The Book of Knowledge

By Chad Faries

Vulgar Marsala Press
2010, Paperback
93 pages

ISBN: 978-0982007792


Reviewed by Jessica Fordham Kidd


The Book of Knowledge. A poetry collection that bears such a name promises to be all-encompassing, varied, empowering. It also promises a bit of humor, harkening back to days of didactic verse,stroking its own ego. The title alludes to the American incarnation of a British publication called The Children’s Encyclopedia. Those volumes brought together a world of science, literature, and art written with the intent to interest and engage a curious young person. Today, these antique tomes can still inspire a wonderful curiosity, although perhaps not in the way they were originally intended. Now we can marvel at the things that were unknown back then or at the strange explanations of phenomena we know so much better now. But this looking back should also call into question our current truths. What will become false decades, centuries, or millennia from now? What contemporary fancies will seem quaint and odd to our children or grandchildren?

The poems in Chad Faries’s The Book of Knowledge play with this idea of changing truth, and also utilize the intersection of text and image to convey this knowledge. One of my greatest joys as a child was pouring over old children’s books with my parents or grandparents, taking in the strange scenes on the endpapers, examining the title illustrations for the clues they provided about what was in store. One particular set of children’s encyclopedia’s sticks with me. The illustrations were archaic and the stories and information were macabre and exciting. But it was the interplay between word and image that was so intriguing. The pictures never quite answered all my questions and the text never quite said exactly what I thought the pictures wanted to say. Faries’s book is the perfect modern correlative.

Faries’s book of poems is richly embellished with decorative margins, illustrations, and diagrams that come straight from one of these antique children’s volumes of the same name. Rather than lead the reader through three or four sections demarcated with clever epigraphs, this collection forces you to engage with a back and forth between text and image, between poetic impulse and the co-opted, didactic language of a book of knowledge. The narrator even advises, “Be skeptical of delivery. This is for you.” Each poem begs you to look at its visuals and question what they are doing. Are they diagrams for your information, are they slippages, are they comedic interludes?

In “Part One: The Wonderful Things That Happen When You Hurt Your Finger,” Faries takes some strange titles from the original Book of Knowledge and fills the poetic space with his own explanations of phenomena and explorations of the human moment. The poems may reveal deeply personal or sensual details, but Faries’s borrowing of the original book’s odd diction creates a distance, a perspective that perhaps can be more trusted. In “How Things Are Fastened Together,” the narrator writes:

…A boy soon learns
that all joints are not made alike. He sees       
his father glue a broken corner
of a chair or table and his mother
re-paste postcards to a photo album.
Father leaves every other weekend.
His mother mends a broken basin
with cement.

That highly human and personal scene is tempered and enhanced by the discussion that preceded it, an exploration of things being pieced together: wood, novels, infatuation. We aren’t just peeking in on a private scene, but also learning things. And the things we learn get more interesting. “Why Is It Bad To Sleep With Flowers In Your Room” says:

The reason is a very good one. They may
no longer be as beautiful as they once
were, and they are constantly exposing
their beautiful genitals which makes the world
envy and creates war and destruction,
makes magazines like Barely Legal
and Young Dumb and Full of Come….

 Part one persuades the reader to engage with the poetic truth instead of some scientific or rational truth; the reader must suspend disbelief. The knowledge promised in the title continues to unfold in the following sections.

“The History of Iron County, Michigan,” part two of The Book of Knowledge weaves together the narrator’s personal history with historical texts, landscape, and a naturalistic, scientific viewpoint. The section starts by borrowing heavily from historic texts that narrate the rough and tumble history of the region’s frontier, creating a diction that carries through the rest of the section as more of the narrator shines through and the time period of the poems gradually skews toward the contemporary. By the end of the section, the historical or naturalistic perspective is more a way to view the narrator’s life than an interruption or parallel discourse, as it was in the first poems of the section. The text takes a stance on mutable knowledge: it is the combination or the changing that is more true than the subject matter.

Geology is a good correlative; aside from specifics, the layers and landscapes are overwhelming evidence of change. The first poem of the section, quotes a previous history of Iron County and invokes the prehistoric past:  “The geologic column of the county consists of Laurentian granites of Archean Age.” That history leaps ahead in the same poem to narrate the adventures of  “a French voyager who…spent a winter down on the Brule River with a partner and his squaw.”  The last poem of the section says that “Carl Sagan died the day I found my father” and asks “what of these plastic glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling?” Readers must move back and forth between the past and the narrator’s life and then chronologically through the past. A reader may not know exactly what to trust, but change and movement are unavoidable; they are the things to which to cling.

The third section “A Canvas of Milk: Dedications and Other Things.” is harder to place within the context of the other sections. At first, I read it as a sequence of love poems, dedications, emotional ephemera. Then the end note to the section’s penultimate poem “A Journey to the Moon” gave me another way in: “Johannes Kepler, the famous astronomer, wrote one of the first science fiction stories ever, entitled A Journey To The Moon. He also believed a study of geometry would lead him to God, or perhaps geometry itself was God.” Suddenly the section opened to me. The physical, the real like science or the body are linked to the mysterious: love, god, romance, the fantastic. Like section one, this section works hard to infuse this sense of knowledge into subjects that could be written off as too intensely personal for the reader to engage with. Instead the two opposing sides validate each other. Passion leads to science then back to passion. Which is truth? Is the combination truth? The book argues for a truth borne out of movement and combination.

The section also continues the book’s project of mixing words with images. The borrowed marginal images from the original Book of Knowledge are still present in interesting juxtaposition with the text. In “Moonrise” one of the multiple ekphrastic poems of the section, Faries draws on science as art: “The songbirds still slept, / the cats still prowled. / And the starlegs and / moonfingers succumbed / to subtle darkness.” A scientific diagram of moonphases and motions accompanies the poem’s surreal images, and this strange alignment underscores the project to combine/morph/change truths.

We come full circle with the last section. It borrows from Bite Size Geography: 150 Facts You Won’t Believe, published in 1998; this appropriated text is a modern correlative to the original books of knowledge, and the diction in these final poems isn’t that dissimilar from the diction of part one, from the antique children’s book. And this section does seem to want to inspire wonder in a way reminiscent of that original tome.  The book ends in a comfortable space with its narrative poems. The narrator tells stories to make you open your eyes in wonder. Can there really be a town on top of a coal seam that has burned for more than forty years (as in the poem “Centralia”)? The narrative snippets of this last section are both entertaining and disturbing. The poems call the reader to enjoy the telling and knowing, that short space where we feel like we understand our world.