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.