Book review: Living Under Plastic by Evelyn Lau

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      Published by Oolichan, 96 pp, $17.95, softcover

      With fierce sensitivity, Evelyn Lau explores mortality and the weight of personal history in her latest poetry collection, Living Under Plastic.

      A departure from her previous works, which illuminate the shoals of desire, this volume ventures into the landscape of loss, serving as an elegiac record of memories and words unspoken.

      Lau, who lives in Vancouver, is an acclaimed writer of poetry and prose, recognized for honed observation and singular imagery. She was still a teenager when her first book, the best-selling memoir Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, launched her into the public eye in 1989. Young, controversial, talented: there was much speculation about what she would do next. At the age of 21, she was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for her second book of poems, Oedipal Dreams.

      Her material is known for its lucid examinations of personal, often volatile relationships, but Living Under Plastic reveals her focus shifting to connections unburdened by filial expectation or romance. Now she extends her scope to the links between past and present, setting and sentiment, in verses that reflect on death, heritage, emotional and physical environments, frailties of the body, and the malaise lurking beneath the surface of everyday life.

      The narrators of these poems witness the decline or disappearance of confidants, and bear the random pull of memory’s slipstream.

      “[A]t the hospital I was the one/trying to tether you to your life,” the poem “The Forest” recounts, “the tubes that snaked in and out of your body/were like monstrous vines from a nightmare,/lashing you to the earth.”

      Though steadied by sombre resolve in the midst of grief, their lives are not without psychological consequences. Life is scattered with conduits to the past, and these clear-eyed observers struggle repeatedly with anxieties and recollections.

      “How should we carry our pasts/with us—as a husk rattling in a corner of a box/tucked away, or as a tipped bottle of poison/that pours through our remaining days?”

      Lau is gifted with eloquent precision, able to convey entire experiences through single words and exquisitely crafted lines. In Living Under Plastic, she demonstrates the evolution of her artistic powers, depicting the monochrome shades of mourning with visceral grace.