ZAKI REFAI Reviews
Eunoia by Christian Bök
(Coach House Books, 2001 / 2005)
Christian Bök is an experimental poet. The man from Toronto, Canada began writing in his early twenties while trying to earn his B.A and M.A at Carleton University in Ottawa. Upon graduating, he returned to Toronto in the 90’s to pursue a Ph. D in English literature. While trying to get his Ph. D at York University, he encountered a literary community that included the likes of Steve McCaffery and Christopher Dewdney. By 1994, Bök published his first book Crystallography (1994), a book that was later nominated for a Gerald Lampert Award in 2003. Other works include conceptual art, and making artist’s books from Rubik’s Cubes and Lego bricks. He has also worked in television for s short period. He would construct artistic languages for science fiction genre shows. Bök is most famous for Eunoia (2001), a book that took him seven years to write because of the extremely complicated use of vocabulary. He won the Canadian Griffith Poetry Prize in 2002 for it. Bök is currently working on engineering a life form that can write poems; a current 12 year study that Bök announced had breakthroughs on April 4, 2011.
With all the different kinds of experimental literature out there, Eunoia is definitely an interesting book. It’s made up entirely of univocalics: a type of constrained writing that only uses a single vowel, “A”, “E”, “I”, “O”, “U.” Each of the five main poems is restricted to one of these vowels, and each poem contains words only specific to that vowel. “Is it his grim lich, which is writhing in its pit, lifting its lid with whitish limbs, rising, vivific, with ill will in its mind, victimizing kids timid with fright” (Chapter I). Bök wrote the book like this because he believes that “his book proves that each vowel has its own personality, and demonstrates the flexibility of the English language.” By the end of his seven year journey writing Eunoia, Bök said he read the English dictionary five times; he ended up with an extremely long and comprehensive list of vocabulary.
One would think that it would be impossible to get meaning behind the poem with such restrictions, but Bök manages to do it with such fluidity. It’s elegant the way he describes various characters. “Chapter A,” describes a man named Hassan and his intricate hubris. It talks about how this all powerful and mighty man gets what he wants, and does what he wants because he’s practically a god. There’s even a moment where he starts a national war because he can. All of this is described only using words with the vowel a. There’s this feeling of emotion that Bök creates that represents each vowel as well. The vowel a is Zeus-like, yet the vowel e is depressing. I is self-judgmental, because words with only the vowel I inherently represent first-person singular narration; “Chapter I,” acts as though it is mocking itself.
Even with such rigid restraints, Eunoia does a brilliant job of getting its point across. The poems have a sense of rhythm, and its genuinely fun to read. With its fun use of univocal lipogrammatics, this book is definitely one to remember for ages.
Zaki Refai is a student at Indian Springs School.