Monday, August 21, 2006




Otiose Warts by Argol Karvarkian
(Univ. of University Press, Bergen, 2006)

This forty-fifth collection continues Karvarkian’s obsession with a miniature kind of poetry: lyrics gorgeously wrought, each with the grace and identicalness of a Faberge egg. It is curious that after Karvarkian’s decades of writing and publishing well-mannered volumes, his many readers may not recall his earliest work, which is characterized by a surprisingly primitive, even brutish sensibility. A far cry from the lapidary incrustations of his contemporary work, his earlier poems seem to have originated in a swamp: metaphors dense as quagmire, often expressed in grunts, such as “Bleep. Fsssssh. Poof.” Contrast this with the minimalist clarity and grace of a lyrical refrain from a poem in his newest collection: “This. That. This.”

I first met Karvarkian in Florida. I had recently married, and my wife and I shared a shack on stilts in an obscure part of the Everglades, where I could work on my literary criticism in solitude. Karvarkian was young, of course, with massive, unkempt hair and musky odor. The three of us became friends after we’d met at the local fishing-themed bar in town. Gradually, I began to notice the attraction Karvarkian and my wife shared, and so I wasn’t surprised when one day he took me aside and growled, “I’m leaving on a lengthy journey to reach the end of the world. And, oh yes, do you mind if I take your wife?” He was surprised, I surmise, by my gracious accession.

There then seemed to be an endless supply of wives in the Everglades, so I had no trouble marrying again. What did astound me, however, was that within a month of my second marriage Karvarkian reappeared, his long trip apparently cut short. He pointed his finger at my trembling second wife. “I don’t like this one,” he told me. “But your new one seems entirely lovable. Do you mind if I take her along on my infinite journey?” Of course I protested. Wasn’t one enough for him? But my new wife flashed her eyes and they hurriedly departed.

This left me in rather an awkward position. My first wife and I were no longer properly married, but she didn’t seem to be leaving the house, so we resumed our cohabitation with the proviso that I might at any time, should I wish to, take a new wife. And eventually I did.

It was at that time that Karvarkian reentered our lives. “Take this one back,” he ordered, thrusting my second wife at me. “Lemme have the new one.” Numbed, I could only allow her to go.

Now I was living with two former wives. After some time, I remarried. Moments after that ceremony, as if he’d been lurking beneath a trap door, Karvarkian abruptly appeared demanding the new wife in trade for the old.

This pattern continued for some years. Eventually I stopped protesting because I’d begun to notice that after each exchange of wives a new book of Karvarkian’s poetry would appear. Each time, I would read it with immense interest and greatly marvel at his progression of intellect and technique from volume to volume.

His eighteenth collection, Phlogiston You Bet, evidences what we might call the typical Karvarkian poem of the early middle period: distinctive language and budding obsession with the mysterious shadow figure, eventually to be known as the Procurer, so famously developed in later volumes:

A can of f*****g beer
collides with a f*****g cold thought:
Pimp me vittles,
that little b******d
better deliver
me f*****g flame-retardant
flapdoodle another beer
in f*****g skirts
or I crush his f*****g
smooch. (“A Bone Aren’t Made of Beer”)

By his thirtieth volume, We’ll Burn That Bridge Before We Invent It, his outlandish verbosity has given way to a diction both natural and unforced:

The notion of amber gosling
waddling, My sainted Procurer
in his red wheelbarrow.
“Ducky,” I coo. “Get me another
in her flowing skirts. This one’s gone dry.”
Gosling nestles, but tiresome Procurer
demands recompense.
I flip him the bird. (“The Pushover Prize”)

Although I support forty-six ex-wives on the meager receipts of my modest critical efforts, I can’t help but believe that I had something to do with the great Karvarkian’s evolution as a poet. After all, he seemed to extract a tangible grace from the women I married—and, I flatter myself—possibly because of my own connection to them. I’d also like to think that my judiciously crafted critical prose, which my wives have assured me they read aloud to him each evening, helped to discipline his earlier poetic unruliness.

I can think of no better evidence of this than this latest volume. Here he demonstrates, with a directness characteristic of his formative earlier work, what may be a final, summative reconciling with the Procurer, the mysterious shadow-figure:

Needles, needles.
Glockenspiel headstrong.
Ale may ail and skirt hurt,
but o my sissy-brother,
there is nary the consumer
absent the consumed. (“Elapsed Bumbershoot”)

Whether this mysterious Procurer will ever be brought fully from the shadows must wait on future Karvarkian collections, although much critically has already appeared. (See my The Mysterious Procurer in the Poetry of Karvarkian. Three volumes. Freemont: Univ. of University Press. 2004)

Still, if we are to consider the totality of Argol Karvarkian’s oeuvre, we must ask, what does it signify? What will be its influence? These beautiful Faberge egg-like poems, several dozen to a package: how are we to understand such exigent fragility? I think, in the end, they will share the fate of all delicately created things. Like Faberge eggs they will abide as objects that we can admire, but that, once having admired, we relegate to the collector’s shelf without further comment.


Sandy McIntosh’s collections of poetry include The After-Death History of My Mother, Between Earth and Sky (Marsh Hawk Press), Endless Staircase (Street Press), Earth Works (Long Island University), Which Way to the Egress? (Garfield Publishers), and two chapbooks: Obsessional (Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry) and Monsters of the Antipodes (Survivors Manual Books). His prose includes Firing Back, with Jodie-Beth Galos (John Wiley & Sons), From A Chinese Kitchen (American Cooking Guild), and The Poets In the Poets-In-The-Schools (Minnesota Center for Social Research, University of Minnesota. His poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Nation, the Wall Street Journal, American Book Review, and elsewhere. His original poetry in a film script won the Silver Medal in the Film Festival of the Americas. He has been Managing Editor of Confrontation magazine published by Long Island University, and is Managing Editor of Marsh Hawk Press.


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