Peycho Kanev’s poetry collection, Bone Silence, evokes a theme repeating throughout: Our bones outlast us and remain our only testament in the world, even the greatest of us. Over time we are forgotten, our words are lost, and in the soil a story bones can’t tell. The writer pushes against death, strives for immortality in a temporal and zero-sum world or, as the author puts it: “as the tomb rock rolls among/the skulls of the geniuses of the past.”
Kanev opens the writer’s tale by yearning for the Word and illustrating the hard life that comes with seeking it. Automatically, this is a spiritual journey: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1). This “mad God whirls” out of reach, and worse, He refuses to do anything about it.
Keeping with that spiritual tone, this work mirrors also King Solomon’s existential crisis in Ecclesiastes while at the same time proving, as Solomon said, there’s nothing new under the sun. There’s nothing new in this collection either, but that’s a despair granted always in art; the poet’s job is to update old metaphors for new souls. Bone Silence shrinks back, though, from the beautiful magic sprouting from the dung heap of Solomon’s pain: the admonishment to eat, drink, and be merry—for true, tomorrow we are wordless bones—and, perhaps more importantly, to climb out of this abyss eaten up with love. But there is no Song of Songs here to balance—to save!—the reader/writer from omnipotent nothingness or lessons to be learned from the mad glory of pain.
No, more likely that tale of salvation would be regarded as the cruelest of kitsch. And making an enemy of kitsch—those elusive and dreamy bright ideas with dangerous potential for brokenhearted emptiness—is a grand Eastern European tradition born of a long line of anti-Bohemian Bohemians. Kanev hurls the reader into the ethereal moment just before the Fall—the moment of realization that in less than an imaginary second gravity and vertigo will seize you, and your stomach will be in your throat. Kundera called it an unbearable lightness.
I’m hesitant to juxtapose writers with the immortal, and already I’ve slapped Kanev up against Solomon and Kundera. Others have paired him with Keats, Nabokov, and Joyce. To do so is not completely justifiable, for this work—important as it is to be considered—does not come as close to flawlessness as the others listed. Reading Bone Silence in one sitting proves fatiguing solely for the droning repetition of theme.
The Poetic Character—for we do not want to confuse the narrator with the poet—spends most of his time holed up in the extreme solitude of his bedroom, which is often peppered with naked and sleeping women for whom the narrator seems to have an underlying contempt; the way Kundera pairs sex with excrement, Kanev pairs sex with death. The Poetic Character is obsessed with the clock that is “slicing [him] slowly,” and if not pining about the illusion of time, he gazes out the window and mocks those daring to participate in the world. The rest of the time he drinks. And smokes. And obsesses over death and nothingness.
Cliché as it is—the soulful, misunderstood poet waxing misanthropic about the world—it’s fine for a hundred pages. But Bone Silence is 152 pages. It’s equivalent to drowning in the Hell of Sophie’s Choice. That is, of course, a compliment and criticism smashed together. Stopping at page 100, though, doesn’t get us to the best lines of the collection, which come on page 136 in the deceptively generic title, “Some Poetry”:
“This girl hikes up her skirt;
and now I can see where all the suffering has begun,
through the time and through the great music and through the paintings
of the masters we were fixed within the lie of the Art…”
And with that, he sums up the whole collection, but goes on for 15 pages more.
There are glimmers of hope. At one point our spiritually tortured Poetic Character, after noting the “horror” of a woman’s unbuttoned skirt, reaches to kill desire and finds love “dripping between [his] fingers.” This doesn’t last, naturally, but the misogyny does, and he notes that “The Girls of Today” “live in hollow state of mind.” He then ponders: “but imagine just for a moment that all of the/chocolates factories of the world stop production.”
The Poetic Character’s voice is authentic, so authentic you can hear his Eastern European accent, slip around on forgivable and brave failings of English subject-verb agreement. It makes one wonder if there were heated arguments between writer and editor over the “holly” man at the Vatican, if the imperfection was purposeful or masterfully accidental. And soon, if one is philosophically bent, one begins to wonder the same about the universe itself.
Enigmatic is the Word here, so much brightness pitched against a backdrop of omnipresent darkness. My daughter, as I raised her out of her crib one morning, asked me, “Where the dark go?” She’s too little to understand the dark is always there—it’s the light that goes away. Kanev, perhaps, could explain that to her best.