependent upon each other for company, begin to quarrel”.
Though the book is broken up by these quotations and five sections are named in the table of contents, the book itself functions as a near-continuous single poem written in a steady pentameter. The meter and syntax combine to form an epic quality: “We parted ways. Then we went forth abreast / Fanning out, each one minding the ground / Though there was nothing, least of all that path.” The speaker treads the ground of what seems to be a great odyssey.
The speaker is accompanied on this odyssey by an anomalous character named Anthony:
Anthony you would have liked to ask
How they knew that it was going to rain
Your sainted Anthony would have replied
Same way you do, Governor How in God’s
Good name can you subject them to such treatment
Then. You probably feel the same way I do .
Anthony becomes equal parts guide, companion, sage, and witness. The name Anthony also serves the poems as a surprisingly pliable metrical phrase, with the accent in the name able to shift from syllable to syllable seamlessly.
The journey Anthony and the narrator undergo is not one of returning home or finding anything, but rather a journey of witness. What they see is a world in crisis:
As Artificial Color has envenomed
Their refreshment, Cosmetology
Rendered hostile their native reflections
And the X itself has decussated
Images of their God-given bodies
And rated criminal their intimacy
The contemporary world is presented as not necessarily one filled with betterment or improvement, but rather as a move from natural to artificial. Food progresses by leaving natural food behind and incorporating artificial coloring. The human appearance, likewise, is improved by using makeup and surgical procedures, and then hidden beneath clothes and the belief in the criminal nature of intimacy and the naked human form. The cause isn’t a lack of progress, but rather the unrestrained exploitation of both land and language: “Wordless grammars elegant as music / Phrases barren of descriptive force”.
The middle section, “The Ophany,” offers a slight variant from the form of the rest of the book. Each page shifts from three stanzas of six lines to two stanzas of seven lines. Additionally, each stanza is an acrostic spelling out “RAINBOW.” In this section, Console looks directly at the act of naming through the lens of Vietnam, considering the relevance of Vietnam having seven letters, the draft-dodger pardons from former President Carter, and the role the company Monsanto has played from Vietnam through our present circumstance:
Roundup, the number-one selling
Agrichemical of all time
Is brought to you by people at Monsanto.
Nutrasweet’sanother of Monsanton’s
Bright ideas like putting caffeine
Or vanillin in the soft-drink Coke.
We drink Coca-Colalong time.
Monsanto begat Agent Orange which begat Roundup which begat NutraSweet which begat Diet Coke, caffeinated Coke, and vanilla Coke. So the destruction of seven million acres of land in Vietnam can become I’d like to buy the world a Coke, or, even more disjunctively, The Real Thing.
The repetition of “RAINBOW” concludes with a series of lines that tests the rules of spelling, language, and understanding:
We can read these lines and understand these words, though the first letters often diverge from convention. In this series, the words that end up sticking out as strange are the correct words—red and blue. Console disrupts our expectations, highlighting how malleable our relationship with language really is. In a brief stroke, he can change orange into arange, yellow into iellow. The ease with which language changes and develops a new norm highlights the ease companies take readjusting our own world—natural flavor, real cheese product, or Olean. Console’s own play with language shows that the malleability of language in itself is neither ethical nor unethical, good nor bad. It is a fact of our existence, one to which we should be more attuned and aware. Console is not sure, though, whether awareness is enough:
To this we are reduced, and less. We stake
Proverbs at dice. At least the habitat
Joining Denver to Columbus is disturbed
Defeat is acknowledged, given the deflating silver lining that if things are bad at least they are bad consistently. Console’s book pushes us as readers again and again to confront questions of our humanity and what it means for us to exist within the world. No easy answers are offered because no easy answers are available. What one does feel required to do is consider one’s own place in the world, how one’s work adds to or subtracts from the world, and what it means to conduct ourselves in an ethical, sustainable manner.
Andrew Wessels has lived in Houston, Cambridge, and Las Vegas. Currently, he splits his time between Istanbul and Los Angeles. His poems can recently be found in or are forthcoming from VOLT, Handsome, Fact-Simile, and 580 Split. He is editor of The Offending Adam.
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