Ecstatic and in Flux

Reviewed by Tim Conley

Phantompains, as Therese Estacion explains in her debut of the same title, should not be confused with phantomsensation, and the phantomfuture is something else again. This book often makes for harrowing reading and it is very difficult to imagine a reader who will not at least wince at, say, the lubricant prescribed “to / prevent mummification of vagina” (82) or the description of a right hand which “has four mini Vienna / sausage fingers stuck to a palm that is / perpetually open” (48) or the post-hysterectomy report: “Your eggs / were all black” (72).


To say that Estacion “writes through” a life-threatening rare infection not only sounds too neat a formula for what has obviously been an experience that defies adjectives except perhaps long; it also hints at a sort of passive acceptance that is not what we find in Phantompains. The book manages to convey an erratic range of reactions, from disbelief to defiance. At various points Estacion writes of her body as though it were not hers, or not connected to her sense of her self:


and my body was flown from Trail, BC

and through

the Okanagan thermals


I imagine that the sound of the

helicopter blades

dragged my soul

back to   my sick body. (42)


Just the phrase “sick body” trips up comfortable epistemologies. The crunchy word “eunuched”—Greer’s title The Female Eunuch surgically altered here to “eunuched female”—is not chosen not to hurt, not to unnerve.


The blending of Philippine mythology into the mix is all the more expressive, though what might be called the “point form” of some of the poems has the opposite effect. The need to take this book as a whole, as the embodiment of a process, to understand it as more than (only painfully removable) parts, is affirmed by its last words:


they were full

they were ecstatic

& in flux


As readers of his previous books know, Phil Hall is no stranger to trauma and pain. The fact that Niagara & Government is named after an intersection suggests an understanding of Hall’s poetics at a crossroads: the book is often melancholy but at the same time a meditation on melancholy. Taking up Muriel Rukeyser’s incisive writerly questions, “Do I move toward form? Do I use all my fears?” Hall wonders about the instigating, abiding roles that pain and trauma have in his writings. This involves weighing the force of family estrangements and old but unforgotten injuries against the need for one’s own mental health, and Hall can be disarmingly frank—for example, about the long silence between himself and his son, who resents Hall’s writing about him. Hall’s poems “circle failure    & abuse” and this circling can be, he acknowledges, repetitive and unsatisfactory, and perhaps must be so, or must risk being so: “an unassociative    detritus-squeal / is all that’s left    of so much    arrogant scrawl” (91). These lines echo a bolder assertion from the book’s first poem, “Typo”: “I cherish    not clarity    no    our demotic scrawl” (9).


This “scrawl” is distinguished from “poems that are what I call    typey-typey / in love with cheap play    they flaunt ego-blab” (92). By the same token, Hall avers a preference for Pollock over Mondrian, for the rough and frayed edge rather than the precision-cut straight line.


Mating Joan Miró with Maeve Binchy to produce “that rare hybrid     Miróbinchy” (38) exemplifies the poet’s understanding that “folk art     & fine art     are one” (39). Accordingly, Hall’s poetry blends personal (and sometimes folksy) anecdotes with wordplay as a method of thinking. For example, he recalls a photo album anonymously sent to his grandmother arriving hours before her death. The pictures all include her incidentally: again and again she appears, unselfconsciously photo-bombing, at “protest marches” and “wedding deceptions” (12). (Is that a typo? Remember how this book begins.) The album was buried with her. The poem is called “The Lyric” and it ends like this:


the phrase     all the time in the world    is a pencil sharpener

to squeeze the I’m    out of a word    don’t squeeze

are you carrying fervour    or currying favour

the line    with no hook    is my fish


Process and examination of the lyric are also integral to Susan Holbrook’s latest, which is a volume of erasure poetry— wait, where are you going? Don’t give me that look. Sure, the business of uncovering some new text within an invariably canonical work has become routine, but Holbrook not only chooses an unexpected, non-“literary” text to excavate but predicates her work on variations: the same single-page text repeated with different erasures. And in case that’s not meta enough for you, the text is ad copy for the Pink Pearl eraser, extolling its virtues as “the perfect partner for your writing,” a premise that Holbrook takes at, well, face value. On each page she reproduces the ad copy in faint print, which grows fainter with each passing page, while leaving selected words and letters unerased, as it were, to find unexpected messages.


These messages flash variations between familiarity and strangeness, between banality and wit: from “erase your darlings” (33) to “tex mex – a trusted source for gas” (94). They are grouped into different category sections, including “Love,” “Food,” Family,” and “Writing,” though the theme of writing (perhaps inevitably) tends to persist, overtly or otherwise. The “erased” text becomes fainter and fainter as each section progresses, until it is gone entirely, and this clever feature is a reminder of how much ink earl is focused on process, not just in the repeated returns to Pink Pearl promotions but in the process involved in reading Holbrook’s pages, connecting the stranded islands of words and letters (with a ratio of amusement to aggravation to be determined by each reader). After “fin” comes one more message, “OK your deal”: an invitation, a passing of the eraser.

This review “Ecstatic and in Flux” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 10 Feb. 2023. Web.

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