Striven, the Bright Treatise by Jeffrey Pethybridge

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The cover of Jeffrey Pethybridge’s book Striven, the Bright Treatise is the shade of a black starless night; emblazoned across its complete length, back and front, including the inside flaps and spine is a word drawing immediately recognizable as the image of a bridge. The words of this visual poem are a distinctive sunset orange leaving no doubt as to what bridge we are looking at; it is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

The collection begins with the poem [in the dream where the telephone call]. It takes us through the practicality of men in hazard body suits lifting a corpse out of the Bay; a speculative piece The Book of Lamps, being a psalm-book on the moment hands let go of railing and the precise four second fall; the indignity of sorting out belongings and estates with respect to the law and suicide and other siblings; Four Brothers, the soothing sounds of funeral psalms and songs left behind on a digital device; a night of drunken melancholy in The New Humours (1); the flailing search for clues, explanations, what’s left behind on computer hard drives, a discussion on the support in a suicide support group with the memorable line “(and I am that asshole in group therapy) that nails signification to the final term in a sentence,” and it ends in a superlative reflection in Fathom-line, a poem represented visually as a sinuous single line drawn down the centre of eight consecutive pages which has the same effect poetically a nautical fathom line would by joining all points having the same depth to expose the contour of the ocean’s floor.

In the end notes, Pethybridge indicates shortly after his brother’s death he was inspired by the late Cy Twombley’s retrospective Cycles and Seasons at Tate Modern in London. Twombley’s paintings have been described as hand drawn poems with moments of crudity that destroy the conventional distinction between writing and painting. Each line made, he said, was “the actual experience” of making the line, adding: “It does not illustrate. It is the sensation of its own realization.”

Similar to Twombley, the poems in Striven, the Bright Treatise arrive at thesis as much by visual statement as with actual words, but unlike Twombley there is a meticulous attention to wordings in Pethybridge’s work that seems more recherche than crude. Some poems are full page blocks of prose, some are scattered spaciously across pages and others more audacious as foldouts that blur the line between the act and art of writing and that of drawing.

Scattered throughout the book are pages of solid black. In an interview with the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, Pethybridge explains the black pages: “It’s an early Renaissance printer’s tradition, like ‘pouring one out’ a show of respect, honor and grief for the departed by wasting a (scarce) resource, the point is exactly the excessive waste — a sign of love in that waste.”

The repetition of the black pages throughout Striven has a doleful deadening effect on the tone of the work as the reader is constantly confronted with a flurry of black pages often double sided, and is forced into a visual and emotional hole. The entire effect is heavy with ululative grief. There are hints that his brother was challenged by his own darkness, perhaps depression and the black page serves as a way of reinforcing this despair through visual design.

Striven, the Bright Treatise is a challenging collection not only because of its lugubrious subject matter, but because this is poetry of a kind we’re not used to, it is as visual, tactile and melodious as it is analytical and historically referential. It is a rhetoric lingering in preterition, challenging our cultural, philosophical, personal and political ideas of death as impermanent and suicide as choice. He painstakingly seeks out words that create tension in past, present and future such as the title Striven (past participle?) and aorist (perfective aspect?). This strategy has the effect of pulling one out of the text unexpectedly and feeling lost in time similar to the feeling when in the throes of grief.

“Striven, the Bright Treatise,” the visual poem on the cover, also the title of the book, is found again inside in the form of a glossy black and white fold out. The act of unfolding the poem has the tactile memory, intended or not, of opening another kind of centerfold with its attendant thoughts of anticipation, voyeurism, trophyism and distanced intimacy. The Golden Gate Bridge has been described by romantics as doing a “daily strip tease from enveloping stoles of mist to full frontal glory;” and has been romanticized as a big footed woman with red-copper hair that “becomes a woman you will never forget.” Pethybridge continues in this tradition, objectifying her into a visual poem to fold out, a centerfold of poetry, while at the same time he admonishes her in the poem [Bridge, you’re] as not too beautiful for a suicide barrier.

Jeffrey PethybridgeIt was a bold move on the poet’s part, especially for his first collection, to take on an internationally beloved icon. Icons are our collective memory, the embodiment of who we are and who we think we are; we each have our own relationship with them, therefore, to imprint his own highly personal story onto this structure has risks. The title poem is in fact a graphic of the bridge drawn with the letters of his brother’s name and forms the centrefold of his treatise. The second fold-out, “A Sad Tally, being a vocabulary map, an ode” is an aerial view of the bridge, originally a map in the San Francisco Chronicle by Tod Trumball as a political instigation. It mapped, by point of departure at each numbered light poles, all recorded suicides. The bridge words are once again the distinctive sunset orange, the water below a misty grey and black letters replace the markers indicating a departure.

Throughout my reading and re-reading of Striven, the Bright Treatise, I keep returning to a statement by Romanian writer Emil Corian — “A book is a suicide postponed.” Perhaps that is what’s going on in Striven, is it that the act of writing itself in times of despair serves as a focus, a purpose to strive for within the emptiness? Pethybridge writes in “Written in Grease-Pencil on a Large Mirror” the lines:

imaginings. Their sense disaffected
from the governing hand that writes
the line, the sentence,
and sentenced
by the brunt tide of a drug-inured
body, a bile-burnt brain, Nonetheless–
and need the mathematical
force of that adverb–I nurse a jones
for an inalienable and un-
alienated form of making work.

Or perhaps suicide is postponed by the actual text – with every unfolding of the poem “Striven, the Bright Treatise” and the act of gazing upon words written only with the letters in Tad Pethybridge’s name does he live? “To speak the name of the dead is to make them live again, and restores the breath of life to him who has vanished.” (inscription on tomb of Tutankhamun).

Poet Anne Carson commented on her book Nox which concerned the death of her estranged brother, “I finally decided that understanding isn’t what grief is about. Or laments. [It’s] just about making something beautiful out of the ugly chaos you’re left with when someone dies. You want to make that good.”

In addition to personal descriptions on the human impulse to mourn the poet attempts to make sense of the philosophic idea of suicide, and enters the ongoing discussion on the very real problem of suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. It has moments of clarity and vision amidst its confusion and distance. It will be exciting to see Pethybridge’s next work, to see if he can explore a wide range of human emotion with the same focus and visual effect as he does here with grief.

Jody Smiling's essays can be found in Prism International, Toronto Life, and GUTSmagazine. She recently won a Canadian National Magazine Award for essays. She divides her time between San Francisco and Toronto but her heart never leaves Banff. She tweets @jodysmiling. More from this author →