Don’t Worry, Epidermis

Reviewed by Laura Cameron

In Jonathan Ball’s The National Gallery, melancholic, disenchanted poems strip away the institutional grandeur of the title in order to ask that perennial poet’s question: What is the value of art in the contemporary world? Although the poems seem sometimes not even to believe in themselves—“Let’s write a fucking poem!” the speaker declares at one point; “Maybe someone will read this poem!”—the volume is robust, insistent on laying bare the full breadth of its self-doubt. Some of the book’s nine sections are named after areas one might find in an art gallery: “Group of Seven,” for instance, in which the poems are titled after members or adjacent members of the famous painters’ circle, or “Gift Shop,” which contains playfully dark pieces about how we memorialize people, places, and events. Other sections—“Selfies” and “iPhone Elegies”—more explicitly concern the public “gallery” of a world structured by technology and social media. The volume’s most compelling tension lies in its ambivalence toward both canonical artwork and modern self-presentation. “I’m in an abusive relationship with poetry,” Ball quotes, and then observes: “my phone likes this / with a little heart. Half the world is sad little hearts now.” And yet through all of its disillusionment, with surprising earnestness, The National Gallery poses one of the most urgent questions of our time: “What do I love when my phone is off?”

As a reader I fall unfailingly for earnestness, which is one reason that I so appreciated Vincent Pagé’s This Is the Emergency Present. The spare, intimate lyrics in this volume are some of the most gently powerful expressions of longing I have encountered in a long time. “You and your absence / undermine my sleeping,” the speaker observes in one piece; “You smell of rainwater / because I love you.” The poems in the first section are entirely composed of remixed language from Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair; by making Neruda part of his own poems’ DNA, Pagé writes himself into a poetic tradition that offers literary companionship as an antidote to romantic loneliness. An interest in science structures the later sections, allowing Pagé to meditate in fresh ways on “space”—from the “space” inside an atom to the “space” between the stars. “You tweak my thoughts to you the way gravity / from the unseen planet in the solar system / throws all the other orbits off a bit,” he writes. This tussle of absence and presence in the space and time following a breakup is the volume’s major subject. The “emergency present” of the title, as Pagé defines it, is the feeling of


everyone everywhere

and miss[ing] everything that’s happened

all at once.

The loneliness in this image of missing everything all at once is all-consuming: an absence that is utterly, overwhelmingly present.

K. B. Thors’ Vulgar Mechanics also begins with absence, but here the empty space—the space of mourning following a mother’s death—reverberates with linguistic, erotic, and environmental energy. This dazzling, muscular collection begins with reflections on death, male violence, and intergenerational trauma, and then turns its attention to the rich potential of queer desire. Contemplating the legacy of her mother, the speaker resolves “[t]o stick to my guns and / kiss who she couldn’t.” Grief for her mother metamorphoses into queer grief in this turning-point poem, which concludes, “I don’t believe in either-or // but in hindsight / she could have been.” Thors eschews binaries throughout the book in order to explore all those “could have beens” that others weren’t, or aren’t yet. The speaker in Vulgar Mechanics inhabits a world where it’s a “stupid thin[g]” to walk home at night with “no keys spiked between my fingers.” But in response to this world, the poems offer a “variety of tongues” that declare her—and other women and queer folk—“worth a lick.” There is no self-doubt or disillusionment here; indeed, belief radiates from the delicious language, choppy musicality, dexterous internal rhymes, cerebral allusions, and punchy imagery that animate this truly exciting volume. “I left my nipple clamps at the Chrysler factory / in Windsor,” the speaker announces in the opening line of one poem: why wouldn’t we read on? And somehow, amid all the feistiness and thunder, Thors conjures tenderness, too. “Don’t worry, epidermis, I said, / over and softly again”: these lines express, for me, the crux of the book. “Don’t worry, epidermis,” art says, “over and softly again.”

This review “Don’t Worry, Epidermis” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Aug. 2020. Web.

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