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Norm Sibum

Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1990. 72pp, paper, ISBN 0-88750-831-6 (paper) $10.95, ISBN 0-88750-830-8 (cloth) $21.95. CIP

Reviewed by L. Maingon.

Volume 19 Number 5
1991 October

Sibum's latest volume of poetry is an eclectic collection of poems on literary ennui. One cannot simply say "bore­dom" because it would be out of keeping with the Rilkean fin de siecle modernist aspirations of this poetry. The thematics and aesthetics of this poetry pose numerous problems structured around a tendency to needless artificial complication. One senses that the poet does not have a complete grasp of his contradictions.

A good part of this collection focuses on the East-European obsession with High Culture and with the exile's longing for pre-war European hieratic civilization in America. Sibum plays on the irretrievability of culture. There is therefore in this collection a Poundian sense of the death of civilization, and alienation from the indigenous roots of North American culture. Amidst the references to Jacob Burckhardt and Rilke, one finds that Sibum takes an urbane stance that parallels the very emptiness he criticizes. As a result, the reader is left with a feeling that the poet is a parody of modernist anxiety, as expressed in the third stanza of "Flor­ence." Poetic expression comes through a heavy, almost suffocating literary filter and yet laments the self-imposed rarefied atmosphere.

The step Sibum is unwilling to take is to relinquish what George Santayana called in 1913 "the egocentricity of the genteel tradition in America." Sibum's obsession with urban life in America as the vestige of European tradition, considered to be the only true civiliza­tion, rings as hollow as the myth of anthropocentricity. Sibum's poetry is simply out of step with its North American context, as are the grotesque post-modern aesthetics of western civilization in America.

Sibum has good moments in which he skirts the issue in question gracefully, as in "Abraham's Bemusement." In this poem one senses that Sibum is aware of the historical foundations of the prob­lem within its European modernist limitations, but he does not transcend the context. The repeated implication that life is a chaos is approached within the limitations of an idealist metaphys­ics of culture. The step from this to a recognition of the arbitrariness of culture as a sign system that constitutes social and cultural meaning is not taken, because of the poet's nostalgic attach­ment to hierarchic myths of High Culture.

This regrettable limitation makes this otherwise finely printed book an ephemeral testimony to a belated modernist pose in Vancouver.

L. Maingon, University of Western Ontario, London, Ont.
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