Steven Artelle – Four Hundred Rabbits
2013, AngelHouse Press (50 copies)
17 pages, $5 (Buy Online)
It’s human nature to understand the physical world in its objects and abstractions on human terms; how a power outlet looks like a surprised face, how an unexpected wind seems capricious. It was simply easier for pre-scientific cultures to understand concepts like luck and disease and rain as the product of gods, not-quite-knowable beings who were at least familiar enough to seem relatable. If more recently we have accepted science’s rational depersonalization of our environment, what has become of our innate urge to anthropomorphize?
And if those suddenly unemployed gods of wine and weather and war were real, what would they be doing with themselves now?
Steven Artelle‘s recent work, including his chapbooks Chinatown Zodiac and Four Hundred Rabbits as well as his upcoming trade collection Metropantheon, has been concerned with these questions. Four Hundred Rabbits is a long poem based on the Aztec myth of the Centzon Totochtin (literally “four-hundred rabbits”), a husk of hard partying hares who represent drunkenness. (As mythological explanations for the feeling of being sozzled go, it’s a solid one.) Unfortunately for the rabbits, as the poem opens their party is just coming to an end, thanks to the egress of the Spanish and their imposition of Western spiritual and scientific values:
“the lights came on at the end of the Aztec party
one moment breeding and beautiful, all four hundred
divine rabbits of drunken revelry sobered up
as the sound of their civilization’s desperate chairs
scraped the floor, upended onto history’s table
and pointed legs skyward like eight hundred startled ears”
From there, Artelle has a great deal of fun tracking the scattered bunny-gods as they hop through interconnected warrens of idiom (“one filthy creature became a deity of dust”), corporate logos (“one cottontail made a fortune in high-end soft porn”) and even the religion which usurped them (“one rabbit became a chocolatier for Jesus”). Throughout, there’s an implicit commentary about how technology and mass culture have moved into the spaces once reserved for the divine. The forces which govern our existence remain as inhuman as they were in our ancestors’ times; with the advent of global capitalism, they could now be characterized as inhumane as well. We’ve thrown out our gods, yet fundamentally impersonal governments and corporations insinuate themselves into our lives through the construction of brand “identities,” curated to give the impression they have relatable personalities. We have not changed so much, then; if the world’s holding two fingers behind your head while it robs you, I still see the bunny ears.
I have mixed feelings about the decision to approach Four Hundred Rabbits as a long poem. The writing itself is inspired, moving with aplomb between moments of ribald comedy, surprising sweetness and even, at times, a gloomy, lyrical grandeur befitting deities unceremoniously cast down from their heavens. That said, the tonal transitions are not always smooth. The repetitive, list-like structure of the poem tends to encourage reading with a kind of rhythmic forward motion (a la, say, “Howl”), and the narrative opening lines create an expectation of “plot” that never quite develops. After a few pages that initial energy dissipates and the reader loses a sense of the motion of the poem as a whole, where it is going. It seems as though the poem is composed of many small poem-scraps which take the divine rabbit idea as a starting point and proceed in different directions; in the context of a long poem, some of the smallest fragments lose their pithiness, while the infrequent gestures toward a greater narrative can be confusing (is this rabbit the same one who was chasing the muse before? am I missing the story here?).
Overall though, Four Hundred Rabbits is a fine piece of work with something to recommend paying cover on every page, and AngelHouse has done a lovely job with its design; the paper itself is a pleasure to turn. I saw Artelle at the ottawater launch this past January, one of the first Ottawa literary events I attended, and his reading from an early draft of this book was one that really stuck with me from that night. I’m glad to own a copy.
Check out an interview with Steven Artelle on CKCU’s Literary Landscapes with Pearl Pirie here.