The intersection of a reader’s experience and an author’s work is unpredictable and fraught with both danger and possibility, which is what makes it so invigorating. The promise of a new read is heady, especially when you’ve enjoyed the author’s work before. But what happens when external forces put a filter between you and the author in midstream? A lens clicks over it, like at the optometrist, and suddenly you don’t see what you saw before. Or maybe you can’t see it at all anymore.
I’ve known Montreal surrealist poet Peter Dubé for many years, and I’ve always enjoyed both his poetry and his prose. His Conjure: A Book of Spells (Rebel Satori Press, 2014) is one of my favorite collections of poetry, so I was excited to receive his latest, The Headless Man: A Novel in Prose Poems.
The spells in Conjure were a tough, albeit rewarding, nut to crack, so I was delighted to find the poems comprising Headless Man were more accessible, providing me with enough of a narrative framework to not only carry me forward but allow me to relax enough to enjoy Dubé’s terse, emotive language. Lots of short sentences. Pieces. Parts. Strung together with articles or pronouns. Then a rush of unpunctuated paragraph, awash with semicolons and connectivity. A rope of meaning in a sea of images. Patterns began to emerge, a whole forming.
What I found most interesting at this point was, as Dubé indicates in “The Birth of the Headless Man,” is the headless man actually has a head. He was born with it at his side, eyes open. But he chooses to close its eyes and hide it. He doesn’t even attempt to put it on. As I read ahead in the table of contents, I see titles like: “The Headless Man Enters Town,” “The Headless Man Goes to the Bank,” “The Headless Man Goes to the Movies,” “The Headless Man Discovers Music,” and “The Headless Man Goes to the Leather Bar,” so I know he’s to undergo a wealth of experiences but has made the choice to do so without the organ that would make all of those experiences worthwhile. How does he find the worth in those experiences, I wonder? Interesting question, one maybe to base a review on. But just as he enters the city and begins to have his adventures, that lens clicked over.
My dog died.
Duncan had been diagnosed the month before with a pretty large and very aggressive tumor near his anal sac. We declined surgery or chemo, feeling he would have no idea why we were doing these awful things to him. No quality of life. So, we decided to spoil him senseless until it was time. Above all, we didn’t want him to suffer. Since the tumor was impacting his anus, we knew it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to poop. But that was the only time you’d see anything different about him. He was still bright-eyed, loved his treats, his walks, and his food. “You’ll know when it’s time,” people said. But when do you really? The best you can do is guess.
Through a much darker lens now, that’s when The Headless Man became about miscommunication or the inability to communicate at all. Added to the mix was our concern for Duncan’s one year younger sister, Lexie, who has never known life without Duncan. What did she know? How was she going to cope with being alone? Our pet communicator, Rebecca Blackbyrd, went a long way toward helping us understand and cope with what our dogs were feeling and going through, but in the end, we just had to decide. We set a date, had a euthanasia service come out, and we put him down at home. Right where he used to watch me cook.
I lost the connectivity to The Headless Man. I could only see the parts and not the whole. The images and not the rope. Or rather, I could see the rope but I could only see it in terms of parts—knots, fraying ends, fibers. I couldn’t hook any of it together anymore. None of it had any meaning for me. I tried to start it over again. I read my notes, but I just couldn’t get a grasp on it. It seemed a lifetime away. Duncan’s lifetime.
So, why even write the review?
Because Peter Dubé has a talent as immense as his love for life, and The Headless Man is an interesting read full of big questions and vivid imagery and is well worth your time if you’re a fan of poetry or surrealism. It’s art that asks the reader to dig deep and exult in its complexities, applying them to the bigger picture. And it deserves your attention.
Besides, Duncan would have wanted me to finish. Leave no bone unchewed, no corner unsniffed, and no bed unwarmed. Goodbye, my beamish boy. You’ll always be my sous chef.
© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler