Down the rabbit hole: Subverting the urban world METROPANTHEON
Steven Artelle (Winnipeg, MB: Signature Editions, 2014, $14.95, 88 pp)
Review by Francesca Bianco
In thinking about Steven Artelle’s Metropantheon, a debut collection of poetry that seeks to unsettle the sometimes droid-like existence of urban life, another piece of creative work leaps to mind. The 1998 documentary, “The Cruise,” delves into the problematic nature of the New York City’s grid plan, with social commentator Speed Levitch at the helm. In his estimation, the blueprint of Manhattan emanates from our weaknesses: the puritan system of ninety-degree angles is homogenizing in a city where there is no homogenization available. As Levitch walks down a back street, he declares that, “[In New York] there is only total cacophony, a total flowing of human ethnicities and tribes and beings and gradations of awareness and consciousness.” With the same measured and polemic wit as Levitch, Steven Artelle’s Metropantheon tags over and deconstructs the urban space and elevates the city, in this case Toronto, to mythic proportions. The exposed streets and hidden alleyways are rewritten to erase the monotony of daily living to shift towards a reflection of our most embellished, hallucinatory fantasies. For a slim volume of poetry, Metropantheon contains so many implications and allusions we could come to regard it nestled comfortably in between the foreboding vibrations of Yeats’ “Second Coming” and the caffeinated exaltations of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” However, Metropantheon celebrates rather than gives caution to what the future holds.
In an online interview with rob mclennan about his poetry, Steven Artelle reveals that his writing “always circles back to the nature of cities, encounters with divinity in a secular environment, wrestling with individual identity in a collective culture.” Metropantheon, for, instance, is a space where Artelle has “tried to overwrite the secular experience of cities in western culture by inventing an urban mythology, rituals, supernatural interventions.” In Metropantheon, the poet channels the grit and grime of a dystopic city through graffitichild; a being who grapples with his / her relationship to the collective culture of the city space. graffitichild is a mythic personality on the urban periphery, a kind of trickster god who is at once a creator and a destroyer, a giver and a negator, who misleads and is misled. To make this work, Artelle corrals language suited to the chaos and density of the urban: portmanteau words (“gladhands”, “nightchurch”, “heartjawed”) gospel-like repetition (O blessed infidelity / O candles collapsed into swans), and erratic, staccatoed rhythms. The “lines and cracks of every sidewalk” become Artelle’s source for creativity. Something like love, like art, is happening “somewhere behind the drywall” and it “smells like a manifesto.” In Metropantheon the new and revolutionary mythology slouches out from behind the concrete curtains.
In the ancient world, a pantheon is a space dedicated to the gods. Roman consul and noted historian, Cassius Dio, remarked that Rome’s Pantheon, because of its vaulted roof, “resembles the heavens.” If Artelle’s collection is like the Pantheon’s portico, then graffitichild is the oculus: the structure’s central opening and a feat and wonder of human effort and ingenuity. However, in Metropantheon the bones of the city are not as dependable as one might think. The city, as rendered in the poem “heat”, is “constructed with slabs of fat / the whole thing slathered together / and wobbling under the eyeless mortar of the sun.” Beings either emerge above the city’s surface or are submerged. In this case, graffitichild states simply: “I am an outline” and at the margins of the speaker’s own sense of identity and relationship to the “splintered skyline.”
Interestingly, one of the strongest poems in the collection carries with it the most substantial emotional infrastructure. It is a break from the turbo-charged, dense imagery injected with Artelle’s mythic imagination. The poem, “the evidence of windows” begins concretely by placing us at “hinton north and wellington” in Toronto amongst “bikes and uncertain traffic” and then shifts to become an existential lament on love:
……….and it was your name over and over that afternoon and so it was
……………maybe you as I eavesdropped and maybe missed my calling
……….until the part about how we make the wrong decisions and
……………live with it or not in the acoustic dark and the part about love
It is an accessible piece redolent of the fluctuating doubt and melancholy we feel in relationships and in loss. It is a poem “about you and me unable to lean out.”
Artelle’s overarching project is less about narrative, less about understanding what exactly happens to, say, graffitichild than it is about refashioning language itself. The burning core of Metropantheon lies in the attempt to deconstruct and rebuild a pantheon of reinvigorated, resonant mode of expression fit for the gods. It should be noted that stamina is required in reading Metropantheon in the same way it is harnessed when slogging between subway, tram, and office building. In “half-skinned rabbit”, however, the speaker reminds us that we “stretch [our] hand into whatever new glove this is.” The reader follows a similar path to familiarity as they move through the collection. Metropantheon becomes our city, our experience, our new glove that molds, breathes, and expands to our daily elation and struggle.
Francesca Bianco is a writer and farm gal living in snowy northern British Columbia. She intends to complete a Masters in Journalism at UBC next fall.
This review was published in issue 12:1 “Surrender.” To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum‘s website here: