Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Terese Svoboda: Pirate Talk or Mermalade

Generic conventions no longer have the same purchase in the contemporary imagination as they once did. Creative nonfiction has encroached upon ground formerly claimed by fiction; the term "autobiographical novel" is no longer an oxymoron. Poetry-as-memoir has been a saleable commodity in the significantly over-extended poetry market for at least a couple decades. Prose poetry is as popular as it’s ever been. But it’s not just the literary arts that now must be traced as points on a spectrum—it’s literary artists themselves. It seems few contemporary literary artists restrict themselves to work in only one genre: the poet is also a literary theorist; the memoirist is writing a genre novel; the novelist is, too, an aspiring academic. If these developments herald an age in which all the capacities of language, not just artificial classifications of what language can or should do, are ascendant, they’re to be applauded. Even if it means the term “literary artist” comes to replace the term “poet,” or that those who howl about creative writing MFA programs have something new to howl about: aspiring authors receiving graduate degrees in multiple genres; the increasing availability of cross-genre and interdisciplinary study in higher education; less generic fidelity among artists everywhere. Few of us who write primarily poetry have not unwittingly rolled our eyes, now and again, at the poet-turned-novelist, the poet-turned-memoirist, the poet-turned-academic. But those caustic days are over—and perhaps it’s time to bid them good riddance.

Terese Svoboda is a literary artist for the twenty-first century: five books of poetry published; five novels; one collection of short stories; one memoir; and one translation. Neither she nor her work rest easy in any of the old taxonomies, and her most recent release, Pirate Talk or Mermalade (Dzanc Books, 2010) is no exception. It’s a “novel,” or so its back cover somewhat self-consciously insists, as though making these sorts of distinctions is still primarily within the purview of publicists, bookstore stockboys, or (for that matter) authors themselves. Well, hogwash—and not just because the entrenching of generic taxonomies generally precedes the least interesting sort of book review or literary criticism. Pirate Talk or Mermalade ought to be read first and foremost as a series of linguistic functions, not a single literary artifact, and by this standard we can say that Pirate Talk operates by, through, and upon many of the functions we historically have associated with poems and poetry.


The content of so many poetry collections follows the same general pattern as Cat Stevens’ 1972 album Verities and Balderdash—a few verities and lots of balderdash. If the order of the day is description via metaphor, simile, and other largely technical achievements, some of those descriptions will seem vital to the work, others merely adornment; if the poet dares (as is less and less common) to venture into the realm of rhetoric, only a bit of that rhetoric will grasp at abiding wisdoms, even as the rest degenerates into hipster bravado; if linguistic play, or the machine-made-of-words, is the organizing principle, it will be at least one part instructive and inspired and at least several parts self-indulgent and insipid. This isn’t so much a complaint as a catalogue of necessary ills: no poetry collection avoids the pitfalls of sincere ambition. Often, then, the question for a writer as well as a reader is whether new ways to succeed have been uncovered or rediscovered, even as one also finds, as one expects and hopes to find, new ways to fail. In being comprised exclusively of dialogue between characters, Svoboda’s Pirate Talk offers something new that succeeds much more often than it fails, a laudable achievement for any piece of literary art. The work—often difficult; sometimes frustrating; frequently shimmeringly rewarding, even gripping—stands as a tribute to the austerity of communicative interaction.

In many respects this reviewer’s an unlikely candidate to write this review, as he’s often felt and written that too many poets artificially insert italicized dialogue into (often artificially-coupleted) stanzas as a way of apologizing to their readers for the temerity of writing verse rather than prose. “Don’t worry,” such typographic discursions seem to say, “we poets mean you no harm. Look, here’s dialogue!” It’s equal parts appalling and heart-breaking. Yet here’s Pirate Talk or Mermalade, a work composed solely of characters’ articulated speech, telling the adventure story of two young, would-be pirates. It would be easy enough, from that alone, to review Pirate Talk as a novel—to dissect the work on the basis of its achievements in what has long been called “the rhetoric of fiction”—but there are countless stories about wayward brothers on today’s bookshelves, many (if fewer) pirate stories, and still a number (if still fewer) stories about mermaids or the Arctic Circle. To take the old route would do Svoboda and her creations a disservice. Here the author hinges her speech-acts not on the successes of time-worn tropes and narratives but on the way in which she commands minute functions of syntax, diction, and rhythm.


It’s not merely one of contemporary poetry’s admirable qualities that it routinely re-invents itself, it’s an existential necessity. For too long we have been convinced, by fiction-writers and innovative poets alike, that the only way to experiment with linear narrative is to abandon it. Not so, as Svoboda proves by bringing to poetry one iteration of an increasingly common device in fiction: implied narrative. Perhaps no better method for keeping story part of our collective aesthetic graphology has yet been found. Implied narrative elides critical data from a narrative to force the sort of reader participation that has long been the hallmark of poetry. Indeed, poetry has always offered up a unique landscape (if not the only one) upon which literary artists can find new ways to create and fill ambient spaces, and to encourage generous readers to participate themselves in acts of linguistic creation, recreation, salvage, and archiving.

It’s been said that the greatest literary experiments are often those which the average reader feels strongly ought never be replicated. In still rarer instances the feeling, instead, is that the experiment couldn’t be adequately replicated. That’s certainly the case with Svoboda’s Pirate Talk, as the achievement here is not merely the telling of a good tale, but the revelation that even in the most convention-bound of literary sub-genres (the “swashbuckler”) language is the tale. If this story of juvenile delinquents in the early eighteenth century cheats a bit at times with prescriptions of diction and characterization—find me the uneducated, pre-Enlightenment lad who speaks with such poetry as, “Two fiddles can talk. One calls, the other says Yes and then some,” or describes himself thusly: “in short pants still and no cutlass”—it’s because Svoboda has engaged in that act of literary tricksterism of which all poets are guilty to one degree or another, that being the violent condensation and manipulation of allusive, expressive, gestural language into an appallingly constrictive space. Svoboda’s salty youngsters tell more of themselves and their world and the lingua franca that is the currency of all civilization in a few brief dialogic exchanges than a novelist might spill in countless paragraphs of description, narrative, summary, and explication. Pirate Talk and Mermalade is, as it were, a sort of literary heresy: the poet as fox-in-the-henhouse, exposing the first four of the five major tenets of good fiction as subservient to the fifth: dialogue. The poetic performativity of dialogue—when it’s not degraded and ghettoized via the contemporary lyric poet’s coy italics—is an awesome force, to which Pirate Talk may be one of our very best and most enduring testaments.

Svoboda’s underlying premise, one surmises, is that all language is performative, because language invariably precedes and inflects action, and action itself exists only to produce and in turn inflect more language. I could recount the adventures of Svoboda’s characters here in brief summary, I could assure readers of this review that their need for adventuresome literature (in all senses of that phrase) will be well-met by Svoboda’s book—as is true—but to do so would be to undercut the achievement of the work, and to treat this review as simply more reassuring back-flap copy. I’d rather focus on the purities and provocations of the poetry to be had here—“She doesn’t know who Father is. / This be true, but still she talks”; “Ma, there’s rope in my soup / Eat it or you can’t watch the hanging”; “The world is scarce of love, it washes few and drowns most of those”; “My pockets will drown me yet”; “He wanted our bear. / He wanted a bit of talk. / He wanted to separate us and then slaughter us. / He wanted to get inside”—and leave the rest for the reader. Pirate Talk or Mermalade is a book best experienced on its own terms, in its own space, and readers who give Svoboda and this Era of Generic Dissolution that opportunity will be well-rewarded. Pirate Talk isn’t always an easy read—it’s much like, for instance, reading one’s first manga, and struggling to follow words and images in their right-to-left, rather than left-to-right slipstream—but this book is an important contribution to American letters, and is worth a place on the bookshelf of any lover of twenty-first century literary arts.

Terese Svoboda
Pirate Talk or Mermalade
Dzanc Books, 2010