Excavating Childhood by Lexicon & Song

Reviewed by Catherine Owen

Childhood, its vistas, torments, and fleeting instances of innocent reverie are potentially long-term plunderable material for a poet. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” These two books of poetry, one inflected by scholarship and the other haunted by song lyrics, couldn’t be more disparate, but they share a concern to trace some of the darker realms of childhood: bullying via systemic rhetoric and neglect via the grim melodies of addiction and poverty.

Jon Paul Fiorentino’s latest lexically-textured foray in the so-called “post-language” laboratory is Needs Improvement, the cover of which features a wry depiction of an eighties-style report card announcing evident lack in “Metre” and “Imagery” and a failure in “Responsibility.” Fiorentino, along the lines of Gregory Betts and derek beaulieu, is a champion rehasher, though his unpacking of everything pedagogically intriguing from Judith Butler to evaluation rubrics and urban slogans certainly doesn’t wallop the essential “POW” of deconstructionist books like Shane Rhodes’ X: Poems & Anti-Poems, which uses the damaged language of treaties such as the Indian Act to enable the reader to re-enter the poison of colonialism at the level of feeling. Needs Improvement forced me to set aside my own aesthetic desires and envelop myself in Fiorentino’s disgorging of the scholastically violent discourse that shapes us all. I enjoyed his ironic “Summary” drawings that illustrate principles like Cultural Hegemony, the sectional piece, “Winnipeg Cold Storage,” which integrates Butlerian idiom to engage the bind of affection and indifference the city of one’s childhood evokes, the humorous, pugilistic slapping down of pseudo-report cards that illustrate one student’s educational and personal descent, and the “alyric villanelle” called “Moda” whose repeated refrain: “a spectacular national celebration unequalled” was the slogan for Expo 67. Poems transcend their basic status as lexical experiments when that angsty melancholic note slivers in, as with, “Nothing here / but anchors. Home never lasts, outlasts” (Live Stream), “The song lies and you knew it / but that’s the thing about aging” (How Wise You Must Be by Now), and the Barthesian, “you do not know a thing / let’s agree to one thing in a season of sorrow: / no fears, so and so” (Tautnotes: I Lace Words). While the prodding nihilism of “It Still Means Fuck All to Me” gestures towards a potential dead-ending of what Betts dubs “plunderverse,” Fiorentino’s aim, again in Betts’s definition, to destabilize “the source text by exploiting its weakness,” is successful if more than a tad, at times, too aggravatingly opaque for satisfying delving.

In violent stylistic contrast is songwriter Rodney DeCroo’s Allegheny, BC, a collection of disturbed nostalgia drawn from memories of his boyhood in Pittsburgh, PA, narratives of hunting, itinerancy, alcoholism, and the land that continue to haunt his adult years spent in Vancouver, BC. As with poets such as Patrick Lane, Al Purdy, Jim Christy, and Pete Trower, DeCroo’s hard-luck days have turned sweetly into the bounty of art, his sharpest experiences producing his most poignant poems. Under the tutelage of Russell Thornton, along with decades of song writing and performing, DeCroo has grown massively in his craft, his ear blooming inside the gorgeous vignettes of such pieces as the almost Cormac McCarthy-toned “On the Night of my First Breath,” “The Trumpet,” “Oil Drum,” and “Everywhere you Look.” Deft with internal rhyme (“the light streaming through his hair / like strands of fire around his face”), consonance (“She is the river, the snow fields, the neon / in the rain. She is everything that has been / taken from you and never returned”), and occasionally even metaphor (the silver sound of the trumpet compared to a homeless youth’s sleeping saliva strand), DeCroo’s bittersweet paeans to what made him mainly shine. While some of the poems like “Fight” feel unfinished, and others trail off into prosaic information delivery such as “Mrs Tobin” or “Willy Soble,” allowing for confused clichés (“the barn planks / collapsing like a toothless old face”), or are simply overwritten into redundancy (“oak leaves / like fossil imprints of prehistoric fish / millions of years old”), Allegheny, BC is still a compellingly emotional read, redolent of the way, over the years, regions and recollections fuse in the blood until it is just one foot-tapping tragedy.

This review “Excavating Childhood by Lexicon & Song” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 157-58.

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