Giscome Road

By O'Leary, Peter | Chicago Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Giscome Road


O'Leary, Peter, Chicago Review


C. S. Giscombe. Giscome Road Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.

C. S. Giscombe's Here, published in 1994 by the Dalkey Archive, is a long serial poem that concerns events in the localities of the American south, rural Ohio, and upstate New York near the Canadian border. The poem follows a direction northward to what were freed places in the first half of the previous century, looking toward Canada beyond them, which was an almost abstracted representation of freedom, a country not split into war by the question of slavery. Here sports praises by an unusual threesome: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is not just the most visible black public intellectual of our times but maybe the most visible public intellectual, period; Clarence Major, whom we could consider a precursor for the kind of poetry Giscombe writes; and Robert Creeley, the current poet laureate of the American experimental tradition. The praise of one of these should be enough to pique our curiosity; all three together make a siren's chorus. Giscome Road has a similarly unlikely threesome singing its praises on the book's cover-:

Nathaniel Mackey, who like Major can be considered a precursor to Giscombe's project, or at least a simpatico poet; Ron Silliman, a major language poet and theorist; and Adrienne Rich, a high-profile poet, who represents-oxymoronically?-both feminism and the mainstream. Given that both of Giscombe's books are adorned with the praises of these diverse poets and critics, and given Giscombe's relative low profile in the poetry publishing world, I think it's fair for us to ask who this poet is and what he is writing to garner such laurels.

An answer to these question is waiting in the new book. Giscome Road takes place completely in Canada, specifically an area in northern British Columbia whose various places were named after John Robert Giscome, a Jamaican born in 1831, who arrived in British Columbia in 1858 from California as a miner and explorer. These are remote places in British Columbia, and they include the road of the title, a river, a station, a school, as well as a kind of watershed divide, the Giscome Portage, from which the water flows both south- and northward. "Giscome" also proposes a genealogy for the poet's own identity, though this goes unspoken in the poem, a feature of the work I can't help but admire; in this regard Giscombe's elusiveness is similar to Mackey's. The genealogy comes through the topographic and geological information about the area, a kind of oblique study of the origins of the self through the measurements of the land, much like Olson's evocations of his self in Maximus, through the various historical personalities that leave Gloucester's harbor. …

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