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Eunoia

by Christian Bök

Trust the French to produce an avant-garde novelist, Georges Perec, who could write a 300-page novel, La Disparition, without a single use of the letter ‘e.’ Trust Christian Bök – a Toronto poet, linguist, and avant-garde devotee – to pull off an equally audacious linguistic experiment.

In his first poetry collection, Crystallography, Bök made poetry that sounded like science and behaved like crystal, coaxing words into overlapping horizontal and vertical shapes like a crystalline lattice. In his second, Eunoia, Bök achieves an even greater degree of verbal contortionism. In the spirit of Perec, the five chapters in Eunoia each use words containing only one of the five vowels. The writing is musical, bawdy, and ingenious, as in this winking example from “Chapter I”: “I fit childish insights within rigid limits, writing schtick which might instill priggish misgivings in critics blind with hindsight.”

Bök has crafted storylines – including a retelling of the Iliad using only e-vowel words – that display linguistic virtuosity. They are also a delight to read. The separate stories, each a few thousand words in length, include references to such subjects as the war in Kosovo and the exploits of a mythical Arabian king. The narratives also follow Bök’s self-imposed rule that they exhaust 98% of the available single-vowel vocabulary without substantial repetition. Bök’s additional constraint that all chapters “must describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau, and a nautical voyage” grounds the verse in the senses and keeps it from reading like a laboratory trial.

Eunoia, a Greek word for “beautiful thinking,” ends with several coda-like poems that elaborate Bök’s skill with anagrams and his verbal dexterity. Although this writing is not to be read quickly – the language tends to be dense as a cream sauce – one can’t fault Bök for his spirit of adventure. Or his monastic perseverance. As he explains in his afterword, Bök’s 112-page work took seven years to write. The time was well spent.