There aren’t many Canadian books of poetry that are anticipated with quite so much excitement as Michael Lista’s debut, which has been the talk of the town for some time. But the book outpaces the expectations even of those kindly disposed to it.
The idea behind Lista’s book is simple: it mirrors Joyce’s Ulysses by tracing a day in the life of one Louis Slotin, a Canadian physicist. Slotin is working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, and dies during a nuclear accident. Like Leopold Bloom, Slotin is a cuckold. Also like Joyce’s book, Bloom includes many references to ancient myth. Mimicking Joyce is a potentially fatal mistake: Martin Amis, a noted stylist, once said of Ulysses that, like the nuclear bomb, it “can’t be done again”; Joyce is a cul-de-sac.
As if that weren’t ambitious enough, Lista piles imitation on imitation: each poem is “after” that of another famous poet, such as Hughes, Seidel, or Auden. (The weakest poems are the most slavishly imitative of Joyce’s prose.) Some of the poems are obviously written in the manner of a great poet; others have an element or a few lines that show their indebtedness. For example, “Louis Slotin’s Flaw,” which is “after Robert Lowell,” doesn’t really imitate Lowell at all, except for its obvious reference to Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”: “The bastard knows I see him there. / He recovers, waves and will not scare.”
What is really remarkable about this book is not its ventriloquism but the dramatization of Slotin’s love for his wife. Bloom is, at its core, a love story, and it’s love that gets the best lines. “Wandering Rocks” calls “love a half-life / to be absent through and waited safely out / lest by it we be fatally injured, but never injured.” This feeling of bereftness pervades the collection.
So much in Bloom is quotable, so much is considered. The book is homage and meta-homage. What’s left is for Lista to write with less overt tethers to others’ imaginations. But that’s next, surely.