Ancestor Worship by Michael S. Begnal
Review by Liam Mac Sheoinín
In his previous exemplary collection, The Lakes of Coma, Michael S. Begnal adroitly reflected on the Michael S. Begnal Cosmos. No less fleshy and turbulent than the first master of American free verse — I mean, the author of Leaves of Grass, the redoubtable Walt Whitman — Begnal continues, collection after collection, to display a Whitmanian genius for litotes. Modern poetry is about understatement. It is about uniting opposites. Perhaps poetry was transformed into a statement of eternal, simple truth by a young Dane enumerating esseric considerations to a severed consciousness. Hamlet argues for continuing his existence when all evidence contradicts his argument. Whitman is a Hamlet healed by words, words, words. Whitman’s verse is a series of addresses to the ghosts of his past. Like Hamlet and Whitman, Begnal argues with phantoms.
Begnal’s central argument seems to be with the craft he loves but also hates. The “Agenbite of Inwit” all deconstructionists must feel post Joyce, post Derrida. To his credit, this young poet seems to have an awareness of the futility of a poet’s enterprise. He actually admitted in The Lakes of Coma, his brilliant first collection, to being “vulgarized by language.” And although I stated in my Abiko Annual #23 review of The Lakes of Coma that Begnal “delights in being a poet,” as expected of a Whitmanian, his verse is polygonal: a series of complex propositions. Mercury, the Dime, Begnal’s long poem published by Six Gallery Press in 2005, is an elegy on the ephemeral claim a race has on a topography. It is a gentle howl, full of lament and acute observation. In Mercury, the Dime, actually written during the early 90s, Begnal brilliantly declares, “It was a Native American that dreamed Route 66.”
Begnal’s latest collection, Ancestor Worship, is as remarkable for its moody details. In “Beautiful People,” “Dead bird blown down the road / as light as its feathers” is a dazzling, fitting inchoate for a poem that ends with the provocative line “the knife dripping with juice.” Like Ginsberg, Begnal realizes a poem must provoke.
The title poem, “Ancestor Worship,” is refulgent with race memory, the entelechy of the Eliotian proposal of melding memory and desire. Paradoxically, “Ancestor Worship,” located at the near equator of the shining sphere of Begnal’s collection, becomes a distant journey into the cavern of the past without ever leaving the present — and possibly with a foot in the future. “Not like the bones of parents / carried out in procession / from their dark vaginal tombs / among the rocks, / mummified skin stretched / and tanned in mockery of death.” The journey ends with a burst of confidence: “ancestor worship / is the only religion / truly compatible / with the fact /of evolution.” This is a foot projected in the future.
The great poet James Liddy, in his blurb of Ancestor Worship, declares Begnal’s latest collection “a journey or pilgrimage.” Liddy maintains Begnal takes us to a place where “no one has been quite there before, along the genealogy or amid the furniture.” I am in total agreement.
Freddy Johnston, in his review published on the Western Writers Centre site, delights in Begnal’s “remaking of language.” Johnston, a very gifted poet and writer, cited Begnal’s use of the phrase “gorted land” as a prime example of the poet’s ability to shift from English to Irish. Johnston explains “gort” is the Irish word for field and “gorta” the Irish for famine. This sonorous echo is Begnal’s wink to the polysemantic brilliance of Finnegans Wake.
Imagery, however, remains the predominate ingredient of Begnal’s collection. Mercilessly eidetic-eidocentric, if you will — Begnal’s saccadic eye turns the page into cinematic experience. This is especially true of his beautiful lament, “Montparnasse Cemetery”:
think of all the bridges on the Seine,
that melancholy snake,
men and women have jumped off,
in the green murk,
You can see the “insignificants” being swallowed by their own bile. Few poets are as adept at kinaesthetic image as Begnal. In fact, Ancestor Worship abounds with kinaesthetic magic: “Glass of the window / swims as you look / toward the Both Loiscthe bridge.”
As a Joycean, in particular a devotee of Finnegans Wake, Begnal submits:
There’s no present
just a continual becoming
All time in time and all space in space is the underlying theme of Finnegans Wake. So it’s no coincidence that in Ancestor Worship, a subtle work of genius, that magus Begnal succeeds in achieving a temporal-spacial perversion akin to Joyce’s Wake. Thus Galway and environs morphs into the streets of Prague, the royal botanical garden of Madrid, and “In the jet light of dusk tide” back to ancient Gaul and to the glorious defeat of the dying king of every Celt, Vercingetorix. (Liam Mac Sheóinín is a contributing and review editor for The Irish Edition and Abiko Quarterly. His first novel is forthcoming from Six Gallery Press. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Best New Writing Award in 2007.)
After joyously knocking my sconce against the formidable, lisible, scriptible Ancestor Worship, I have arrived at the conclusion that if poetry has produced another Heaney during our time, his name is Michael S. Begnal.
(Liam Mac Sheóinín is a contributing and review editor for The Irish Edition and Abiko Quarterly. His first novel is forthcoming from Six Gallery Press. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Best New Writing Award in 2007.)