Literary Review: R’lyeh Sutra by skawt chonzz

Some months ago(!!), I received a free electronic copy of a poetry chapbook, conditional on my promise to write a good review for it (not good as in glowing; good as in detailed). I have been putting this off a long time: dissertation-writing has, of course, taken the front seat by force. But having revisited skawt chonzz’s extraordinary R’lyeh Sutra tonight, I was compelled to sit down and give it the attention it was due.

About halfway through the review, I realized that this review was a little too much work (and too good work, I hope) to be squandered on one measly Amazon.com comment box. I’m blogging it here because it’s a piece of writing unto itself–worthy criticism always is–and because I hope the signal boost from my readers here will make up for how long it took me to actually get this down on paper…. well, e-paper, but it’s an e-book.

To summarize what follows: I like the book and you should get it. It’s only $1.99, which is cheap enough that you should take a risk on reading some weird new stuff you’ve never seen before. It’s good. I like it. You might like it too.

If that’s too vague for you, I implore you to read:

R’lyeh Sutra by skawt chonzz
Review by Luke Maynard

This is unlike any poetry chapbook you have read. Call it good or bad as you choose–skawt chonzz is not to everyone’s tastes–but this is a voice unlike any other, and delicious in its unlikeness. If you are a fellow H.P. Lovecraft devotee/acolyte/harbinger, as chonzz is, you should read this book because you will like it. If you are a poet or a lover of words, you should read this book because it will thrust its ambitious nethers against the border of what you think words and narrative can be used for. That’s a good enough reason to read it, even if it’s not stylistically to your liking.

I have read a great many poetry chapbooks, particularly out of Victoria, BC, where I used to live. By and large, like virtually all North American poetry chapbooks, they fall into two categories, one of which aligns itself with (and patterns itself after) the imagistic slice-of-life free verse of twentieth century “literary poetry” popstars like Plath, Hughes, Heaney. They ape these great masters with varying degrees of success. This twisted branch is my soul; this loamy dirt smell is my working-class father, and so on. People self-publish these poems in chapbooks for two reasons–because they have not yet won the approval of at least a small-press poetry publisher, or because they will never win the approval of at least a small-press poetry publisher.

The second school of poetry chapbook aligns itself with hip-hop infused spoken word. What appears on the page is the glistening snailtrail of an electric stage performance, the distilled memory of what must have been volcanic lightning when shouted onstage to a packed room, but holds neither mystery nor snowflake craftsmanship when examined in a quiet room under a reading-glass. There is no shame in this: anyone who has heard Janis Jopin live, wailing “whoa baby, whoa baby, whoa baby, welcome back home” can vouch for the claim that something’s not necessarily bad just because it doesn’t jive on the page. But neither does Joplin sell lyric books as Dylan does: Poetry once punctuated by intonation, timing and gesture shrugs its shoulders under the weight of line-breaks it doesn’t know what to do with. The subject matter of these books alternates between focused rage against the establishment and the entitled élite (many of whom justify their entitlement by donning “sensitive poet” masks and writing the OTHER kind of chapbook) and righteous self-affirmation of one’s own skin and voice and personal anxieties and sex life: making these things public record is empowering, and this celebrity-savvy generation is empowered more by shouting their journals to a darkened audience than by hiding them away under mattresses. Sometimes these poems are published in chapbooks because of a disdain for the publishing industry; sometimes that disdain is even well-deserved. Sometimes it’s because the writing doesn’t hold up on the page, and the polite rejection phrase “unsuitable for print,” which may well mean “not good enough or polished enough or written with care,” is euphemistically taken to mean “too radical or edgy for The Man.” Sloppy punctuation and line-breaks conjured without mindfulness, then, are a hallmark of the “radical edginess” of spoken word mis-committed to the page for public consumption.

R’lyeh Sutra by skawt chonzz is a collection of poetry and prose (who am I kidding; the prose is really also poetry) which defies these two categories. That’s not why I like it (at least, not the chief reason). But that’s probably one of the chief things that makes it important and worth reading. Chonzz’s tone and diction, his crackling bioluminescent vocabulary, are entirely original and entirely his own; this originality is the rarest commodity in poetry today, and that makes this little volume a special treasure indeed.

This originality, of course, is veiled on the surface by chonzz’s loving and persistent devotion to the patron saint of cosmic horror, H.P. Lovecraft. All the usual trappings of this omnipresent debt are there: the text abounds with Old Gods and R’lyehian language, with which chonzz is intimately familiar. Of course there’s a tentacle on the cover. Of course there is. But the debt to Lovecraft never quite devolves into derivative pastiche: chonzz seems to get the worst of this out of his system in ““47°9’S 126° 43’W 4EVA,” his exaltatory Preface to the collection that follows. Even here we have, in essence, a Psalm to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and His holy city. As much as it echoes Lovecraft, it echoes the Book of Psalms; even this, then, is no more or less derivative than your average Sunday-school hymnbook: in both cases, after all, there is a narrow proper language of praise; for Great Cthulhu, Lord of Dreams, chonzz is a more than capable pastor.

What follows this psalm to a Holy City yet to come (never has R’lyeh so echoed William Blake’s Jerusalem) is a series of texts inflected throughout by Lovecraft but never quite so beholden to him. Lovecraft’s “weird tales” and the adventure-stories of Arkham and Miskatronic have nothing to do with the text; it is here that chonzz distances himself from the garden-variety Lovecraft imitator. In the world of Tolkien devotees, for example, the small-minded write fanfics of elves fighting orcs; the truly ambitious write Sindarin poetry passed down from the Age of the Lamps. So is it with chonzz, who carries Lovecraft forward rather than backward, filtering new experiences (most beautifully the ultrasound of his first child, in “Like Sound, Only Ultra”) through the lens of an Elder Gods worshipper, escaping from the pulpy pre-fab setting of 1920s Massachusetts, playing the cultist in the modern world, and delivering to us the modern world through the eyes of the cultist.

How much of this is persona, and how much is genuine worship? It is impossible, and irrelevant, to say. We are kept guessing on this matter by chonzz’s extended and growing list of aliases: Scott Jones, who holds the copyright; skawt chonzz, who is the invoker of this volume; the Right Reverend Johnny Landotter, who serves as a Vonnegut-esque avatar for the author travelling through his own sacred fiction. There are others. It should suffice to say that the mythos is treated seriously but not incessantly, that it informs the poet as Islam informed Nizami, as Christianity informed C.S. Lewis. One need not be a Christian, or even a theist, to enjoy the Narnia books. One need not be gleefully awaiting the return of the Sunken City to enjoy the R’lyeh Sutra.

Beyond the Lovecraftian business (it is remarkable enough, in a volume like this, that there is a “beyond” the Lovecraftian), the dozen or so featured items play throughout with ideas of scale: the largeness of cosmic concerns is collapsed into the microscopic. What is true in the dance of a solar system is true in the dance of the atom.  In “Quarantine Bulletin,” we see the viral pandemic of language at work not only in the tongue and throat, but in the “tissues” thereof. The ineffably large is figured in the small, and the ineffably small represented in the large. chonzz’s reaction in “Haiku from Below” of (somewhat) arousal to Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat with a Thousand Young, is played for laughs as well as reverence, a petty human reaction to divine revelation, whose enormity culminates in the behaviour of one man’s junk. In “Good Times in Bad Lands,” we have weird absurdist cyborg erotica flash fiction that smacks of ’50s pulp sci-fi mashed with the gleefully pornographic abandon of Depression-era Tijuana bibles. And in chonzz’s distinctive and very busy line-art, splashed throughout, we have leering portraits of the Old Gods teasingly rendered in plain shapes reminiscent of meditative Islamic picto-calligraphy. Chonzz has teasingly provided us with one page of his mysterious, indecipherable script from The Atchison, and it is impossible not to see the delicate cursive marks of this weird language echoed in the lines of his pictures, suggesting that even these images are composed of scrawled incantations, like this Arabic prayer for Ali in the shape of a lion.

The R’lyeh Sutra is available only as an e-book on Amazon or directly from Martian Migraine Press for around $1.99; this is probably the right decision given its non-length. The 25 pages of text, give or take, are not enough to support a cost-effective hard copy, and may leave the appreciative reader frustrated. It’s a little like going to a fantastic sushi restaurant for one piece of nigiri: Cthulhu served up just right makes for some delicious tako, but the meal is over awfully quick.

If anything, R’lyeh Sutra feels like an appetizer for chonzz’s other work at Martian Migraine Press—a sort of sampler, something like a promo EP for a band at work on a full album. In some ways this does a disservice to the writing here, which is fine enough to stand on its own merits. The brevity of these pieces both individually and collectively is teasing when it becomes clear that chonzz is capable of sustaining the voices and pitches, either effortlessly (a very good sign) or with the illusion of effortlessness (an even better sign). They whet the appetite for more, as well they should. I keep coming back to the Psalms, echoed so perfectly here in service of another ancient Power; I feel not unlike an early Christian who, with only a dozen or so psalms in his hand or committed to memory, can’t stop wondering what the whole “Bible” might be about, and how wonderful it must be. R’lyeh Sutra is such a handful of psalms, a small but rich collection of lovely inky gems for the discerning twenty-first century Dagon Cultist; and if there ever were a full Bible to contain these psalms, skawt chonzz would be the right person to write it.

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