Reviewed by Joel Deshaye
From Room to Room. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2011
From Room to Room is one of the latest books to expand the Laurier Poetry Series at Wilfrid Laurier University Press, and like some of the others in the series it could help to renew interest in a poet whose work does not circulate as widely as it once did. Although one poem by Eli Mandel appears in the anthology In Fine Form (2005), his poetry is entirely excluded from recent nation-wide anthologies of Canadian literature. Mandel himself was an important anthologist of the 1960s, and he was prominent in the late 1960s as a Governor General’s Award-winning poet and one of Irving Layton’s first serious critics. While Mandel was alive, he authored or co-authored seven books of new poetry, spanning 27 years of his life. His work relates to, and helps to explain, the mythopoeia of writers who were his contemporaries, such as Jay Macpherson and Margaret Atwood. He was also a good poet. Peter Webb, the editor of From Room to Room (and, I should add, a colleague of mine), deserves congratulations for returning Mandel to our attention. Webb’s selection of Mandel’s poetry is judicious and neatly edited, and it is a significant contribution to the well-designed books in this series.
The compression of the book—only 56 pages of poetry—is revealing, but not of any lack of material. The slim volumes in the Laurier Poetry Series are intended to give whirlwind tours. From Room to Room chronologically represents Mandel’s poetry. Readers therefore move quickly through time and can observe the development of his poetics. Beginning with the six-part “Minotaur Poems” and others such as “In the Caves of My City,” we get his relatively formalist early style, his self-mythologizing, and various references to Greek myths. Ironically, as he grew more learned, his poems became less dependent on potentially challenging allusiveness and relied instead on knowledge of more contemporary events, such as the Holocaust. His treatment of his subjects tends to be pessimistic, though his style is impersonal, and his gradually increasing but not quite radical experimentation infuses the book with a sense of vitality. As a result, it never becomes a slog, despite its thematic weight.
A representative poem, if one can be found in a varied selection, is “The Meaning of the I CHING.” The speaker does not even seem to open the I Ching, which is also known in the West as the Book of Changes, and so Mandel implies that he has no intention of offering a prosaic explanation of that classic text. Describing the book initially, Mandel writes:
He indirectly answers his own question with a metaphor, which is a trope he sometimes considers both in his scholarship and in the poetry of From Room to Room. As “The Meaning of the I CHING” moves from section to section, it implies that the speaker is undergoing change. Ultimately, the speaker seems to become the I Ching:
These last two lines express the metaphor: “one becomes another.” Pessimistically but also romantically associating this change with madness as poets often do, Mandel mythologizes himself as a holy book whose message cannot be contained and must be experienced in the religious context of “the temple.” As a vessel or mythic figure of “the ancient dead,” he associates himself with Chinese monks and perhaps also with Jewish religious scholars of a bygone era. His modernist inclinations are evident as he tries to revive or recontextualize other cultures and the past without offering any simplistic meanings.
Webb’s introduction to From Room to Room honours Mandel’s apparent desire not to be “contain[ed].” Webb briefly considers several of Mandel’s geographical, social, and biographical contexts, the critical reception of his poetry, some of the many allusions in his poems, and how his education, heritage, and wartime experience affected his thinking about art and culture. All this is done well and without prescriptiveness, as befits an introduction. The afterword by Andrew Stubbs is comparatively decisive and interpretive. Stubbs argues that Mandel’s “mythology floats above, and masks, an existential post-Holocaust void” (57), which is to me a subtly insightful and even moving comment on Mandel’s work. From Room to Room is a good book for any new reader of Mandel—and, for his already familiar readers, a welcome reminder of his significance.
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At press time: Joel Deshaye is an assistant professor at Memorial University. His articles and reviews have appeared in various Canadian and international journals. He is the author of The Metaphor of Celebrity: Canadian Poetry and the Public, 1955-1980 (2013)