I Don’t Feel So Good
By Elizabeth Bachinsky. BookThug, 59 pp, softcover
By Sarah Pinder. Coach House, 87 pp, softcover
In the age of weird combinations, when Facebook status updates can be painfully brilliant or ridiculously mundane, two recent books of poetry set up an incisive debate on whether explorations of domestic internal experience should be configured randomly or deliberately. Vancouver writer Elizabeth Bachinsky’s I Don’t Feel So Good uses a procedural technique to splice internal perspectives using a personal journal as an archival source, while Toronto-based Sarah Pinder’s Cutting Room presents carefully constructed visual images of city life. Both books speak to the complexities of the contemporary moment, when our identities are often constructed in response to the Facebook question “How are you feeling?” and subject to imminent change.
Anticipating It-Girl Lena Dunham, who advocates all experience as good experience, Bachinsky has the courage to lay down confessions that are quirky, profound, mundane, and audacious by turns. Lots of writers would edit back the parts that were less stellar, but Bachinsky’s approach of choosing lines from her journals based on the roll of a die means she forces herself to include everything, and thus her writing seems authentic. The points where lines collide are actually pretty interesting: “I think I am not the one in charge of my brain” and then simply “The sounds of my dreams”. Later, she writes a quirky directive: “Homework: create a choreography for your face”, followed by a contemporary observation: “Sue, a beautiful woman, is studying beauty and the sublime./Everyone is talking about beauty.” There is beauty, as Beth Orton sings, in the breakdown.
The other compelling aspect of I Don’t Feel So Good is the representation of the female artist-writer at work. Deliberately working against the conception of the male artist as genius, Bachinsky juxtaposes dialogue quips with sage writing advice: “Just listen to yourself. You’re nuts and you expect me to be fucking nuts with you,” which is quickly followed by the line “Make sure your narrative doesn’t stomp all over your soundscapes,” the effect of which is the deliberate elimination of self-editing in the act of autobiographical writing.
Cutting Room is similar in its precise mix of details, but Pinder’s approach is much more filmic. The collagelike splicing of images is similar, but here the work moves in crosscuts between literary influences, found text, and cultural theory to inform the complexity of the scenarios being enacted. The frame is definitely present in each poem and Pinder homes in on aspects of contemporary life in cities and bars and hotel rooms and with cellphones and in back alleys and standing at photocopiers to show the spaces where we actually spend time when we’re not frolicking in fields of daffodils like poets of old.
In “Echo Chamber” she juxtaposes “You can tuck your whole hand neatly inside the pocket/of your cheek. Some girls can, anyway” with a line later in the poem: “There’s a box lablled TEETH in this kitchen./She touches the lid like it could do something special.” The images resonate visually to the conclusion of the poem (“even as she stops up her infinity mouth,/even now, I won’t open it”), where the tightness of the whole work is so evident it hurts. You could buy the book just for that poem.
Those teeth come back throughout the book, but nowhere more fabulously than near the end, where Pinder writes, “I gasp sometimes in public,/waist-deep in/strained embroidery snarl,/indent of teeth along a thigh,” rendering the divide we try to make between private and public somewhat useless.
We take our private selves into public all the time, the trace of intimate gestures on our bodies and the persistence of inner monologues amid conversations with friends. We only pretend there’s a distinction between what’s appropriate in one realm and what’s appropriate in another. Whether laying bare the confessional, like Bachinsky, or seizing on the moments when we are utterly ourselves and framing them so precisely we can’t look away, as Pinder does, the debate over what constitutes a poetic response to the personal and the domestic remains multifaceted.
Both books seem necessary to show the beautiful and the ugly feelings of an era.