I thought I had approached Christian Bok’s Euonia completely without expectation. To my knowledge, I’d not read anything by Bok previously nor did I research what the book might contain. As a result, I was surprised by what I found. That in itself made the experience worthwhile.
Any “reader”, whether of poetry or any other genre of literature, can hardly have reached middle age without eventually finding it difficult to be genuinely surprised by the contents of a book. Sooner or later, our accumulated experiences pile up as unconscious expectations and we are no longer surprised. We may be delighted, enthused, respectful, annoyed, bored or any number of other reactions. But we’re rarely surprised.
I don’t wish to spoil the opportunity for surprise for anybody who might find themselves needing a genuine literary surprise. So this little essay will be an exercise in avoiding spoilers.
What can I say, then? Well I’ll start with the book title. The word eunoia, so the cover tells me, means “beautiful thinking”. The cover tells me other things about the word that I’ll not go into. I will however explore what Wikipedia has to say:
In rhetoric, eunoia is the goodwill a speaker cultivates between himself/herself and his/her audience, a condition of receptivity. It comes from the Greek word εὔνοια, meaning “well mind” or “beautiful thinking”. In book eight of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the term to refer to the kind and benevolent feelings of goodwill a spouse has which form the basis for the ethical foundation of human life. Cicero translates εὔνοια (eunoia) with the Latin word benevolentia.
It is a great word to use for a literary work. I’m intrigued by the rhetorical notion that a speaker (author) actively cultivates goodwill with a reader. I’m not sure that all authors consistently do this – indeed, I observe in myself and others an active desire to achieve the opposite. Satire, parody, irony and other forms of writing may even require an alienation of the audience to achieve defined ends. This can be readily observed in some forms of comedy. Sometimes it is necessary to strengthen opposition, to create greater distances. The forest can only be seen if you are sufficiently far from the trees.
I don’t think I could ever use Eunoia as a title, but I like that Bok has done.
I’m not sure that Bok’s book is poetry. It is a literary achievement. It clearly took lots of work. There are even some tidy moments. There are even some prescribed forms that are being followed. Yet I’m reluctant to refer to it as anything other than a literary project or exercise. I wish I could accuse the book of incoherence, but within the context of what was intended (which, by design, I only learned after the undertaking), I can’t. It is clearly coherent to its goals. Perhaps it is fair to criticize the content as artfully constructed “nonsense”. It is nonsense in the way that Lewis Carroll’s poems are nonsense. They are nonsense on their own but seem to serve a purpose in context of a larger purpose or goal.
Unfortunately, a surprise is a surprise only once. Unlike Carroll’s nonsense, Eunoia does not need to be approached twice. I don’t want to minimize the value of a novel (here I mean “new” rather than “hundreds of pages of prose fiction”) literary experience. I haven’t been surprised by a book (and respectful of the undertaking) in a long time. But that does not translate, at least for me in this case, into a sense that the text deserves a long relationship with the reader.
Perhaps in this way, the title Eunoia falls short of one meaning or aspiration.