Days of Unwilling
Cal Bedient
Saturnalia Books, $14.00 (paper)

“I had me an upper joy once,” poet-critic Cal Bedient declares in his third collection of poems, Days of Unwilling. Part cowboy talk, part transcendentalese, this sentence exemplifies what might be the book’s most pronounced formal characteristic: the combining of contrasting linguistic registers and ontological categories, so that the simple abuts the highfalutin (“The horses I could eat, if I still hungered for you”) and the conceptual becomes material (“Classical art is the last car of the train, the one that goes by silently”). Through a wide lexicon and flexible syntax, Bedient creates a kaleidoscopic tonality: “Figures undifferentiated from their ground, / like hair curlers and a paper-towel- / floweret-patterned nightgown in the pubic kitchen / dusk?” Though Bedient often obscures meanings, central ideas recur so that one feels the echo of “Figures undifferentiated from their ground” in the final line of the same poem: “Made by burning, the building is burning.” This sort of notional rhyming is one of several tactics—including inclusiveness of subject matter, balance of control and exuberance, and speedy formalism—which should be familiar to readers of Bedient’s first two collections, Candy Necklace (1997) and The Violence of the Morning (2002). Rather than a departure from that earlier work, this collection represents the work of an artist writing confidently in his established mode. However, when compared to his previous volumes, the conflict with which disparate materials are brought together here seems somewhat mitigated. Days of Unwilling creates relationships not through aggressive juxtaposition, but fluidly, through progression: “Ancient rhythms, nod / to your American brothers, who wipe rib sauce on their aprons / with fingers of cook-out—fingers of good grief.” Perhaps the best representative of the temperament of this collection is its final poem, “Propagation in a Scrambler Radio,” in which Bedient purposefully misreads a sentence from French Enlightenment historian and writer Jean-François Marmontel: “He makes Achilles . . . roar, he makes Clytemnestra scream,” transmuting its statement of rage into a definition of art: “It is a bugle, Achilles. It hurls the Clytemnestra rain.”