Table Manners. Signal Editions
The Holy Nothing. Pedlar Press
After Hours. Mosaic Press
In a recent review of Catriona Wright’s Table Manners, Kerry Clare of 49th Shelf declared the debut collection “devourable.” Barb Carey, writing for the Toronto Star, praised the book as “a baroque feast of juicy diction”; Gillian Sze, for the Montreal Review of Books, avowed that it would “linger both on the mind and palate”; and Daniel Scott Tysdal touted its “delicious artfulness . . . and biting wit.” The richness and sheer availability of the wordplay in these and other assessments are, I think, proof positive that Wright’s poetic gastronomy translates. Table Manners introduces readers to the rich world of food as food—at times creative and delicious, and at others lacklustre and rancid—and food as metaphor, exposing the sometimes comical, sometimes horrifying, rituals, rules, and strictures we’ve built up around eating. Rest assured, Wright is no pretentious foodie—though she clearly knows her stuff.
From the first line of “Gastronaut,” the collection’s introductory poem, Wright’s epicurious poet will resonate: “I would cut off my own thumb,” the gastro-poet declares, “for the perfect thimbleful of wood-ear mushroom and bamboo soup.” This is self-parody at its best. Indeed, throughout Table Manners, Wright manages to convey her love of all things weird and wonderful about food even as she crosses the boundary from appreciation to obsession, creativity to absurdity. We live, Wright demonstrates, in a culture of extremes, and while eating can be transcendent, almost orgasmic, as in “Confessions of a Competitive Eater,” it can also be psychically painful, a method of avoidance, as in “Mukbang,” or the locus of shame should one eat the wrong thing—pudding cups instead of edamame, kale, and quinoa—as in “Groceries.” One might also indulge too much (“Talking to My Father”) or consume too little (“Dietary Restriction”). Though Wright’s descriptions of delicacies like “pickled lamb tongues,” “singed pigs’ feet,” and “rococo . . . noodles and beef” are entertaining, to say the least, it is her meditations on the psychology of food and consumption of all kinds that make Table Manners worth savouring.
Equally dark and playful is Darrell Epp’s After Hours—a gripping collection that tours readers through the seedy underbelly of Hamilton, Ontario, and into the collective unconscious of the disenfranchised. Our guide, who could be called the patron saint of underachievers (unemployed, “not quite a model citizen,” “more like [an] alienated Parisian pickpocket” than a hero), is surprisingly savvy, but it is an almost unrelievedly gloomy space he inhabits. A postmodern consumer wasteland littered with “scratch-and-win lottery tickets” in place of “cherry blossoms” and peopled with “[A]rmani-clad satyrs,” “movers and shakers,” and their “suburban duplicitous daughters,” the landscape of After Hours is nothing if not lonely. “[Y]our life’s all parking lots now,” the alienated pickpocket declares in “Mind Your Manners”:
die off and leave you holding the bag,
with no way home and clown shoes
on your feet. the jagged rock beat
that explained everything, it’s
just noise, no soulmates or
angels, only masked strangers
and robots gone uppity.
Fortunately, the gloom is not beyond redemption, and in poems like “Weather Report,” “One Possible Conclusion,” and “Attention Historians!” Epp explores the unexpected graces that may rain down on us unawares. What are they, you ask? They are “the first cigarette,” “the last hotel room,” “the lost toys of kindergarten”—memories of “words and names and / priceless things on a planet gone plastic.” These are the antidotes he offers to “our outsourced obsolescence,” the “narcoleptic fogs” that “swaddle the suburbs” and make us complacent and stupid. Epp’s advice and his poems are sound. In his patron saint of underachievers I think he has achieved something quite wonderful.
Jessica Hiemstra’s The Holy Nothing, her third publication, is also very special. A visual artist as well as a poet—and equally talented in both areas—Hiemstra has scattered small sketches throughout this new collection. Tiny avocados, mango skins, and broken plates, among other images, decorate its pages, echoing, in their simplicity, the straightforward meditations to which they relate. With titles like “Shallot,” “Artichoke,” “Chocolate Cake,” and “Cabbage Rolls” in the table of contents, The Holy Nothing seems like it would be comparable to Wright’s Table Manners, but it is much closer in theme to Epp’s After Hours—sans the pops of dark, gritty humour. Like Epp, Hiemstra ruminates on modernity, mourning the loss of magic, mystery, meaning—“I want words for what I can’t see,” she announces in “Cold”—and, again like Epp, she manages to mine the quotidian for simple graces. In what is perhaps most accurately described as a sixty-seven-page search for transcendence, Hiemstra finds that the sacred can be in the profane. For holiness, she looks not up but around and in; in place of transcendence she wants immanence. “I thought I wanted resurrection,” she reflects late in the collection, “but sadness changed me. I want / pain to make us kind . . . / We don’t rise from the dead. Let suffering transform, / redeem us.”
But Hiemstra’s collection is a journey told in three parts, and enlightenment does not come easy. “I Haven’t Told the Truth” is the first and lengthiest of the three sections, with twenty-four poems. The second, “This Damned World Is Good,” and the third, “Rescuing the Future from the Past,” are much shorter, with thirteen and four poems respectively. There is, in other words, much to sort through before one can recognize that “this damned world” is, in fact, “good,” and, indeed, that we are capable of rescuing both it and ourselves from the past. Hiemstra’s vulnerability and her resilience are palpable throughout this volume, and she addresses hard personal and universal truths with a relentlessly straightforward honesty. It is this honesty that makes her collection so compelling.