The question is asked all the time, usually in unpoetic moments; it’s an occupational hazard of teaching literature. There I’ll be at the clinic, sinuses on fire, when sure enough the doctor asks, “What’s your favourite book?” My practised answer, no hemming and hawing, is Moby-Dick. Everyone’s heard of it, and it sounds reassuringly substantial. (No one wants to hear a professor say Twilight.) “Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience,” I’ll mumble to myself as I walk out with my prescription.
So I was predisposed to enjoy Jason Guriel’s The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles, which starts with an epigraph from Melville: “I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world.” That last phrase sets the stage for Guriel’s whalers, whose world is wolfish indeed. They are, after all, werewolves:
But nighttime suited whaling; sperm whales kept
Their heads below the surface while they slept
For spells from dusk til midnight. Werewolf eyes
Could sift the night like netting — analyzing
Waves for sperm whales floating vertically —
Which made the wolf a natural enemy.
Ah — and suddenly we have travelled a long way from Nantucket.
In 2020, Guriel published a novel in verse called Forgotten Work. Describing its unusual plot is a task best left to the marketing copy: “In the year 2063, on the edge of the Crater formerly known as Montréal, a middle-aged man and his ex’s daughter search for a cult hero: the leader of a short-lived band named after a forgotten work of poetry and known to fans through a forgotten work of music criticism. . . . Some things change (there’s metamorphic smart print for music mags; the Web is called the ‘Zuck’). Some things don’t (poetry readings are still, mostly, terrible).”
Anyone looking for reasons to skip the book will find ample excuse. The hyperspecificity of Guriel’s fixation on poetry and criticism, the dad jokes, the veneration of obscurity: all of this could be off-putting. Appreciating Forgotten Work requires having opinions about the Canadian poets Peter Van Toorn and Daryl Hine, the band Slint, the film critic Anthony Lane, early Joyce and late — or at least recognizing how convictions about art and artists, and arguments about them, shape the identities of connoisseurs. As the publisher proclaims, “It’s a love story about fandom, an ode to music snobs.” (A cynic might submit that for these fans and snobs, taste is a substitute for personality.) Did I mention that Forgotten Work is written in rhyming couplets? In terms of readership, the novel in verse is less a niche interest than an abyss.
Yet Guriel’s book was received with surprising enthusiasm, garnering mention in the New York Times and kind words from reviewers here and there. One of them ranked it among the year’s best books of Canadian poetry. (Reader, it was me.) Three years later, Guriel has published The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles, a companion to Forgotten Work. Again I defer to the marketers: “It’s 2070. Newfoundland has vanished, Tokyo is a new Venice, and many people have retreated to ‘bonsai housing’: hives that compress matter in a world that’s losing ground to rising tides. Enter Kaye, an English literature student searching for the reclusive author of a YA classic — a beloved novel about teenage werewolves sailing to a fabled sea monster’s nest. Kaye’s quest will intersect with obsessive fan subcultures, corporate conspiracies, flying gondolas, an anthropomorphic stove, and the molecular limits of reality itself.”
Guriel’s other recent book, last year’s ultra-nostalgic On Browsing, helps explain all this searching and questing for lost works of art and their lionized creators. He has a fondness for the analogue world and little time for the algorithms that suggest with utter efficiency our next online purchases, monitoring and determining our preferences. Yet what is a heroic couplet but a type of algorithm, a set of rules for ordering sound and sense? Guriel is dedicated to the seemingly anachronistic form. The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles is some 170 pages longer than Forgotten Work. That’s a lot of additional couplets.
The poet Carmine Starnino has praised The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles as an “adventure story,” one “so immersive you forget the damn thing unfolds in flawless rhyme.” Starnino happens to appear in the book; for Guriel, no joke is too in. Regardless, I agree. It didn’t take long for me to stop noticing — almost — that the novel, like its predecessor, is written in verse. The narrative moves swiftly enough, and the gags are sufficiently amusing, that the formal oddity recedes into the background. (The form is peculiar only from a contemporary perspective. The eighteenth century wouldn’t have lifted an eyebrow. Or the nineteenth: even though its ottava rima is not a perfect match for Guriel’s couplets, Byron’s satirical Don Juan is an obvious point of reference.)
But getting used to the “flawless rhyme” raises the question of the couplets’ purpose. If readers assimilate the style and read the novels simply as novels, then why did Guriel bother with verse instead of prose? Why embark upon such an idiosyncratic task, especially one that on the face of it seems so difficult? In The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles, a couplet whose lines end with “look” and “book” is followed two pages later by one whose lines end with “book” and “look.” It’s impossible to be consistently clever over nearly 400 pages, which makes even more obvious the ingenuity required to offer a rhyme of “Windex” and “index” without straining plausibility.
Were the couplets merely a private amusement for a writer who relishes the technical challenge? If true, that might be answer enough, but I think there’s more to it than self-indulgence. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Most poetry in Canada falls within a narrow band of aesthetic possibilities. It is overwhelmingly lyric, as opposed to narrative, and virtually all poets write some form of free verse. The scope of topics is limited. In our introspective age, the primary subject is the self in all its manifestations.
I don’t mean to be dismissive: the free-verse lyric is not diminished simply because it is ubiquitous. My point is that as an author of metrical, narrative, speculative, satirical poetry — et cetera — Guriel has distanced himself from the mainstream. His books are fundamentally about obsession and obsessives — not the monomania of Melville’s Ahab, but something closer to home — and the couplets enact the antiquarian passions that the novels take as their theme. Forgotten Work and The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles will probably share the fate of the cultural products to which they and their characters are devoted: that is, they will be loved by aficionados and overlooked by everyone else. Would Guriel be delighted if his books sold three million copies? I’m sure his publisher would be. But he has set himself the more realistic goal of cult success. Turning away from the allure of mass appeal, the novels propose that devotion is reward enough for creators and consumers alike. The poet, like his sailors, sets his own course:
Soon, the ship had gobbled up its line.
The whalers with the know-how and the spine
Would work the sails. The wolves with twenty-twenty
Vision held harpoons. The cognoscenti,
Puffing pipes belowdecks, held the store
Of tall tales. (These wolves, bards, saw little gore.
They mostly sat and sang.) The “windward fang,”
The phrase a curio of whaling slang,
Consisted of a couple wolves with tough,
Elastic lungs. They’d mount raised platforms, huff
And puff, and blow out all the wind required
To propel the ship where they desired.
“I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me.” That passage appears in a remarkable chapter of Moby-Dick called “A Bosom Friend,” in which the narrator, Ishmael, comes to terms with Queequeg, who will later serve as a harpooneer aboard the Pequod. It concludes with a memorable image: “There is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg — a cosy, loving pair.” The “melting” that Ishmael feels a few paragraphs before is due to Queequeg’s magnetism; he is, in an unparalleled expression, “George Washington cannibalistically developed.” In their post-apocalyptic world, Guriel’s characters are likewise desperate to combat their isolation, to find connection and intimacy. Despite new technology and old —“smarteyes,” “dumbprint,” “fleshtech,” “exogarbage,” “pixiepaper,” “eyemail”— they seek human contact, frequently turning to cultural artifacts in which the human touch is tangible. The novels recommend, almost incessantly, music and literature to which characters and readers might turn in search of an algorithm-defying experience. There is always more to learn, happenstance a superior teacher, as in The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles:
Poe’s customers dropped names that made Cat frown,
Cult poets she’d not heard of: Daniel Brown,
Bruce Taylor, A. E. Stallings, Christian Wiman,
David Yezzi, Vikram Seth, Kay Ryan.
These names are a source of humour. Wiman’s endorsement appears on the back of Forgotten Work. An excerpt of Brown’s favourable review of that novel graces the second page of The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles. Seth’s The Golden Gate is a novel in verse from 1986. Guriel is a witty, unapologetic name-dropper, but he proffers a hand to the reader, saying that you too could be an insider who understands why “Scott Walker” just has to be rhymed with “Jarvis Cocker.”
Guriel is plainly a talented versifier. Silly, unabashedly committed to charming their audience, his novels are works of whimsy that make no great pronouncement about our world. Does a burning planet need such follies? That’s the wrong question. His yarns are testaments to the value of l’art pour l’art even in troubled times. Not all art is of a piece, of course, and writers engagés and otherwise engaged find their respective niches in the cultural ecosystem. If Guriel seems to be pulling our collective leg or even wasting our time — not that we mind — such is one function of art. His books are not good for us, although they do drive off the spleen. Instead they’re diversions, entertainments, a very specific type of fun. And that is all ye need to know.
Nicholas Bradley teaches in the Department of English at the University of Victoria. His latest poetry collection is Before Combustion.