03 January 2010
Further Adventures of My Nose by John Surowiecki
Further Adventures of my Nose by John Surowiecki Illustrated by Terry Rentzepis Ugly Duckling Presse, 2005 $10 Review by Laurie Rosenblatt Small in size, text in Cochin with titles in Copperplate, printed on soft paper, and bound with a hand tied brown hempen string—ok, I don’t really know it’s hemp, I didn’t try to smoke it or anything—still, Further Adventures of my Nose, is gorgeous. And Ugly Duckling Presse doesn’t rest on its laurels, they throw in color illustrations by Terry Rentzepis to boot! So, what’s the catch? John Surowiecki’s chapbook is, let me say it again, beautiful, but it is not, if our reviewers are a representative sample, for everyone. Some readers may find Rentzepis’ surreal illustrations frightening. Ok, ok there is a nose standing in a field--grass below, trees behind, sky above—a nose free from its face looking at the reader with asymmetrically placed eyes. There is also a print of The Beloved with her cello (she has no nose), and a nose posed with several noses painted by Picasso. Finally, yes Virginia that is a tumor penning a postcard. For some readers the poems may be hard going as well. If you don’t like Gogol and Sterne, if Ionesco and Durang set your teeth on edge then Surowiecki’s chapbook is not for you. In addition, some readers may find Surowiecki’s poems unpleasing simply for taking on, as they do, cancer of the nose. On the other hand Further Adventures of My Nose, is definitely for some people, me included. And, Surowiecki should be required reading for anyone working with people being treated for cancers of the head and neck. Though serious in intent, the poems do not speak in earnest tones. Nor is this chapbook sentimental or upliftingly courageous in the manner of a Lifetime Special or a Disney film. So if you’re looking for a cancer story to make you feel cancer might be tolerable all the while dutifully providing that little frisson, that small taste of suffering that makes the telling believable, Surowiecki is not your poet. “My nose/walks the world while I’m only a mirror to it...,” the absurd premise concretizes that me-not-me feeling when the body betrays through cancer. It’s a shock when some part of your body goes solo, revolts, seems to develop independent intentions, a purpose of its own. In “Epigraph & Epigram” the speaker first quotes Sartre— But in order for this absolute exteriority to be given in the form of the “there is,” there must be a world… He then gives us the view from where he stands, “Either everything exists except my nose/ or nothing exists except my nose which/ somehow amounts to the same thing.” Just so. The nose goes through some indelicate changes, it grows colorful, grows a tumor; then takes off, travels, and starts a family. Finding itself far from home, and perhaps feeling a bit guilty, the nose writes e-mail from Egypt: Sphinges have no noses no larynges, either. They remain silent on the subject of everyday life & refuse to covet the stir & wealth that lingers closest to the ground. Sphinges are ¼ Pharaoh & ¾ housecat. They behave like antimatter. A nose, on the other hand, connects the causeless world to another lacking consequences ABC. Always be cartilaginous. How else would the speaker show us his mutilated face, his horror and shame, without sending the reader right out of his or her chair? In, “A Nose of Color,” the speaker eludes feeling, dissociates rather than taking inventory and unbundling his feelings for us: He has become a nose of color’ unfortunately, that color is purple, darkening to ruby unparagoned, color of the Crab, of shadows sliding along fresh morning snow, of a plum hastily stolen, flesh to flesh, stone to heart, skin to livid skin. Dr. S**p points out pustules, papules, rhinnorrhea, ______, _____, _________, & _______. Current has spilled somewhere,…. (A Nose of Color) Now a separate individual, the nose has become heedlessly, recklessly colorful. The betrayed speaker attempts to deny the consequences—first by comparing the hideously abnormal color to shadows on snow, then to a plum—chasing solace through lyrical description and sensuous associations. The word livid brings us back to reality—and sends us back to that plum. Stripped of, “hastily stolen” and “flesh to flesh,” the plum has a nasty exactness and tormenting clarity (like the Sphinges). When, Dr. S**p speaks, the reader gets only a couple of technical terms before running into blanks—anguish and fear deafen us as well. Somewhere current has indeed spilled in this chapbook where playful word choice and an artful, almost light voice give the poems an edge, a false bravado whistling in the dark. This tightly wound speaker, made nearly insane by horror and suffering, reveals the terrified depths sounded during treatment for cancer. He lets us watch him sweat and spin punning, ironic, absurdist attempts to distance himself from pain. We end up face to face with agony. And sometimes, for instance in “Daydream No. 2: Speaking of Oral Sex” or even more starkly in “A World w/o Odors,” only small stylistic flourishes such as, “w/o” and “&,” provide an anemic feint before we take it on the nose (as it were): There is a darkness of another kind, a place of dead shapes & flat sounds where nothing rides on the air, where lilacs & the ocean are only sad movies of themselves. In this same vein, the final poem, “Follow Up” speaks plainly and truthfully about the human inability to sustain intense feeling: Dread is a vague sensation of discomfort from a barely remembered dream. Joy has slipped away, H2O thru fingers. Sublime purple skies are pushed aside. Floods recede & droughts are quenched. You know, it really lasts only so long---- ----this new appreciation for life. This is a gutsy chapbook about a terrifying illness by a skilled and humane poet. It’s worth the trouble.