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by Gary Geddes 
(Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2014, $19.95, 239 pages). Review by David Swartz.

In What Does A House Want? Gary Geddes brings a full chorus of voices to the table, speaks loudly about relevant contemporary issues, is imaginative, rich, varied, and deeply political. Unlike what one might have expected out of a new book of poetry in 2014, Geddes’ collection is about collectedness itself (“A house wants to stay / where it is… is a safe / haven, anchorage, place of rest.”), exemplified by a clear, precise, lucid, yet buoyant lyricism (“I never lost my cool, but took them one by one, like a cat collecting kittens”). Walking amongst the still tender ruins of twentieth century political history, Geddes concerns himself with what a house requires to maintain life, speculating “laughter, sounds of lovemaking,” memories of past occupants, solidity, consistency. “Is there no aesthetic to consistency anymore, / that’s what I want to know.” What a house needs most of all are guests, and Geddes embraces and appropriates his guests the way an author welcomes a character into a novel he is writing.

The intention of the poet to build a house where a collective of words can be appreciably unified is propelled by the poet’s incurable need to form such a whole, “charting connections / few had ever dreamed of.” A task such as this requires more than mere politicizing and raw constructive power: one needs a house plan.

The unforgettable front cover of Geddes’ book, featuring the painting Mon Cheval by Martin Honisch, could be viewed as such a plan. The thick white letters of the question “WHAT DOES A HOUSE WANT?” juxtaposed with a deeply lined hand emanating from an organic pipe out of the abstract ground, chained to an ever-changing sky, speaks to the core of Geddes’ self-imposed task as poet. A ladder and a cowboy hat are propped up against the bottom of the page in the foreground. The man himself is noticeably absent. We see only his hand, chained to a rock or the sky, a wooden boat above, leading to mountains and the vast ocean. The lines on his hands are deep like veins.

……….The world has been my whale-road
……….wanderer and seafarer
……….among the lost manuscripts,
……….charting connections
……….few had even dreamed of …
……….Tennyson was right
……….about being part of all he met,
……….but he hadn’t met enough

Geddes ventures outwards and inwards. The more he becomes the other, the more he becomes himself. Ironically, for all his moving and shaking around as other people, at no point does Geddes ever become other than himself.

What Does A House Want? is a book brimming with life, experience, wisdom. For the most part, Geddes is generous, honest, exploring political motivations, personal behaviour, speculative possibilities about the metaphysics of space between worlds, the past and the future, the self and the other, the individual and the collective, the historical moment that is nowhere and everywhere, that is consciousness, that is the present speaking through the past, and the past speaking through the present.

……….Did I say that, or was it Master Bi?
……….He spoke so close to my ear as he applied
……….clay to mould my features that his ideas
……….invaded my brain as if I were a puppet.

Who is this mysterious “other” Geddes addresses, and who he speaks of as if it were his double? His book probes this ability to look outside to see inside. Most of Geddes’ poems in this collection are in fact written about others, or from another’s point of view. Significantly, Geddes adds excerpts of poems by other poets between his nine chapters, only to mix himself up all the more. It is as if Geddes is saying “I am the other.” And
yet, to be sure, Gary Geddes is always Gary Geddes. Thankfully, Ghandi, Trotsky, St Augustine, and other mysterious men of letters, for a short but significant period of time, get to be Gary Geddes too, as do compliant readers of his book.

……….Islanded in our separate
……….selves, words are
……….too frail a bridge

While in themselves words may be too frail to join one individual to another, by taking on the personae of multiple historical personalities, Geddes shows how they can be made to stretch out over time and space. In effect, he inspires us to think about world politics, current events, historical relevance, and most of all subjectivity. Remarkably, the wandering of Geddes’ personality, his “I-less” subjective home without a home, takes the poet on a journey which, through the other, returns back to himself.

David Swartz is a visual artist and writer from Toronto, currently living in Lisbon, Portugal, where he works as an English teacher and translator while studying painting at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Lisbon.

This review was published in issue 12:1. To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum‘s website.

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