Danger and Decorum

Reviewed by Lorraine York

I take my title from Nyla Matuk’s poem “Road Madonnas of Nocera,” but the collision of danger and decorum, the random and the regulatory, pervades both of these first full-length collections by Canadian women poets. In Matuk’s Sumptuary Laws, the domestic is deeply infused with the bizarre. A dizzying array of metaphorical pyrotechnics adorns Matuk’s description of the banal. “Sunday Afternoon Croquet,” for instance, a poem about playing that most placid of domestic lawn games, becomes saturated with repressed chaos; the poet imagines herself bending over the ball, “elfin green bitchy lady” feeling “like a mad Roman emperor with a history of failures / at miniature golf”—a fabulously bathetic collision of the bizarre and the tame. For Matuk, this is life as we know it: the everyday suddenly disclosing its grand theatre. Her collisions of language and metaphor are so daring, the jumps between image and image so precipitous, that she provides, at the end of the volume, a gloss on some of the references. This is more than a paratextual glossary, though; the entries themselves refuse to follow the convention of explanatory material acting as a taming explanation. The most witty of these is the note explaining that her description of “Petit-four disciplinarians” refers to six- or seven-year-old bossy little girls: “Sometimes these girls are dressed in the colours of buttercream icing on petit-fours, but they are sometimes just little fucks.” Matuk’s poetic lexicon may be ornate, but it refuses the cloyingly sweet; here is sweet “feminine” domestic poetry exploded.

“The Exploding House” is one of the poems in Jaime Forsythe’sSympathy Loophole, another collection seeking to explode the domestic. Forsythe’s palette is lighter than Matuk’s, and her collisions of unexpected bits and pieces of the world more welcoming of the zany, more celebratory of the ridiculous. “The Exploding House” imagines the flotsam of a house that has, for whatever reason (by propane, frayed wires, candles, dynamite) exploded; souvenir spoons and postcards rain down upon the neighbourhood. This is an apt description of Forsythe’s poetry of sudden juxtaposition. It rains down objects, images of the particularities of life crowding around like accumulating flotsam: “Looseleaf fan, accordion pleats, floor-length / floral. Paintbrush tips of a niece’s braids.”

Forsythe’s exploded domestic poetry features a major tension between the forces of regulation and the explosions of the flotsam and traces of our lives. The language of rules, of guidebooks, often clashes with the viral variousness of lives lived messily: “You will see a mountain. You will uncover a code,” opens the poem “Fortune.” As the poem proceeds, the language of instruction and direction breaks down under the glorious pressure of life’s variousness: “You won’t know the structure / of the aircraft you’re in,” the poet reminds us. Brilliantly, Forsythe takes on and explodes other languages of pedagogy—the English phrase book, for example. In “Real-Life Phrases in Everyday English,” Forsythe offers us an apparently simple list of such phrases, but soon the blandly typical among these grow monstrously funny: “Alan was a dentist and a father, but mostly a dentist.” But lest we think that this is all fun and games, Forsythe’s final English phrase critiques the way in which English language acquisition is also a regime of loss and capitulation to the linguistically dominant: “Anne adopted a name she would never again have to repeat.”

Both Nyla Matuk’s and Jaime Forsythe’s collections, with their eloquent bombardments of the reader with the bits and pieces of contemporary life, remind me a great deal of Sianne Ngai’s recent study, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, particularly her reading of the “zany” as a conflicting response to post-Fordist conditions of production and consumption. The conditions of the zany—that bombardment with information or sensation, and the sense of sped-up action—become, for Ngai, evidence of a deep-seated malaise about stressed-out, precarious labour. Matuk’s and Forsythe’s language of exuberant collisions, their verbal zaniness, discloses, I think, a similarly divided response to life under late capitalism. Our houses have exploded, our lives have sped up, and we look to the flotsam that remains—to the commodities that surround and identify us—to somehow speak of who we are, and to register our complicated, divided responses to a postmodern world.

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