Review: Eunoia by Christian Bök
Madcap poetry collection Eunoia by Christian Bök, a Canadian experimental poet, is a major linguistic achievement. Published in 2001, it took him seven years to write and was (eventually) a bestseller in both Canada (where it won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize) and the UK, where it made it onto the list of The Times’ top ten books of 2008. “Eunoia,” which literally means “beautiful thinking,” is the shortest English word that uses all five vowels, and hints that these poems will indeed do wild but impressive things with vowels. Bök was undoubtedly inspired by the Oulipo (l’Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a French writers’ group that plays around with various types of linguistic constraint. The most famous Oulipo member was Georges Perec, whose 1969 novel La Disparition (“The Disappearance”) is a lipogram that completely avoids the letter “e” across its more than 300 pages.
Whereas Perec excluded one vowel, Bök excludes all but one in each of his sections. To have written even one single-vowel poem (called a univocalic, or a univocal lipogram) would have been a noteworthy accomplishment for Bök; to have written an entire book full of strange, lyrical poetry cycles that only employ one vowel at a time is stunning. Until I read the afterword to this peculiar little work of genius, I didn’t realize that Bök set himself even more stringent criteria: each poem cycle had to include a seduction scene, a sea voyage, a banquet, and what he calls a “pastoral tableau,” and would ideally showcase every word that only contains that one vowel.
It is particularly fascinating to examine the distinctive characteristics produced by each vowel. To begin with, “A” is Oriental and exotic. It relies entirely on the present tense (of course, there are hardly any past participles that can be formed without -ed); the most popular verbs are “can,” “has,” and “ask.” Assonance and alliteration are inevitable and add to the pleasing aural rhythm. Apart from the occasional half-cheating words (alternate or archaic spellings) and some Dr. Seuss silliness (e.g. “A lass as sad as a swan twangs a glass harp”), this is an enchanting start. There is even a mostly plausible storyline (possibly based on the Mahabharata?) with a main character named Hassan. Here’s an extra taste of the bizarre poetry that results: “A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.”
“E” immediately feels more ‘normal’: it has a natural, fluid shift of tenses – past and present, at least – and what feels like a more expansive vocabulary. It lends itself more easily to native English words, as well as to French and German borrowings. Its Eurocentric lexicon tells the story of Helen and the Trojan horse from Homer’s Iliad. Luckily, pronouns make this complex story possible: ‘me,’ ‘he,’ ‘she,’ and ‘we’ are all permissible once again.
“I” is the second shortest sequence and, as it conveniently is also the first-person singular pronoun, has a pre-determined first-person narrator. It is thus the most self-referential of the poems, often speaking of the poet’s “inhibiting” task, and relies chiefly on present tense verbs and participles ending with -ing.
“O” dwells on books and words, as well as God, orthodoxy and monks. But it would be wrong to assume that it has only cerebral concerns. Although “O” seems to be the least themed of the poems – there is no real attempt at a continuous storyline – it is also the most varied. It seems to lend itself equally well to food, ships, weather, and pornography. It is truly astonishing that Bök manages to work eroticism, journeys, battles and markets into each chapter, but each time with an entirely new set of words at his disposal. Like “A,” it has the occasional dip into Dr. Seuss-ish silliness (“shoo, moth, shoo”). It also seems the most onomatopoeic of the poems, with exclamations and nonsense words that arise from the vowel’s sound quality. The alternation of short and long ‘o’ sounds makes the language by turns brisk and soporific. More than any of the other letters, this one will make you wonder to what extent form (here, letter choice) determines content.
“U” is the shortest section, and therefore the least like a proper narrative; it is also, unsurprisingly, rather obscene, with two of the most foul words in the English language on prominent display!
It is beyond impressive that all these univocal words Bök gleaned from his five exhaustive readings of the dictionary resulted in coherent – and frequently beautiful – story-poems. Random conglomerations of cherry-picked words should not be expected to produce sense, let alone poetry. I stand in awe of his linguistic genius.