The Irrationalist is Chicago-based expat Suzanne Buffam’s second collection, following her Gerald Lampert Award–winning debut, Past Imperfect. The book’s title plays on a snippet from Aristotle’s Poetics: “it is exclusively the irrational upon which the wonderful depends for its chief effects.” It is clear, however, that Buffam does not place all her faith in the irrational and wonderful, but equally approves of the Enlightenment values of reason and wit.
The book is studded with overt references to thinkers, poets, and artists from various places and eras. The prose-poem sequence “Trying,” for example, name-checks Schopenhauer, Napoleon, Balzac, Aristotle, Cocteau, Harold Urey, Stanley Miller, and George Wald. All this in a poem – which also includes a faithfully reproduced (and hilarious) Amazon.com review of a Tom Cruise biography for young readers – about the speaker’s attempts to conceive a child with her husband: an experience in which science and nature meet. A lesser poet might opt for a lyrical anecdote; Buffam’s cerebral approach, which eschews direct emotional statements, is all the more moving for its unexpected juxtapositions.
Also noteworthy is “Little Commentaries,” 72 aphoristic poems on various topics both abstract and concrete, from “Possibility” to “Parakeets.” While some of these are slight, many are gems of humour and insight, and a few contain nuggets of bona fide wisdom.
If I have any reservations about this book, they arise largely out of the fact that it exists in the shadow of its predecessor. Past Imperfect contains a good half-dozen lyrics that seem destined for perpetual anthologization. More of a concept album than a collection of hits, The Irrationalist doesn’t hit this mark, even though the writing is consistently sharp and engaging.
“Can worth be conferred / On a less than epic urge?” Buffam asks rhetorically in the book’s first poem. It can and should. Which is to say that, with this book, she succeeds admirably in doing so.