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Points for a Compass Rose by Evan S. Connell Jr. (North Point: $12.50; 240 pp.)

August 03, 1986| Robert Mezey | Mezey is a poet and a professor of poetry at Pomona College. and

North Point Press has done a valuable service in reissuing this remarkable book, originally published by Knopf in 1973 and no doubt long out of print. Not an epic, although it is rather long and contains history, it is, like the much earlier "Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel" (also reprinted by North Point), a poetic meditation on the vast, savage history of the human race, ranging from the neolithic to the nearly contemporary, rummaging restlessly through mountains of facts, events, rumors, hypotheses, nonsense and curious lore. There is no hero, little of the heroic; the poem, spoken by an almost anonymous consciousness which seems to have read and seen everything, is animated by a profound revulsion at the endless spectacle of our cruelty and stupidity, and by profound wonderment at the universe of thought and speculation. At one moment, he repeats the assertion of Talmudic scholars that Adam fondled beasts before Eve was created; at another, he guides us into the hell of Vietnam and names the responsible names--Bundy, Rostow, Nixon, Laird, etc.

It is not an easy book to describe or classify. He himself characterizes it as "a private testament/ made of odd details," as "a quantity of thoughts and events/ worth classification." One might detect in such descriptions a faint admission that the structure is pretty loose, and such is the case. What does serve to unify the composition is, first, the insistent theme of unchanging human ignorance and barbarity and, second, the voice of the speaker--by turns anguished, pedantic, amused, curt, disgusted, serene, but always vivid and charged with serious moral passion. One simple device that gives sporadic shape to this somewhat shapeless mass of material is the repetition of certain items, interspersed among the tales and speculations: For instance, every so often the name of a concentration camp with the number of its victims ("Ravensbruck: 92,000"); now and then, an excerpt from the log of some journey ("Lat. 61.13 N.; Long. 30.08 W./ Currents flow, the needle turns north").

I must say that the verse is of very little interest. The lines are largely divided according to units of thought and syntax in a kind of parsing meter, occasionally approximating very rough blank verse, more often prose. But the content is so interesting that one does not much mind. Listen:

Aristotle and Demosthenes both spoke favorably

of torture. This suggests, contrary to popular belief,

that its appeal is not restricted to Philistines. Or,

I know about the cliff dwellings at Puye,

black with the smoke of primeval fires; Sabina

Poppaea's amber-tinted hair; the lantern dangling

from the end of the long stick Dulle Griet carries;

the world's boundary at Mt. Demavand; leaves blowing

beneath a smoky Paris sky; years dried and curled;

skaldic verse. And that's just a beginning. Or,

Why rake punishment from the past? Let me answer

without hesitation that overturned leaves reveal

historical detritus which might prove fatal

if ignored or suppressed. I consider it inadvisable

to forget, for instance, that at the Nottingham Assizes

in 1735 a deaf mute was pressed to death

for refusing to speak. Turning the pages at random, one cannot fail to come on something bizarre, horrifying or fascinating--sometimes all at once.

Owing perhaps to the looseness of the structure, perhaps to the intermittent monotony of the verse, I think it would be difficult to read this work of almost 9,000 lines from start to finish. But I have had the old Knopf edition near at hand for many years, and hardly a week goes by that I don't dip into it for an hour or so, dazzled by its variety and richness of detail. Evan Connell is well known as the author of many distinguished volumes of fiction and history, but I suspect that not many of his large audience will tackle this strange, powerful poem. That would be a great pity.

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