“Future(s) Behind Us”

Reviewed by Kyle Kinaschuk

Monologue Dogs, the fifth book of poetry published by Winnipeg-based poet, novelist, and literary critic Méira Cook, offers readers a rare chance to read the past anew. Cook deftly summons a panoply of voices from the literary, biblical, and historical archive to unhinge a postlapsarian world by rendering time itself disobedient. In this lively and perceptive collection of poems, Cook creates a polyvocal and “un-Edened” landscape that “drag[s] / the creaking wooden future behind us.” Monologue Dogs reimagines figures such as Eve, Persephone, Cordelia, and Virginia Woolf to stage monologues that set time out of joint. For example, Cook masterfully cultivates a temporal disobedience in her sequence of poems entitled “CRACKED,” which contains a triptych of monologues by “Young Eve,” “Her Boyfriend,” and “Any Old Snake.” In the culminating poem of this set of monologues, “Any Old Snake” appropriates the lines of Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” in an anachronistic gesture that is both comedic and profound.

The vicissitudes of time and anachrony persist throughout Cook’s collection, as Persephone and Demeter wait “where the subway gapes” and a “Young Eve, All Grown Up” happens upon an arthritic Gabriel with an “ancient / electric sword flashing in the dark” in “crushed-heel slippers / and his scuffed ideals.” In these instances, readers will be reminded of the wit and erudition of Anne Carson, whose Short Talks Cook alludes to in Monologue Dogs. By inhabiting a time where the future is behind us and the past is in front of us, Cook shatters the laws of temporality to limn elegant lyrics that teach us “Disobedience is the way back.” Ultimately, Monologue Dogs proves a challenging and enduring collection that deserves to be read and reread with the same amount of rigour that Cook consistently demonstrates in her own poetic craft.

While Cook’s Monologue Dogs upsets linear conceptions of time by way of an anachronous poetics, Carolyn Marie Souaid’s seventh collection of poetry This World We Invented turns our attention toward another modality of time, that is, the finitude of life. Souaid’s lyrical musings uncover the ways in which the threat and chance of time work upon life in both catastrophic and ordinary registers. From the inaugural poem to the concluding poem, This World We Invented advances a wave of deeply moving reflections on the fragility of life. “Time intervenes,” the speaker of “Perspective” tells us while observing her son at a birthday party. At the party, the son and his group of friends “never expect the inevitable,” although they have “memorized the beautiful/repugnant cycle / for tests: you’re a cell, / you’re a boy, you’re a man, you’re a corpse.” Souaid is clearly uninterested in abstract theorizations of death in this volume of poetry; rather, each poem yields carefully wrought phenomenological descriptions of life’s affective pulse in its confrontation with the “yes/no of being here for a time, / and then not.”

What is more, This World We Invented is committed to embodied and lived experience, as the speaker of “Space” declares early on in the volume that “Space is not neutral / It depends on who inhabits it / and how.” To this end, Souaid skillfully weaves together a host of perspectives on loss and death that respond to disparate events such as losing a loved one to cancer, the destruction of a new Mazda, apocalyptic visions of the earth becoming mist, and the ecological crisis of mercury contamination in rivers. What is especially striking about This World We Invented is Souaid’s perspicacious ability to capture the transpositions between the unsettling and the banal as well as the plaintive and the tedious. In “Upon Seeing Life of Pi on the Eve of the Eve of Your Death,” the speaker eats popcorn in a theatre while a friend’s life begins to wither. Souaid thus invites readers to dwell in a world where “there’s no great revelation,” yet one is impelled “to notice everything / in its brevity.” In This World We Invented, Souaid dazzles as she undoes the borders of the eventful and the uneventful.

If Souaid’s collection is oriented around the question of the vulnerability of life, then Nick Thran, in his third volume of poetry Mayor Snow, pushes on in the wake of loss to ask what it might mean to survive and inherit the past. In Mayor Snow, Thran assembles an eclectic, playful, and bold selection of poems, which are neatly organized into three sections: “Carapace,” “Mayor,” and “River.” Thran composed all eight of the poems found in “Carapace” while living in Al and Eurithe Purdy’s renowned A-frame house in Ameliasburgh, Ontario, and each of these poems reveal Thran’s intimate struggle to come to terms with how he might respond to Purdy’s poetic legacy. After hearing the news of the shooting on Parliament Hill, Thran asks the spectral Purdy, “What would you make of this, Al?” The tone of these poems hence turns away from the elegiac and the nostalgic to earnestly celebrate the “Big guy” and his “Big, big voice” without lapsing into a cloying fantasy of Purdy and his work: “Dug my stay here, / but I will shake him off me.”

In “Mayor,” the first-person perspective that is operative in the opening section of Mayor Snow disappears, and the focus of the collection shifts toward a sprawling account of contemporary political issues. Thran mobilizes innovative constraints to engage concerns such as drones and surveillance. “Mayor Drone,” for instance, relies solely on Martha Stewart’s Time Magazine article “Why I Love My Drone.” Further, “River” marks a return to the first-person perspective where Thran continues to produce incisive and clever poetry that ranges from narratives of intoxicating labour conditions to dialogues with Yusef Komunyakaa and Arshile Gorky to a failed book report written in French that is translated through Google Translate. With the advent of Mayor Snow, Thran promises to surprise readers at every turn.

This review ““Future(s) Behind Us”” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 130-31.

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