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Book Reviews

Bastardi Puri

by Walid Bitar

The poems in Walid Bitar’s third collection are, as the book’s paradoxical title suggests, pure bastards. The poetics of Bitar, a Lebanese-born Canadian, are characterized by typically postmodern concerns: fractured subjectivity; the malleability of language and its potential for use as propaganda; self-reflective narration; geographic rootlessness; a predominantly ironic tone. Bitar’s formal methodology, however, is hardly avant-garde. He employs rhyme, metre, the sonnet, and that workhorse of metrical poetry, the quatrain, to great effect.

This fusion of what many poetic ideologues myopically deem incompatible opposites is no accident, but a reflection of Bitar’s commendable suspicion of agenda or groupthink of any stripe. As the speaker of one poem says, “I prefer the vertigo of being unaligned.” Similar notes are struck so often, however, that one eventually gets the impression that Bitar doth protest too much. His doubting Thomas routine pushes his poems sometimes into the realm of skeptical nihilism or at least a Hamlet-like paralysis, reminding one of Yeats’s prophecy in “The Second Coming” that “the best lack all conviction.”

Bitar is obsessed with questions of identity. While he espouses distrust of the earnest lyric, going so far as to say that “those with the least sincerity soar,” he spends so much time with these preoccupations that several poems ironically embody precisely the narcissistic self-concern they deplore. But these poems are offset by others that are more politically engaged, poems in which Bitar’s speaker is “half Soviet sickle wielder, half/aesthete double crossing sunsets with his eyes.”

Bitar also possesses a vicious satiric wit, which works well in concert with his linguistic playfulness. In one poem, he rhymes “asshole” with “my soul” and “turds” with “standards,” and puns his own name into “‘bitter.’” Ultimately, Bitar is too much of a Proteus (the title of one of his poems) to be nailed down. His bastard verses, whatever their flaws, are provocative and prosodically innovative. They demand and reward multiple readings.