From Universal to Intersectional

Reviewed by Jodi Lundgren

The title poem of Rob Taylor’s fourth collection, Strangers, offers a defence of poetry, asserting that its powers—including to reanimate a lost loved one and to console a grieving survivor—foster connection among people who “would be strangers / if not for this” (11). Taylor expresses an unabashed universalism here—a faith that the poet’s experiences can stand in for the reader’s, and that language unites writers and readers in their common humanity. Illustrating this credo throughout the collection, Taylor turns to familial themes: childhood memories of a father’s premature death, of an accident-prone but well-meaning mother; scenes from a harmonious marriage in which the couple, after “seventeen years together” (42), welcome a colicky baby. In the poignant “Why and Why,” an aging mother forgets words as the child learns them: “my mother, my son, their vocabulary / a passed baton so now he reminds her / river Grammy the word is river” (75, emphasis original).


If compelling meditations distinguish these poems, so does their musicality: an iambic undercurrent often bubbles up, which Taylor alternately gives rein to and curbs. In “You ask me about my mother,” a line of blank verse is followed by two enjambed tetrametric lines as the speaker describes his three-year-old brain: “a squall within which stories wouldn’t last / unless she lashed them there: the scene, / the thud and wail, the nightmare snap / that might have been” (12). The collection’s sonic play peaks in the multi-poem series “At Roblin Lake,” set in Al Purdy’s A-frame. In “Interruption,” certain dactylic lines about mouse-catching scan as evenly as a lyric from The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things”: “Cardboard and duct tape and sheeting and screws. / Tip traps and neck-snaps and a chemical map” (44). Well-suited to this light-hearted poem, a similar rhythm sounds off-key in “Cemetery,” in which the speaker addresses Purdy about a fifteen-year-old’s recent death: “Every thing, by definition, has edges. / I’m not here to ask you to pass on a message” (48). Perhaps the occasional false note stems from Taylor’s strict allegiance to stanzaic form, which can verge on stifling. Every poem is single-spaced (and left-justified) until two-thirds in, when triple spacing in “The Long Goodbye” is like being given the chance to breathe deeply enough to fill the lungs.


In Myself a Paperclip, her third collection, Triny Finlay explores mental illness and psychiatric hospitalization in what is also an irreverent, book-length response to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “In the room, the women come and go, talking of the elusive O” (9, emphasis original). Finlay not only adapts lines that Eliot assigned to Prufrock but also assumes the voice of that poem’s misunderstood, pillow-settling woman. On the penultimate page, Finlay revises Eliot’s famous lines to, “I have lingered in the psych-ward common room: cautious, / ridiculous, at times the fool . . . / Stuck a pillow under my cheek to catch the nightmare’s drool” (75). In granting Eliot’s woman agency, Finlay exerts her own, also using her craft to render the setting unique and immediate; the speaker’s room smells, for example, “like a beach of trout carcasses frequented by dogs” (61).


Given the book’s confessional nature, the voice can be surprisingly impersonal. “Self-Portrait as a Paperclip” eschews first-person pronouns (though the word “trinket” stands in for “paperclip,” seemingly an ill-fitting synonym until the similarity to the author’s first name is noted [12]). A detached third-person perspective often positions the speaker as an observer of “psych-ward types” who notes, for instance, “Some of them hoard food / in their nightstands and dresser drawers” (29). Anger does surface, especially in “#MeToo, and You, and You, and You, Too,” whose placement early in the collection suggests that sexual trauma has contributed to the speaker’s mental illness. Interpolated among the titled poems are pages of italicized speech, presumably either addressed to, or overheard by, the speaker: “That one over there shits himself. / Him! Yeah, he shits himself” (28, emphasis original); “Dude wants weed more than he wants those meds. / Who’s dealing these days?” (66, emphasis original). These snatches of found dialogue form some of the book’s strongest passages by giving voice to the other patients, individualizing them beyond their status as “types.”


In sick, their debut full-length collection, Jody Chan traces the impact of borderline personality disorder and depression on their relational life, which includes a longing for intimacy that is repeatedly self-sabotaged: “you never stay long enough / to be left [ . . . ] haunted by people / you thought better off without you” (48). Chan sometimes chooses, like Taylor, to use left-justified stanzas of even lengths: unrhymed couplets in “tooth fairy,” tercets in “not here,” quatrains in “the first time I return to New York.” But Chan plays with form, using various techniques to allow breath and movement into the collection, including uneven indentation, widely spaced lines, and rotated typeface that makes the reader turn the book in their hands.


Chan’s wide-ranging points of reference include popular singers like Taylor Swift and Teresa Teng, Reddit posts, therapist’s notes, and emerging poets such as Warsan Shire and Nancy Huang. Embracing their linguistic ancestry, Chan uses Cantonese characters in poems like “superstitions” (in which the words are translated) and “餓鬼 // hungry ghost” (an online version allows readers to use a digital translator, which repays the effort).


Of the three poets discussed, Chan is the most overtly ecological: in “migratory patterns,” environmental crisis becomes a constitutive thread of the intersectional subjectivities depicted, yet interpersonal dynamics still occupy the foreground: “in twenty years / summer and winter will meet and you’ll have forgotten / our own first collision [ . . . ] that summer and nearly every one since has been the hottest / on record, but we were tied to our own equator” (34). For Chan’s speaker, romantic longing emotionally overpowers the climate emergency, but an ecological awareness persists:


            if the world was ending I would

barely look away from my little life

long enough to notice. I am a poor witness

but I love the world the way I could not

love you. (35)


This ecocentric love—alongside an open embrace of psychiatric diagnoses, nonbinary gender, queer desire, and cultural origins—marks sick in a generational sense as truly contemporary poetry.

This review “From Universal to Intersectional” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 28 Jun. 2022. Web.

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