Babstock’s new collection explores poet as spymaster

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March 5, 2015

On Malice

By Ken Babstock

Coach House Books

94 pages, $17.95

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

How can you tell signal from noise? What are fair and foul ways to assemble knowledge? Ken Babstock sets his exacting and accomplished fifth collection of poetry, On Malice, at the confluence of just these questions. Named a Globe & Mail Best Book of 2014, the collection has its immediate genesis in a year spent in Berlin, but the poems harness the language of observation across several centuries. Babstock reminds us that acts of decryption are essential both to espionage and to poetry.

Babstock’s earlier work–in, for example, 2011’s Methodist Hatchet, winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize–wears its critique more openly, employing narrative formulae that seem transparent by comparison with what I might call the rigorous whimsy of On Malice. The new collection’s cumulative effect is something like parsing the paranoid hierarchies in the novels of Thomas Pyncheon, though Babstock’s voice is cool rather than feverish.

I felt challenged to find ways into reading On Malice. I sometimes felt like a codebreaker myself. These poems insist on duration, repetition, and process. They demand re-reading. Floundering, readers may cling to the lucidity of observations that illuminate “a correction in the architecture / any ordinary person felt as cause” (“Perfect Blue Distant Objects”). How disconcerting and ultimately wonderful, then, to observe finally the precise way these small mechanisms drill down into the concealed territories beneath the ideologies of nations, of poetic form, and (but this we ought to expect from poetry) of language itself.

The book’s end notes present a tantalizing seriocomic summary of the methodology and context for these poems. Much of their vocabulary is repurposed from external sources–a formal index of Babstock’s inquiry into surveillance, data collection and decoding. Walter Benjamin’s diary of his son’s language acquisition is reassembled into a haphazard deciphering of signal from emotional and political noise in “Sigint”. William Hazlitt’s essay about the pleasures of distance transmutes into a scrolling text about the hazards of mediation in “Perfect Blue Distant Objects:” “all relation / a port/ of affection and the will towards an instantaneous deed.”

The NSA website defines “sigint” (short for “signals intelligence”) as “collecting foreign intelligence from communications and information systems and providing it to customers across the U.S. government.” On Malice opens with a heterodox sonnet cycle of this name, followed by three long poems or poem series. (Form is strictly observed, yet always exceeded, in On Malice.) “Perfect Blue Distant Objects” explores the self-alienation of screentime and the way it facilitates our projection of fantasies and abstractions onto others. “Deep Packet Din” refers to the filtering of network data, used both to channel and to spy on information transmitted over the Internet. “Five Eyes” is one of many names for an alliance of five countries (including the US and Canada) sharing signals intelligence under a multilateral agreement.

Shortly after the publication of On Malice, Babstock was awarded the first annual Latner Writer’s Trust Poetry Prize, “in recognition of a remarkable body of work, and in anticipation of future contributions to Canadian poetry”. In the era of the highest noise-over-signal ratio ever experienced in human communications, combined with the cyclical revelation of omnipresent government surveillance, we need writers like Babstock to demonstrate how poetic work can be done with integrity and without escapism. We are surrounded by, as Babstock reminds us repeatedly, “the art of the ill,” and On Malice is both self-aware symptom and an attempt at inoculation.

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet, essayist and reviewer.

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