12 November 2014

Chasing Down a Thriller Writer's Hidden Verse

Arthur Henry Ward [pseud. Richard Rohmer]
Don Mills, ON: Musson, 1980

It all began late last year when I noticed a seemingly foreign title in Wikipedia's Richard Rohmer entry:

Poems of Arthur Henry Ward? Rohmer as anthologist? Of poetry? A joke, right? And who the hell is Arthur Henry Ward?

Turns out that Arthur Henry Ward is Sax Rohmer's real name. I didn't know this because my knowledge of British mystery writers is next to nonexistent. I understand that his novels aren't half bad.

I could be wrong.

In any case, the discovery gave rise to a question: If Ward is Rohmer, could it be that Rohmer is Ward?

Further investigation revealed that Poems of Arthur Henry Ward was added to the entry by someone using the name "General Richard Rohmer". To date, the Wikipedian has made only one other edit – this to the very same entry. More have been made under the username "Richard rohmer [sic]"; IP addresses traced to the general's adopted hometown of Collingwood, Ontario (pop. 19,241), have also been used.

Richard Rohmer, right?

So convinced am I that Poems is the work of the man who gave us Ultimatum, Exxoneration and Separation that I purchased the lone copy listed for sale online. The investment paid off in the receipt of what is now the most unusual volume of verse in my personal library.

The slim tome's first poem, "Critic", begins:
I am a Critic!
As such I render competent artists incoherent, impotent
through my unfeeling castration of
talented painters, sculptors, authors, actors and
the beautiful disorderly horde of intuitive creators of
intellectual art
Ninety-four lines follow, but I'll stop here because I was lost on first reading. Still am. I don't quite get why the castration of the talented renders the competent impotent. Were they standing too close? Did the castrator's knife catch? Is psychological trauma to blame? More than anything, I'm left wondering whether castration is ever done with feeling. I should write Joni Ernst.

That first stanza is the easy one. This, the fourth, is more typical:
but of course, if you are a critic and therefore a
perverted, certified insanist with no relationship
to the real world, it is agreed by all who are
not mercenary critics and therefore by the whole
of those humanly afoot/abroad that critics are as
above described —
Rohmer was never the critics' darling. Before John Gellner's incompetent reviews of Massacre 747, and Starmageddon, I'm not sure he'd ever received positive notice. Rohmer once sued Larry Zolf and various higher-ups at the Gazette over a review of Balls! I'm not sure even Erwin Rommel was so great an enemy as William French, whom Rohmer once described – unjustly  as "the most skilled literary critic (so-called) in Canada when it comes to putting down Canadian authors."

The Gazette, 22 September 1979
Oh, but then a lot of authors hate critics. It wasn't until the first eight lines of the second poem, "Smoker", that I knew for certain that Ward was really Rohmer:
contaminators who foul the already grit-crud filled
atmosphere of a crowded world, chemical waste
pouring into steams, rivers, lakes, oceans upward
into the moving air masses that insidiously fly
parasitical minute particles of man-generated
poisons to be lowered imperceptibly, secretly
enveloping the unsuspecting body
Smokers, you see, crowd Rohmer's novels, invariably falling into one of two camps: the weak and the villainous.

Some will take exception to me and "General Richard Rohmer", pointing to words like "already grit-crud filled / atmosphere", "chemical waste / pouring into steams, rivers, lakes, oceans", and the "parasitical minute particles of man-generated /  poisons". They will ask how these could come from Rohmer, a man who has spent decades arguing for aggressive expansion of the oil and gas industry in our far north. To these doubters I say there have always been contradictions within Rohmer's writing.

Consider his 1979 big bestselling Balls! In the novel, his fifth, a natural gas monopoly shuts off supply to the City of Buffalo without warning. Twenty thousand people die as a result – the President of the United States included – though everyone agrees that Congress is at fault for not imposing stringent industry regulations. The new president sets things right, spending billions to purchase and retrofit several dozen oil tankers. These in turn are handed over to the very same corporations that had caused the crisis. As the vice-president explains, the government is a great believer in private enterprise. So is Richard Rohmer.

I dwell on Balls! because it was the first Rohmer from General Publishing. In 1979, the company paid $35,000 for the privilege. A year later, it gave Rohmer $75,000 ($210,000 today) as an advance on Periscope Red, Patton's Gap and Triad.

I doubt one of those books earned out.

Poems was set loose by Musson, the General imprint that had forty years earlier published Memory Hold-the-Door. I suggest that its existence has at least something to do with the company's desire to please its bestselling author.

Rohmer the poet is much different than Rohmer the bestseller. The language is different. A man who typically dictates his books  Generally Speaking while driving his car  I suspect he actually wrote Poems; hence "thence" and  hundred or so other words not found in his prose. His style is best described by my Reading Richard Rohmer colleague Chris Kelly, a more accomplished certified insanist than I:
What’s the difference between a poem and an angry diary entry? A poem has arbitrary line breaks. Also, in a poem, whenever you get to something you know two other words for, use all three.
     That way people know you won’t be silenced, censored, cowed.
I haven't encountered a more angry book. Only once, in "Flyer", does one detect another emotion:
I fly
free, up
a bird machine
strapped to my ass
in my hands, under
the coordinates of my
concentrating brain 
Poems cannot be easily dismissed. Months have passed since its purchase, and I've still not made my way through the twenty poems contained within its cardboard covers. It is not possible to read one after another; it is not possible to read one stanza after another. My reading for today comes from the eighteenth poem, "Woman", stanza six (of twelve):
womankind, whose exclusive role of potential/actual
re-creation brings usually therewith a
lesser strength, physical, emotion but superior
determined doggedness peppered with erect, stiff,
bitchiness not overpowering for the mate but oftentimes
precipice teetering as equality syndrome
balloons prickly proofing deflatable on the edge-push
of the drive of woman to be her own person,
but just only/merely/something more than a semen
Again, I'm lost.

T & A?: Poems by Arthur Henry WardPoems by Arthur Henry Ward Jr.Poems by Arthur Henry Ward, Jr.? I'm going with the Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data.

Object: A slim, 60-page trade-size paperback. Part of Musson's short-lived, not-much-missed Spectrum Poetry Series. The Robin Taviner cover design appears to have been adopted as a logo.

My copy – a review copy – was purchased earlier this year from Paris bookseller Nelson Ball.

I've not been able to find a single review.


Access: For a thirty-four-year-old book from a major Canadian publisher, Poems is surprisingly scarce. No copies are currently listed for sale online. Library and Archives has a copy, as does the Toronto Public Library and twelve of our academic libraries. That's it.

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