Issue 14 – Summer 2008 – Michael S. Begnar on Trevor Joyce

Polar/ cold/ marks terminus

Trevor Joyce, What’s in Store: Poems 2000-2007 (New Writers’ Press & The Gig, 2007).  322 pp.  $20/€23


Trevor Joyce’s previous volume of collected poems, with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold (2001), compiled the work of four decades (from 1966 to 2000) and ran to a total of 243 pages.  His new book, made up of material written between 2000 and 2007, runs to a whopping 322 pages, and is thus a testament to an exceedingly high rate of production over recent years.  What’s in Store contains numerous poetic sequences, as well as series of individual poems.  At times it can be a bit unwieldy, since certain pieces are presented without titles within the pages themselves, forcing the reader to refer back to the, not one but two, tables of contents (at the front and back of the book, with one being rather less comprehensive than the other). At first glance it seems hard to know what’s what, on a strictly practical level.

Once you become familiar with the book’s internal design, however, what begins to emerge is an interesting collection of work that picks up more or less where with the first dream of fire left off.  In the earlier book, Joyce displayed a dazzling range of technique, moving from stark imagist takes on the Dublin cityscape to the experimentalist approach of a work like “Syzygy,” which combined and recombined words and phrases using computer spreadsheet software.  The same dichotomy, between Poundian, lyric imagism and overt textual manipulation, is also present in What’s in Store.

To illuminate this dichotomy, it is helpful to compare a poem like the untitled one on page 234, with the sequence entitled “Saws.”  The former poem, in its entirety, reads:


isn’t it?

even though
you sketch
the structure

even after all
spent aloft
or dreaming
of limbs


and always
from the highest
the redbreast
calls you


Even with the modernist (almost W. C. Williamsesque) concern for line breaks and enjambment, this feels like an organically-composed lyric poem.  Indeed, it seems to invite the reader to identify with the “you” of the poem (a “lyric-you” instead of a “lyric-I,” perhaps), and to listen to the redbreast high up in the tree in the beautiful final stanza.

Conversely, “Saws” is largely devoid of an identifiable protagonist, and in places bears the mark of having been partially cut up à la Tristan Tzara, or perhaps constructed through some more contemporary Oulipian method:


structures unseen the seen decide
you near space intervenes
gone head will conjure head the lid the lip
waking we share and sleeping turn aside
eyes twinned make the world deep


Lines 4 and 5 come across almost as an alternative reading of the ending to T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” (“Till human voices wake us, and we drown”), but “Saws” in its disjointedness does not allow the reader the luxury of latching onto any Prufrock-like character.  Yet Joyce’s poetry is just as beautiful here, for this very same disjointedness, as when he evokes the redbreast calling from the tree in the former piece.  Here, however, it is language itself which is the source of awe, rather than personal empathy with a speaker or some other human or animal figure.  And it is this way throughout much of What’s in Store, as Joyce swings along varying degrees of often radical poetic technique, with occasional lyric bursts.

Set off from the other poems by the use of a different font and small caps, the long section entitled “Stillsman” is both an interrogation of language and a parody of linguistic analysis: “…TEXTS ARE SOMETIMES EQUIPPED WITH WORD DIVIDERS WHICH SIMPLIFIES THINGS BUT IF THESE ARE NOT SUPPLIED THEN THE READER MUST EDIT HIS TEXT BY STUDYING THE REPETITIONS AND BREAK THE TEXT UP INTO ITS CONSTITUENT UNITS AS FOR INSTANCE IF THE PRECEDING PASSAGE WERE RUN TOGETHER STUDY WOULD SHOW THAT THE SEQUENCE THE FREQUENTLY RECURS AND MUST THEREEFORE BE SOME COMMON WORD…”  As it happens, there are indeed no “word dividers” here, and the reader is led to approach this piece as if he (sic) were a linguist studying a new or foreign language.  The effect is to drive home a point about the indeterminacy of language, a point that is made more effectively through the experience of this both bizarre and comic tract, rather than being simply stated.

Elsewhere Joyce again lets the action of language drive his poetry, in the aptly-named “Action Sequence.”  In this case, though, he relies on the more familiar poetic devices of alliteration, assonance, rhyme and rhythm:


Great gals gone west
into millions of sunsets,
claiming absence
my presence is,
strangeness my grace,
as whackers and knackers,
sad slackers, court packers,
sundry vatic pragmatics
are with axes and tumbrils…


Once more, the meaning is somewhat indeterminate, but this is really about sound and movement.  Indeterminacy is, again, the point here, as it is throughout much of Joyce’s work.  Just as he will not be pigeonholed or restricted in style, neither can he subscribe to a philosophical outlook predicated on certainty.  The numerous folk songs and poems that he translates in this volume attest to this.  Take, for example, these versions from the Votyak language:


At the heart
of the mountain
seams of silver

Eat up, drink up,
enjoy yourselves,
while yet our shining
world survives.


Like flowers
in the meadow
we grow
and we thrive.

Like a hazel
nut shelled
we know
we must leave.


The “what’s in store” of the book’s title, then, is death.  But even death is in itself a mystery, and so in Joyce’s worldview we are left only with the ephemerality of our existence.  As he writes in the “Undone” series, “The human/ is a thing/ who/ walks/ around/ disintegrating.”  Joyce’s poetry, therefore, is a serious attempt to reflect the human condition as he sees it, rather than a delight in obscurity for its own sake.  His work speaks to our inherent condition of uncertainty, and of change.  His true philosophic forebears, though they are nowhere named, are Heraclitus, Lao Tzu, and perhaps Friedrich Nietzsche.

Joyce’s poetic forebear Ezra Pound brought the ancient Chinese imagist and Taoist poet Li Po into English approximately a century ago.  Taking a cue from Pound, Joyce translates ancient Chinese poets Ruan Ji and Lu Zhaolin.  The Lu Zhaolin sequence, entitled “Capital Accounts,” is clearly meant to be a comment on our contemporary capitalist society:


Both the outskirts
and the city’s heart
are conveniently situated
just off the freeway,

while major transportation routes
provide immediate access
to the financial


There is a sense of alienation here, engendered by the corporate bureaucracy that both Lu Zhaolin and Trevor Joyce attempt to stand against.  Elsewhere, Joyce rages against the machine in an untitled poem on page 172: “they’ll hound/ you and pound/ you…/ they’ll process/ the meat/ of your dreams…”  But his writing is so intensely infused with a similar coldness that the reader may begin to wonder if there’s going to be any relief.

Relief is scant.  Joyce suggests toward the end of “Capital Accounts” that all political systems will eventually fall, while nature continues on: “gold steps/ and white jade halls/ become/ green pine.”  In other places he suggests that we might seek solace in human relationships, but these often fall apart, or fall away as death encroaches, as in “The known edge of the known world”: “I hug my fire and watch the news, wondering who next of those I love will quietly absent themselves.”

This predicament is best summed up in What’s in Store’s final sequence, “Love Songs from a Dead Tongue” (worked from the Middle Irish).  The poems are put into the mouth of the tenth-century Irish queen Gormlaith, whose husband has been killed in battle.  They are awash in grief and lament:


Beating fists unceasingly,
his death my extreme loss;
and though in triumph he went out,
bitter our affliction now.


But even still, her sense of self somehow manages to persevere in the expression of that grief.  Though there is no way out of her plight except her own death, she will rage with eloquence as long as the blood flows through her veins.  There is something beautiful in the sharp elegiac quality of this verse.  Remembering its best moments, and they are many, the same might be said about Joyce’s What’s in Store.


Reviewed by Michael S. Begnal



Michael S. Begnal’s latest collection is Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry, 2007).  Recent poems have appeared in Notre Dame ReviewAn Sionnach, and PIG: a journal.  He was editor of the Irish literary magazine The Burning Bush.