It’s tough to pull off a book with “America” in the title. Just ask Rob Budde. His Declining America is brimming with acrobatics but it still doesn’t work. The feats he attempts are mostly of the sort you’d expect from a poet leaning towards the LANGUAGE school, with Gertrude Stein quotes and found poems predictably included.
That’s not to say there is nothing to admire about this collection. As with most poetry in this vein, there is the simple joy of witnessing language break free from its usual context and constraint, and there are the surprising, mysterious and often stunning lines that occur as a result. Some examples: “love is a semiotic sway;” “a swindle refusing lack;” “program digressing the hacked chlorophyll.” I could go on.
Beyond these vivid moments, however, the collection fails to impress. Embedded in its general incoherence is a boring polemical thread that ruins the possibility of using that incoherence to any admirable end. For sure, there is a subtle design to the madness, an attempt at making use of disorder. “This is what I mean,” Budde writes, “no/ place to rest.” The form, then, is following the content: because America has lost touch with reality, so must the poem. To that end, there is a motif involving codes being “broken” and a fear that “text as identification fails.”
But for all its effort, Declining America is far too simple. It is an astute critique but it lacks tension. The Author note claims that Budde was “born in America, but is working it out.” As with the book, it seems Budde is trying too hard to do so. It would have been more interesting if he’d identified with what he criticized. The book could’ve worked if he’d gotten off the soapbox and smelled the flowers. (Ted Nolan)
by Rob Budde, $18, 103 pgs, BookThug, 53 Ardagh St, Toronto, ON M6S 1Y4, bookthug.ca