Poets are “noisier” than most people, Ottawa poet Nicola Vulpe writes in his new collection, Insult to the Brain (Guernica Editions). And, as Vulpe’s book demonstrates, poets’ deaths can be extremely noisy.
“Poets are in the business of saying things, whether about death, or life, or love, or the tree branches outside the window, anything,” Vulpe said in an email interview. “It’s what they do. They make their opinions known — and often get themselves into trouble for doing so.”
Hence, some very noisy deaths.
In the interview, Vulpe specifically cited Osip Mandelstam, a poet persecuted to death by Stalin in the Soviet Union, and Tal al-Mallouhi, a teenaged Syrian blogger arrested for her poems about Palestine. It is uncertain whether that young poet remains alive. There are many more noisy arrests and deaths in Insult to the Brain. Some of the stories are grim; some are presented with affection and humour; all are, dare we say, poetic.
For many poets, deaths involve one of the following — suicide, political execution, murderous lovers, substance abuse and exotic, but dangerous, locations. Rare is the poet, outside of Canada, anyway, who quietly slips away from natural causes at a ripe old age in the bosom of his or her family. There is, of course, at least one infamous death of a Canadian poet. Louis Riel, the Metis poet and rebel leader, was hanged in 1885 by the state for treason. But he died too soon for this book, which is concerned with 20th century poets.
For a dozen years, Vulpe has been toiling away on this book about poets’ deaths. He has chosen almost 100 20th century poets who are dead, or soon to be, barring some miracle. The poems are mainly, but not exclusively, about the poets’ deaths. Hence, the book’s subtitle: An Altogether Unreliable Account of my Conversations with Poets, Mostly about Dying, but also About Other Matters Great and Trivial. Let’s just say Vulpe takes considerable poetic licence with these poems.
Vulpe has published previous books of poetry, including Blue Tile, and the novel, The Extraordinary Event of Pia H.
So, why is Vulpe so fascinated with the dead poets society.?
“I would rather say that I am interested in their lives and their poetry. Their deaths made a common starting point, strange as that might seem, from which to know them and their work. That said, their deaths also provide a thread through the history of the last 100 years; they died as others died, too many in the great calamities of that century, a few in their beds.”
The death of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in New York in 1953 is particularly noisy. At the end of the poem, which is also the title of the book, Vulpe states Thomas’s cause of death as “alcohol, etc.” The poem about Thomas is more fulsome.
Insult to the brain, that is to say,
ACTH, a cortisone-type drug,
eighteen straight whiskeys, or so he claimed,
amphetamines, or so it is rumoured,
morphine, also a rumour,
forty Cornish pints in an afternoon, unsubstantiated,
The poem suggests that some naked women and pneumonia may also have played a role in Thomas’s death. Clearly, Vulpe is on a roll with Dylan Thomas.
And then there is American poet Sylvia Plath. In 1963, at age 30, Plath stuck her head in an oven and turned on the gas. She carefully placed tape around the kitchen door so the gas would not seep into the nearby bedroom where her children slept. Plath suffered from depression and had attempted suicide previously. Vulpe’s poem about Plath, The Ancient Remedy, is short and as quiet as gas hissing in an oven.
It’s an ancient remedy, Sylvia: fall in love, marry.
Make children, settle for a Formica kitchen,
dinner parties and martinis, an oversized Buick, the lawn.
But somewhere under the earth, my dear,
a young woman lugs over tree roots and stones,
both hands on the handle, a red suitcase full of poems.
Many of the poets in Insult to the Brain will undoubtedly be unknown to most Canadians. They come from countries around the globe and became famous in their homelands, often for their political martyrdom. Initially, Vulpe wrote short biographies of all the poets but, in the end, he decided that readers can do their own research if the poems tantalize them to learn more about the dead poet. So, read with one finger on Google.
The deaths of several Canadian poets are included: Gwendolyn MacEwen, from alcoholism in 1987; Milton Acorn, from heart disease and diabetes in 1986; Irving Layton from Parkinson’s disease in 2006 and Ottawa’s Juan Geuer from a stroke in 2009.
Geuer was best-known as a sculptor. He also wrote poems. So, did North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, Italian film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini and other celebrities most famous for non-poetical pursuits. Here is part of the poem, Uncle Ho Attends the Fall of Saigon, honouring the man who died in 1969 of heart failure:
Kick their asses:
De Gaulle, Kennedy, Johnson,
Then discreetly exit,
like a carnival conjurer,
or a saint.
Fans of Leonard Cohen will be disappointed to find no poem about this icon. Cohen died in 2016 from a combination of a fall and leukemia. Vulpe indicated that he attempted to write a poem about Cohen but could not find the right words.
“Sadly, I didn’t manage it, as I didn’t manage poems about a great many other poets. Let’s just say that not everything I write is successful.”
In town: Nicola Vulpe’s Insult to the Brain will be launched in Ottawa May 5 at 3 p.m. at Vimy Brewing Company, 145 Loretta Ave. N. #1. Four other Guernica authors will be launching books at the same time. For more: guernicaeditions.com