Review of Electric Affinities

Electric Affinities

The cover of Michael Pacey’s Electric Affinities portrays two hands reaching to touch a lightbulb against the backdrop of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. “Light Bulb” examines some of the implications of this cover. The poem opens bluntly, and connects mind and matter, lightbulb and abstraction: “Icon of pure idea.” In his sensory grammar, Pacey emphasizes nouns and sounds, and often downplays verbs. We are further immersed in the phenomenology of this everyday object: “Screwed into a sphere of permanence / skin-thin, fragile as eggshell, yet suffused / with even light.” By inspecting the imagery surrounding an ordinary lightbulb, the poet imparts permanence to evanescence: “a Platonic corona identical / to the thinking mind’s delicate glow.” A penumbra connects the bulb to its immediate surroundings and to the broader implications of other minds. The word “identical” establishes identity for the object and relates it to its metaphoric potential. The poet illuminates the experience of what we take for granted. His rhythms complement the visual nature of the poem’s stanzas. Sentences begin emphatically and invitingly: “Say,” “Naked,” “Screw a few in just for fun,” and “Installation’s easy.” “Light Bulb (II)” opens with “Quick tweaks / of the wrist— / in series— .” “Light Bulb (III)” further highlights the writing process: “A string of metaphors / —in series—.” Pacey’s similitudes, two-handed dichotomies, and hum and drum of conundrums shine and flash in each poem: “Like and unlike rubbing together, / the kindred and the incongruous.”

Aside from domestic objects, Pacey’s poetics of space includes small details from nature, individual letters of the alphabet, and other writers such as Shakespeare and Tennyson. In “Nests” he juxtaposes “the oriole’s familiar metaphor — / the domestic scene hanging by a thread,” and concludes with witty bricolage: “gluey strings of words moved around, / the template inside; held in place, stuck with sweat, / with spit, to the sheer edge of a page.” . . . . Michael Pacey’s father, Desmond, who was also a writer, figures in his son’s “Escalator Down,” another domestic epic. For all their differences, Goodwin and Pacey share affinities in their affiliations. Pacey traces the letter “Y” as an old tree, a fork in the road, a river dividing and converging. “Y is always the meeting, / and Y / the parting ways.” Pacey’s phenomenological icons and Goodwin’s soldier-poets converge on the page in alternating currents of surprise and satisfaction.

— Michael Greenstein The Malahat Review

More Reviews of this title

Electric Affinities

A Modern Physical Poet

Electric Affinities, Michael Pacey. Signature Editions, 2015

In the course of writing these sixty-six short and 'shocking' poems Michael Pacey was clearly inhabited by the ghost of John Donne.

England's Renaissance Metaphysical poets (especially Donne) enjamed Platonic idealism Hegelian dialectic, Blakean synthesis and Joycean framentation (before Hegel, Blake and Joyce ever thought of such things). Idenctically, Pacey articulates in this slim but very weighty volume an alternating micro-macrocosmic world ("each cup holds one ocean") turned inside out and crazily illuminated by lightbulbs. These lightbulbs turn out to be a multitude of conflicting, self-identifying and ever-morphing 'Things' - the atomic or molecular structure of an internalized world that is domestic and surreal simultaneously. This is very much like Duns Scotus who saw at the core of every individual common thing in the universe a spark of the divine Light. (Pacey clearly knows the allegorical theologians of the Middle Ages: in one poem's title he references the twelfth-century encylopaedist, Bartholomew Angelicus). More than metaphors, then, al these metaphysical things are, in Pacey's case, the very substance of his experience transformed.
Although he states in I,

I'm writing a kind of
all the parts about me
cut out -
every I excised

every item in his poems synoptically or totally conceived is really a portion of Pacey's own body transfigured into 'soul.' Like Blake, he discovers that the fragmented world he inhabits is, in reality, himself. And one cannot read very far into this book of sinewy and witty verse without realizing that everything in it - carpenters' levels, hawks, handsaws, scissors, Apocalypse(s), Icarus, circuitry-synapses, soap, cocoons, the Dead Sea, Picasso, Pangea, Einstein, the shi of Japanese poetry, the letter K, stones, antique nails, cups and trees and especially "Glue" - is subsumed into the single Archetype of the Light Bulb (the title of the fist two poems in Electric Affinities) which goes on and off in Pacey's head.

Actually, an alternative title to this book could be "KIoMNY" six poems so named) in honour of the reductive vision which collapses an entire world into single 'lit up'letters of the alphabet. Only the best poets can do this supremely dialectical thing: translate matter into language - into word - while simultaneously fragmenting the world into letters.

Back to Duns Scotus for a oment - whose philosophy forms - along with Donne's - the ideological matrix of Pacey's poetry in Electtric Affinities. The poet who embodied Scotian elements in his verse par excellence was Gerard Manley Hopkins ("It will flame out like shining from shook foil"), and more than once Pacey's rhythms leap into the cataleptic stresses of Hopkins' sprung rhythm and shape out of the interior (illuminated) spaces of that poet's inscape:

Pillowstuffs: tufts of rabbit's-foot clover,
milkweed silk, and dandelion down combed
. . .
home - the only place a hummingbird's
unblurred, at rest.

Not only Hopkins but Yeats ("gong-tormented sea"), Eliot ("Against the World the unstilled world still whirled") and Joyce "Ineluctable modality of the visible") can occasionally be heard in Pacey's cadences. The best modern poets, of course, are not only eclectic but they downright steal. In doing this, as Eliot says, they "purify the language of the tribe," and I think certain reverberations in Electric Affinities are doing this.

Finally, there is the aphoristic, if not oracular, utterance that heralds the really mature poet: "Orthography is oligarchy" (Dictionary) and "Truth/is like a hammer/ A level is more like hope" (Spirit Levels).

What emerges the, in Electrif Affinities, is, as i said earlier, another - a modern - Metaphysical thinker: a disciplined poet in whose tightly reined-in form and content the vast multiplicity of the universe is re-written into a unique, witty and brilliantly rhetorical "Self."

— Allen Bentley The Fiddlehead

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