Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Safe at Home:
A Review of Julie Bruck's Monkey Ranch

Monkey Ranch
Julie Bruck
(Brick, 2012)

The sort-of title poem of Montreal native Julie Bruck’s first collection The Woman Downstairs (Brick, 1993)—entitled “The Woman Downstairs Used To Be Beautiful”—embodies many of the traits that still distinguish her work almost twenty years later. Its first two-thirds read:

This summer she’s grown huge, a ham with legs,
she lumbers below, watering her garden with a hose.
From my balcony, the evening light seems kind
to the extra flesh, soft
on her print shift, the scarf that holds back
her dark hair, and for once I want to believe
she’s not unhappy, not stuffing her face
to fill in the distance between her
and the unusually thin husband who travels, not hiding
in the body of the proverbial fat woman,
passed in the street without notice.
Instead, she wants to be of consequence,
clearly visible to her small son stationed
on their balcony, that he never lose sight of such a broad floral back,
think she might leave him, vanish in the leaves below.

As throughout her work, Bruck’s speaker here positions herself as a keen observer of the lives going on around her, a tendency that led an early review of the collection in the Dutch academic journal English Studies—would we ever be reviewed there now?—to smartly surmise that the poet herself must be “an inveterate people-watcher and eavesdropper.” The frequent observational vantage of Bruck’s poems helps shape their characteristic tone: empathetic yet distanced, too attuned to her subjects’ humanity to fully objectify them and yet rarely allowing this attunement to quaver her verbal precision—at least until the emotional lift that usually comes at the ending (more on which to follow). Indeed, the sort of unadorned precision we see above has become the hallmark of Bruck’s style; “stationed” is the least common word in the passage (and it skillfully conveys both the son’s watchfulness and his slight unwillingness to stay on the balcony where he’s been placed). This straightforwardness of diction, combined with a relatively slight reliance on figurative language and a commitment to free verse over set forms, means that her work often reads like lineated well-written prose. Granted, the persistent caesurae dividing the above lines serve to somewhat rhythmically embody the before-and-after of the woman’s appearance, but overall (and like much of Bruck’s work) the poem swerves clear of the pejorative prosaic largely by striking a tone that readers will recognize (it hopes) as poetic. This comes particularly clear in the poem’s final third:

But the wail that comes from him’s a thin, unwavering cry,
as if he never comes up for air, this wordless child’s siren
of come back, not enough, too far, that has brought me
and, gradually, other neighbours onto our balconies
to look first on a small boy, who, thirty years from now
will turn his life over, say: there was always
too much of her, she swallowed me up—and then down
on a fat woman, breathlessly bending.  

This ending finds the speaker proffering an interesting psychological suggestion: that as he grows older, the son will come to resent the dependence he once had on his mother, to blame her for his future failures of independence. The woman’s growing fatness thus serves to figure this parental “swallow[ing]” of the dependent child, just as her lost beauty comes to figure the transfiguration of that dependence from an innocent, natural state to a smothering one. As in much of her subsequent work, Bruck here proves herself an acute, subtle chronicler of the strength and strains of parent-child bonds. But alas, there are problems here: going back through the poem, one can’t help but be struck not only by the patness of the few metaphors (“ham with legs,” “child’s siren”) but by how its entire edifice rests upon a foundation of cliché. In her classic manual A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, Mary Kinzie warns us against mistakenly regarding cliché as a strictly verbal phenomenon, highlighting the perhaps greater danger of “clichés of feeling” (or what I like to call emotional clichés)—and these are largely what “The Woman Downstairs Used to Be Beautiful” offers us. Beginning with the title, with its stock evocation of the loss of beauty as a standard source of disappointment for ageing women, the poem moves through a series of tried pseudo-insights: the fat woman is probably “stuffing her face / to fill in the distance between her / and [her] unusually thin husband,” but perhaps she’s not, perhaps she’s gorging herself because “she wants to be of consequence,” wants not to be “passed in the street without notice”—at least this is what, in the “kind[ness]” of the “evening light,” the compassionate speaker would like to believe. For all her observancy and compassion, though, it isn’t until two-thirds of the way through the poem, when she allows for the stranger possibility that the woman may simply want to remain “clearly visible to her small son,” that the speaker imbues her subject with anything more than a caricatured fat-person psychology. This is too often the case in The Woman Downstairs: despite their verbal precision and even lucidity in observing the quotidian, too many of the poems take emotional shortcuts, mistaking well-phrased banalities for insight. This title poem actually stands as one of the better-realized pieces in the collection (I first encountered it in Carmine Starnino’s anthology The New Canon) and is indicative of the book’s central strengths and shortcomings. 

Bruck’s second collection The End of Travel (Brick, 1999) is a stronger book: while still in free verse, the poems overall are formally tighter, less given to swell prosily toward the right margin, and they employ figurative devices both more often and more effectively. So while the now San Francisco-based Bruck’s characteristic distanced-yet-empathetic tone remains firmly in place, and while her range of subject matter remains fairly circumscribed—parents and children, fraught love and friendship, and the ever-presence of mortality, all rendered from a perspective that feels distinctly autobiographical—The End of Travel nonetheless conveys artistic growth. Collection opener “Sex Next Door” (also anthologized in The New Canon) finds Bruck at her concise best:

It’s rare, slow as a creaking of oars,
and she is so frail and short of breath
on the street, the stairs – tiny, Lilliputian,
one wonders how they do it.
So, wakened by the shiftings of their bed nudging
our shared wall as a boat rubs its pilings,
I want it to continue, before her awful
hollow coughing fit begins. And when
they have to stop (always), until it passes, let
us praise that resumed rhythm, no more than a twitch,
really, of our common floorboards. And how
he’s waited for her before pushing off
in their rusted vessel, bailing when they have to,
but moving out anyway, across the black water.

This free sonnet does everything right: from the first line’s deft simile, which sets out the poem’s central conceit of the neighbours’ sex as a kind of rickety Lethean ferrying; to the conceit’s further development in “as a boat rubs its pilings” and “pushing off / in their rusted vessel”; to the way the verse’s modulations evoke the rhythmic lapping of waves against hull; and at last to the ending, which eschews sentimental lift in favour of dark ambiguity. As one of Bruck’s many ‘neighbour-poems’, this one succeeds unusually in balancing the speaker’s arm’s-length sympathy for the woman (“she is so frail and short of breath / on the street”) with her odd and even potentially transgressive position as listener-voyeur (“I want it to continue”). At her best, Bruck holds a place as one of contemporary Canadian poetry’s most determinedly (and successfully) social poets, a writer over whose imagination the transfixion of people-watching—and of piecing together other people’s lives from snippets of anonymously observed detail—exerts a vital and productive hold. Still too often in The End of Travel, though, her poems lapse from sharpness into sentimentality; much more common than unqualified successes like “Sex Next Door” are middling pieces like “Greene Ave.”:

Montreal’s blazing in tufts
of acid green and crabapple pink.
Clouds mass at dusk behind
Mount Royal like additional summits,
as my father noted yesterday
from his favourite chair, pleased
as he should be with the rented view.

Framed by my office window,
two elderly women in pink suits
with matching handbags and shoes,
twin iced confections, swirl
across the parking lot to lunch.

It rains, the sun comes out;
a young girl in white begins
her slow, meditative dance
around each parked car.
The pastel ladies reappear, fold
their legs into the Seville.

Alone in their vacant space,
the girl in white spins and spins.
A man pees behind a parking meter,
hails a cab with his free hand.
The cab pulls over, the cab
will wait, and that ring is my rented phone.
Anything to be that girl, turning.

Ah yes, and who doesn’t long for the careless freedom of a young girl? This poem begins well, with the vivid, sonically dense metaphor of Montreal “blazing in tufts / of acid green and crabapple pink” and the simile comparing clouds over Mount Royal to “additional summits.” With the entrance of the speaker’s father, however, the language flattens out; the last three lines of the first stanza do nothing except communicate information in a utilitarian manner. This touches on a frequent shortcoming of Bruck’s work: she often seems more interested in chronicling her life than in making art, and so substantial swathes of many of her poems consist of autobiographical detail transcribed with seemingly little attention to sonic or figurative concerns. Often—as in the descriptions of the elderly woman, the young girl, and the peeing man that take up the middle of the poem above—this commitment to transcription succeeds in lending us the impression of a observant, intelligent, verbally meticulous speaker, persuasive in her determination to chronicle the urban lives she observes. But description—even when enlivened by deft metaphors like the one that transforms the elderly ladies into “twin iced confections”—can only take us so far. When it comes time to transfigure this described material into insight, to take the rhetorical risks that lift the best poetry above skillful notation, Bruck too often falls flat: “Anything to be that girl, turning.” Whether out of a too-firm commitment to autobiographical verisimilitude—i.e., to sincerity over artifice—or a too-high tolerance for sentimentality, she too often defaults to the most obvious (and most obviously poetic) emotional responses to the situations she depicts.

This fundamental shortcoming still haunts Monkey Ranch (winner of the 2012 Governor General’s Award for poetry), but as with the interval between her first two collections, the twelve years between The End of Travel and this one have clearly seen Bruck further hone her craft. Her subject matter, too, has expanded; though still concerned primarily with family—and especially, here, her own close family, with husband, growing child, and ageing parents—and secondarily with the urban backdrop to this family drama, she has infused much of her material with a marked political concern. This is evidenced in the very title of the collection’s opening poem, “This Morning, After an Execution at San Quentin.” The poem reads in full:

My husband said he felt human again
after days of stomach flu, made himself French toast,
then lay down again to be sure.

I took our daughter to the zoo,
where she stood on small flowered legs, transfixed by the drone
of the howler monkey,
a sound more retch than howl.

Singing monkey, my girl says.
She is well-rested. We all are. As we slept, cold spring air arrived,
blown from the Bay where San Quentin
casts its sharp light.

Tonight, my girl will tell her father
(a man restored, even grateful, for a day or so) about what she
saw in the raised cage.
Monkey singing, she will tell him,

and later, tell every corner of her cool dark room,
until the crib springs ease because she’s run out of joy,
and fallen asleep on her knees.

This is a wonderful poem, illustrative of Bruck’s greatest strengths—an eye for telling detail, verbal precision, and a kind of luminous regard—and yet figuratively and formally richer than the majority of her work. Note, for instance, how the first line—“My husband said he felt human again”—subtly casts a contingency over the man’s humanity, thus resonating with the title’s evocation of capital punishment, an institution that many argue dehumanizes us all. As it proceeds, the poem nuances this motif of dehumanization through the contrast between the “small flowered legs” of the daughter and “the drone / of the howler monkey, / a sound more retch than howl,” juxtaposing the girl’s cultivated yet almost angelic innocence against the basic guttural cries of our primate brethren. (At the same time, the monkey’s “retch[ing]” connotes disgust, perhaps reflecting the speaker’s stance on the titular execution.) The child’s innocence is further emphasized by her characterization of what she sees in the “raised cage” as “Monkey singing,” which works to convey her obliviousness to the injustices of captivity and killing that frame her zoo visit. Though he lacks the excuse of childhood, her father, too, takes his freedom for granted, remaining “restored, even grateful” only “for a day or so” after his illness. The closing tableau of the child, in a crib-cage of her own, having “fallen asleep on her knees” in a posture of inadvertent prayer, swerves clear of sentimentality through its utter figurative aptness—the way it draws together in a single image the poem’s motifs of animality, captivity, and ultimately, hope. “This Morning” succeeds as both a domestic poem and a political one because its two scales of concern are so deftly interwoven: while referencing execution only in the title, it manages to embody, through symbolically resonant imagery, both a stance against the death penalty and a sense of civic culpability in regards to it. That it stands as one of a handful of Bruck’s best poems is all the more remarkable because—though as I’ve said it does embody many of her typical strengths—it is also notably anomalous amid her body of work, both for its figurative rigour and (especially) formally. It is the only poem across her three collections that isn’t fully left-justified on the page, and is all the better for it: its weaving indent and alternating line lengths mitigate against the potential prosyness of the verse, setting out a rhythmic and visual analogue of a mind grappling with the moral complexities of the situation the poem sets out. (Ken Babstock has mastered this technique of using indentation and varying line lengths to create complex rhythmic and epistemic effects.) Based on the evidence of this excellent poem, Bruck would be well served taking more formal risks of this sort.

A more cynical and perhaps churlish response to a poem like “This Morning, After an Execution” would be to charge it with simply using political context as backdrop to lend undue weight to what is ultimately a quotidian domestic scenario—with deploying the fact of capital punishment to cast a eulogistic glow over the homey safety of the family circle. Though I don’t agree with this assessment in terms of that particular poem, a similar objection does trouble me at various other points throughout Monkey Ranch. Take “Election Night with Dog,” for example:

It bites, still pees in the house,
barks at every change, pulls
against the leash as if it just located
someone unsniffed since high school.

But when the young senator from Illinois
was declared President-elect, our child
watched, cross-legged on hardwood, weeping
for joy, the scruffy new dog in her lap.

It smells very bad when wet.
As she listened, it licked and licked
her streaked face, while she ran
both hands rhythmically down its spine,

head to tail, head to tail, and
then, for a second, I saw
the aisles of a cracked sidewalk
down which these two can travel:

A girl of strong feeling, and her
crazy dog, on a long, loose leash.

If this were only a bad poem, I could ignore it. If it were simply a slice of domestic life in flat, uncompelling language, sentimental and virtually void of resonance metaphorical or otherwise, then I could readily pass it over. Unfortunately, though, it is a bad poem not just verbally, but ideologically—a poem that tries to lift itself out of banality by deploying Obama’s election in the hope that the significance of that historic event might help to sanctify its artistic inadequacies. In other words, it’s a poem that brazenly (and one might even say cynically) attempts to transcend its status as a domestic vignette by partaking of the cachet of the ‘political’ realm. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it were as well-realized figuratively as “This Morning, After an Execution”; but here the attempt in the last two stanzas to lift the poem into metaphorical resonance—Is the “cracked sidewalk” symbolic of a divided America? What, politically, might the “girl of strong feeling” and the “crazy dog” represent?—fails utterly, and Bruck falls back (as she often does in her earlier work) to substituting a poetic tone for the rigours of actual poetry. As it is, then, the poem’s political pretensions amount to little more than a paean to the parents’ enlightened liberalism—even their young child weeps at Obama’s victory—while any reference to contentious subjects such as race, inequality, or the future of America’s wars (i.e., the central issues around which the hope in Obama constellated) is resolutely avoided.

This is my issue with much of the “political” content of Monkey Ranch: it is riskless. It dips its toe in the political ocean just enough to say it has swum there—and glean the congratulations even such meagre toe-dipping commands in our alarmingly apolitical poetic culture—but without any chance of having to battle the tides. In poems like “Election Night with Dog,” “The Help” (a nod to domestic servants), “Goodwill” (a sketch of a low-wage Goodwill employee), and even “Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad” (a journalistic account of an distraught Iraqi father’s search for his son’s body in post-bomb wreckage), any explicit political position is carefully and safely avoided. Those inclined to disagree with me will say, “So what? Art isn’t politics. Bruck should be applauded for engaging without soapboxing. As a literary critic, you have no right to criticize her politics or lack thereof,” et cetera. To which I reply: one can’t have it both ways. A book cannot be simultaneously congratulated for its politics—George Murray’s Globe and Mail review lauds how easily it moves into “deeply political” terrain—and yet immune to an examination of what precisely those politics entail. Snuggled in CanPo’s comfortable confines, we too often fail to acknowledge that our option to remain aesthetically “apolitical” is itself enabled by the political imperatives our governments and economic systems impose on those elsewhere, whether within our borders or abroad. Bruck’s work—while not entirely blind to this—often seems to want to gain the prestige of being “political” while never embodying any point of view that might arouse controversy, to quail at the death penalty or sympathize with the lot of servants or grieve at civilian deaths in Iraq or weep at Obama’s election, all while carefully avoiding even the slightest reference to the contentious issues that orbit these events.

The word that keeps occurring to me is bourgeois: not in the colloquial sense of middle-class—though Monkey Ranch, which besides many tributes to affluent nuclear family life, also contains poems on subjects like horseracing and closing up the summer family cottage, and so clearly embodies a specific class position—but bourgeois in the more nuanced sense sanctioned by Marxist theorists since Marx himself, designating the ideology of the “independent citizen” whose troubles and (especially) successes may be safely insulated from those on whose exploitation they depend. The bourgeois, in other words, is one who denies the reality that her or his material existence is utterly interdependent, who persists in the illusion that true material independence is even possible. This illusion inflects many of the poems in Monkey Ranch—“Gold Coin,” for example, the first stanza of which reads:

Two weeks past Chinese New Year, red
paper children and dragons still drape
the copy shops and nail parlors.
I wheel the baby through the street’s bright offer.
She hoots and points her articulate,
fat finger: comic books, pantyhose,
Beard trim $4.50, and the Chinese name
for a certain kind of orange, Gum Chin Chang,
posted above the fruit like a musical score.

From the title on down, San Francisco’s Chinatown is cast in purely economic and aesthetic terms, as the shops and their colourful contents amount to little more than sensory delectation for speaker and baby. Though “the copy shops and nail parlors” hint that this isn’t a particularly wealthy neighbourhood, this registers with the speaker only in how “the street’s bright offer”—note how the metaphor transforms the street itself into something to be consumed—peddles inexpensive wares: “comic books, pantyhose, / Beard trim $4.50.” In the final stanza-ending flourish, the Chinese language itself becomes an aesthetic object, “posted above the fruit like a musical score.” Through its first half, “Gold Coin” is notably well-articulated—its imagery is vivid, and that closing simile is apt—but it is also a exemplary ideological artifact. Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the poetry of the capitalist status quo, where when undertaking the task of writing a poem about North America’s oldest Chinatown, the poet studiously avoids any reference to the messy facts of history—e.g., that the area was settled by immigrants recruited as cheap labour in the development of the western frontier—or any exploration of cultural particularity, instead choosing to remain on the safe and level ground of consumerism, where foreign cultures reach us mainly through the weird things they sell and their general redolence of the exotic. The poem finishes:               

What gives this day such perfect pitch,
a held note against the usual desolations?
The baby laughs—there’s a white moon up there—
as we rattle west with the hand-me-down stroller.
A new girl in town and her mother (new
too on this particular morning), we’re rinsed
with sunlight and wind off the Bay, glossy
as the scarlet envelopes you can buy here
by the pound and stuff with money,
meaning luck.

Of course, the poem isn’t about San Francisco’s Chinatown at all, but about the speaker’s beautiful day spent with her child. But to answer this stanza’s opening question: what does “give this day such perfect pitch”? Isn’t it at least partly (as the first stanza suggests) the sense of freedom and aesthetic satisfaction one feels, as a relatively affluent white person, strolling along soaking in the consumerist exoticism of Chinatown? And isn’t there a hint of defensiveness at this privileged class position in the speaker’s insistence that it’s not just a stroller she pushes, but a “hand-me-down stroller”? I’m not implying that poems set in such ethnic enclaves ought to take full (or even any) account of the historical and economic realities that mediate one’s relation to the place, but I can’t help but think that if Bruck had been willing to engage with her setting on anything other than an aesthetic or consumerist level, she might have found something more interesting to say than lines five-to-seven’s sentimental glorying in the “rins[ing]” power of “the sunlight and wind off the Bay.” Beyond the reference to the Chinese practice of giving money in red envelopes at special occasions like the New Year, I still can’t decide whether to read the final lines’ evocation of “the envelopes you can buy here / by the pound and stuff with money, / meaning luck” as the speaker’s tacit acknowlegement of her privilege—i.e., I have money therefore I am lucky—or evidence of her bourgeois obliviousness—i.e., having money is just a matter of luck. I think probably both.

I’ve taken the deliberate rhetorical risk of engaging politically with Monkey Ranch—a move that I know will alienate and possibly even anger some readers—for several reasons. First (and as I’ve said), the book proclaims itself from its opening poem as politically engaged, and although that one poem succeeds, the overall terms of the book’s engagement trouble me. Second, I want this review to embody a sense of risk that Bruck’s work rarely does—not just politically, but rhetorically and even formally. I’ve repeatedly praised Bruck’s verbal precision, the descriptive vividness of her style at its best. The flipside of this, however, is that her work rarely startles with a sudden odd conceptual shift, or thrills the ear with chiming sonic patterning. When thinking of traditions or poets to which I might ally Bruck’s work (besides the lineated near-prose that characterized much of the dominant mode of Canadian poetry from the 1960s to at least the 1990s), I settle on Elizabeth Bishop, who serves as the subject of a poem in both The End of Travel and Monkey Ranch. Indeed, Bruck’s prosy free verse stands above so much similar work because of her Bishopesque powers of observation and phrasal care. On the other hand, however, Bruck is like Bishop purged of not just her formal virtuosity—Bishop excelled at even the most difficult fixed forms, while Bruck doesn’t attempt them—but her eccentricity: nothing in Bruck’s body of work is as unabashedly strange as “The Man-Moth,” for instance, nor does she favour the sort of daring rhetorical leaps that lift “The Fish,” for example, into its “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” moment of transcendence. Instead, whether formally, rhetorically, emotionally, or politically, Bruck’s work tends toward the safe route, rarely off-putting readers with any outlandishness, but lacking the sense of hazard that marks the artform at its best. To use a sports analogy: Bruck’s poetry often reads like it’s playing not to lose.

For this reason, the oddest poems in Monkey Ranch resonate as some of the best: whether the formal anomaly of “This Morning, After an Execution”; or the surrealism of the title poem, which opens, “Our monkeys were striped / green and yellow, except / for the red and white ones”; or the short, concise highlight “Scientists Say” (After Neruda):

Deep in the seabed,
when the Twin Towers fell,
two enormous tremors
rocked the eels
of Jamaica Bay, Queens.
A small disturbance
under the great water,
quickly settled. Now
they lie like circles
of the earth again,
mating and devouring,
dressed in ritual mud.

In a book that returns and returns to the family sphere through a first-person lens, the third-person detachment here is refreshing. The decision to trace the effects of 9/11 to “Deep in the seabed” allows Bruck to find a dark metaphor in the disturbed “eels / of Jamaica Bay, Queens” (a locale domestic and yet deceptively exotic sounding, helping make the poem both global and local, specific and mythic at once). That the eels—long a symbol of a kind of destructive phallic desire (as in Shôhei Imamura’s film The Eel)—lie now “like circles” hints at the historical inevitability of humanity’s destructiveness (as embodied, for instance, in the symbol of the ourobouros, the snake eating its own tail), an idea that resonates through the last two lines, which further point to the almost religious obsessiveness with which we sully ourselves by destroying each other. Though I still can’t help but think that such a poem would benefit from some sort of metrical patterning—which would only serve to strengthen the circularity and inexorability at its thematic core—this poem does succeed, largely through the skill with which it transfigures the central image of the “rocked” eels. Another element of its success, though, inheres in its point of view: while many of the other politically inflected poems in Monkey Ranch end up serving as little more than tepid advertisements for the speaker’s compassion, the shift into a mythic register here virtually absents the speaker, foregrounding the imagery and thus voiding the question of political stance. (*) This isn’t to say that many of the collection’s first-person pieces aren’t strong—poems like “Why I Don’t Pick Up the Phone,” “Snapshot at Uxmal, 1972,” “Love to, But,” “The Trick,” “Missing Jerry Tang,” and “How to Be Alone" are all skillful social/familial meditations in what has become Bruck’s signature style—but however accomplished, their consistent plumbing of similar thematic and formal territory leaves one cherishing any opportunity to dwell, even if only for a few poems, beyond the collection’s well-appointed comfort zone. 

(*) Bruck’s work has been repeatedly lauded for its “compassion.” In a better world, congratulating someone for being compassionate would be as ridiculous as congratulating them for being bipedal—so essential would compassion seem to any meaningful conception of humanity.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Qu'est-ce que c'est?:
A Review of Jonathan Ball's The Politics of Knives

The Politics of Knives
Jonathan Ball
(Coach House, 2012)

In an April 2011 interview, blogger Kevin Spenst asked Jonathan Ball, Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s?” Here, in full, is Ball’s reply:

I’m sick of all these boring, bland emotions that everyone thinks are precious and worth writing about just because they have them currently or had them once. And thus perceive as universally interesting throughout epochal time. Always the same emotions, communicated the same ways. If you put an original spin on it, find a prettier way to say it, it’s still a cliché. My joke is that as a straight, white male, aged 18-35, I feel my emotions are adequately represented in the culture. I edit to strip out emotion. If any emotions remain, they are then connoted or otherwise fundamentally tied to the language and tone and therefore necessary, or result from collusion between language and reader, and my ugly face is out of the picture.

There are reasonable concerns lurking behind this posturing—a disdain for sentimentality, a suspicion that the inner life of his demographic is overrepresented in the culture at large, a thirst to overcome egotism as a prime motive for artistic creation—but Ball deliberately swerves clear of any sober reckoning with such issues, with his contradictory claim (for example) that “original” ways of expressing emotions are “still a cliché,” or his even more bizarre assertion that his “ugly face” is somehow “out of the picture” once he has edited “to strip out emotion.” This last point embodies two key delusions, particularly common among the self-identified “avant-garde” but indulged in frequently enough across the poetic spectrum. First, there’s the implicit assumption here that emotions as expressed in poetry bear any intrinsic relation to the author, rather than being just another set of variously charged elements in one’s periodic lexicon. Granted, much bad art suffers from over-earnestness (though arguably under-earnestness is just as problematic nowadays), but rather than mandate what amounts to verbal lobotomy by excising emotions from poetry, the ambitious artist might instead take up the challenge of re-kineticizing words like “love” or “sadness” or even “soul,” whether (depending on one’s poetics) as talismanic verbal meaning-units or as sentiments essential to any nuanced account of human experience. No matter how one thinks of poetry—I often prefer to think of my own lyric work as conducting ‘experiments in sincerity’, with all the potential for performative insincerity such a designation implies—it seems dogmatic, smug, and lacking in historical awareness to dismiss wholesale one of poetry’s chief wellsprings since antiquity.

Which brings me to the second delusion embodied in Ball’s desire “to strip out emotion”: the idea—speaking of clichés—that by disdaining feeling, one is somehow excising one’s subjective ego from the text. This delusion often manifests in ire-venting towards the so-called “lyric I,” as though the first-person singular pronoun inherently bore a hint of the megalomaniacal fervour at the root of all our civilization’s greatest injustices—as if the personal really were, in a dully literal sense, the political. This can produce (at one extreme) the robotic inexpressivity of the so-called avant-garde at its worst and (at the other) the irritating habit of many lyric poets to repetitively substitute “you” for “I” in conveying what is quite clearly autobiographical material, in a ham-handed stab at dramatic distance. Over longer stretches, the absence of the first-person pronoun and/or its emotional freight is often so marked and so obviously deliberate that the reader is never not fully alert to the presence of the author, whose shadow over the text grows darker the more grimly determined s/he remains to excise that pesky selfhood from it. This is certainly true of Ball’s three books, each of which finds the author, in his resolute avoidance of “emotions,” looming over the text like a superego, absent in words beyond a few requisite postmodern gestures of authorial self-reflexivity, and yet ever present in concept, puppeteering us through meticulous edifices built to alternately challenge, amaze, disturb, and harangue—but never quite (to take recourse to one of Sir Philip Sidney’s two key objectives for poetry in his 1575 Defence of Poesie) to delight us. Put simply, if Ball’s “ugly face is out of the picture” throughout most of his three books, that’s only because his unignorable presence as authorial impresario serves as a frame nearly as eye-catching as the picture within it. But now this review gets complicated. Taken as a universal proscription, Ball’s excising of emotions is condescending nonsense. As a personal credo, however, it has helped him produce one of the most singular bodies of work among younger Canadian poets—texts alternately infatuating and infuriating, but always infused with an arch theatricality, a smart awareness that art’s ability to exhilarate depends as much on artifice as any genuine feeling.  

Ball’s first book, Ex Machina (Book Thug, 2009), succeeds to a remarkable extent in embodying the absurd but germane premise, described by the poet himself in a 2011 interview with CV2, “that we are the reproductive organs of poems … and that poetry might thus be considered a parasitic type (domain? kingdom? class?) of organism.” Ex Machina achieves this success by multiple means: the precise, often fragmentary sentences, delivered with disconcerting objectivity, that have become a hallmark of Ball’s evolving style; a narrow set of motifs—mechanistic imagery, undercurrents of violence and disease, thwarted readerly desire—relentlessly revisited; and above all the book’s form, 65 numbered sections each occupying a single page, each line within them footnoted with a number urging readers to another section, pulling us into short stark loops that tug at our curiosities by evoking the form of Choose Your Own Adventure novels, then inevitably short-circuiting—presumably to confront us with and frustrate our philistinic voracity for resolution. For example, opening the book at random to section [52] and reading the first line, I encounter:

The poem is written.[51]

I then move to section [51], as directed, and read not the first but the second line:

It is the root, the cause of authors.[57]

Turning to section [57], my eye is caught by a longish paragraph that serves as its fifth unit:

Those who internalize the poem, during the course of their processing. Who are sick with desire, symptomatic, unable to continue their normal functions, who must be isolated from their previous social contacts, who excrete new poems, seed new books: whose reading mutates into a more virulent form, writing.[02]

Section [02], second line:

The book that you write, to discover.[52]

…which takes me back to the section that began this loop, to restart, renavigate, read straight through, or stop reading as I desire. This isn’t usually a profound or portentous enough exercise to sustain the book’s vaguely hectoring tone, but given over to for an hour or so at a time, Ex Machina can indeed begin to give visceral substance to its theoretical preoccupations: as we succumb to its viral creep, even the poststructural truism that subjectivity is constituted in language begins to take on an actuality, a now-ness, as we almost feel ourselves reading, writing, and being read-slash-written at once. Slight as Ex Machina is, then—there ultimately aren’t many words here, and they’re all  cogs in the same single-engined machine—it’s both fun to read and occasionally immersive, neither of which should be sold short. The book also provides us brief but memorable glimpses of Ball’s fecund imagination—on evidence above, for instance, in the grotesque metaphor of writing as a virulent mutation of reading—a fecundity displayed at much greater scope in his widely acclaimed second book Clockfire (Coach House, 2010).

It isn’t difficult to see why Clockfire has been praised alike by critics as divergent in their tastes as Sina Queyras and Carmine Starnino, for the book embodies a rare combination of accessibility, experimental cred, and linguistic craft. Structured as a series of theatrical scenarios, ideas for impossible-to-perform plays arranged alphabetically by title, Clockfire reimagines the theatre not as a venue of cathartic spectacle but, very often, as a kind of sadistic holding tank in which the audience finds itself at the mercy of the cast and director’s dark transfigurative impulses. “Any Animal” is typical in this regard:

Prior to performance, audience members collect, with the program, a slip of paper and a pen. The paper bears the age-old question: ‘If you could be any animal you wanted, what would it be?’
            The audience write down their names and choices. The ushers gather their responses and relay these to the actors in the green room.
            The actors take the stage, which is adorned with the most advanced medical equipment available. Then the actors (in reality, a team of surgeons at the top of their respective fields) begin the laborious process of transforming the members of the audience into their animals of choice.
            All props are sterilized, and patients are allowed to recuperate in nearby facilities. As there can be no predicting the choices the audience will make, a wide range of specialists stand by. Should any protest and wish to leave, ushers remind them that the world has changed. That the performance has already begun.

This is fantastic writing on every level, from the carefully weighted sentences to the macabre imaginative conception. Granted, it doesn’t demand close reading the way most good poetry does—indeed its status as poetry might readily be questioned—but there remains much in this piece to notice and admire: its verbal economy (embodied in Ball’s rhythmically felicitous choice to begin “Prior to performance” rather than “Prior to the performance”), the way a string of declarative sentences (“The papers bear…,” “The audience write…,” “The ushers gather…,” “The actors take…,” “Then the actors begin…,” “All props are…”) leads us with almost cruel equanimity through the gruesome twist, then the closing shift to ominous fragment, and of course how all these elements conspire in the service of the sort of thrillingly gross idea that a true genre writer might splurge a whole story on, but which Ball efficiently dispenses with in several crisp paragraphs. “Any Animal” stands as a clear highlight within Clockfire, but is by no means anomalous. In general, the longer pieces like it tend to resonate most forcefully, while the shortest often seem underdeveloped or even phoned-in. The worst of these, “Something Comes Out,” reads in its entirety: “The audience enters the theatre, and something happens inside. Something happens to them. And something else comes out.” On the one hand this can be read as a clever meta-commentary on the book’s relentless project of theatre-as-infliction—most of the audiences in Clockfire are imagined as having unwittingly bought into some grotesque Faustian gambit—but on the other hand, in taking up (like all of Clockfire’s 98 scenarios) a page to itself, a piece like “Something Comes Out” is insubstantial enough to make one at least wonder whether that particular swathe of tree might not have been saved. Far more typical, however, are successes like “Any Animal,” and for the most part Clockfire resounds as a marvel of relentless imaginative energy and eerie verbal precision, a book that bears comparisons to Borges’s unclassifiable compendia A Universal History of Infamy and The Book of Imaginary Beings.

The Politics of Knives is another matter. Unlike Ex Machina or Clockfire, the book is not a closed system; that is, it does not refract a single conceit through a series of verbal prisms, each producing new colorations of it. Rather, it pursues a series of conceits, embodied in nine sequences loosely united by motifs of violence—whether concrete (the sequence “Psycho” meditates on and within Hitchcock’s murder film), more purely textual (the title sequence consists of redacted paragraphs, their black bars like slash marks across the page), or suppressed and simmering (violence is often less a presence in the book than a feeling, a grammatical-imagistic residue). Its lack of intense focus as compared to Ball’s previous work partly explains the diffuse impression the book leaves, but there’s also a verbal blurriness that often goes beyond elusiveness to become, if not quite impenetrable, then at least frustratingly hermetic. This comes across in the book’s opening piece, the first of three “Manifestoes” that make up the sequence “The Process Proposed”:

First Manifesto

When she spoke, she did not speak
but with exhalation of wires.
Twelve awaited another.

When the process proposed.
Left her nothing but
time-limited amounts.

So iron sought skin.
And she said, ‘I shall leak
oil and wars for oil.’

Then a no-place gathering.
‘If I must be a muse,’ she said,
‘then I will be terror.’ And came.

Even with the word “muse” in the penultimate line, I have no idea how I would read this if the book’s Acknowledgments didn’t inform me that it “was written as a perversion of the traditional invocation of the muse.” Even this insight, while it does open certain aspects of the poem—the way the first line’s contradiction cleverly lampoons the idea of inspiration as evanescent muse-speech, the way “Twelve” likely refers to the Muses awaiting their newest sister (though this is still puzzling, because mythic tradition holds eight or nine Muses—the twelve Olympians perhaps?), and the way “the process proposed” hints at both the standard avant-garde exaltation of process over product and the union of poet and muse as a kind of marriage—the piece as a whole still rings flat. The “exhalation of wires” is an interesting image, and the references to “oil” and “terror” lend the poem a politicized edge (this is a 21st-century technomuse, raring to shock and awe), but I’m left with the nagging feeling—confirmed by the other two pieces in the sequence, which closely echo the first in form and content—that this would all be more persuasive if it were more concertedly versified rather than being simply a more fragmentary version of Ball’s usual prose style chopped into lines and stanzas. Now I’m not suggesting that the professed experimentalist ought to have turned formalist here, but some fuller deployment of the sonic resources of the language—perhaps just assonance and a hint of stress-pattern or metre—would likely have helped lift the intriguing fragmentariness of this piece into something truly seductive.

As it stands, too many pieces in The Politics of Knives never rise above “intriguing”—and for myriad different reasons. “Wolves,” the book’s other foray into verse, embodies almost the opposite problem to “The Process Proposed,” with its tense sonic patterning and prayerlike cadences failing to mask the fact that content-wise, it registers as little more than an incoherent torrent of doom-laden Big Bad Wolfisms, often verging on cliché. Two other sequences, “In Vitro City” and the closing “That Most Terrible of Dogs,” lean far too heavily on repetitious anaphora as an organizing principle. The latter contains much compelling writing—“Waiting for my luck to bygone. Waiting, glorious in insomnia. Waiting for the anniversary of the fetus overcome. Waiting for a series of vicious courtships. Waiting, boastful and rectal, quoting panhandlers…,” and I could go on—but over the course of four-plus pages of every sentence beginning with “Waiting,” one starts to feel interred in sameness, no matter the vitality of what comes after. As for the former, all but one of its nine short sections—each given its own page of course, as Ball once again makes liberal of use portentous whitespace, this time to dubious effect—begins with the phrase “in vitro city,” and many proceed from there to build momentum through further anaphora or, as here in the fourth section, epistrophe:

in vitro city, protesters are not welcome. the riot police are not welcome. former members of the regime are not welcome. troops are not welcome. broken toys are not welcome. torn clothes are not welcome. perishables are not welcome. with this sex they are not welcome. in that skin they are not welcome. without money they are not welcome. you are not welcome.

This passage, with its stock evocations of martial law, food banks, and gender/racial/class injustice, strikes me as the work of neither a restless experimentalist—that final turn to the second person is so expected as to be almost obligatory—nor a writer of much political depth. This is typical of the collection, and touches on perhaps the key shortcoming of The Politics of Knives: most of its engagements with politics and violence remain purely theoretical, or more properly, purely verbal, so that we never sense the author’s investment in anything other than the somewhat patronizing constructs he cobbles together from the abstracted lexicons of these spheres of very real compromise, exploitation, and suffering. As a result, the book’s portrayal of violence rarely transcends the cartoonish—I’m reminded here of the Talking Heads’ jittery 1977 anthem “Psycho Killer,” a great song that (unlike The Politics of Knives) entertains no incisive pretensions—nor does the book end up being “political” any more than the death of a family pet is “tragic.” A partial explanation may reside in the passage cited at the top of this review.

In another, more recent interview with Open Book, Ball elaborates the theoretical underpinnings of The Politics of Knives with reference to cultural theorist and provocateur Slavoj Zizek, who muses in his book Violence that perhaps humanity’s unique propensity to violence as compared to other animals is rooted in our capacity for language. “When we name gold ‘gold’,” Zizek writes, “we violently extract a metal from its natural texture, investing into it our dreams of wealth, power, spiritual purity, and so on, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the immediate reality of gold.” Interesting stuff, to which Ball adds:

I think a further violence, a more personal and political violence, occurs when we use language to develop narrative. Even the simple story of our day invalidates other viewpoints on the external events, which are meaningless in themselves, and forces them into a sensible order. We use language, and narrative, to impose upon the world an order that suits us, and we use violence for this same purpose.

Several things chafe here. First, Zizek’s analysis of the violence of language—part of what he calls “symbolic violence”—is enmeshed in a larger analysis of its interrelation with two other forms of violence, namely “subjective” violence (that is, concrete violence perpetrated by an identifiable agent) and “objective” violence (that is, the violence of systems—capitalism, for instance). Zizek’s project isn’t primarily linguistic, then, but emancipatory: Violence is only a tract about language to the extent that words undergird a whole matrix of inquity. That Ball extrapolates from Zizek to emphasize the “more personal and political” violence of narrative is actually a de-politicizing move all too common among liberal academics in their reception of theory that is, in fundamental ways, Marxist in provenance. Furthermore, it’s incoherent: yes, narrative can perpetuate violences—we see this every day in the selectivity of media reportage—but to go further and claim that “even the simple story of our day” is a form of violence because it “invalidates other viewpoints on the external events” is like saying that living and making choices is inherently violent to the possibilities we never actualize—that turning right constitutes a violence to whatever lies off to the left. (Hey, doesn’t Robert Frost have a poem about this?) And yet this is the meaning-vacuum into which The Politics of Knives is theoretically sucked. Whether consciously or not, a sequence like “That Most Terrible of Dogs,” with its numbing inertia (“Waiting… Waiting… Waiting… Waiting… Waiting…”), seems written out of this conviction that narrative itself is inherently violent, so it refuses to provide more than a few abortive hints of a trajectory, spending itself instead in ominous hamster-spinning. Far worse—as I’ve said, “That Most Terrible of Dogs” contains excellent writing—is “K. Enters the Castle,” a sequence that re-imagines, over the course of nine page-sections, Kafka’s unfinished novel with its protagonist not as a searching, questioning, exasperated human being but as a silent camera, thus draining the story of all tension and leaving us to witness whatever filters through its roving lens:

Then into the Castle, its emptiness, gone the bustle and noise, gone officials and scribes, cold stone spread empty. Not a noise, not a breeze sifting snow. Camera tracks through its streets, up cold stairways, down corridors. Nothing to capture, all the Castle abandoned, crumbling walls and cathedrals, strewn with papers. Lifeless papers spilled through the courtyard. Papers stacked along halls. Papers swept into corners. Under dust, stone, shelves tumbled haphazard, sheets crumpled and torn. K. takes no photographs, nothing warrants recording. No shadow moves, not a paper flits free.

This is arguably the most dynamic of the poem’s nine pages—and yes, I know Ball is doing it on purpose, and yes, I agree that the choice of The Castle, as Kafka’s great exercise in narrative frustration, is a clever one that might lend itself to a fantastic single page of poetic meta-commentary, but no, I don’t think this works. I think Ball—a writer with a demonstrated flair for compressed compelling narrative—has out-clevered himself here: a sequence whose impact resides in repeatedly informing one’s readers that nothing it brings to our notice is worth noticing lends itself to writing like the above paragraph, the loudest signifiers in which (“gone,” “gone,” “Not,” “Not,” “Nothing,” “Lifeless,” “no,” “nothing,” “no,” “not”) tell us all we need to know about it. The sequence even ends on the words “empty words,” as if to highlight its theoretical savvy; but in disavowing the violence of narrative, Ball perpetrates violence on his readers, treating us like proxies of the endlessly experimented-upon audiences of Clockfire. Out of the picture indeed.

And the static sadism continues. “He Paints the Room Red” meticulously sets out, over eight longer-than-usual pages, a vaguely Lynchian scenario of a nameless bald man whom we watch, via camera over the course of what the text tells us are several days, as he types in a hotel room, palm trees swaying outside the window, then finishes typing, paints the entire room red—window included, everything except the stack of typed sheets—then leaves the frame, returns undressed but bearing gas and matches, and sets the everything including himself on fire. The sequence intrigues, with the slowly unfolding hint of narrative allowing Ball some moments of grim tension (“In a buttoned shirt, wine-red, like the chair. Like the cans of unopened paint. Bright nightmares.”) until, in the closing section, he can’t resist haranguing his readers once again:

I do not know his reasons. I do not understand any of this. You’ll object. You’ll say: he’s your character. You’ll say: you wrote him, we read this, we know.
    You will blame me, and maybe you should. You will say: where is our story? But you watched him. As he burnt it. And you did nothing, just like me.
    I’m in a hotel, far from home. A palm tree sways outside the window. Does the palm tree understand? It was here the whole time too.

Yes Mr. Ball, we will blame you: for defaulting to a gimmicky self-reflexivity so overdone it’s arrière-garde by now, for pulling the old ‘you’re culpable for the violence you just witnessed’ trick on readers who just want you to make something happen, for trying to ride bunk theory to real literary payoff. This from a writer who had the temerity to wonder, in a recent review of Carmine Starnino’s new book of essays Lazy Bastardism, why Starnino “is wasting time on such losers”—a musing which, given that Ball immediately goes on to claim that “Starnino is at his worst in high praise,” leaves us open to infer that among the “losers” Ball alludes to one might include Margaret Avison, Earle Birney, Irving Layton, David O’Meara, Eric Ormsby, and Karen Solie—a clutch of the writers for whom Starnino reserves his highest praise. Later in the same review Ball claims that:

Everything Starnino loves in poetry — formal rigour, ambition, intellectual engagement with the world’s complexity, tactile and aural obsession with language — has become the domain of the avant-garde he hates. Everything, that is, except for deep-felt emotion, the one thing that might allow him to embrace and love these lefties.

For the record, I find the binary on which Ball repeatedly insists—between the “avant-garde” and those lyric “losers” he disdains—silly and unhelpful. And his attempt (“lefties”) to ally avant-garde poetics with leftist politics seems little more than a cynical ploy to tar with a conservative brush anyone who might dare criticize his aesthetic values. Let me assure you then: my poetic tastes (and, given Ball’s willingness to be dismissive of other writers’ imperatives, very likely my political beliefs) embody the leftist values of communalism, inclusivity, and solidarity far more than Ball’s do. But to wield his invidious distinction for a moment: I too admire the qualities he lists, and in the past year-plus have found my sense of poetry’s boundaries vertiginously shifted through the work of writers like Susan Holbrook, Erin Mouré, Lisa Robertson, and Jordan Scott (to name several who might be reductively classed among the Canadian avant-garde). None of these writers eschews emotion; a major concern of a work like Mouré’s The Unmemntioable, for example, is to probe the losses effected by the attempt to embody emotion in text, while the impact of Scott’s Blert partly depends, for better or worse, on our having forged an empathetic connection with the author, whose biographical stutter inspired the book. But of course I’ve also found rigour, engagement, ambition, and linguistic skill in much recent work that Ball, out of sheer blind dogmatism, would likely disdain. These qualities are not the domain of the avant-garde, but rather the shared province of good poets, no matter where they may register on Ball’s quaint experiment-o-meter.

Unfortunately, these qualities are not even in thorough evidence in the self-declared avant-garde artifact under consideration here: while perhaps ambitious, The Politics of Knives undertakes a narrowly cerebral approach to its complex concerns, resulting in language that, while often vivid, rarely stirs from its cold inertia long enough to be truly tactile. Even the title poem, which revels in the blunt physicality of words—

Grasp the sheath well as you ppppppppp. Only in broken mirrors have the goals of assassins been realized. Pppppppppppppp, every shard its own currency and pppp, it is easy with a quality stone. 

—remains so resolutely impenetrable that it ends up illuminating little about the violence of redaction other than how frustrating redacted texts are to read. Only in “Psycho” does Ball’s writing approach the haunting vitality of his best previous work. Even the theoretical aspect of this sequence comes off more successfully, as Ball cleverly employs the first-person plural (“When she’s gone we stay with him, through walls hear her moving. In holes place her eyes, her skin in black bra.”) to designate not just the film’s Norman/mother murderer, but the hungry eye of the lens and the viewer/readers behind it, whose thirst for flesh and violent spectacle implicates them in Marion Crane’s killing. (Though even here, this sort of point has been made much more cogently in theory, for example in Laura Mulvey’s classic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”—which Ball, with his film background, has no doubt absorbed.) The highlight of the sequence—and arguably the book—comes with the sequence’s penultimate section, which lowers the theoretical mask and lifts into something approaching elegy:

She’s dead but her eye still drains open. She’s dead face perfect, the floor screen. She’s dead while the camera keeps looking, as we stalk through this room mopped so clean. Plastic, the car trunks her wet body. Knife-chewed flesh the swamp’s swallowing. She’s dead and this letter for her, hurts our ears but they can’t stop talking. Now employed the detective finds fresh death. Late-night snack, what long nights these have been. We can rewatch the scene with no music. We can watch and rewatch that same scene. She’s dead as they search through her cabin. She’s dead all this black for blood red. She’s dead though he knew of no money. They have her theories but she’s dead.

As in the entire sequence, the inventive syntax here nicely conveys the obsessiveness of the film’s murderer, the lens that shot the film, and its rabid fandom alike. And the details drawn from Hitchcock—“the swamp’s swallowing,” the car’s “trunking” of the body, “this black for blood red” (this last referencing the film’s famous use of chocolate sauce for blood)—are cast compellingly into text. The real triumph here, though, lies in the way Ball restrains what is throughout the book his overuse of anaphora, turning the device to ideal effect by ending the passage with three successive sentences beginning with “She’s dead,” followed by a final sentence that shifts the phrase to end—a mounting rise and fall that registers as almost ceremonious, dirgelike. “They have their theories but she’s dead”: this sentence might serve as a figurative critique of The Politics of Knives as a whole, a book at its most affecting in confronting a humanity from which it seems, much of the time, determined to avert its gaze. But no doubt I’m just a conservative loser—oh yeah, I forgot one—who doesn’t understand. 

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Hot Button:
A Review of Nyla Matuk's Sumptuary Laws

Sumptuary Laws
Nyla Matuk
(Signal Editions, 2012)

Cosmopolitanism is becoming something of a leitmotif in Canadian poetry criticism: in the introduction to their controversial British-published anthology Modern Canadian Poets (Carcanet, 2010), for instance, Todd Swift and Evan Jones deploy the concept to justify their iconoclastic exclusions (Atwood, McKay, Ondaatje, Purdy, etc.); similarly, the publisher’s website describes James Pollock’s forthcoming You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada as “essays that explore the newer, more cosmopolitan and technically sophisticated generation of Canadian poets”; and although he uses the word "cosmopolitan" only once, the idea hovers ever-present behind Carmine Starnino’s recent characterization of the “Steampunk Zone” of contemporary poetry in his introduction to The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012 (an essay everyone should read). Whether and why cosmopolitanism should ipso facto be considered a good thing is a question worth asking; given the readily forged linkages between cosmopolitanism and the economic phenomenon of globalization, for instance, could we not see an emergent cosmopolitan fetish as CanPo’s status-driven stab at global expansion, as likely to produce a poetry of the marketplace as one of (for lack of a better word) the soul? Skepticism aside, however, there’s little doubting the concept’s usefulness in characterizing some of the changes wrought in Canadian poetry and its reception over the past decade-plus, or that the best recent work to which the label might justly be applied—Jeramy Dodds’s and Linda Besner’s debuts jump out at me here—thrums with a vitality particular (and peculiar) to our moment while also seeming very likely to outlast it.

Into this charged context enters Nyla Matuk’s Sumptuary Laws, a book cosmopolitan in a much more literal and thoroughgoing way than any in recent memory. While clearly indebted to fellow Canadian cosmopolites, it draws widely from Modernist influences; one hears echoes of the early Eliot’s wry urbanity, the enigmatic Imagism of H.D., and the playful psycho-eroticism of continental surrealism. Matuk’s status as a true citizen of the world extends beyond her influences, however, to mark her subjects, settings, and even diction. We get references to allusory standbys like Wordsworth, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Freud; to Rembrandt, Munch, and Akhmatova; as well as to less-referenced European figures like the Anatolian Renaissance anatomist Andreas Vesalius and the French fauviste painter Raoul Dufy. We are whisked from Toronto – where Matuk lives and a good chunk of the book is set – to myriad elsewheres, from Ottawa and Montreal to New York, San Francisco, London, Copenhagen, Nice, Vienna, and Italy’s Salerno province. This globetrotting extends even to the book’s lexicon, vast and teeming with exotic derivations; the first poem alone contains the words “operetta,” “pistachio,” “ziggurat,” “Pagodan,” “louvers,” “chinoise,” and “canasta”—a not-untypical splurge of importations. If cosmopolitanism’s the buzz, then, Sumptuary Laws seems likely to draw a swarm of critical attention.

To a certain extent, this is already happening. Michael Lista, a crucial tastemaker through his National Post columns and poetry editorship at The Walrus, chose two of Matuk’s poems as among the five finalists in his blind selection process for the inaugural Walrus Poetry Prize. “Petit-mort” and “To an Ideal” are fine poems, doubtless worthy of such selection (they were wisely added to Sumptuary Laws at the eleventh hour and fit very nicely), but in the context of the prize it’s difficult not to see them—and by extension, Matuk’s work generally—as part of a cresting wave. Though of course distinct in crucial respects, all five Walrus Prize finalists broadcast their cosmopolitanism in flashing lights, foregrounding foreign places and/or non-English words while rhetorically favouring modes descended from the sort of urbane associative deadpan first bequeathed to English-language poetry through Eliot’s transfigurations of Laforgue, and later made inescapable in a more digressional form through the rise to prominence of the inveterate Francophile Ashbery. I’m not taking any issue with these selections—all five are very interesting poems, and any is worthy of winning such a contest—nor am I suggesting some insidious agenda on Lista’s part—tastemakers set forth tastes, and his evince considered cultivation—but it’s worth pointing out that despite the pluralistic worldview on display in each individual poem, the finalists as a group advertise less the diversity of poetic practices ongoing in Canada than aspects of a coalescing fashion. Did the four poets write their poems as conscious cash-ins on the increasing acclaim granted similar poetic strategies? Of course not. But there they are, being fêted for very real singularities that nonetheless serve to push many of the same hot buttons. Such is what Walter Benjamin called “the mute impenetrable nebula of fashion, where the understanding cannot follow.” (*)

Most poets want, at depth, to think of themselves as singular geniuses, and so contextualizing their work in relation to fashion risks, I know, seeming dismissive. This isn’t the case here: not in relation to the Walrus Prize finalists, the contest itself, or especially Sumptuary Laws. I’ve taken this circuitous way of approaching Matuk’s remarkable book for two reasons. First, because it will undoubtedly be read, praised, and critiqued within this fashionable context, but largely implicitly—and I think that making this context explicit will in fact allow the book’s considerable singular strengths to stand out more clearly, unclouded by (let’s put it plainly) hype. My impulse at air-clearing has personal roots, too: I first encountered Matuk’s work at a launch in Toronto for her substantial chapbook Oneiric (Frog Hollow, 2009) and in hearing her read was immediately struck by the lushness of diction, the risky willingness to disorient rhetorically, and the overall impression of uniqueness her work conveyed. Having admired the poems I came across in intervening years—in CNQ and Maisonneuve specifically—I caught news of Sumptuary Laws in early summer and contacted Véhicule, who sent me review proofs back in July. So despite my characterization of her work as part of a current wave, I know that Matuk isn’t some janey-come-lately, and that her apparent fashionability is at least partly a temporal coincidence. Many poems from Oneiric appear recast in Sumptuary Laws, and have likely been brewing for pushing a decade. This is the antithesis of—to borrow a phrase Zachariah Wells’s reviews put in my head years ago—the “rushed-into-print” debut, and its long gestation pays off.

This brings me to my second, more immediately textual reason for approaching this book through the subject of fashion—one rooted in the utter appropriateness of the title. “Sumptuary laws” refer to laws designed to restrict excessive expenditures (in clothing, food, drink, household items, etc) in the interest of preventing extravagance and luxury, whether for religio-ethical reasons or to maintain visible class distinctions, upholding societal hierarchies. “Sumptuary” shares a root with “sumptuous”—which Matuk’s language frequently is—in the Latin verb sūmĕre, to consume or spend—which activities her speakers frequently engage in or reflect upon. As crucial as what they consume materially, however, is what consumes them psychically: desire. The poems in Sumptuary Laws continually stage our urge to sumptuousness—the ways we creatures adorn ourselves in the hungry eyes of the world—as the proxy of Eros. In vulgar terms, this isn’t insightful—we dress up in the hope that someone will want to undress us—but Matuk inflects this conundrum in myriad fascinating ways, with her view of the world’s sumptuous materiality as a front for erotic wants unfolding so expansively as to encompass even nature. Here’s the opening of “Poseurs,” a kind of skeleton-key poem:

Walking stick insects were a late childhood horror,
ugly as an umbrella’s disrobing.
Moths, with brown wings the prize of
Asian fan-makers, pestered them like paparazzi.

This free-verse quatrain touches on many of the book’s key motifs. The “Walking stick insects” are of course the eponymous poseurs, though unlike their human counterparts their pretensions are unintentional, inborn. Perhaps this is why they “were late childhood horrors”—because they seem to naturalize a fakery the child had already been taught to fear—though given the surrealist (and therefore Freudian) influence pervading the collection, one can’t be remiss in linking “stick” to phallus. The next line confirms this, with “ugly as an umbrella’s disrobing” evoking both a seductive undressing and a stripping-down of the ladylike parasol to a long rod. (Guffaw if you will, but barring such a reading the simile lacks precision: Matuk has a skill with superficially imprecise similes that often end up being, on closer examination, grotesquely apt.) That even brown-winged moths, the drabs of the insect world, should end up of fashionable use to “Asian fan-makers” fits perfectly with the book’s consuming cosmopolitanism. But perhaps the moths deserve their mass extermination—how many wings to make a drawing-room fan?—pestering the walking sticks “like paparazzi” as they do. Desire and revulsion, elegance and violence, spectatorship and the dark theatre of the mind: Matuk’s speakers continually flit among these polarities. And yet I risk making the book sound too serious, for Sumptuary Laws is characteristically playful in its probings, often emanating a kind of sardonic glee. “Poseurs” continues:

That Peruvian variety, a race almost entirely female,
would come down from the Morello cherry long after sunset;
after the plums turned the humid blue they want to be,
after trees sighed and inhaled the nearby jasmine, blooming
nightly to dream-lives as smooth-complected date palms
for some caliph’s odalisque
or the low-stress Oregonian monkey-puzzles,
a species whose softly-prickled, rounded shoehorn limbs
propose new kinds of orgasm.

Ouch—but ooh. Conceptually speaking, what are we to make of this? As we watch an “almost entirely female” race of moths (or is it walking sticks?) “come down” from the “cherry” amid “humid blue” plums and post-sighing trees, should anything be tingling other than our pleasure centres? When the grammar breaks down at “blooming / nightly to dream-lives as smooth-complected date palms…” do we care? Or has the spell been sufficiently cast: are we as commoners genie-lamped to some “caliph’s odalisque,” dumb with wondrous incomprehension and rapt at the insertion of Araucaria araucana, the puzzling apotheosis of the phallus? For the record, I find this passage utterly convincing, as its rhythmic weft, its touch of breathless anaphora, and its almost Keatsian luxuriation in image-words comprise something both aesthetically admirable and sensually immersive, both skillful and sexy. So when the poem shifts modes in its final verse paragraph, I can’t help but feel a bit let down:

Walking stick insects
were squibs sent from the natural world,
little stand-up comics
fashioned after mutineered twigs. Given half a chance,
the poseurs would neither walk nor meander,
neither perambulate nor otherwise imitate
Wordsworth or Nietzsche. Like the wives of 17th century
men of garden science, they loitered and lolled
between vivariums and cabinets of curiosity,
dividing their time between joy and sloth.

The poem no doubt needs a rhetorical shift at this point, but the return to the flatly declarative here rings, well, flat. The simple past “were” is one of weakest verbs in the English language, lacking even the ontological absoluteness of “are,” much less the torque of any more kinetic choice. So despite the interesting diction for which Matuk can always be relied upon (“squibs,” “mutineered”) those first four lines not only tell us very little—walking stick insects look like walking sticks?—they also deflate the sensual delirium of the previous verse paragraph. The next two lines, with their showy piling-up of near-synonyms (“walk,” “meander,” “perambulate”), sound like wheel-spinning, an expert wordsmith hammering at a heatless forge. The references to Wordsworth and Nietzsche establish intellectual cred, sure, but why—because they liked to walk? (Yes, that is why: the explanatory Commentary at the back of the book tells us so. More on that later.) The final three-plus lines find Matuk regaining her command—there’s her talent for simile again, and her skill at fleshing out decadence—and the poem ends brilliantly, with “dividing their time” evoking the jet-setting lifestyles of hipster youth and socialites alike, implicitly casting “joy and sloth” as locales rather than just states of being. Overall, “Poseurs” is a magnetic, erotic, virtuosic poem that briefly lapses into a flatness which—while unable to detract from the brilliance of its climactic middle section—nonetheless undermines the overall effect of the whole.

With the caveat that Matuk’s best is as good as anybody’s—make no mistake, Sumptuary Laws is a signpost book deserving of wide attention—the sentiment of that previous sentence could serve to characterize much of the collection. This tendency to lapse can at least partly be attributed to Matuk’s approach to form: besides a single loose pantoum (the excellent “Freudian Slips,” which begins and ends with the killer line, “Forgetting: that terrible liar”) none of the book’s poems operate within strict formal constraints, with many of them in a free verse so free as to seem almost random. Granted, Matuk’s defined sensibility serves to unify these poems beneath any apparent formal randomness; but combined with her associative approach to rhetoric, this dearth of visible structure means that many pieces seem on the verge of unhinging into incoherence. Of course, this is part of what makes the collection so exhilarating: at its best moments one feels oneself, as reader, caught at the centre of a linguistic whirlpool, head just above water, revelling in the risk and tumult of it all. But as Eliot quipped, “Vers libre does not exist”—by which he meant it should not exist, in the sense that “the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse”—and occasionally in Sumptuary Laws, one feels the absence of that or any other formal ghost, so that the poem seems held together by little other than the force of Matuk’s personality. This is likely why those pieces that find her imposing stricter shape on her free verse resonate as some of the book’s strongest. Here in its entirety is “Lust,” a clear highlight: 

The remarkable undulating hunt-lights of Japanese sting-jellies,
whose beige vein-membranes glimmer as the patina
of a vampire’s salve on a bee-stung labial lip 

behave such as vague swimmers—zombie-safes—
sluggish from a century of patience, and the dream of satiety.
Casting wants character-actors at a cocktail lounge.

These horny chandeliers, snail-antennae reeling in champagne,
move forward like sharks after a foaming nutritional purse,
cinema vérité, Imagination’s picture show.

How deep is the ocean? Where does the corner
of my mind meet the false dilemma? Oily canister,
stormlight flicker! I don’t trust you; then, I do.

Matuk’s choice to constrain herself into tercets here helps unloose a tensile rhythmic energy, as her always-compelling diction tautens against the borders of her imposed form. Urged to rein itself in, “Lust” vanquishes any hint of the prosy or meandering, issuing in a brilliant distillation of Matuk’s aesthetic. Note how the play of assonance, alliteration, and internally echoing consonants heightens the menacing eroticism of the first five lines (“undulating hunt-lights,” “beige vein-membranes,” “vampire’s salve,” “labial lip,” vague/safes/patience/satiety, swimmers/safes/sluggish/satiety); how alliteration is skillfully turned to an almost-opposite, satirical purpose in line six (“Casting wants character actors at cocktail lounge”); how the surrealist obscurity of the imagery doesn’t feel at all excessive or indulgent when conveyed so rhythmically (the third tercet resonates with the odd mix of precision and disorientation that marks Dalí’s best work, while also sounding uncannily like Marianne Moore); and how the dime-turns of the final tercet—first to the interrogative mode, then to the exclamatory, then to the first-person declarative—ring as both artistically calculated and instinctually right, concluding the poem on a note pitched between vulnerability and abandon that feels emotionally earned. At her best (as here), Matuk succeeds in making poems that both illuminate the desire inherent in language itself—the way words, hopelessly smitten, thrust out to possess their referents—and display that desire ecstatically at work in the world, with all the happy damage it does to us.

The ending of “Lust” highlights a crucial fact about Sumptuary Laws: for all its verbal dynamism and hot-button sense of Now-ness, the collection emanates from a lived emotional core. Though its first section (of which “Lust” is the title poem) dwells primarily in present-tense and future-driven wanting, as the book proceeds through its four main sections the poems increasingly desire backwards: remembering, regretting, longing for when things were better. For the most part, Matuk’s savvy, self-reflexive approach ensures that her speakers’ yearning doesn’t lapse into unironic bathos (I’d single out “Return to Metcalfe Street” as the one exception to this: it’s tough to end a poem on the line, “And so far from home” without importing a freight of sentimentality that has no place in so agile a collection). Instead, they usually remain wisely wary of their own impulse to nostalgia; poems like “The Hashish of 1975,” “The Dream of Driving on Dupont Street,” “Weston Road,” and “Tragedy of Two” convey memory’s oneiric pull upon our present selves with vividness and originality, never giving over to the easy heart-tug. Out of the juxtaposition between such poems and more carnivalesque pieces like “Poseurs” and “Lust” (plus “Aquarium,” “Spring,” “Petite-mort,” “To an Ideal,” and “Revolution”—all very strong entries in that mode), a clear but ambivalent worldview emerges: one that cavorts in the multifariousness of things while also feeling a keen disappointment that such cavorting shouldn’t amount to something more lasting. “Flaccid” sets this out the latter half of this equation relatively straightforwardly:

Like a crest falling in a foghorn,
or the bottom of a bad year in wines,
or anemic pomegranate seeds in a beanbag paunch:
we remember something working before.

We collect figurines, pre-downturn memorabilia,
treating the past as a lesser limb lost to greater symptoms.
Just part of life’s animal, an invertebrate
with a blue-cast face. 

The decision doesn’t surprise us,
and we accept that our habit for hope,
haunching merrily along,
will sometimes wheeze for breath

or other richly oxygenated highs, playing straight man
to a more capable punchline.
Too much light sheds truths.
Dried plums. The prick of a crispy husk.

Nothing that won’t come back again.
Nowhere to go but up.

This poem sets me on a fence. On the one hand, its precision amid loose quatrains makes it another felicitous example of Matuk freeing rhythmic energy through formal constraint. So much is skillful here: the string of three deft similes that begin the poem, the way the second quatrain’s simile (“the past as a lesser limb lost to greater symptoms”) is quickly warped and darkened through a surreal metaphor (“an invertebrate / with a blue-cast face”), the canny shift to monosyllables at the moment of truth (“Too much light sheds truths”), and the somber pinpointing of those truths through sentence fragment—a device Matuk uses sparingly and, therefore, effectively (“Dried plums. The prick of a crispy husk.”). On the other hand, in too neatly summing up the poem’s roots in dissatisfaction and deflated hope, the poem’s last two lines risk revealing that not much is going on here thematically: things used to be better, they’ve steadily gotten worse, we’ve hit bottom, “Nowhere to go but up.” On one hand, this ending can be dismissed as an egregious cliché. On the other hand, one might argue that the worn phrase is earned, and indeed rescued into freshness, by the obvious vitality of what precedes it. See the game I’m playing here? On one hand, on the other hand, on one hand… Matuk’s work continually raises aesthetic questions, prompting us to examine where we stand in relation to the choices it embodies—and this, I would argue, is a telling sign of Sumptuary Laws’s essential excellence. With mediocre poetry, we either can’t see significant evidence of the poet’s grappling with the many spectral aesthetic possibilities she may or may not have actualized, or we don’t care because her choices aren’t made with great enough talent or high enough stakes. In Matuk’s work, however, talent and stakes are everywhere, leading us as readers to fully invest in the aesthetic risks she takes.

No risk is likely to prove more divisive than her choice to include an 11-page Commentary as the book’s fifth section. Alternately elaborative, explanatory, and tangential, the Commentary—while not at all smacking of the self-canonization that inflects, for instance, Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land—troubles one’s sense of Matuk’s commitment to what emerges over the course of the collection as a fairly unified aesthetic: an urbane, surrealist-influenced, lexically ingenious whip-smartness shot through with a beating-heart desire. Take this exemplary verse paragraph from “Theory”:

Say your octopus, neglected for some months,
leaps out of the living room tank,
and flails on the furniture, settling on the floor like a thing
that claims not to be a pipe.
This is the Real, the Vegas floorshow
materialized from a bubbling cauldron,
a showpiece you consider décor and therefore, life.       

I cite this passage first to highlight its strength and typicality: we get the octopus, Art Nouveau’s go-to symbol of uncontrollable feminine sexuality; we get said octopus characterized as the Lacanian Real, the very source of consuming desire; and we get it further characterized as “a showpiece you consider décor and therefore, life”—a line that epitomizes the collection’s animating fever-dream of style collapsing into substance. And of course we also get the allusion to Magritte—which brings me to my second reason for citing this passage. Rather than allowing us to feel clever for spotting this allusion, the Commentary instead glosses the phrase claims not to be a pipe in the following way:

René Magritte’s painting “La trahison des images” (1928) is of a pipe and shows this text in cursive: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” It makes me think of theories, because they are a conglomeration of portrayal and conjecture about a thing, but not that thing.

Granted, one could only feel mildly clever for spotting this allusion (given the surrealist provenance of Sumptuary Laws, Magritte’s most famous work is not exactly an unexpected point of reference), but nonetheless I believe that rather than explaining in any fruitful way, such a note actually ends up denying readers something. I felt this more keenly in regards to the poem “Detachment,” when I immediately recognized “taxidermied emu heads” on the wall of a bar to refer to Bily Kun, a Mont Royal it-spot that was a regular novelty stop of mine the year I lived in Montréal. Here I felt I’d shared something with the poet, a kind of in-club secret, only to be disappointed to find the reference explained for the uninitiated in the Commentary. But beyond these personal (and okay, maybe petulant) reasons for begrudging the explanatory notes, there’s also the sense I get of Matuk betraying her own risks: the poems of Sumptuary Laws frequently exhilarate in their willingness to take us to the dizzying brink of incomprehension before yanking us back, and too many of those precipices get explained into safety here. There is, however, more than just explanation going on in the Commentary. In glossing the quietly devastating book-ending poem “Wishful Thinking,” for example, the note homes in on the speaker’s claim that “it costs almost nothing // to get to perfume country” (presumably from Nice, where the poem is set). Rather than simply explain what is meant by perfume country, the note finds Matuk spinning out a two-paragraph anecdote, travel-lit style (“My small 2-star hotel stood in a shabby street near the gare Nice-Ville”), first about a trip to the French Riviera she took in May 2007, and then about her wistful relationship with Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue). Reflecting on the “flood of tears” that afflict her every time she watches the film, Matuk writes:

Is it because the film shows what I believe, that nothing beautiful can last, that if it is beautiful, it must be fleeting? It’s the same mnemonic flood one has on smelling a perfume from long ago—some imprecise sense of loss, of a particular time and place (or person) possesses the mind. This flooding sense of the forlorn runs deep in my imagination merely due to what remains, what lingers, though it is never apparent to me that this feeling is not wishful thinking. 

These serve as the last words of the collection. While I find the voice that emerges here (and throughout the more anecdotal notes in the Commentary) appealing in its emotional directnessespecially as juxtaposed with the more concerted elusiveness of the poemsand while I do admire the skill with which Matuk circles the long note back to both its ostensible purpose (to gloss “perfume country”) and the title of the poem it annotates (“Wishful Thinking”), this door out nonetheless leaves me exiting the book uneasy. Doesn’t the poem—which as I’ve said, is excellent—traverse this emotional terrain more affectingly? Don’t poems derive much of their power from what they leave unsaid? So as much as the closing Commentary may lend the book a certain postmodern cachet—as genres collide, with Matuk’s poetic and discursive voices interwoven—I ultimately would have preferred a slimmer, more enigmatic volume, one that more fully inhabited the seductive sense of hazard embodied in the poems. Still, though the Commentary ought to be addressed, it need not be dwelled upon: the poems are the crux here, and they comprise a collection of almost limitless intrigue, in an unusually singular and compelling voice.

(*) Obviously I wrote the first part of this piece before the Walrus Poetry Prize was awarded. Congratulations to the winners.