First of all: Not all readers are interested in working hard. If nothing else, Ken White's debut poetry collection, Eidolon, demands that its readers put in some extra effort to follow his circuitous syntax and wide-ranging lexicon. You might know White as a co-producer and screenwriter for the recent Montana-based film, Winter in the Blood. In Eidolon, published by Missoula's own Peel Press (its first release, in fact) and featuring drawings by Carson Ellis, he makes his own complicated landscape come to life.
If you already like modern poetry, pick up White's book right away. It's clever, tricky, wry, undeniably smart, and concerned not only with the big questionslife, death, myth, the otherworldly, identitybut also with the trappings of everyday life: kerchiefs and transmission fluid, bratwurst and Ziploc bags of peas, tiddledywinks and mud. On their own, these mundane, everyday objects aren't anything special. But what makes White's work really sing is that he offers just a brief glimpse of the ordinary, and juxtaposes these snapshots with curious proclamations and gestures, questions and addresses. His sentences curl back on themselves contortedly and self-consciously, and the reader must trust White enough to believe that even though these poems are decidedly weird, they are necessarily so.
If you're not inclined, however, to like poetry, let me convince you why Eidolon is worth reading anyway. This is not a gentle introduction to modern verse. But, go big or go home, right? Plunge in. Get confused, feel lost. Shake your head and put the book down. Pick it up again. Read some lines like, "How fox-gold/how damp the thatch how laced and hobbled/to the chute. How sheaves he murdered." Proclaim that this White fellow makes no sense, and fling the book across the room. Go and pick it up again.
After the first few pages, you'll find yourself drawn deeper into the world that White creates, not necessarily because you know what's going on, but because of the sound and cadence of his poems. They carry you along like a current. While his words are compelling on the page, the lines seem to hiccup and shift strangely, the wordings unfamiliar. But read aloud, they sound exuberant, breathless and real. In the poem "Though our Mouths Be Taken From Us," he iterates again and again, "Listen." And ultimately, this is what White wants us to do.
In the poem "Disrobing Him of His Body Itself," White writes, "I cannot give more/sufficient voice than to split the shaft that split/the shaft that almost hit the mark." Later in the same poem he mentions becoming "conspicuous beyond vision." In these lines, he acknowledges the limitations of language, and it often feels as though the mere words themselves cannot contain his exuberance. Instead, he invites the reader to listen first to the sound of his words, to hear his poems first as songs and then as stories. In fact, he makes this clear right on the cover of the book: Instead of saying, "By Ken White," it reads, "As performed by Ken White and his Own Opera Company." It's a strange byline, to be sure, but one that tells us how to hear this book. And the harder we listen, the more we understand.
The word "eidolon" comes from ancient Greek literature, and means "phantom," "ghost" or "image." This is a fitting title for a book that feels haunted, not only by its many characters, but by certain ideas that return again and again. That omnipresence, appears in "This Apparition:"
"I am comprised of thread / spun from carded air, can divide / myself or seduce the loom and widen such with wind / that if you abide yet on this earth and breathe / you cannot help but contain me/ in some small portion."
But there is also a sense of doubt and a questioning humility that appears too, as evidenced by the very next sentence:
"If by some chance you do not/ the mistake is mine; I have arrived/ at the wrong world, or at the wrong time."
This line also gestures to another theme in Eidolon, which is the sense that multitudinous worlds, times and realities are all layered and occurring simultaneously. Figures, insights and concerns carry through from one poem to the next, lending a tenuous permeability, but also a kind of bewildering magic. Lines from one poem show up as the title of another, inextricably weaving the book's world together.
Eidolon really hits its stride in the fourth section, with the longest poem, "Embassy of Days." Part mythic tale, part colloquial conversation, the 26-page adventure includes everything from unionized pigs to giants, illicit love affairs, jellybeans, Sophia Loren and thumb-wars. White flings his reader around mercilessly, but also offers faint threads by which we can tie this behemoth story together.
Those threads are key to unlocking the collection's strange and complicated beauty. It's not always an easy lock to turn, but it's a worthy undertaking.