‘How Many Camels Is Too Many?’ by Colette Sensier
-Reviewed by Éireann Lorsung–
There is an essay by the poet Adrienne Rich entitled “Tourism and Promised Lands” (it’s in her book What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics), in which Rich examines what she calls tourism in poetry. By ‘tourism’, Rich indicts the assumption underlying the use of the ‘exotic’ in metaphor and image: the poet observes, picks through, and makes use of parts of cultures other than her own as and when they are useful to her, without a deep engagement with or understanding of them. Poetic tourism, in Rich’s view, ignores the existence of other poets and other poetic traditions in favor of ‘decorating’ one’s own poems with “brilliantly colored flowers, fronds, views”. Those whose cultures are so appropriated by the white or Western poet become “abstract figures on a simplified ground”. The exotic is “that way of viewing a landscape, a people, a culture as escape from our carefully constructed selves, our ‘real’ lives”. Rich calls it “a trap for poets”. The exotic is a trap. Not only can it reduce otherness to decoration (a violence so thoroughly discussed I will not go into further detail here), it reduces otherwise strong poems to beautifully designed houses with MDF roofs. Unlike the hybrid—wherein there is a possibility for play within historical and present power structures, and for unpredictable intervention in authority—appropriation of the ‘exotic’ maintains power in one place—that of the active, observing poet.
In Colette Sensier’s pamphlet How Many Camels Is Too Many?, poetic tourism regrettably undermines some of the best poems. Take, for example, the marvellously constructed world of “We’ll meet again”, wherein the “total resurrection of the body” leads to the image of all the clipped fingernails of one’s life following one to Heaven like a very human comet-trail. The family life we’re given in this poem (the father biting the baby daughter’s nails and cutting her hair; the “cosmic butchers” where pints of blood wait to replenish lost organs; the grandfather’s hip “come running at the final call”) is unique and strange and believable, which is not necessarily to imply autobiographical, nor by any means to argue on its behalf. But the poem ends with the image of the grandfather being coated with his lost fingernails “like feathers on an Aztec eagle”. Why? Where does this come from, in the world of the poem? The use of the image feels like a bid for some kind of ‘authenticity’ in a poem which has already established a world that’s authentic to itself and on its own terms. The poems elsewhere in the pamphlet resort to similar images, which seem to come from outside their own structures and systems to add or create meaning; we find the god Shiva pushing “through the colour of the earth” in “In Praise of Light Pollution”, ostensibly in contrast to the “gods// of metal, shaped in endless, boring bombs” later in the poem, but the comparison only serves to idealise a god of elsewhere who is not boring, perhaps only because not familiar. Of course, Shiva’s depiction as destroyer might be pertinent (besides the bombs in the poem, there is also “dangerous smoke”, “burning”—but the image of “bonfires float[ing] before us, upside down” and the light “smiling in purple in red” imply fireworks rather than actual bombs). But the fact is that the god appears for a moment and then disappears; this is not a deep metaphor, not a sustained one. Later in the collection, in the poem “Cyclops”, the figure of “the Cyclops filtered down through history/ into an elephant growing smaller and smaller”, which is striking on its own terms, is complicated by a comparison, in the poem’s last line, to “Kumbhakarna in the Ramayana”. What necessitates this comparison? Perhaps the brief mention of India earlier in the poem. But I do not think that is enough to demand the image, or to demonstrate that it is more than an embellishment designed to make the poems seem worldly. In the end, the effect of these images is to reduce the reader’s confidence in the poems, or at least in their ability to make worlds sufficient to themselves.
Sensier is a young poet, and one who has already had quite a bit of recognition. This is lucky: she has time and some success on which to build. Her poems will benefit from the confidence and awareness she is sure to develop as she goes on. She clearly has an interest in big ideas—the Freudian comes up in “Toothlessness”; the biblical and mythological make several entries—and there are a few tentative but interesting formal gestures in this collection, notably in “Orpheus” and “Llama”. The strengths of How Many Camels Is Too Many? lie in Sensier’s imaginative images: the grandfather coated in his own lost fingernails, the sheep galloping over fields made of biblical books, desire as frog croaking uncontrollably (in “The Croak”; echoes of Emily Dickinson here, as well as of Wallace Steven’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”). If we can wait, we may be rewarded by the poet’s trust in these images and her ability to handle them.
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