Cock-a-doodle dada

A father figure of prose poetry returns

Since his first book, 1964's The Very Thing That Happens, Russell Edson has been writing poems that, for lack of a better term, can only be described as Edsonesque. His read like fractured fables, resonating the way that riddles sometimes do. Call them parables, fairy tales, prose poems, flash-flash fictions — it makes no difference. They are the work of a literary artist who does with words what no other writer has done before.

In his ninth full-length book of poems, Edson is the rooster whose song awakens the reader into a new way of seeing, a way of seeing that blurs the lines of what a poem is.

This species doesn't even look like poetry. These poems aren't thoughts broken and shaped into lines, nor do they conform to the neat and tidy box-shapes that most prose poems seem to fit inside. In the years since Edson has made his mark, there have been plenty of major poets out there, from Charles Simic to James Tate, who have been guilty of falling under his spell. Simic's book of prose poems, The World Doesn't End, won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry back in 1990 and caused quite a stir among traditional line poets, many of whom claimed that this was a book of prose, not poetry — that even the phrase, prose poetry, was an offensive oxymoron. Simic himself would be the first to admit that Edson is a father figure whose work gave him permission to expand the horizontal horizons of what a poem is and what it can do and be, an invitation to not only break rules but to create new ones for others to break.

Edson's work is childlike too, in that humans do not rule the roost of the dreamy landscapes he evokes. Animals of all types, from roosters to monkeys to pigs and rats, play principal parts.

In the ironically titled poem "The Fascination," a rat tries to fornicate with an old woman, "to fit its tail into an old woman to keep it from being stepped on," an act that turns out not to be at all fascinating because, as the husband points out, "it is too biological."

Edson's gift, the source of his singularity, is his willingness to let invention take over the composition, to let the situations themselves, as silly as they most often can be, create their own rules of logic. In a Russell Edson poem, everything is possible, and nothing is ever what it seems.

In "Rocks," two old men perform autopsies on each other. One turns to the other and says, "Did you know you were pregnant? Look what I found in your womb." He holds up a rock. The man who is pregnant misses not a beat: Spank it, he says. "And see if it cries ..."

Edson pulls poems out of places that most are too serious-minded, too blindly unimaginative, to see, seize and give a name. In his cosmos, an old man dresses in lingerie, he claims, to amuse his cat. But later he confesses, "I don't have a cat ..." A woman gives birth to "a little girl's doll." Another woman, who gives birth to an elephant, responds by asking her doctor: "Why an elephant and not a parrot?" To this the doctor says, "Isn't your husband an elephant?" Here the newborn mother explains:

No, that was grandpa Tusk. My husband's the parrot, the one in the cage. You met him when you came to look under my skirt. I said, Why are you looking under my skirt? You said you were trying to see if you could see the baby's head. Meanwhile my husband was emptying his bowels in a newspaper on the floor of his cage. Don't you remember?

Memory, here, is not an act of excavation, but a journey, a leap across the threshold of creation. And creation, in the hands of Edson, the act of making, of inventing, is not so much an act of playing God, but of being a child. Poet Edson is a keeper of his own Genesis, a writer unafraid to revisit Eden, to remake the world in no other poet's image, to make out of the world-weary page a world that is unquestionably his own.

Peter Markus is a poet and freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].