What is art, and what is it for? Jonathan Ball tackles these two age-old questions in his fourth collection of poems, his first in seven years.
Ball’s answer to the first part of the question is admirably inclusive and delightfully macabre, incorporating disparate elements mined from pop culture: an interactive Guy Maddin webpage; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; selfies; Salvador Dalí; food courts. In The National Gallery, Ball’s poetic exhibitions tend toward the horrific and include sonnets about Leatherface, Duino elegies for screen addicts, and “mixed media” poems harvested from Google searches.
His answer regarding art’s purpose is more complex. Ball evinces a healthy suspicion toward language (“words will not reveal my mind, / only corrode my heart”); distrust toward the supposedly edifying motivations behind art-making (“What is wrong inside the man who writes a book? / What sharp pencils have torn his once-blank pages?”); and faith-testing doubts about the efficacy of the poems he writes (“Once I wrote of wolves, of the holes / their notes would carve out of the sky. / Now I write of the throat that I offer / to whatever teeth willing to try”). One title in the biographical section “Selfies” even hints that this may be Ball’s last book of poetry, since he is no longer sure that poems “mean what I want them to mean anymore.”
Although it would be a mistake to take a poet like Ball at face value, The National Gallery is simultaneously a book of renunciation and refusal of the contemporary cultural climate. Ball writes about the digital world and information glut without either the moral grandstanding or glib technocratic apologism so typical of the majority of our poets. Instead, his writing about the current moment alternates between melancholy, ambivalence, and self-doubt. “Do the black mirrors we dissolve into taste of us?” he asks of smartphone screens in the Rilkean long poem “iPhone Elegies.” Although the poem flirts with a vision of dystopic solipsism that is at once metaphysical (“Phones back our selves up into clouds”) and erotic (“Our phones our best lovers”), its overriding message is one of fundamental user incompatibility: “We are not really at home in the algorithm’s world.” Like a twisted negative image of art, social media platforms transform our feelings and thoughts into “misshapen forms”; unlike art, their effect seems to be primarily alienating and asphyxiating since “their stars shine only when they want to sell us things.”
On seemingly the opposite side of the spectrum from smartphones and selfies is The National Gallery’s opening sequence, which takes on the Group of Seven. Each of the 12 poems in this virtual exhibition is named after a member of, or a key painter adjacent to, the canonical group. Each poem works by estranging iconography, biographical details, and formal techniques associated with its respective artist. For instance, “Tom Thomson” subtly combines the moody lakeland settings and mysterious death of its subject to create a disturbing slant portrait in which fish drown in the “terrible sadness” the speaker has laid in a lake. The Group of Seven poems are surprising not only because Ball engages Canadiana seriously but because they genuinely work: by stripping away the postcard sediment of their commodification, Ball temporarily loosens the institutional fetters that prevent us from seeing the true strangeness of the group’s artworks. This is no small accomplishment and comes as a particular surprise from a poet who has often been described and championed as writing from outside the Canadian tradition.
Ball seems to have taken this outsider badge of honour sincerely to heart in this collection, which (apparently unironically) labels him “the Poet Laureate of Hell.” Ball’s rebrand as poet of the underworld in The National Gallery even includes an author photo replete with horror tropes that features him sitting in an upholstered chair topped by a raven, next to a table bearing a marble bust and some kind of animal skull. What are we to make of this genre turn? And whose inferno is Ball purporting to represent?
It is beguiling that Ball – who belongs to a coterie of other supposedly outsider Canadian poets who are almost uniformly tenured or tenure-track university professors, white and male, and largely conceive of the avant-garde as an apolitical meta-critique of textuality – would dare lay claim to this appellation in 2019. Then again, horror has historically been an ambivalent genre, a kind of limit figure of the antagonisms between mores such as the normative and the queer, the well and the unwell, desire and revulsion, liberation and oppression. Ball’s poetic fantasia of the intersections of art and horror is entrancing, but positionality matters; if Ball is the Poet Laureate of Hell, it is perhaps fitting that it is a Hell writ large in and sanctioned by the halls of Canadian academe.