A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon gathers together 27 of CAConrad’s (Soma)tic poetry exercises, extracted from a larger ongoing series that the poet has been publishing online (http://somaticpoetryexercises.blogspot.com) since 2007. The difference is that while the blog makes all the (Soma)tic exercises freely available (currently, 83 and counting), A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon also showcases the results of CAConrad working through the selected (Soma)tics. According to the poet’s ‘The Right To Manifest Manifesto’ that opens the collection:
(Soma)tic poetry is a praxis I’ve developed to more fully engage the everyday through writing. … Experiences that are unorthodox steps in the writing process can shift the poet’s perception of the quotidian, if only for a series of moments. This offers an opportunity to see the details clearer. Through music, dirt, food, scent, taste, in storms, in bed, on the subway and at the grocery store, (Soma)tic Exercises and the poems that result are just waiting to be utilized or invented, everywhere, and anytime.
This holistic approach to excavating the poetry from the everyday calls for no small amount of disinhibition, due to what the (Soma)tics involve. For instance, #1: ANOINT THYSELF begins with the innocuous instruction, ‘Visit the home of a deceased poet you admire and bring some natural thing back with you.’ CAConrad chose Emily Dickinson’s house and the ‘dirt from the foot of huge trees in the backyard’, and upon arriving back in Philadelphia, ‘didn’t shower for three days, then rubbed Emily’s dirt all over [his] body, kneaded her rich Massachusetts soil deeply into [his] flesh, then put on [his] clothes and went out into the world’. After such a literally earthy initiation, the week of incense burning in #2: Séance Your Own Way almost feels reassuringly indulgent. Except of course by #3: WHITE HELIUM, CAConrad is calling for would-be poets to get naked and meditate for four days in the company of a white helium balloon.
Since A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon begins by invoking the dual etymologies of ‘soma’, i.e. ‘sōma’ (‘body’) from Ancient Greek via Neo-Latin, and ‘sóma’ from Sanskrit, which refers to a Vedic ritual drink and carries connotations of the divine, it is hardly surprising that sacralising and reverencing the body is a recurrent theme of the (Soma)tics. In exercise after exercise, CAConrad exhorts the reader to subject his/her body to the elements, to explore with the five senses, to enjoy the body and the pleasure it can bring, and above all, to take these experiences of and with the body into the act of writing. Reading the (Soma)tics feels invigorating and liberating, like being given permission to write from an entirely new headspace.
On the whole, CAConrad’s diction tends towards the conversational, but there is also a charming eccentricity to the way the poems leap from image to image and their language consistently offer up surprising turns. These can be edged with humour, like how ‘a mouse eating / the dead / cat’ is ‘our / longed-for / malfunction’ in the wonderfully named ‘ONE DAY I WILL STEP FROM THE BEAUTY PARLOR AND ENLIST IN THE FREQUENCY OF STARLINGS’, the title a poem in itself. Or when in ‘I’m TOO Lazy for this World’, the poet declares that ‘A beautiful poem should / Help you rob a bank / That’s its job’. They can also be frankly sexual, as in the opening stanza of ‘hours inside philaDELPHIa’: ‘serenade leading / to a bloody / condom’.
The trouble with A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon, however, is that it is sometimes difficult to connect the resulting poems back to the (Soma)tic exercise that inspired their creation. This sense of disconnection is partially accentuated by the book’s design, where the (Soma)tics are printed as white text on a black page and the reverse for the poems. This might be seen as a good thing, in that the poem has successfully concealed its own origins, but it also raises the question of whether the (Soma)tics are necessary, or at least whether there is a need to have the alternating arrangement of a (Soma)tic and its resultant poem throughout the whole collection. Given how different the (Soma)tics are in execution, it is also somewhat disappointing that the poems in A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon mostly look the same (barring the prose poem ‘EMILY DICKINSON CAME TO EARTH and THEN SHE LEFT’), consisting of short lines winding down the pages.
Indeed, perhaps the most curious thing about this collection is just how ancillary the poetry actually feels by the time one has read till the end of it. The contents pages only list the various (Soma)tics and not the poems. Besides the opening manifesto, there is an interview with CAConrad on (Soma)tic poetics by Thom Donovan, as well as a series of notes from (Soma)tic poetry workshops designed and conducted by him. The book ends off with a series of ‘(Soma)tic Reading Enhancements’ to 15 other poetry books, written in the style of the (Soma)tic poetry exercises. These have been suggested by the poet ‘to encourage readers to not be passive and to take credit for a poem’s absorption’, in the hope of promoting ‘full participatory poetry reading’.
Coming away from the collection, I found myself wondering if it might not have worked better divided into two separate books, one for the poems and another for the poetics. There is no question that CAConrad’s prose in the exercises, the interview and the reading enhancements is lively and impassioned, and his enthusiasm and belief in the vital importance of (Soma)tic poetics is clearly communicated. Yet this happens at the expense of the actual poems, which ended up overshadowed for me. If one accepts Auden’s definition of poetry as ‘memorable speech’, the (Soma)tics themselves were ironically what stayed with me, rather than the poems.
Perhaps that was CAConrad’s intention though. Regardless, A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon definitely reads like an important body of work, one well worth adding to the list of texts (think all the way back to Aristotle’s Poetics) that show readers and writers what poetry is and can be. Despite CAConrad’s desire that everyone be empowered to find the poetry in the everyday through their bodies, there will undoubtedly be people who are uncomfortable with (Soma)tic poetics’ transgressively sensual engagement with the world. Nevertheless, even though I would personally venture that he is largely preaching to the choir in A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon, if any book is going to win (Soma)tic poetry new converts, this would still be the one.