Tuesday, 24 June 2014

An Abundance of Absence: A review of Enjoy Oblivion by Wolfgang Carstens

Fathers are something we all have to put up with. If that sounds like a jaundiced and cynical statement, it is.

Personal experience has shown me that the ideal of family life as presented by many people is an empty sham, a prison you can never ever really escape from, however much you try.

From reading 'Enjoy Oblivion' (Concrete Meat Press, 2014), the latest work by Canadian polymath Wolfgang Carstens, it seems that there are far more people than just me who feel that way.

Although I might confess to more ambiguous feelings on the matter than Carstens, whose brutally short poems are like hilarious jokes at which no one can actually laugh.

This book is a concise memoir of pain and resentment. The poems are chopped into the page, and possess the pithy gravitas of cemetery elegies. Forgiveness is an empty sham, unconditional love another trick played by an uncaring parent, looking for excuses. Although, by the end of the book, one senses that even looking for excuses, by either father or son, had become more than a little boring.

The poems which deal with the actual death of the speaker's father are perhaps the most brutally poignant. Carstens uses very short lines, sometimes only one word, creating poems out of simple statements of emotional fact.

These are poems of negative space, of experience defined by an abundance of absence.

Father's Day is celebrated by the simple act of "taking Mom/out for dinner." All the speaker of the poems needs to know about his father's character is that he was never there: "All I know,/ or need/ to know/is that/you/died/at/11/am."

The sparse line structure deconstructs the childhood pain into a searing absence of love, the giant space which is never filled, however much you wish it was.

The poems are accompanied by a series of drawings by Swedish artist Janne Karlsson, which are unsettling and charming in equal measure.The figures displayed possess at first a puerile cartoonishness which obscures their profundity.

Look more closely, and you can see the empty spaces that bad parenting leaves. The aches, the loneliness and the sheer wondering at what you have to do to be in any way validated by a father who is just not interested in anything you have to offer the world.

'Enjoy Oblivion' is not a difficult book to read, but do not let that deceive you about its depth. There is despair and alienation here in abundance, and a sense of  absurd waiting that often evokes Beckett, amongst others.

This is humour without the smile, stand-up without the braying laughs, and poetry without pretension. Its brevity may not be to everyone's taste, but no one should underestimate the punch that lies behind these choppy, punky poems.

Enjoy Oblivion, I certainly did. But it was enjoyment springing from a recognition of truth. There are no belly laughs here. Accuracy and gravity characterise this collection, with lines delivered as by a gravestone chisel on stone.

'Enjoy Oblivion' is available from Concrete Meat Press soon.


 Zack Wilson is the author of  'Stumbles and Half Slips', published by Epic Rites Press. Find them on Facebook and Twitter too.

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