Grappling with the Real

Reviewed by Stephen Cain

No lyrical solipsism, surrealist escapism, romantic flight of imagination, or even postmodernist linguistic investigation characterizes these three 2017 collections of poetry, but rather serious, and often ironic, attempts at grappling with the details and detritus of twenty-first-century urban existence in Calgary, Winnipeg, and Toronto. While aware of, and sometimes partaking in, recent trends in post-LANGUAGE and Conceptual poetics, these books insist upon investigating materiality and the socio-historical moment we are experiencing now in a direct fashion.

Escape from Wreck City, John Creary’s debut poetry collection, alternates between formal experiments—in list poems, aphorisms, and faux horoscopes—and more narrative neo-Beat poems of young adult slackers. The drugs are harder and the social media references are new, but there is a little Kerouac in Creary’s description of a cross-country trip to Montreal in search of “druggy pizza,” and we can hear Ginsbergian echoes elsewhere, such as:

tattooed hippies junk starred with sticky
blunts thicker than index fingers, frayed

voices leaping over Phish in Montreal, so
on six tabs of sunshine acid

—or “dance, dance neurotic, circle backstage, / blackout on amphetamines, kicking the intestine // of a squawking police car.” Creary’s writing is very readable, and offers many clever turns of phrase and striking images, but the poet is at his best when he drops his hipster pose to meditate upon deeper issues, such as fatherhood and mortality, as he does in “September Eleventh Zygote” and “Dead Raccoon,” respectively.

As in Creary’s book, the poems in Jason Stefanik’s Night Became Years most often explore young working-class experience, in this case closer in lineage to early Patrick Lane or John Newlove than the Beats. Again, the sordidness of the sex and abuse is ratcheted up, but Stefanik’s poetry is really distinguished by his equal interest in sixteenth-century slang, particularly thieves’ cant, and his desire to explore his own mixed Indigenous and adoptee settler heritage. With regard to the former, while the paratextual elements of the collection imply that Stefanik is attempting to merge the cant with the contemporary, they more often remain discrete (as in his “translation” of Thomas Nashe), or quotations from cant dictionaries function as epigraphs or section breaks. The reader wishes for more poetic merging of vernaculars, as in:

stanch with salt my paper cuts,
cross a steppe with but a gunny sack,
nail an ace on my physics test,
mug a tosser at the horse track[.]

In his mixing of the spirituality of Indigenous tricksters and skin-walkers, with the materially destitute-though-surviving Winnipeg working class, and with the linguistically and culturally heterodox lifestyles of the Elizabethan underclass, Stefanik is definitely onto something big, but at this point it hasn’t quite coalesced. Night Became Years is a strong debut, and Stefanik is a poet to continue watching and reading.

Concetta Principe has always grappled with big issues in her collections of prose poems—such as the first Gulf War in Interference (1999) and the birth of the atomic age in Hiroshima: A Love War Story (2016)—but with This Real, her fourth poetry publication, she raises the stakes considerably to contemplate the effects of 9/11, humanity’s earliest artistic expressions through cave paintings of 30,000 BCE, the death of children, and the apocalypse itself. Using a form very similar to that of her previous collection, Hiroshima—prose poems mostly restricted to a single page (and often a single verse paragraph) and featuring footnotes that point to other sources, philosophers, and quotations (here, mostly Walter Benjamin, Daniel Paul Schreber, and the Hebrew text Sefer Yetzirah)—Principe divides her book into a trilogy that investigates the end of times, the question of maternity, and the recently discovered paintings at the Chauvet cave in France. While mostly meditative, and often elliptical, Principe’s prose poems can also be very moving, as in her references to the murder by neglect of Toronto toddler Jeffrey Baldwin in 2002, or also frenzied, as in her description of contemporary life in end times:

[E]vidence is everywhere: depression, suicide, anxiety, psychosis and stress; the various messianic claimants, one in particular promising salvation in the Kool-Aid; not to mention the signs that man holds on Queen Street, Bloor Street, in Dundas Square; psychiatric patients expressing their torment, pointing to Armageddon in the lungs, the Harlot of Babylon in the morning bath, Gog and Magog battling at breakfast; national newspapers calculating cold war politics and the distance of the arms race; the doomsday clock, stuttering at seconds. . . .

It may be unfair to contrast the work of an established poet with two first collections, but This Real asks the hardest questions and, while not providing any comforting answers, takes the most risks and is the most necessary of these three books in considering life during the second decade of the twenty-first century. This Real is the real thing.

This review “Grappling with the Real” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 136-137.

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