I first read Norm Sibum on the recommendation of a man I studied poetry with in graduate school, the notorious and controversial Montréal writer David Solway, who in turn provides the first blurb on the back of The Pangborn Defence. He writes:
The fare Sibum provides covers the four spiritual food groups — humor, seriousness, discipline, humility — and is therefore wholesome and nutritive.
Knowing David, these words could as easily have been either criticism or praise — or even both — though I think in this case it is the latter. What I’ve read of Sibum’s work in the past — alas, limited so far only to his 1998 collection The November Propertius, though I have other collections sitting on my desk right now (ah, late to so many parties, it seems) — absolutely did cover those four spiritual food groups of Solway’s… but The Pangborn Defence adds another group to them, which I struggle to name.
I think I might call it in-the-worldness, for what I find different in this book is its worldliness — not in the sense of that boring old divide between the sacred and the secular, so much as in its responsivity to the world. Sibum seems to have provided his own answer to the question, “What does it take to get poets to shake their fists at power?” His answer seems to be: The Bush Administration.
Well, not that alone. Reality TV; the rise of capitalist globalization; but also, one senses, the creeping on of the years, the visible collapse one witnesses less in one’s own life than in the lives of one’s friends and enemies, as their hair grays and their marriages collapse and their bad habits continue on into the shadow years.
Friends and enemies: the cover of the book features a mason jar containing military helicopters sweeping down towards a paddock of sheep — shades of Black Hawk Down in the Lake District, I find myself thinking as I see the image closer up, at the front and back of the book. The opening poem is titled Salvo, and the rest of the poems are composed, primarily, in a kind of epistolary mode — though, it must be noted, the way the author of The November Propertius would write epistolary poems, pressing the language like grapes to extract every drop of sweet dark richness.
These letters are far from gentle, and one or two feel as if composed to one’s enemies; whether figurative or imagined, a number of the recipients receiving scathing treatments. But there are also letters that seem friendlier, in that harsh and brutally honest way that sometimes is possible with those rare, honest-to-goodness friends one occasionally makes.
Among the poems in this slim book (67 pages, though I’m not complaining: it seems a fine length for what it contains), the most outstanding to me were “Lunar Cycle” and “Answering Crow”, characters that come to life with all their wonderful weaknesses and foibles but also, and much more importantly, reflecting the relationships Sibum’s narrator has (or understands himself to have) with them in the world. His letters to them are littered with references to pubs, to women known to them in the past, to character flaws and idiosyncracies that Sibum’s narrator recognizes and embraces.
Even without reading Sibum’s comments about the book elsewhere, it seems immediately apparent that these characters are based on real people, pseudonyms of a kind… though the only one I can say for sure is “Doctor O” in the first long poem of the book, “A Suite for the Good Doctor O” — which I believe refers to Eric Ormsby. There are hints regarding the others in this short but thoughtful interview, but only hints, though I also have a sneaking suspicion that Pangborn is a figure standing for Solway himself, in the political mode he seems to have entered somewhere later in the last decade, and not just because of Solway’s vague resemblance to the comic actor of years gone by, but also because of these lines from the (relatively short) poem “The Pangborn Defence”:
… Can politics rehabilitate politics
In the guise of blondes of liberal causes, of law and order shills?
We’ll never know, and Pangborn, you’re no help.
The way you whistle and stamp your feet,
This cafe your mission-field, mission hopeless,
It gets you ridicule–it terrifies me your loyal
True, you’re honest, and honest, oh, you’re target-rich,
Wearing out your welcome among the sadists,
your tears flinty, your ducts sacks of salt.
Go, Pangborn, go, be our savior in a rough patch,
Lead us from a pharaoh’s pique,
To a fantasia of milk and honey so that we might lick
Honey from the wings of flies.
–Go, Pangborn, my boost these words
Fatal to gallantry, open to surprise.
And, indeed, it’s probably a good thing that the pseudonyms are opaque to most readers, for there are also poems that read much more like assaults — bringing those helicopters to mind — such as “Caesars and Presidents for Avrila Lee” and “Gilded Curls.” These poems bristle with harsh judgment, with a kind of roughness that feels like an attack at times — and the Black Hawk choppers in the mason jar on the cover, on the frontispiece and at the back of the book, come to mind once again, as does the opening poem, “Salvo”, wherein Sibum lets loose a blasting attack:
Quote me, you hosers, the notion that life
Can’t defeat the wise man, the one who’s prepared,
And I’ll respond in the negative and bring
Chaos theory through your doors.
Disparage fortune as a flaky goddess,
Whim of some poet’s capering caprice,
And to the drift that chance tosses at us,
I’ll say, ‘Patience, you’ll get your innings.’
So now rain and thunder. Now the downpour,
And the leaf-heavy branches lift and fall
And hiss, so many sweepings of castanets.
They’re beyond philosophy’s reach:
The roses blooming against the brick.
But it’s as if something in the American mind
Would gut the flowers of their intricate hells
And build camps of detention in the emptiness.
— From The Pangborn Defence, by Norm Sibum
The language, the focus on American politics and warfare, the contrarian dialog with friends — so much of what spins around, realized in much finer and particular details throughout the book explodes first here.
There is disgust and rage in these pages, but a salutary one: The influence of Pound on Sibum’s work was apparent to me in The November Propertius mainly for his juxtaposition of the ancient and mythical with the quotidian world of waitresses and drunk pals, as well as in his treatment of language; here, though, he has gone further, he has made his work overtly, unapologetically political.
With The Cantos, that move was in many ways disastrous, but I dare to think it is less so with The Pangborn Defence. Happily, though Sibum has brought his poet’s tatty shoes to the streetcorner and mounted a soapbox, we find to our relief that he has come out not in praise of the Mussolinis of our day, but rather to condemn them; and the weary, unhopeful tendency here gives way, just often enough, to rage that that feels pent up, that one gets at least this much: one is not alone, in one’s own horror and disgust at how the century began.