Making Stuff Mean Different Stuff

  • Al Rempel (Author)
    This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For. Caitlin Press (purchase at
  • Mary Dalton (Author)
    Hooking. Signal Editions (purchase at
  • Chris Hutchinson (Author)
    A Brief History of the Short-Lived. Nightwood Editions (purchase at
Reviewed by Owen Percy

Prince George poet Al Rempel’s writing clearly knows where it’s coming from, but it knows, terrifyingly, where it’s headed, too. The poems in This Isn’t The Apocalypse We Hoped For build upon the aesthetic influence of Prince George legends Ken Belford and Barry McKinnon in its eco-poetic focus and eschewing of standard capitalization, punctuation, and semantic fixity. Most of the poems are concerned with the growing detritus of waste with which we continue to fill the planet in the face of countless dire warnings. The speaker of the titular poem finds his “pockets stuffed with receipts of corporate failure / and blister packs of synthetic gum” and is struck by the realization that “somewhere in the North Pacific, my plastic obsession / is being stirred into the brine by an invisible finger.” The rub is that we remain, along with the speaker, anxiously complicit in a culture that finds itself “barely in control of the steering wheel / polished with animal grease” from the drive-thru meal we’re tucking into as we ponder these things. The excellent “We Love Bananas” embodies the brutal irony that the windfalls of our first-world privilege are shamefully wasted. After a playful salvo about the playful peculiarities of banana-ness, the poem’s second half lets drop the other shoe from a considerable height:

here’s what we do with bananas. we buy them just
when they’re turning yellow. we play the Tarzan
theme song in our heads as we carry them to the car.
we place them in a ceramic bowl and leave them
out with the still life. we forget to eat them and they go
soft. we put them on the top shelf in the freezer.
we throw them out when we can’t fit
the box of pizza in. we’ve already bought more.

This Isn’t The Apocalypse We Hoped For is ultimately characterized by what, in “Have A Bath,” Rempel names as “the same kind of worry / as a paring knife buried under soap suds” where we “put our hand in tentatively, over and again, / this searching out of the unwanted” that we know is going to hurt and that we must nonetheless do. It is an important and rewarding book.

Chris Hutchinson’s A Brief-History of the Short-lived is dense, erudite, and serious. A Brief History lives and speaks within many past and alternate versions of the world we might be said to share on a day-to-day basis. Each poem here is an incredibly crafted, often beautiful abstraction of an idea and/or artistic premise, and the book’s range of historical influences and references is staggering. The first half of the poem from which the book takes its title, for example, sweeps across large swaths of time and space, alluding to Hong Xiuquan and the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), the Bucharest earthquake of 1977, and the demise of John Milton, all within the space of a few lines. The book lays a trap for readers with scholarly training whose instinct is (as mine was, at least) to work out allusions, dates, and references; its deliberate density and obscurity doesn’t allow for smooth or uninterrupted consumption. Which may in fact be the point. A Brief History is concerned with art’s ability to speak and represent universals. Clearly unsatisfied with the tenets of postmodernism, the poems often revolve around exploring, if not reinforcing, the distinction between high art and popular distraction. In this sense, the book’s microcosmic thrust can be found in the lines like “Listen, the intellect wants to dream— / Goes the tinny refrain of an ice cream truck // Moving somewhere between / Unheard melodies and crass utterance.” Most of these poems make themselves clear on where they stand, be it on the sycophantic nature of cultural hipsters (in “Avatar”) or on the economic reality of celebrity-driven homogenized literary culture as a whole: “Cold fact: mimesis / makes money / make money.” Hutchinson’s book is one for dedicated and well-read lovers of poetry—it is they who will glean most pleasure and pause from it.

Like Hutchinson, Mary Dalton’s latest offering has her reconsidering the role, character, and limitations of literary art. Hooking is comprised entirely of centos—poems woven together from the lines of extant poems in much the same way that a hooked rug is woven together from strips of re-used fabric. In Hooking, Dalton goes a step further and insists that each individual poem be comprised of lines that appear in precisely the same linear place in each of the source poems from which they are drawn. So, for example, “Cloth” consists of the seventh line of various poems by poets as diverse as Tennyson, Richard Wilbur, and Priscilla Uppal. The results in Hooking are as one might expect: there is less coherence and consistency than in Dalton’s other poems, several pieces read more like lists of theme-based epigrammatic one-upmanship, and we find ourselves sporadically interrupting poems to flip forward to the nearly thirty pages of sources listed at the back of the book. As such (and after a line from Christopher Reid pilfered into Dalton’s “Hesitant Silhouette”), the book foregoes “a vision of wholeness by means of collage” and is at its best in brief, stanzaic flourishes. That said, there are several instances of curatorial sublimity here that are worth the wait. In “Markings” we encounter “the same old druid Time as ever, / letting his arms down to laugh, / mad-eyed from stating the obvious.” These moments are what might grab you, “an ancient broad-mouthed fish, / dear reader, on the end of a bifurcated hook—”; the probability that such formula might yield such fruit is as attractive as the fruit itself. In the poem “On Silk By Hand” Dalton’s composition boasts that “Not even the pharaohs dug so far / to take you to the city of your ancestors— / I call this my work, these decades and stations.” And indeed it is; when it works, it works in a way that stokes the fires of wonderment and possibility of poetry as a pursuit in the first place.

This review “Making Stuff Mean Different Stuff” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 180-81.

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