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We think of epic poems as recounting the past, But this epic is about what is happening now

in Book Reviews/Poetry by
The Valley of the Eight Book Cover The Valley of the Eight
Matt Bialer
Poetry
Leaky Boot Press
November 20, 2017
Paperback
230
978-1909849518

 

Brilliantly syncopated, wired with jazzy riffs, toe-tappingly hypnotic, Matt Bialer's epic poem, The Valley of the Eight, recounts at least three kinds of searches and many more kinds of searchers.

  • A father and daughter seek common ground in spite of their differences.
  • A creationist’s daughter seeks the remains of Noah's Ark in eastern Anatolia. Her father seeks common ground with her and her willful, quirky son.
  • Vikings search beyond Greenland in Newfoundland and New England.
  • An archaeologist seeks to maintain an old friendship and to re-energize his life.
  • A Tennessee nurse to whom miracles were attributed seeks—and believes he has found—Noah's Ark.
  • A poet seeks to weave the seemingly dissimilar strands of science, technology, love, ornithology, mythology, religion and disbelief into a breathtaking and often breathless song.

“Genesis 6-9” is Noah’s story, God’s story. God says,

         I will blot out
        from the earth

         the human beings
         I created

         people together
         with animals and creeping things

         and birds
         of the air

         I am so sorry
         that I made them.

That is God’s lament as he conjures the flood, the flood that almost every culture on the face of the earth reports in its mythology, the flood for which there is no evidence. Noah, who “walks with God,” builds the ark, Nuhun Gemesi in Turkish, for which there is no evidence. And people seek the evidence, sometimes claiming to have found it, sometimes enjoying ephemeral fame only to be debunked, as was Ron Wyatt, the Tennesseee nurse.

Why do the Norse appear on page 99, and disappear only to appear again? They too are searchers. Their dragon ships are arks, too. But they ride the flood. They thrive on the flood. They leave iron and wood artifacts that rust and rot, but satellites find evidence of their settlements, while Nuhun Gemesi remains shrouded in mystery and doubt.

Let’s puzzle this out, this enigmatic appearance on page 99 of the Norse, this working of the poet’s mind. The Viking sagas—what is said in Old Norse—remained unwritten for more than 200 years, and their gods and goddesses remain as unproven as Noah’s God, and much more like the Vikings themselves. The poet knows these sagas, as he knows the Old Testament. He knows how they came to be. He knows how the sagas sounded and he has clues as to how Genesis might have sounded. He understands their hold on us—and he sees, he feels, he believes that our challenges, our aspirations, our characteristic behaviors can all be told the same way, with the same gravity, the same musicality, the same drivenness, which is emphasized throughout by repeating Nuhun Gemesi in different contexts.

He doesn’t mention the Hellenes, but he knows all about them. He knows how blind Homer starts the stanzas of The Iliad with the key word: If he’s talking about wrath the word wrath comes first in classical Greek. But if you’re Richmond Lattimore or, contemporaneously, Caroline Alexander and Barry B. Powell, you have instantly to cope with the recognition that a literal translation looks and sounds like code, and if you want to make any sense of it at all, you’d have to lay it out on a page like concrete poetry. Matt Bialer doesn’t want to do that. He opts, typically, for one- or two-line stanzas, short and punchy, like the original Greek.

In this way we experience a breathless runner, a poet-messenger who comes to our campfire winded and begins immediately to tell us a story, a story that is the real news of our civilization and its highest aspirations. We understand he’s had an arduous journey to get to us, as indeed Bialer probably has, and we wait patiently. Soon we begin to tap our drums and play our flutes. Our toes begin to move rhythmically with his words. We are now part of the epic. We’re enthralled, but it took millennia of songs and sagas and plaints and jeremiads to enthrall us. So yes, Bialer’s epic is participatory. It presumes we’ll take part and not be mere passive listeners. It assumes we’ll be willing to acknowledge our debt to the Jews, the Hellenes, the Vikings, and all those cultures that have prompted us to think, wrongly, that we’re unique.

Because he so exquisitely uses the nounal phrase in which the verb is implied Bialer is able to tell the Viking story, the father-daughter story, the grandfather-grandson story, and the stories of Ark-seekers, without resorting to transitional devices.  He might use a trio of asterisks here and there, but for the most part the threads of these stories run parallel at times and contiguously at other times as if we were all participating in a well-known story for the sheer pleasure of it. That’s a formidable feat when you consider what many another writer has to do to get from one place to another and from plot to subplot. It’s testament to how well he’s studied the sagas, the testaments, The Iliad, The Odyssey and very likely The Thousand and One Nights and Antarah ibn Shaddad, the great pre-Islamic Arab poet.

But it is the whiteness of the page, the silence of the line breaks, the caesurae that drive The Valley of the Eight. They constitute not just matrix but the energy field necessary to bear the poem. In many ways this epic, like all oral poetry, depends on its silences not merely to anticipate what comes next but to allow the listener—the participant—to digest what has already happened.  The silences and whiteness of the page, as all concrete poets know, are the sine qua non of success. They’re the environment in which meaning and ethrallment thrive.

Who would have thought that a contemporary grandpa trying to connect with an contrary grandson (by cajoling him to help build another osprey nesting deck) could be woven into the Viking and Ark quests, into the stories of adventurers and misadventurers, into a global creationist myth in search of scraps of reality? Who would have thought that Xboxes, satellite sensors and the other gimmicks of our society could dwell so seemingly with God’s good man, Noah, and his company of eight?

When I was a boy I had two friends who echoed themselves. My mother’s coming Saturday, Billy would say. Coming Saturday, he’d say again. He usually picked up the last two or three words of a sentence he’d just uttered and repeat them. I was fascinated by this speech defect and it influenced me when I began writing poems. Now that I have a bone conductivity problem I hear my own few last words echoed in my skull, like a reverberant drum.  The same phenomenon in found in dementia victims, but they’re inclined to repeat whole sentences and even stories. In The Valley of the Eight, as in much other poetry, this becomes a device, a refrain, that gives the epic its remarkable cohesion.

The stripping away of punctuation reminds us of the sailor who knows a littered deck is unsafe. But the author has not dispensed with capitalization for several good reasons. The epic requires a certain formality that the capital letter grants it. That’s one reason. Another is that beginning an xx (unrhymed) couplet without a capital beginning would hurry the poem unduly, and The Valley of the Eight demands a stately pace. But the author also capitalizes the second line of the couplet. Why? This too slows the poem down, but it has another more important function. The caesura at the line break—the author doesn’t use the caesura internally—requires the thought just spoken to obtain a kind of entry at the start of the second line, a kind of permission to go on, and very often at this juncture combustion occurs, something ecstatic or epiphanic. No accident. There is yet another way to regard this stylistic decision. That second capital is capitoline in the sense that what has just gone before it is now asking permission to enter an unknown temple, so that the mystery of the epic is heightened because we’re challenged, if not invited, at every second line to enter a new adytum.

If you think the epic exhausted itself with Hiawatha, if you think it belongs to the past, Matt Bialer will have you thinking again. The epic is fully capable of embracing the kitchen sink of our culture, anything we’ve got to say or do or make. The Valley of the Eight is proof. The essential mojo, the elixir of this epic is that it’s happening under our noses as we ourselves sing it.

—Djelloul Marbrook

 

Djelloul Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He is the editor-in-chief of the Arabesques Review. He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.

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