Ian Tromp in Poetry
During 1991-1992, John Canaday lived in Jordan while tutoring the children of King Hussein and Queen Noor. The Invisible World, which was given the Academy of American Poets' Walt Whitman Award, is an account of that period, an effort "to make art / out of the Middle East's sun-baked back streets" ("A True Story"). Canaday's work is crafted and confident—he uses traditional forms and references literary tradition with modesty and ease, sometimes managing a conversational and narrative lightness within metrical forms that might have pleased James Merrill.
"Entree," the first poem in the first titled section, is named for its subject matter (an airline meal) and is a record of the narrator's passage to Jordan, his entry to Islamic society. While its opening lines demonstrate the rhythmical sureness of the best of Canaday's work, the poem also illustrates an occasional tone of knowingness—or knowing-better-ness:
What punch-drunk duffer baked a ham entree
The assertiveness of these first words is later tempered by a timid reluctance to be an "interfering foreigner." The book swings between these two positions—of confidence and reserve; its tone is an unsettled mix of estrangement and worldliness, of fragility and youthful cockiness. One imagines the narrator, as a young man on unfamiliar ground, probably well-heeled and handsome, maybe a bit of a smooth operator. Sometimes Canaday's tone has a shadow of entitlement or superiority, which may be personal—having to do with his own view of himself—or cultural, the presumption of a young American abroad.
The book's recurrent themes are displacement and otherness, noted with exhilaration ("How wild, how strange / it all seems"), nostalgia ("I can imagine, almost, I'm at home"), and a mixture of resignation and acceptance: "Only the raw sunburn that dyed my bland / skin red as native desert rock announced / my stubborn strangeness in that foreign land." This final passage occurs at a moment of serenity within the whirlwind of "Impostors," the long terza-rima poem that constitutes the book's second section. It records a day when friends stripped the poet of his Western clothes and dressed him in traditional thawb and kaffiyeh and made him drive them through busy city streets and tourist-traps. "Stubborn strangeness" is a telling phrase. It communicates the intractability of the narrator's foreignness—the fact that, even after months have passed, he remains estranged: an outsider, an impostor. There is tenderness and threat in the young man's being shown—and paraded—around the sights of the Holy Land. He is as much spectacle as spectator, and his friends' motives seem mixed with a more-or-less conscious desire to humiliate him. When the poem records "a large, myopic, red- / haired matron from Louisiana" mistaking him for a "Bed- // oo-whine!," it not only mocks her condescension and presumption, but demonstrates that he has, to some extent, become assimilated.
But then, in the final stanzas of "Impostors," Dante appears to offer guidance to this young man in a foreign land, midway in his journey—reminding him: "you're still a tourist in this life; your art / like mine, rests in not resting anywhere." These words resonantly extend the reader's sense of the poet's estrangement: his displacement is more fundamental than simply being resident in another culture. When the poems of the book's final section return him to New England, it is with a kind of nostalgia for the order and decorum of the society he has left. In "Sheikh Majnoon in Mufti," the wise-fool character who recurs in a few poems flies into Boston's Logan Airport. Confused by the city's "unbridged / waterways, industrial 'parks,' rivers of concrete," the Sheikh struggles to make sense of the ways of America,
until one night he dreams that he has been condemned
The book's structure can be conceived as four concentric rings, moving inward from the first section's bewilderment and exoticism towards the third's more mystical themes—a movement towards the "invisible world" of its title. The fourth section is a final movement outward, a kind of leap or jolt out of the sequence's progressive inwardness, into a world that is more grossly physical, less elegant, less refined, a world "unfit for heaven's airy, arid ways." And, strangely enough, this becomes the book's most enduring displacement: the return to a world in which "the senses can bewitch the soul."