When Dennis Lee first published Civil Elegies in 1968, he poeticized civic engagement with immediacy and prognostic savvy. Forty-two years later, Jon Paul Fiorentino tackles a radically changed Canadian landscape with his own brand of elegiac verse in Indexical Elegies. Like Lee, Fiorentino is concerned with place — in his case Montreal and Winnipeg as opposed to Lee’s Toronto — however Fiorentino’s verse casts its net inwards to capture the geography of self. This is a poetry of civic disengagement — for all its geographical references, Indexical Elegies rarely looks beyond “[a]n adjacent / room from which to watch”.
The book’s centerpiece is a sequence of poems dedicated to the late Robert Allen, and informed by the work of Charles Sanders Pierce. Fiorentino mixes pragmatics, puns and playful humour over 25 fragments that deal with Allen’s death from a variety of vantage points. Take Fiorentino’s wit, which can often be encapsulated in short lines such as “home is where the chart is,” “Stash pain / in a volume of poetry // Where no one could possibly / find it” or “Send in the nouns.” It’s here that Fiorentino is at his best, and gives the elegiac mode a refreshing update with levity in response to grief. His candid commentary, which even includes a letter to Allen about stashing expensive whisky at his wake, reveals an uncommon tenderness in the author’s relationship with his subject.
Unfortunately, Indexical Elegies is a mixed offering. When Fiorentino strains for depth of meaning, his poems often deal in cliché and result in lines such as “Went to sleep without / him // Tried to dream him / back” or “Dust gathers / librarians dust // He’s dead.” In fact, many of the themes explored in Indexical Elegies — technological advancement, post-prairie politics, the loser class and even serial killer Earle Nelson – were covered by Fiorentino in past books.
While Fiorentino does attempt to break new ground by infusing Indexical Elegies with theory derived from Pierce’s semiotics of “the index,” these moments often interrupt his poetry, creating a gulf between music and meaning. Take, for example, the following lines, “Indices and indexicals indicate the direction // Icons bore us to death // Insofar as we can see” – alliterative to be sure, but hardly cohesive. Fiorentino is better when he keeps things light as he does in “Dying in Winnipeg” when he confesses: “But listen, there’s a show tonight / at the legion hall // And I have half a liver left and / a hatchback with a quarter tank // I’m not hard to be had”. (Jim Johnstone)
Jon Paul Fiorentino, 80 pgs, Coach House Books, chbooks.com, $16.95