Amy Schroeder

The Cuckoo

Peter Streckfus
ISBN: 0-300-10271-2, 2004
Yale University Press, $25 cloth / $13 paper

In her elegant foreword to Peter Streckfus’ The Cuckoo, the winner of the 2004 Yale Younger Poet’s Prize, Louise Glück writes, “The case for nonsense is not the same as the case against meaning.” This is a useful guide to Streckfus’ work, for Glück is correct in asserting that Streckfus is not interested in the arbitrary rejection of sense; his nonsense is not the cheerful surrealism of James Tate, or even the quasi-logical dream-world of John Ashbery. Instead, Streckfus is after a kind of truth attainable only through a devoutly inspired rejection of rationality. His voice is grave, lyrical, and masterful; he is capable of writing a heartbreakingly lovely poem from the perspective of of a dung pile. It is this seriousness—as well as an attraction to the historical and obscure—that gives this book weight, in the presence of absurdity and in the absence of clearly signposted meaning.

A poem titled “Encephalitis” demonstrates this cool authority:

If your drop of lemon juice leaves the lemon in your hand and the oyster doesn’t wriggle upon being touched by the juice of the lemon you should not eat the oyster for it is not whole in its mind.

Streckfus feels comfortable giving commands; he is the ringmaster in this circus of the bizarre. Perhaps this confidence springs from a deep understanding of the arbitrary mysteriousness of language itself; he sees clearly that when we speak we never really know what we mean—and if we think we do, we’re delusional. The first poem in the book, “The English,” delves directly into this conundrum, presenting us with Crusoe teaching Friday to speak English:

Crusoe: A bee.

Friday: Bee?

Crusoe: Aye, a bee.

Streckfus shows us here, in a handful of words, what we already know—the ambiguous and occluded nature of our language. Are words letters, or are letters words? How do we ever know what we mean? A poem along similar ideas is titled “After Words”:

Listen to the babe-scare cry of the wind. You are in the unsteady boat
and this poem is a lake.

It’s too late now. You are in the boat my little skipperoo, my kitzie koodle. Look. In the other boat, your son. All the rest…is film, a thin and puncutred membrane, a fictitious hymen.

Language is not to be counted on; pursuing clarity is like chasing ghosts. The final line of the poem ably stands in as ars poetica for the whole book: “I’ll speak nonsense. You speak truth. We’ll see what comes of it.”

The distinction that Streckfus makes here is crafty, suggesting that what we consider truth, in the orderly world of gridded streets and balanced ledgers, bears hardly any relationship to truth at all. Thus Streckfus offers us nonsense in place of this truth—and it is frequently a glorious nonsense. Operating most often in the guise of allegory, he tells strange tale after strange tale, each more opaque than the last. But unlike traditional allegory, in which symbols and figures stand clearly for abstract notions, Streckfus’ allegories are codes that cannot be deciphered. The figures of the poems are not pegged to obvious meanings; they exist in wholly created, autonomous worlds of their own.

One such poem tells of a Chinese monk in search of “whether all or a part of humanity can attain Buddhahood.” Hsüan-tsang is a recurring figure; he is the Dante figure of the book, in search of knowledge, but he has no guide, and does not act as much of a guide for us. “How was he to know that his quest for the ineffable / would be turned into the hundred-chaptered tale of a man-sized gibbon and his golden-/ hooped iron rod…” Here is the usual rapid descent from the sublime to the ridiculous, but in this book the ridiculous is itself sublime. The poem concludes by telling us that Hsuan-tsang continues on his journey “wary to the mind’s distinctions, senses guarded.”

Other such allegories include a poem titled “Why I Slept with Him,” about a woman who keeps goats; a poem about celery cutter, about carpenters, about how to tell if an oyster is “right in its mind.” These poems—some are more successful than others—all hover on the edge of the divine, dwelling in a place of utter certainty. Streckfus is not afraid to make bold statements:

High winds do not last all morning.
Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish
Inner light relumed. Or livestock sacrificed.
Not seeing desirable things. Or cowing.

Washed. Or unkempt and without hindrance.
The gold-hooped nature. Or this one now aims to kill.

Sky astray, the president’s old foe evades his parry,
but using his lance with difficulty, he halts the monkey’s rod.

Beyond the low bridge, willows
                      to untangle these in the monkey of the mind.

The book is heavily comprised of gleanings from other texts; two long poems are made up of lines drawn from outside sources; Hsüan-tsang’s tale is drawn entirely from a sixteenth century Chinese novel called The Journey to the West. (The authorship of the novel is uncertain, but it has been attributed to Wu Cheng'en (c.1500-82). It is the tale of Monkey, who is born from a stone egg and eventually becomes the King of the Monkeys on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, finally achieving supernatural Daoist skills.) Streckfus also uses lines plucked whole from Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail. These borrowings are interconnected: The final long poem of the book blends the story of Hsüan-tsang with the story of the American pioneers. Unexpectedly, Ronald Reagan figures in several poems, including one in which his tale is entwined with that of a Chinese emperor and his murdered concubine. The bizarre admixture of historical figures from different times, different places, seemingly different planets altogether, is one of Streckfus’ favorite ploys. Surprising juxtapositions are, as we know, a signature feature of the postmodern, as is the entire situation of Streckfus’ book—a lot of signs, but hardly any signifiers.

What of the book’s title? The only poem in which it is directly alluded to is titled “As in Bedtime for Bonzo.” (Bedtime for Bonzo is the Ronald Reagan movie in which the recently deceased former president plays a professor haplessly trying to teach human morals to a chimp.) The entire poem reads: “The cuckoo drops its eggs in another’s nest.” Clearly, Streckfus is commenting on the inherent amorality of the animal world. It is a point somewhat clumsily made—we don’t need Streckfus to demonstrate to us the dopiness of B-movie messages. But it does illuminate what appears to be the overarching theme of the book—that the natural world is both allergic to and aloof from human meaning. While The Cuckoo does not argue for a return to primitivism, it is in favor of giving way to mystery, to the way in which the world moves and functions according to rules we will never fully understand. Why does the cuckoo abandon its young to such risky foster care? Evolutionary explanations aside, who knows? And therein lies Streckfus’s ultimate objective—he wants to teach an appreciation for the sweetness of unanswerable questions, the honey of mystery.


Copyright ©2005 Electronic Poetry Review