Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #16, Spring 2009]



Tuned Droves
By Eric Baus
Octopus Books, 2008

Reviewed by Bob Wake


Denver-based poet Eric Baus has a style and a lexicon uniquely his own. It's a poetry that feels free-associative but never arbitrary, rigorous in its use of recurring images and themes, and playful in a way that invites rather than discourages reader engagement. Tuned Droves at times takes on the dreamlike quality of a whimsical bestiary hovering between the symbolic and the three-dimensional, as in "The Convex Vulture Unearths Ventricles": "The vulture continually recovers but its chambers are no longer its / own. Other barriers to circulation, such as the plural swan and its / apprentice, the spoon, dissolve in separate spheres."

Or this, from "His Illuminated Ear": "The new peacocks are known for speaking slowly in small, looping / script. It is my duty to look away from their fluorescent beaks ..."

Forged of a weirdly original blend of surrealism and linguistics, Baus's work rewards both diligent and casual readers. Like eavesdroppers parachuted into an alternate universe or a mythical kingdom, we listen and watch for the patterns and repetitions that uncover a sympathetic correspondence within ourselves. Always lurking is the niggling suspicion that we've never left home: we're seeing our own world stripped to sinew and bone courtesy of Baus's x-ray vision. Here, for example, are two sentences, a small prose poem, the sole entry in a section of Tuned Droves titled "The Sudden Sun": "When a boy's mouth collapses into itself, tiny flames release from his / limbs. Although this is a small flash, he is startled by the sudden / sun." Baus is especially good at capturing the profound immediacy of childhood, when self-consciousness is innocent and fresh, when every new insight feels like the universe opening up for us.

The seven brief untitled poems that comprise the section "I Know the Letters This Way" seem to emanate from a lyric voice in the process of becoming: "... I / was born and then I learned to swim and then I learned how to pro- / nounce the letters of the alphabet ..." Water, amniotic and primordial, is both source and classroom: "I saw a blank. Then waves." Archetypal figures with names like "Mrs. Hand" and "Miss Toy" and "a man whose name was a buckle" enter the slipstream of the poet's consciousness: "They were born when they learned how to swim." There is talk of an "accident," perhaps one of those Gnostic incarnations beloved of Harold Bloom, humanity born into the lower, corrupt realm that is our lot on Earth. Poet as accidental tourist. Whatever the origin or outcome of the "accident," Baus seems to suggest that we are redeemed through our connectedness to one another. "We have similar streams," the emerging poet declares.

Elemental images appear and reappear throughout Tuned Droves -- paper, wheat, bees, tongues, rain/water, sun, snow, swimming, man/woman/boy, speaking, singing -- totems from a subterranean liturgy. An oracular voice surfaces in some of Baus's poems, trance-like incantations of a prophet/scientist (Pascal, say, or Swedenborg), as in "The Emergence of a Wolf": "The bee's stinger is like an enclosed, dark tongue. The atonal tortoise / is a kind of dictionary in reverse. To see them is to feel one's teeth / become abstract. They survive as obstacles to grammar and song. / They do not, then, accept the vibrations in an ear, for example, as proof of / sound. The drama of their wavelengths occurs just before the emer- / gence of a wolf ..."

When Baus is firing on all cylinders there is an aching, psalm-like beauty to his work that is mystical yet emphatically concrete in its yearning, its humanness. The short poem "Inside Any Good Song Someone is Lost" is a small masterpiece of this form seemingly invented and perfected in the wondrously strange pages of Tuned Droves: "There is a splash. There is another splash. There is another. There is a / man a man two women a boy and a boy. Something else. Someone / else. I can't see past the wheat and birds I can't see. There is a singer. / Is there a second singer? There is. That is, you can record yourself from / the center of a parade. The clouds are large. You are little and the / clouds are so large."

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Bob Wake is editor of Cambridge Book Review.



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