A Definite Yes

  • Nyla Matuk
    Stranger. Signal Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Meaghan Strimas
    Yes or Nope. Mansfield Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Penn Kemp
    Barbaric Cultural Practice. Quattro Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sarah-Jean Krahn

In these new books of poetry, Penn Kemp, Nyla Matuk, and Meaghan Strimas have each added a memorable feather to her respective cap. The bewitchment and prophecy of Kemp’s Barbaric Cultural Practice almost seem to flow from the grace of a quill rather than the laptop that snoozes beside her bed so she can log her mind on to its plasmic buzz whenever a dream imperilling Earth’s beings disturbs her. Matuk’s Stranger is always in transition, like a journal of observation accompanying its author on a train ride while the trees smudge into a plasticine bloom and a stowaway warbler Twitters from timber beams. Meanwhile, Strimas’ starker Yes or Nope reads more like Bic pen scrawlings traversing palm to elbow, though they are no less critical in their vision of a physical world bristling with decomposition, sometimes poignantly natural, and usually in reflection of a well-intentioned if morbid human spirit.

Alongside poems of the loss and near-loss engendered by aging and illness, not to mention a philosophizing on the evolution of Tim Hortons (deliciously facetious, its “Light Eats” section deteriorates quickly into “Heart and Stroke: Foundation”), Barbaric Cultural Practice views the majesty of nature through a window that is (almost) always open. Frequently drifting, dream-like imagery stands in sharp contrast to the title’s searing commentary—perhaps on the Conservatives’ tabled 2014 Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act—which occasionally bares its teeth. The poem that snaps most fiercely in this regard is “Grazing the Face of Climate Change,” which finds the Icarus of humanity taunting his own future in his prideful bounds toward solar possession. His destiny of death harks back to an earlier discussion of extinction, in which Kemp declares, “I know I am responsible / somehow” for the disappearance of frogs from her yard. Throughout the book she touches on this theme of responsibility, with the most playful of these references (in line with Kemp’s sometimes overt, sometimes subtle, and agreeably habitual punning) “No-one’s fault”—as in both the occasionally shattering fault lines of the earth and the responsibility of humans for her quaking outbursts.

In Stranger, almost nothing is so conclusive. Exploring through the headset of a synesthetic speaker, we overhear snapshots, spy upon parley, and sip on charming vistas. Through Matuk’s eyes, even the apparent pests—the gully mouse and porch moth—are quaint, though perhaps not unique. For these poems are all about imitation, from the first poem’s “statue of a woman in the lily-padded lake . . . / a mimicry of Diana’s animal life” to “[a fern’s frond] copied by an ambitious seamstress.” And Matuk herself is a mimic, fusing fragments of found poetry into her work: “It never occurred to me / there’s something impractical about living this way, jotting down other people’s longings.” In this book, origins, ethnicity, and identity are absent, questionable, or outright false, some of this confusion attributed to a mass of uncritical critics, as in “What Critics Do”—i.e., so unhesitatingly exalt public idols as to inflate a Kardashian to Chief Operating Officer and Trump to His Royal Highness. Meanwhile, in Matuk’s exemplar poem, “The Vireo,” the poet mimics the designs of Varick Street, Manhattan, while the critic inadvertently mimics the poet and wallpaper designs mimic the call of the lovely vireo, who in turn has mimicked the poet.

Yes or Nope romps most easily not with beauty or charm, or even a hint of longing to emulate, but with the grubbiest of weeds. Starting with the sarcastic “Nature Poem” (“Seriously, who doesn’t want another” is Strimas’ opening line), this is a slender volume that lays bare the abject of an ordinary life—“dishes [stewing] in the sink overnight,” the single mom’s battered digs restricted from the neighbour child’s play, cheap chocolates dispensed by an uncle for sexual favours—all the while off-gassing the wasting stench of rot. Emphasizing this chronic state of decay, the pitiable image of expired butterflies flickers on and off throughout the book. For Strimas’ characters, the natural world acts as a stage for the performance of intensity, and animals in particular provide an outlet for “us two-legged creeps”—be they as insignificant as mutilated newts or sexually assaulted sows. Still, in a surprising though perhaps ironic moment in “Nonsense Poem, or I Like,” Strimas confesses appreciation of the delicate daffodils for their determination in peeking through the snowpack. And while these poems present themselves as dry, dirty, and sore, Yes or Nope, with its raw honesty, is the most compelling collection of the three.

This review “A Definite Yes” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 151-152.

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