Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Daniel Ionita
ISBN 9781922332820, Paperback, June 22, 98pp
The poems in Daniel Ionita’s latest collection, Pentimento, are full of theatre, irony, absurdity and a kind of joy in the strange absurdity of life. The book is divided into three sections, “Faux Salvation”, “Words for You”, and “Swords of the Spirit”. The first is inwardly focused, with many reference to the self, pivoting around a first person narration that is such an odd combination of forthright and unreliable, it is almost abstract. This is immediately apparent in the opening poem “pig”:
I was a pig once
no pretence –
just simple, unostentatious piggery.
The final line suggests a literal interpretation, though the text that follows makes clear that the work should not be taken either literally or purely metaphorically. The humour that runs through these sections is not so much funny ha-ha, but Beckettian and sharp, eviscerating the self at the heart of these poems. This personae might be a dictator (responding to the human resource department), saviour of the world (supported by a cleansing hedgehog), a voyaging Ulysses between Scylla and Charybdis (drawn by the Lorelei’s siren song), a self-proclaimed ‘pervert of the dead’, an exile, a suicidal flaneur, a know-it-all, or a gladiator of life. Nothing can be taken at face value and even the most overt homage (“Brian taught me everything”) refutes itself (“Brian didn’t have a clue.”). There is a confessional feel about this section but the poems always resist the easy interpretation, flaring out into the absurd, or conversely, the scientific, such as “by chance”, which unpacks a multiverse:
A consequence of a mystical encounter,
Involving all my probable parents in culpable fashion. (“by chance”)
The “Words for you” section is also humorous and irreverent but has a more ephemeral, surreal quality. The subjective and objective move in and out of view: “I will be home, or maybe not”; “You were beside me but I saw you less and less.” In a dream state, a hospital is superimposed on a brothel and people fly through the universe: “the clouds of my galaxy chime like a psalm.”
One key theme that runs throughout the book is the way time accretes in layers, building upon itself in opposition to the entropy of the moment. The book’s title poem picks that theme up nicely. The term pentimento refers to a painting technique, and Ionita plays with the different nuances of the word, exploring the way a ghost of a painting (or of a remembered relationship) lies below what is visible, as layers: the past influencing the present:
I still breath your watercolor.
Love and Death – those horny monsters –
Kiss me –
In this lugubrious menage a trois.
I am licked by a rain
With insane shapes, as if by drawn by Dali. (“pentimento”)
The unreliability and shifts in tone and setting can be unsettling and sometimes a bit risqué, but the work is never without an accessible warmth that invites the reader to play along. Contrasting with the dream-like and surreal imagery is a more consistent structure. There’s a formal, classical quality to the work in this section, with a number of the poems written in iambic pentameter, with rhyming sonnet styled quatrains that conjure Shakespeare (sometimes directly). For example:
I’ll wait till the evening at the pub down the lane
That is crowded with people made of flesh and of bone
Leave stuffy old Louvres to quibble and moan
And we’ll dance in the sunshine and run in the rain. (“Mona Lisa”)
Mythology and ekphrasis weave their way through the works, along with rhythms that employ a somnolent repetition:
snowing on the blossom, mournful in the clay
snowing through my winter, idle to depart
snowing while you dream and snowing while I pray
snowing on the anguish bludgeoning my heart (“snowing”)
Part three, “Swords of the spirit” is the shortest section in the collection and has a metapoetic cast. Many of the poems play with the notion of what it means to be a poet or the poetry-making process. The same distinctive sense of humour is in play here: “After I finished one hundred lascivious poems,/I gouged out my eye.” There is a lonely, god-like quality to this section that skirts between the devout and the blasphemous:
Only your pierced hand reaches out to me
every now and then
to caress my forehead. (“this cup”)
There are angels, demons, Death with a capital D, a plot against Santa Claus, and potato salad, all playing off one another with exuberance. Though occasionally confronting, Pentimento is a charming, inventive, smart and slightly audacious collection that will delight all but the most squeamish readers.