Assessing the Unknown
Compos Mentis, Rael Xavier Bischoff
Review by Dustin Pickering
Compos Mentis, a recent collection by Canadian poet Rael Xavier Bischoff, presents its readers with a task: to judge the author. This is a reader’s unconscious action while reading literary texts, but what Bischoff succeeds at doing is making this duty conscious. He implores you at the beginning to decide if he is of sound mind, and he reminds you of his request near the end of the collection.
This poetry collection refuses to be despondent. In fact, it is a hopeful announcement in part. There are Zen riddles to contemplate, oddities in point-of-view, and serial confessions. Bischoff battled alcoholism until the illness began chipping at him. He shows us in these poems why he made this turn for the worst. He also bravely exclaims that he would live all the worst and best moments of his life again, passionately.
Rael Xavier Bischoff is truly a Renaissance-styled existentialist, guided by the simple principle of amor fati and a radical understanding of time and beauty. Here is a prophet of the eternal recurrence, as in the poem “Swerve”:
“Even after the collapse of time
the intricate insects will still insist to take
wing, buzz and form swarms with their kin,
spawn larvae, because they have to,
pure, pretty, imaginary machine expressions of being.”
Also, in “Glittering Pinnacles”, the presence of the eternal recurrence is again noted:
“…while the Book of Names holds us in Its place.
Feeding, setting us free, all a part of It. I love that it recurs…”
Compos Mentis is informed by Nietzsche’s literary themes, the character of Renaissance art, and the riddles of Zen Buddhism. In the Intermezzo, we are given peeks into the subtlety of Bischoff’s humanism. This section serves to lead the material into his final guilt confession. In the last breaths of the collection, Bischoff sports a brag; the reader is told that the author excelled without trying in academia, and sought to be a Renaissance man who embraced literature, music, and the arts wholeheartedly. The author is taunting you with his own pleas of humility. He is simultaneously laughing at his gifts, and shrugging his shoulders at the necessity of his approach in life.
One notable theme begins the volume. In “Fault Lines”, the author presents a symbolism of self-criticism:
“Such dense foliage of character defects
to work through with my dull machete…
Self criticism is a threat.
Yet, in poems following Bischoff illuminates the necessity of faults and defects.
The author springs for a dual metaphor in “Note”:
tone & tone,
how to focus on the nexus,
index of the breast,
sin of the letter, next.”
The brevity of this poem allows it to pack more punch. The title pun (Compos Mentis also means “of sound mind”) is drawn sharper. Poetry is both sound and breath. Here, Bischoff makes the poem a sinful act, a promiscuous folly, and is able to twist the meaning to heighten our awareness of poetry’s religious nature. How like meditation poetry is! Life is celebrated here in full.
In “Cartograph Her”, woman’s body is compared to the earth itself and the lover to a cartographer pleasantly mapping her contours. The feeling is both mental and sensual. Neruda bore such fancies in The Captain’s Verses.
The turning point occurs when we travel with the author into his battle with addiction. The collection becomes an autobiography of the torment of reclaiming oneself after a fierce struggle with alcohol. The author does not stoop to shameful confession. He humbly accepts his fate as part of the machinery of life, and begs to do it again. While Nietzsche was tormented by the eternal recurrence, Bischoff seems amused by it. He is already prepared.
Overall, Compos Mentis is both celebration and lust for adventure. As we witness the author struggle to understand his place in the Book of Names, we are also granted access to his private thoughts in such a manner we may confuse him with ourselves. Reader, you are the jury. The trial is both tribulation and perusal of the question of the author’s sanity. How do you find the defendant…?
Dustin Pickering is founder of Transcendent Zero Press, an independent poetry publisher based in Houston, Texas. He has been published by Lost Coast Review, Seltzer, di-verse-city 2013 and 2015, and the virgin Muse for Women anthology. He also hosts two separate poetry reading events in south Houston.