An Epic Poem Wanting Ambition

'The Sri Lankan Loxodrome' by Will Alexander (New Directions)

“Repetition as de-existence / as condoned & re-spun vapour / which continues to post-exist / as mirages across an ark / as lucid underwater scent.” Thus begins “The Bedouin Ark,” the opening poem in Will Alexander’s new collection of poetic monologues. It is not a propitious start: the combined effect of “de-existence” and “post-exist” in this context is one of self-conscious jargonizing. “Ark” is one of five shorter poems that serve in this context as an introduction to the title poem, which at some 70 pages could be described as an attempt to resurrect the genre of the poetic epic. The shorter works are slight and awkward; Alexander’s fulsome imagery is suffocating in the absence of meaning. It is only in “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome” that he creates a thematic and narrative canvas vast enough to contain his ambition. The result, however, is decidedly odd.

Alexander is in the midst of a love affair with his thesaurus that is torrid enough to rival John Banville or Salman Rushdie. “Gravid,” “photopic,” “calcareous,” “neurasthenia”: there is no shortage of ten-dollar words in this book, which can read at times like a combination of medical dictionary and arcane nautical treatise. Alexander provides a glossary at the end, but this covers only the most obscure and technical areas of his vocabulary. As overbearing and unnecessary as his lexical tendencies can be, if they’re at home anywhere, it’s in the narrative monologue of a Sri Lankan sailor, Loxodrome, “whose commission is to de-poison sea snakes / to somehow bottle their arteries in clouds... [his] command / to capture them as beasts / whose colour is aurulent and xanthic.” Throughout, the atmosphere is ethereal; yet the narrator’s fantastical adventures and dream-like reflections are more artificial than inspired, more plodding than lyrical.

Alexander’s inspiration seems to be culled as much from the natural beauty of Sri Lanka as the sufferings of its people, who have endured 26 years of civil war. As an African American writer in the tradition of Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, Alexander sometimes goes astray in his characterization of the post-colonial experience, misguidedly evoking a universalized disposition in Africa as in South Asia. He transposes this affinity onto his narrator, who makes the reverse gesture: “I am Mahayana & of Africa / both Sri Lankan & non-Sri Lankan.” Alexander’s uncomplicated humanism is filled with such platitudes.

This is, of course, ostensibly a poem, not a sociological treatise. At several places in the poem, however, Alexander’s narrator allows politics—Sri Lanka’s historical tragedies—to enter and tarnish his otherwise halcyon vision of the Indian Ocean. Thus, while the sailor is “a wanderer in a zone of fluctuating kelvins,” he has “been reported as expired at Jaffna,” the largest city in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil north-east and the epicenter of its civil war, and “burned in effigy for interminable wanderings.” Alexander knows well enough that it would be near-impossible to write affectingly of Sri Lanka without acknowledging its civil war. Too often, however, this is done in a token and evasive fashion. When the narrator says that he is “neither Sinhalese nor Tamil... a ghost from Esta Rieglio,” in a country where the binary distinction between Tamil and Sinhalese is all-encompassing, it is politically naïve.

As the text plods on, the poem collapses under the weight of its interminable references. The writing is always dense, but seldom beautiful. The polysyllabic scientific terms, forgotten place names, and global cultural figures with which Alexander litters his opus ensure that the poetry is characterized by mechanical coldness, not joy or pathos. At one point, the narrator describes himself as “stunningly wrought powerless by my sudden lexical commingling.” It is a moment of wonderfully unintentional irony.

In his novel “Pnin,” Vladimir Nabokov—no stranger to “lexical commingling”—persistently described the title character in a series of epithets (“polite Pnin,” “brave Pnin” etc). Alexander’s narrator has a similar obsession for self-characterization. “Subnormal,” “heteromorphic,” “perpetual like Assyrian cups,” “not like Odysseus” or Vasco da Gama, but rather “Egyptian or Phoenician,” he thuds and thunders.

Too often, however, he writes in a voice so chronically self-indulgent that by the end of this monumental poem even its most grandiose aural gestures are reduced to ambient noise. Alexander has chosen a deeply unusual setting for his epic: both Sri Lanka and old-fashioned nautical adventuring are idiosyncratic interests for an American poet. The island, despite its physical loveliness and tragic recent history, is yet to inspire a fitting work of poetry or prose, and for all its ambition, “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome,” does not do justice to its subject.

—Staff writer Keshava D. Guha can be reached at kdguha@fas.harvard.edu.

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