Michael Joyce

Adrift on Waves of Words: New Work by Michael Joyce, reviewed by W. Luther Jett

Adrift on Waves of Words

Capricorn,Venus Descendant: 50 Poems of Pandemos, Karkinos, & Eros;
by Michael Joyce; Broadstone Books, 2022

This challenging collection by Michael Joyce is as dense and glitter-faceted as a diamond; indeed, at first glance, potential readers may find it almost impenetrable. The fifty poems which comprise the work, while not designed as formal verse, present as such, their visual appearance on the page as austere and solid as megaliths. But these poems are hardly minimalist in style or content; rather each affords the reader a shimmer-tongued cascade of images, within which it is easy to become lost, a swimmer adrift on waves of words.

Though it may not be immediately apparent, Capricorn, Venus Descendant is a cohesive narrative, a series of vignettes which, taken as a whole, describe the process of a relationship between two human beings. It is the nature of that process which remains arcane and parsing it is hard work. This is not a book to be picked up and skimmed through casually.

Jewish scholars of the Zohar identified four levels of meaning to be discerned in the study of sacred texts — the plain and simple, literal meaning; the allegorical; the metaphorical; and the mystical. Joyce is not, to this reviewer’s knowledge, a Jewish scholar, nor is his book a modern Zohar. But its complexity urges a careful reading, a willingness to dive beneath the surface meaning to probe deeper truths that relate to the human experience.

The sub-title of Joyce’s book provides some clues, enigmatic as these themselves may be. “Pandemos” is Greek for “common to all people”. It has also been used as a surname for Aphrodite, the goddess of love in ancient Greek mythology. “Karkinos” means Crab and is the root word for “Cancer”, as in the Zodiac sign. But we know Cancer in another light, as a cruel and destructive illness. And “Eros”, of course, was Aphrodite’s capricious companion, a love deity in its own right.

So, on its face the book is about love, but an unsettled love tinged with grief. Joyce is concerned with the passage of time and the effect of that passage upon human relationships; to be more precise, his poems examine the slow drift of two people, two lovers, into… what? Illness? Old age? Perhaps both — it is not always clear what frailties Joyce alludes to, but the fact of those frailties is unavoidably manifest. One of the protagonists is clearly suffering, perhaps even dying — but it may be difficult to discern which is the suffer, which the comforter. Perhaps both.

Venus is descending, after all. She is returning to the sea which gave her birth. This is apparent in Joyce’s opening poems. The “conch’s single / muscle latent in her lapsing grasp / gleams, like a lost dream … as the creatures ease back in / where the waters, too, now exhale ….” [“Estuary”]. Through these opening poems, the point of view is that of the woman — in “Birthday”, she imagines the man is making fun of her “… when he says she’s sexy”. After all, her youngest son has just turned fifty, so she would be at least in her 70s looking back now on those “years / before the morning … began to foreshorten into seasons.” [“Sleep”]

But the man has his own “inventory of needs, hurts, and fears” [“Forgot”], and as the story arcs toward some broken horizon, the point of view shifts increasingly to that of the male protagonist. He re-imagines his partner as Isis, the Egyptian goddess “…who made of herself a bird …” in order to seek out and gather the parts of dead Osiris, “to piece and resurrect him …” [“Art”]. In the poem “Leaf”, it is the man who bestows his “troubled vision … the morning after”. Later, he appears incapacitated by some illness or perhaps stroke, “rigged with red rubber tubing [i.e. a catheter], a tug / now, a tailored diaper like a codpiece …” [“Reticulate”]. His partner finds this “somehow sexy”.

It should be noted here that Joyce, author of 16 books, including four other collections of poetry, has undertaken a challenge, that of composing some of these poems ostensibly from the woman’s point of view. He is hardly the first male author to have done so, nevertheless, it takes courage to step into a role one has not lived, to do so in hope of presenting an authentic voice. To be sure, we all seek to imagine ourselves as living other lives; if we did not, empathy would be impossible, and ours would be a brutal existence. To see through another’s eyes —perhaps that is a quality which renders one truly human.

In “Fell”, the man watches the woman fall in their garden (where else might one fall?) and is reduced to hysteria, imagining her dead. “[T]o comfort him …” the woman “…insists she’ll / never die, though they know that’s a thing / only he can accomplish for himself.” Then it is the man who returns to the sea, a “pearl diver / going deep, going down … seeking the light at the center as if it fell there.”

The reader may see all of this for its surface story and remain mystified. As an allegory, the work enters the realms of myth, the two protagonists take on archetypal attributes. If this is all metaphor, what is being illustrated? The passage of time, the ever-changing nature of human relationships, of life and death? Perhaps all of these things. As noted, it is easy to become simply entranced by the lush language, or drawn into the mystery of the story as it unfolds … or unravels. Yet, the care with which Joyce has constructed this extended paean, the intricacy of his imagery, does suggest a larger purpose, a deeper meaning to be drawn out from the glimmer.

It’s fair to wonder, as the poet does, “…why all the fancy lingo … arcanum poured into the porches of [the] ear….” [“Nostos”]? This reviewer at times found all the obscurity off-putting, at other times, enticing. There is something the poet strives to tell us, but at times, what we hear is akin to “the low rumble of / a plow [that] awakens the sleeper early in the morning of a winter night” [“Sound”}. Will the road be clear come morning?

While I will not give it away, Joyce’s story does have its denouement, although he cautions the reader that “[i]t is, of course, too early for / the characters of whatever comedy they think to appear in to say how / their story ends …” [“Summa”]. A little ambiguity never hurt anyone, at least not in poetry.

Patience is not what this collection requires so much as tenacity. Those who persevere will be rewarded; those who fitfully set the work aside may hope to return to it, but even if they never do, they will have glimpsed something sublime. For Joyce’s words shift in the same way light spangles across moving waters and the depths into which we gaze are never quite the same deeps.

Reviewed by W. Luther Jett who is a native of Montgomery County, Maryland and a retired special educator. His poetry has been published in numerous journals as well as several anthologies. He is the author of five poetry chapbooks: “Not Quite: Poems Written in Search of My Father”, (Finishing Line Press, 2015), and “Our Situation”, (Prolific Press, 2018), “Everyone Disappears” (Finishing Line Press, 2020), “Little Wars” (Kelsay Books, 2021), and “Watchman, What of the Night?” (CW Books, 2022).


Michael Joyce’s sixteen books and several digital works span a career as novelist, poet, critic, theorist, digital literature pioneer, and multimedia artist. He lives along the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie where he is Professor Emeritus of English and Media Studies at Vassar College. Even before the pandemic, he says he began to think of himself as “an everyday monk, reluctant to frame this stage of my life in terms of what I am going to do, or how I feel, or in any other way that has ‘now’ as an antecedent. That is, I resist thinking it an end or beginning of something, but rather as a continual folding and unfolding along a dimensionless surface, not something but not nothingness.” For more information, visit michaeljoyce.com.