Coping With Emotions and Otters
By Dina Del Bucchia. Talonbooks, 128 pp, softcover
By Jay MillAr. Nightwood Editions, 96 pp, softcover
The challenge of how to survive as an artist has plagued writers throughout history. Two recent books of poetry take on that idea in completely different and innovative ways. Vancouver writer and bon vivant Dina Del Bucchia sends up the self-help genre in her hilarious and cutting book Coping With Emotions and Otters, while Toronto’s Jay MillAr’s Timely Irreverence contemplates the writer within domestic spaces, composing lines while vacuuming and mowing the lawn. They offer radically different insights into how to persist with a creative practice and flourish in the face of the seemingly impossible job of being a poet.
Del Bucchia takes as her starting point a famous video of otters holding hands at the Vancouver Aquarium—one of the earliest videos posted on YouTube—and uses it to comment on celebrity culture as satire in its most effective sense. In the poem “Celebrity Otter Milo”, she writes of one of the otters’ eventual death by cancer: “He makes lymphoma/seem like a lollipop flavour/…Cells divide as fast/as YouTube views accumulate”. The horror of an animal dying in captivity under our scrutiny is undercut by recasting the scenario into one that highlights the insanity of our societal obsession with celebrities. Either way, we’re somewhat doomed.
Luckily, though, the emotional side of Coping With Emotions and Otters offers even more ways to examine exactly how we construct reality in the contemporary moment. The first part is set up like a self-help book with advice, quizzes, and testimonials to ensure the reader can see how pervasive that genre is in how we think about our lives. It is a discourse that is very familiar, but it is the way Del Bucchia enters that discourse that is fascinating. I spent days laughing and then trying to determine how the humour operates.
In “How to Be Jealous”, she writes: “Carve into saplings, snap/pea shoots, shave puppies,/insult fetuses. Damage/and slander anything/younger than you.…Visit elementary schools,/finger paint the hell/out of everything…”. Is it funny because it’s extreme and adorable at the same time? Is it funny because it’s exaggerating an emotion and thereby creating a social critique? Is it an alternative form of memoir that is funny because you can imagine it as the best kind of standup comedy? Maybe it’s funny because it’s a strategy we recognize, as she writes in “How to Be Ashamed”: “When confronted, pretend/your devotion is a joke.” What hipster hasn’t had to take up that position? In any case, Coping with Emotions and Otters, as the title indicates, is unlike any book of poetry you’ve ever read. And while it sends up the self-help genre, you’ll still feel like a better person after reading it, although not for the reasons you think.
The reasons you do think make up the territory of Jay MillAr’s Timely Irreverence, as his poems contemplate how creativity sticks with us or passes us by in the face of the work of everyday life. No fewer than eight famous contemporary poets have blurbed his book, a fact that speaks to the interconnectedness of MillAr’s practice. An operator of BookThug press and the Toronto New School of Writing, as well as the purveyor of a curated collection of books through a website called Apollinaire’s Bookshoppe, MillAr is well-entrenched in the innovative-poetry world. So this meditation on the domestic, reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, offers an amazing glimpse into the ordinary wonder of that practice.
In “The Weight of Knowing Everything”, he writes: “Before you began the poem this time around/you were thinking about how even after you die/people will go on listening to commercials/about fast food. It’s hard to know what/the voice wants—to impress the mind, re-/lease thoughts, or uphold the world the mind/is acquainted with”. As a treatise on writing, the book advocates noticing things. “Come on, at least look up and admire the new confusion”, it entreats. Pay attention as “the park poem has begun to hibernate. The word grass/pales; the word leaf turns brown and disappears”.
Throughout the book MillAr merges language with the domestic world. There is no distinction: “So instead of writing/”today I’m kind of bored but happy to be alive”/you go off and find others who wrote that and/claim it all. And irony is born,” he writes. What comes from his Timely Irreverence, then, is the imperative to do what poetry can do: look up, notice, allow yourself to be wowed.