Book reviews: Poetry by Dionne Brand, Jen Currin, Larissa Lai, and Susan Holbrook
By Dionne Brand. McClelland & Stewart, 124 pp, $18.99, softcover
The Inquisition Yours
By Jen Currin. Coach House, 112 pp, $16.95, softcover
The Automaton Biographies
By Larissa Lai. Arsenal Pulp, 166 pp, $19.95, softcover
Joy Is So Exhausting
By Susan Holbrook. Coach House, 80 pp, $16.95, softcover
To close out national poetry month, we celebrate by looking at four poets who investigate the contemporary moment, where communication compresses into tweets, texting, and status updates. Each shows the power of poetry to think through where we are right now.
Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries is a mesmerizing long poem tracing the underground character Yasmine and her forays through language off the grid. Brand’s construction of this character allows for stunning linguistic anguish to represent Yasmine’s flight from the law in a poetic narrative of movement through borders that are personal as well as political. She asks how memory will be installed in the spaces of cities through the “meagre/stone biographies” of cemeteries: “these broken heads and propitiatory arms/clean love should meet them.” She shows that affect resides in the memories as well as in the physical presences. For example, she marks Yasmine’s pain in the in-between spaces: “the full ocean in my mouth, oh I longed, longed/for the deepest suicidal blue waters, I craved the seas,/where what was on earth could not scar me”.
The craving of movement is so carefully crafted as to create in us a visceral ache of recognition of the silenced character.
The poetic update reads somewhat differently in Jen Currin’s The Inquisition Yours, via a surrealist lyric that wonders “does knowledge still glimmer?” Currin looks closely at the shimmering subject who is aware of the constant gaze that social media create, as in the poem “I hope someone catches me looking kind”: “This filter. Biting our lip./Adjusting our death—/sooner if possible/because the good quiet girl/survives. ”˜I thought mean/things but didn’t say them.’/Buttons left on the floor”.
The heightened awareness of being viewed pushes against the randomness of objects like buttons and keys as reminders of the everyday strewn among the wreckage of so much language. Currin creates alternative communities, whole neighbourhoods, “in the streets of this or that thought” to connect political action against continual contemporary atrocities, with the potential that “You might move. You might move /someone.”
How we might exist in the future, based on our commitments in the present-past, is the terrain covered in The Automaton Biographies by Larissa Lai. Her playful pulling of pop lyrics and manipulation of movie scenarios are filtered through the depth and importance of documenting possible shifts in what it means to be human in an era of increasing technologization. In “c(ulture)2, n(ature) 3: mimicry”, she writes: “a cracked bone a slack dome/michelangelo refeats islamic technology/sycophant in the bedroom/recasts individual genius/a lie/you got it from a bottle/coca-cola adds strife”.
Lai shows how “strife” is manufactured to look like pleasure. She pulls the globalized advertising image to the surface so that it operates outside of media function, and we can actually see the social world in which we live, not the peoplesoft version that is continually constructed for us to see.
And finally, if the old adage is right that honey attracts more than vinegar does, then Susan Holbrook’s Joy Is So Exhausting gives potential cynics so much humour that they can laugh themselves back to that moment in high school when they started to hate poetry in the first place. Holbrook is watching us carefully, quipping about our psychological state through procedural wordplay—and, man, does she know us well. In “Good Egg Bad Seed” she shows how we tend to think in categories: “You like an epiphany or you like a surprise”, or “You talk loudly in airport lineups or you are Canadian”, or “You say ”˜I love you’ or you say ”˜I love you too’ ”, or “You say ”˜Fuck you’ or you say ”˜Oh yeah? Fuck you’ ”. Fuck yeah, she has us down. As well, there is not a funnier found poem than “Insert”, which uses tampon directions as source material. The thing is, Holbrook’s humour exposes the complexity of how the mind works in the midst of domestic pleasure and/or exhaustion, and in the face of political strife answers the question all the writers here consider: what do we need in the midst of so much language?