If there is one thing that I look for in poetry these days, it is a clear and distinctive sense of voice. I love feeling, when I reach the close of a collection, like I have a definite idea of a speaking voice, and like I have just read something unique. And both collections I have been asked to review here—Molly Cross-Blanchard’s Exhibitionist and Sarah Burgoyne’s Because the Sun, both from Coach House Books—have distinct, clear, thoughtful, and above all, unique speaking voices. They are otherwise quite different collections, but they do indeed share that trait of uniqueness.
For the most part, I enjoyed Exhibitionist for its humour. A standout poem, “Dear Dolphin,” is funny through and through, and ends with a cute and cheeky “Ba-dump chh!” (17) that makes the poem—and ultimately most of the collection—feel like the funniest joke exchange you have ever had stoned on your best friend’s patio. At times, it felt like this collection was crafted especially for me—and you might say that I too am a bit of an exhibitionist. The allusions Cross-Blanchard uses are one hundred per cent in my wheelhouse. She moves deftly from the uncontested greatest Magic School Bus episode, “Inside Ralphie,” to the uncontested greatest pop vocalist of all time, Mariah Carey, to a bunch of middling crap I love, like the cheesiest pop-punk project of the early 2000s, Jimmy Eat World, or the tedious but absolutely bingeable Mindy Kaling vehicle The Mindy Project. I was primed to thoroughly enjoy this collection, but after finishing it I felt (horny and) slightly underwhelmed.
Cross-Blanchard’s greatest poetic strength is her ability to move from vivid detail to philosophical musings on desire, ontology, and some pretty intense affect. The collection contains interesting specificity that is equal parts poignant and flippant, with lines like “a Fjällräven full of childhood trauma” (20). In other moments, the collection is intensely visceral and often enjoyably disgusting, as evidenced in the lasting impression left on me by these lines: “You could fill a DivaCup with pus from the zits // on your cheeks and chest” (29). But the book ultimately lacks thoughtful attention to the poetry’s form, and in particular, an attention to aurality. For the most part, the poetry is fairly unrhythmic and has the quality of someone putting on a show, as the collection’s exhibitionist figure does throughout, appearing crass and jarring for the drama of it. And usually I am here for the drama. But these poems often left me feeling as though I, as the reader, was incidental, inconsequential to the show before me. There are, on occasion, some poems that engage thoughtfully with tone and rhythm, as in the spiralling “I’m a Woman without a Lover” and its repetitions and revisions. And of course there are moments of meme-like political reckoning: Cross-Blanchard asks, for example, if there is need for “Land Back or rEcoNciLiAtiOn?” (80). But otherwise the collection is limited in its formal engagement or engagement with its audience.
Burgoyne’s Because the Sun, on the other hand, burns out a big, beautiful hole from the page and largely leaves it up to the reader to fill in the spaces, the fissures in semantic meaning, and the spaces between disparate and uniquely related intertexts. Most often when I review a poetry collection, I look to extract fun, poignant, or pithy moments from the work to include in the review. But here such ad-like extraction is difficult, even near impossible, because everything fits so well together. Indeed, part of the unique appeal of most of the best moments in Because the Sun is in the coherence, how things work together, how one poem revises the next.
Burgoyne’s collection works between two primary and perhaps unlikely-bedfellow intertexts: Albert Camus’ L’Étranger (The Stranger) and the film Thelma & Louise (1991). The book, though perhaps weighted more towards Camus, proves to be a fascinating and careful study of both. Enamoured by the role of the piercing sun in the shooting scene on the beach, Burgoyne demonstrates thorough research and deep thinking about Camus’ larger project in The Stranger. The collection moves swiftly between Camus’ novel, his notebooks, and studies of Camus and The Stranger by Sartre and others. But this is not a work of intellectual detachment. The poetry is violent and affective, suspenseful and wearying, and no less profane than Cross-Blanchard’s, as can be seen when the space once blanked by the sun’s burning reads eventually “I said suck / my / cock” (75). And there are, too, some really gorgeous moments (see especially the “de-skyed” ending of “What Is/Amyno” ). I enjoyed the rhythmic nature of “Jackpot” in the section “four, flowers,” which revises the same blocky prose poem inspired by the Oulipian N+7 technique of replacing nouns with the noun seven entries below it in a dictionary.
And of course this review would be incomplete if it did not also deal with the feminist nature of these poems and their empty spaces. Indeed, Because the Sun also presents its reader with a consideration of the page of poetic form, manifested most beautifully and clearly in the hole left by the sun in the poetry itself, a piercing empty space, which Gail Scott describes as a “punctum” on the jacket. These empty spaces are figuratively found throughout, but manifest literally in the section “three, women,” from whence I drew the aforementioned cock. In this section, Thelma & Louise is considered most thoroughly. And the film in this section is also matched with quotations and interpretations (though it is never specified which is which, which I enjoyed) from Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion. In this section, the violence of the film recalls and draws out the violence against women in The Stranger and requires that we think on the interrelation between Meursault’s infamous killing of the Arab, Louise’s killing of the man who attacks Thelma, and the many various violences in between.
Because the Sun and Exhibitionist are thoughtful political and feminine/ist poetic investigations. And there is a lot of pleasure to be found in reading them. They are big, ballsy, and thought-provoking collections that demonstrate that there are some fascinating innovations on the horizon for femmes in Canadian poetry. And I will always be reading, ready to be surprised by Jimmy Eat World or cocks—or both.
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