Here’s a review that I really enjoyed writing, and it just surfaced in Arc Magazine…
Aaron Giovannone’s The Nonnets
MAR 4, 2019
Aaron Giovannone, The Nonnets
Toronto: Book*hug Press, 2018.
I’ve been drifting around in Aaron Giovannone’s latest book of poems, The Nonnets, for a while, trying to figure out, ridiculously, why I love this volume of poetry so much―its wit, its wonder, its space. There is a strange delight in staring at the figures in Giovannone’s plazas, trying to grasp how big it all feels, how human, how funny it is, like returning to the metaphysical landscape of Giorgio De Chirico’s painting, “Mystery and Melancholy of a Street,” only to find that in each return, each rifacimento, each nonnet, there are new figures prowling around, exchanging half-heard jokes and laughter, while you, the reader, keep seeing mysteries suddenly shift across the sand, subtly altering the metaphysics of the square itself. This book is full of surprises and embraces, and is strikingly beautiful.
The operative conceit of The Nonnets is that it is a sequence of 63 nine-line sonnet-like poems written in strongly phrased rhythms that might seem formal in their repetition at first sight, but are, in fact, quite informal due to the quiet, funny, colloquial voice that delivers them, a voice which is always down-to-earth, whispering, muttering, chuckling, and wondering to itself. This voice is the key to one of the great contrasts of chiaroscuro in Giovannone’s volume of poetry, its light ordinariness capturing dark and vast human landscapes in a seemingly effortless, almost dull cadence:
I slept late because it was still dark.
I pause, look up from my book.
Today I feel okay away from you
an abstraction like future value.
I wear white sneakers with black jeans
because I’ve given up a little.
At the café, a teenage boy
reads the Bible.
I wonder how it’s going.
The ordinary and the extraordinary are wound together in these poems as dark and light, mutually enclosing wheels whirling into one another like renaissance clockwork. The “clockwork” is in Giovannone’s deft juxtaposition of objects and feelings that catch both dark and light in one gesture. He can set an eleven-year-old drinking coffee next to a cynical response to his lover’s cheery Facebook comments, and in the crazy Giovannone scheme of things here, it all makes wonderful sense. The “renaissance” is in the tableaux themselves that appear as 14th century Italian plazas upon which the human situations float by in sparse but bold gestures.
This conjuring of the Italian Renaissance is helped by the way Giovannone places the sequence in the circuitry of all the ups and pathetic downs of traditional Petrarchan or Elizabethan sonnet cycles and the humour and tenderness that accompanies them: “Wish you were here. Actually, no. / It seemed like something I should say. / I’d rather be alone.” In fact, half of the nonnets are written on a journey to Italy without the lover which also provides part of the set-up and glue of the traditional circuitry.
The Nonnets is also full of unique gifts of both sound and vision, acoustics and space. Listen:
Without you, I am the man
at the next table
talking to himself.
Now he’s talking to me. Help.
I peeled a banana
to make you a lily.
Don’t leave me
alone in the park
thinking about beauty.
I keep trying to find precedents in Canadian poetry for the poetics Giovannone seizes in this volume. Sometimes Dennis Lee comes to mind, with his gorgeous wit and facility with impossible juxtapositions. Or Don Summerhayes in Winter Apples. Or John Donlan in Domestic Economy. Or the droll minimalism and compression of Robert Kroetsch. The Nonnets is such a compelling book of poems. I didn’t want it to end.