Robert Zend, Oab, two volumes
Toronto, Exile Editions, 1985
98 pp. & 237 pp., $12.95 each
Review by Stephen Morrissey
Robert Zend's Oab is a two volume set that combines concrete poetry with a prose-poetry narrative. In volume one Oab, an imaginary being, is brought to life by Zend; we watch as Oab becomes a real and separate consciousness who "creates" his own "fictional" character called Irdu. Irdu is to Oab what Oab is to Zend; the created consciousness is at a lower level of awareness than the creator of that consciousness but it demands more and more autonomy and eventually independence.
A relationship develops between Oab and Zend based on dependence and independence. This can be seen when Zend tells Oab:
Oab, you should pray to me
every morning and every evening.
Zend then proceeds to give the prayer that Oab should repeat
Although you do not understand the words,
it will do you good to say them twice a day
looking up from the paper
toward the ceiling
Oab grows and matures, has new experiences, and by the end of volume two tells Zend:
I never hated you. I just needed freedom; it
was vital for me. And I had to fight for it
with you, but I didn't hate you, no.
I shall carry the corpse of your name
wherever I go. Into libraries, into theatres,
into movie houses.
The world Zend creates on paper becomes a real and tangible place for Oab, Zend, and perhaps for the reader; just as Oab becomes a real personality to the reader, he becomes real to Zend and to Oab himself. Oab believes in his own illusory existence and desires to perpetuate himself independent of his creator. Zend writes, when Oab is still young:
Today Oab asked me if he could have a wife
He can I said if 1 can take a letter out of him
His wife could be A and he would be Ob
But Oab calls my plan stupid he refuses to be less
Gradually a whole universe and culture is created around the fictional Oab; Zend does this in a humourous way, but the result is quite realistic. As Oab's universe is created, Zend's universe seems to diminish, so that by the end of the second volume Zend seems depleted, and Oab has taken control of the writing. Oab, replying to Zend's query if Oab has killed Irdu, replies:
Kill him? What a question! Didn't I protect him when you wanted to kill him? Why would I kill him? I love him. As a matter of fact, I like him more than you.
Zend at one level is dealing with metaphysical questions; he even suggests that time moves backwards so that Oab, in his pursuit of becoming a flesh and blood entity independent of Zend, is seen as having in fact created Zend! Oab writes:
This is the secret, the great mystery:
the eye of die mind reverses time,
it sees the past as rock sees the future as mist,
but beyond the veil which curtains the mind,
real time flows backward —
Thus I came too. from the petrified future
into the fog of the past where I found
you, Zend, and now I'm carrying you back to where
I came from,
where there are no words to be found, no
decisions to be made, no struggles, no doubts, no threats and
to the land of winter from where I came
to the land of gods, motionless, eternal,
fleshless and bloodless and noiseless gods—
Oab works on three or more levels of meaning that are immediately observable to the reader, first, we have the level on which the relationship of artist to his work is explored; second, we have the level, which is almost Biblical, in which the Creator is displaced by his rebellious creation; third, there is the level of the individual who is searching for a deeper meaning and significance to life, who looks within himself and finds that he must withdraw from the popular values of his society in order to create new values that he may live by. At this last level, the book is dealing with psychological or spiritual freedom, the discovery by the artist—or any other individual—that he is controlled by society, conditioned by years of having lived in society, and that only by freeing himself from this conditioning can he ever know a happiness and wholeness that is deeper than that offered by his society. Zend deals with these issues in a serious way but offers few answers.
Oab is similar, in some ways, to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. One of the tramps is Oab and the other is Zend; the other characters in the work pass through consciousness but offer no help for all of us who are waiting for, but never arriving at, any insights into the important questions of existence. There is a reduction of events and characters to the immediate present, divested of past existences, and some readers may find this aspect of Oab tedious and boring; this is a valid criticism, but not, however, of the thematic content of the book. My main criticism of Oab is that while the concrete poetry, which is a substantial part of the two volumes, often technically sophisticated and innovative, it is not all that interesting. Zend creates a world in his work; it is necessarily a different world than one finds, for example, in bill bissett's work; but bissett's work is more unified in its use of visual and linear poetry as a means of making a poetic statement; in bissett's work, linear and concrete poetry are a unity, in Zend's Oab they are two not fully integrated expressions of a poetic statement. Zend is not really a concrete poet in the sense that Steve McCaffery or bpNicol are concrete poets, that is, two poets who have in the past been particularly identified and dedicated to that form of poetry. Zend is someone using concrete poetry to complement what he is saying in his straight or linear poetry, to say in a visual way what he can't say in a linear way, or what can be said better in concrete than straight poetry. But even the linear poetry in Oab is not really very good poetry; it is competently written, but placed beside the poetry of, for instance, George Johnston, Cid Corman, or George Bowering, this work is revealed for what it really is: good writing but not profound or substantial poetry in itself. This must be understood, I believe, if to reader is to appreciate what Zend is doing in Oab. Oab is the expression of the author's deepest concern that just happen to have been expressed in the form of poetry; as such it can be placed above the aesthetic evaluations of most poetry that works precisely in the context of being evaluated as an aesthetic statement alongside the work of the poet's contemporaries. Zend has stepped outside that framework, and this will confound the critics, who often demand uniformity of thinking and creating in the artist's work they deal with. In other words, let Zend's work stand by itself and don't compare the work to that of other poets because itÕs not really great poetry but it is interesting writing.
Much of Oab is playful and even funny; Zend's plays on words, puns, and the illustrations by Edyi Caines-Floyd, help to make Oab a memorable reading experience, so that Oab becomes a real person in the reader's mind; I could easily see Oab t-shirts, Oab stuffed toys, Oab cartoons on Saturday morning television, Oab calendars, all of the fashionable trivia that our society delights in and that Oab seems to want to become a part of, but that Zend, the creator, stands apart from. This is a highly creative and innovative work of art that perhaps should not be categorized as poetry, fiction, prose, concrete or linear poetry, or whatever. There is much that could be said of Zend's Oab, too much for a cursory review to deal with adequately. Robert Zend, who died just before Oab was published, had something important to say; the legacy he has left us is Oab and we are fortunate to have it.
Copyright © 2007 The author