COINCIDENCE, OR ZODIAC? A Review of 12: Sonnets for the Zodiac by John Gosslee, (Gival Press, 2011)by Cal Folger Day
The back cover of his poetical volume 12 informs me that the author, John Gosslee, served as poet-in-residence forAttitude: The Dancer's Magazine for three years. Perhaps if all readers were dancers, we might take more readily to this dozen of florid and fantastical Italian sonnets.
Let me tell you about the assembly. He relies upon the standard (and, I might add, nondescript) western zodiac system to organize, and apparently to motivate, his collection. On the cover, twelve personages, representing the various signs, scoot around a psychadelically colorful core, mounted on various cute wheeled machines. I suppose the illustration intends to set a tone of whimsy-with-a-purpose, with an analog in the volume's concluding couplet: "We know everything is a passing fad/And make all listen to destiny clad" ("Two Fish//Pisces").
But diving into the work, I have some questions about the structure. Every sign (Aries, Capricorn, etc.) gets a section which begins with his own 14-liner; that is followed by first a French translation (provided by one Elizabeth Watson -- coincidence, or zodiac?); then a Spanish translation (José Guerrero, no relation); and finally ends with a page whose dates and lines are intended to provide a place where you, the reader/owner, can enter in your friends' and relations' birthdays.
For whom are these translations, exactly? My ignorance of Spanish leaves me speechless about the quality of those ones; and from what I can tell, my enthusiastic high school French makes me perhaps the ideal candidate for an audience of the others. On the other hand, the utterly unadvertised "birthday book" functionality of the volume was its highlight for me. The unassuming functionality is quite endearing, and in fact I might even have been delighted with its poetry content had it principally been marketed as a zodically-organized birthday book.
So finally, onto the content of the poetry itself. As Gosslee explores cosmological mysteries, forgive me if I wonder what or who is this author's deity, exactly? For his often stilted adherence (Larry Fagin agrees with me, as confessed in his review given under "Advance Praise") to the strict poetical form (rhyme, rhythm, structure) evokes a ritualistic and in fact spiritual function of language, rather than a lyrical one. Indeed the rhymes seem almost to be a pneumonic device, a functional ringing which might aid or accompany worship and/or physical labor (again, I think of his potential intimacy with dance and dancers). The content smells a bit like incense and sounds a bit like yogic meditational texts; they often communicate what seem to be profound visual epiphanies of the author, as if he had a dream that felt like The Answer, and then tried to write it down. As a result, perhaps, the metaphysical freedom of his images are sometimes unforgivably nonsensical: in "Lady Justice//Libra," what does it mean exactly for a deity to "transcend...a sieve"? I also must report titles that sound like first-draft Harry Potter chapters (eg. "The Centaur's Duality") and oft-confounding punctuation (the enforced stanza break between the octet and the sextet can feel like a random interruption).
However, I would concur with Fagin, again, that "the often startling imagery" can sometimes "carry the poems through." My favorite sonnet is certainly "The Goat's Yoke//Capricorn," which contains:
... as you look faster For remedies to psychic disaster, I watched you change thoughts in diachronic boom! Enchanted with telepathic heirloom ...
I had the impression that towards the end of these dozen, Gosslee's poems began to address a particular individual, one might say a lover; here, however, I dearly hope he is addressing himself! for I couldn't have conjured a more apt phrase than "enchanted with telepathic heirloom" for his own project. As for myself, I think I'd rather read horoscopes.