Review of The Invention of Honey, by Sandra Nicholls

Arc: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine
Spring 1993
Number 30

Wonder or Despair?

Sandra Nicholls

Brazilian-born poet Ricardo Sternberg introduces his first book with the following quotation by Paul Valery:

O Socrates, the world cannot for an instant
endure to be only what it is…

Indeed, Sternberg is not content either with the way things are. The Invention of Honey is a strange combination of a childlike imagination and a world-weary cynicism, a portrait of a time the author finds unfathomable, contradictory, and yet ultimately endearing.
Many poems read like fairy-tales, such as the opening poem, The True Story of My Life. We have to grasp the irony of truth in a tale of weird rites of passage, punishment, erotic instruction, one-eyed gypsies, and princesses. In a final slap at the etiquette of romance, the narrator, promised to the princess, the sneering beauty / astride her stallion, opts for elopement with the pastry cooks daughter.
What are we to make of this humour? Sternberg populates this imaginary landscape with angels, princesses, mermaids, but they all fall prey to the most ordinary of human vices. In The Angel and The Mermaid, a disgruntled angel grows sullen over his ill-fated love for a mermaid, gained weight, / began to molt and was moved further and further back / in the choir. Other angels breed in the dark.
The poem is amusing, but the underlying disillusionment about love filters through. In fact, I would be tempted to call it bitterness, for love gets the raw end of the stick every time in Sternberg, being likened to a glandular enthusiasm, welcome as cancer, or some giant bird / that held me its claws. In Crooked Sonnets, Love, like Lazarus / came back… In the Egoist, Sternberg sums up his final distaste for the subject: invoking that little bureaucrat, the heart. and Love? A polished mirror for the self.
Yet Crooked Sonnets, with all their disappointments, contain an engaging puppy-love readiness to begin all over again. Elsewhere he fights to remember what held us together. This is how the poet wins us over, invoking our regrets while knowing how we leap in again and again despite ourselves. He wins us over by exposing his own vulnerability, and this is where his work shines, as in A Man with Sex in His Head:

…I see naked women
everywhere and I am afraid to breathe.

Longing, it seems, for a simpler time, the poet craves a stillness, to be a man at last free / from his own small weathers. In this longing, he animates the solitary with a sad intensity. In Scarecrow:

The wind moves through it
with the hands of a ghost
on an empty loom.

Sternberg has also created his own cranky, stinking alter-ego, a vile bumpkin named Mump. We begin to see the picture of a man afraid to trust, so he builds imaginary worlds and creatures, such as Mump, and finds weaknesses in them. Much of the impetus behind this book appears to stem from a frustration with our century. In The Alchemist, a lament on our failure to understand even ourselves, the page remains blank though I write upon it. In the bitter offering A Pelican in the Wilderness, Sternberg tells the story of a father, bruised and burdened with an immigrants heart, and how his country disappeared, and how it means nothing to the son. The poem manages to reduce the history of the last century to the sordid farce of a drunken woman offering a tattooed map of the world on her bum.
Its sometimes hard to move from these worlds to the beguiling visions of childlike wonder he creates elsewhere: The Snail with his antlers moving, who acts as a kind of envoy between flowers, and who dreams of plying his trade / between the stars.; the animated wooden chest of drawers: yearning for foliage / fantasy, the arabesque of branch. For me, this was the central problem with the book. I could not move easily from cynicism to astonishment, and yet if I was to set foot firmly in any of the worlds Sternberg created, I had to perform this leap of vision continuously.
Perhaps this is what Sternberg is trying to say, with his humour, his frustration, and his hopes. Perhaps in the course of a life we move unconsciously back and forth from one state to the other, as from a dream to reality. Perhaps this is how we keep going. Yet in a book of poems we somehow expect a central guiding principle, an underlying philosophy. In Sternberg: which is it? Wonder or Despair? Do we have a right to expect this consistency? In one of the most effective poems in the book, Sternberg sets up the dichotomy with chilling clarity, and I close the review by quoting it in its entirety:

Awakened by the phone, 3 A.M.

I have been told of fish
reeled from the dark
by electric gear so quickly
they break the surface
already dead, eyes blasted,
my heart a small disaster.