Cal Bedient Days of Unwilling
In his new poetry collection, Days of Unwilling, Cal Bedient resurrects Odysseus to navigate a 21st century world, and more specifically, modern America. This new odyssey is not a narrative, epic poem, but rather a surprising, tragicomic exploration of the male ego, language, and American myth.
Bedient pegs Odysseus as the essence of machismo from the first poem “What Though Your Daddy’s Trumpet Is Buttered Toast.” In a cowboy drawl, Odysseus remarks to an anonymous Penelope, “ ‘You ain’t fit to have him.’” Throughout the collection, Bedient continues to draw parallels between ancient and modern conceptions of masculinity. In “Begun Begun Is Anything More Violent Spontaneous Faithful?” the mariner Odysseus is compared to American barbecuers and soldiers:
… I’m back where everything is water
with a drop of writing in it, floating. Ancient rhythms, nod
to your American brothers, who wipe rib sauce on their aprons
with fingers of cook-out –– fingers of good grief. First, blood
understands –– my hero with a shoe of pirate, and a shoe of harbor.
Then words –– tear at the trees’ –– hair in the wood pulp of the page,
helicopter shuddering down to take out the living and the dead.
The dead! … Clarified like Botticelli’s veils the tears of things ––
spume away. Big boy like water sport? Little splash up? ––
mariner, already the fountain is wilder.
Bedient’s tone teeters between sincere dismay and humorous condescension. With a “good grief,” he laments the violent connection between the rib sauce of cookouts and the blood of battles, both ancient and modern. Then with a couple phrases of baby talk, he pokes at the male ego and the desire to explore seas and (conquer) distant lands, patronizing the “mariner” (alternately the “hero”) as “big boy,” who the reader may justifiably equate with either Odysseus or the modern American man.
While the content of Days may fascinate and challenge the reader, Bedient’s style is more thrilling yet. He often juxtaposes high and low diction to create a more complete and complex portrait of the American voice, at times channeling the spirit of Gertrude Stein. The poem title “You Can Be the Subject of Wild Admiration in Ten Days” is lifted directly from Stein’s Geography and Plays. Similar to Stein, Bedient tests the limits of language, letting sound and image gleefully trump narrative clarity as he eventually returns to the American Western:
You’re the very spirit of occasions do skateboard about me.
Brilliant. Intensely desirable. Are you listening?
Your lipstick like watermelon split open on the rocks.
Don’t fidget. Say what you feel. You’ll like it.
Hork if you must, but hush your sobbing––
Your chair throbs like a vibrator.
If my breath stinks of a hired gun, love me for it,
I could clear the prairie of hostiles.
Bedient’s play with language carries throughout the collection. In “Banana Peaks Get Snowfall (the Equinox is Coming Closer like Ice Cream),” Bedient invokes another lover of wordplay, Lewis Carroll:
Alice does not Carroll to take the banana boat to Paris, there is such
Eiffel distrust of resemblance there.
This pair of malapropisms––“Carroll” for care, “Eiffel” for awful––helps Bedient weave his own “wonderland” of words and images that delight and surprise the reader. Yet Bedient’s unexpected and often subversive metaphors are perhaps most worthy of “wild admiration.” The reader can’t help but be happily horrified by the following passage from “Leonardo’s Bicycle”:
… she became a cataract; she lived
A dramatic life. As you would if you turned
So deaf a child’s shriek from the street could make
You smile over your meal, which, as usual,
You eat alone, dipping a heel of bread
Into your soup …
In this poem, Bedient again alludes to Greek myth, specifically Achilles, Odysseus’ ally in the Iliad. Clearly, however, Bedient constructs the journey of Days from more than Homer. He pulls in the American Western, Botticelli, Stein, Carroll, Da Vinci, and a flood of other historical figures and cultural movements that comprise the disorganized collective knowledge at large in modern America. Perhaps Bedient is urging his readers to ask the question, where does American myth end and American experience begin?