June 2007

Jason B. Jones


The Case Against Happiness by Jean-Paul Pecqueur

At first glance, a book of poems entitled The Case Against Happiness perhaps sounds like the musings of an overgrown emo boy, an indulgent cri de coeur about love or some such. A second glance would be equally misleading: Jean-Paul Pecqueur might well be the author of the latest treatise from some French philosophical movement. Neither of these is quite the case, though, in the event, the second description is slightly closer to the mark.

Jean-Paul Pecqueur, winner of the Harold Taylor Prize from the American Academy of Poets, has a weakness for philosophical poems -- he juxtaposes "Emersonian antinomianism" with "skaterboys' native whimsy," alludes to Aristotle, Locke, and others, and even kicks off a poem by admiring the word ontology -- and so when he identifies himself as, in effect, "a precocious child / constantly asking myself why" it clarifies the tone of the whole collection. In The Case Against Happiness, intellectualized, wry, self-effacing humor is the order of the day. Beyond this, Pecqueur's poems offer engaging language, precise syntax, and an inventive play with form. Describing the collection in this way risks making The Case Against Happiness sound arid, which isn't quite right: It is often strikingly poignant, and its interest with what is deeply felt, but can't quite be said, is fascinating.

Even perusing the table of contents points up Pecqueur's spry wit: After a bravura opening title, "Truth," he retreats: "To Start Again." The third poem offers "To Get It Right," while the fifth hopes that "There Must Be Some Kind of Way Out of This."  And the metapoetic games continue: The second line of "Truth" insists that "This is not a metaphor." "To Start Again" offers sound advice: "Before tackling the actual infinite / etherized into some cliché of blue, / you should practice with the difficult moment," because "At first the invisible is tangible / only when it is rotten with technique." Only by practicing one's technique assiduously, he suggests, can one find one's way out this "rot," and achieve the "actual infinite." By the end of the book, though, Pecqueur writes "In Contrast to the Actual Infinite," and his project is more modestly achievable, if also more desperate:

Proper names once obsessed me,
the occult power of names and the manner
by which these plots multiplied -- via dividing
each immanence from its precise purpose.

I almost said purchase.
Did you hear me?
Heels scudding the slick rockface.
Fingers scratching out a provisional grip.

These closing two standards suggest that a working synonym for "actual infinite" is "abyss," and that one may well choose, not to "tackle" it, but to see what can be won against it.

While these kinds of metapoetic games are entertaining and rewarding in their way, Pecqueur is careful to prevent them from tipping the collection wholly into solipsism. A good example is "There Must Be Some Kind of Way Out of Here," which starts out as an -- of course -- wry glance at art, "the regulation fantasy of release," a particularly "clever way to demonstrate how / ... / "the human being's leading problem, / its most tangible opposition, has always / been the indispensable burden of the body."  The aesthetic fascination with death as release, with the pleasures of kenosis and other kinds of purging, all converge here. But then, Pecqueur suggests that one "try selling this to a woman / whose nerves and muscles are misconnecting / like a joke under water." On the one hand, this flirts with sentimentality; on the other hand, it is of course useful to gauge one's philosophical commitments against reality. I vividly remember a conversation at a Milwaukee bus stop, when I was insisting on reading some psychoanalytic aphorism about love's impossibility literally, only to have my advisor point out that, inevitably, people do in fact fall in love. 

Not all the poems in this collection address academic questions. For example, "Garden Variety Apology" confronts that perennial suburban problem: what to do with one's neighbor's appalling enthusiasm for "earth-scorching petrochemical." This poem is nearly Wordsworthian in form: He begins by watching a "woodpecker guzzling nectar," and believing that this frantic feeding has "little to do with pleasure." Then comes the neighbor with his innumerable bottles of spray-on pesticides or whatever else is required to achieve the regulation patch of lawn. Pecqueur muses, "If only I could try so hard, I think; / there are so many things I cannot say / which are precisely those things / I know must be said." This quailing in the face of exuberant mindlessness is a classical problem of the overly-mannered intellectual: While one believes that one knows what to say, that one has the wisdom to correct our neighbors, one finds oneself so frequently reluctant to dispense it (except, of course, from the relative safety of blogs...). At the poem's end, however, Pecqueur reasons more fully: that the inability to speak is not reluctance, but a kind of tacit acknowledgement that "even if I felt like trying / I wouldn't know what to say at all." It's not that he was too polite or conflicted to speak; rather, the confusion and hesitancy was a kind of self-flattering mask, shielding him from his own inadequacy.

The Case Against Happiness is a first book, and there are moments when that fact comes roaring into focus. No one should have been afflicted with the lines, "The modern age was sinking / into the parched soil of the Po-Mo world." And there were moments when reading The Case Against Happiness when I thought that this was a quintessential graduate student's book: smart and funny, a little self-obsessed, perhaps, in the way that meta-poetic approaches can be, and perhaps also a little removed from ordinary concerns. As I read it more carefully, however, I became more convinced that, at its best moments, The Case Against Happiness exploits, as it were, its own intelligence, finding a way back to the world without giving up at all on intellectuality or rigor. 

The Case Against Happiness by Jean-Paul Pecqueur
Alice James Books
ISBN: 1882295595
64 pages