Museum Shop Memories

  • David B. Goldstein
    Lost Originals. BookThug (purchase at
  • Jennifer Zilm
    Waiting Room. BookThug (purchase at
  • Steven Smith
    Emanations: fluttertongue 6. BookThug (purchase at
Reviewed by Ryan J. Cox

Early in Emanations, the sixth volume in his Fluttertongue series, Steven Ross Smith implores the reader to “remember, make your mind a museum shop.” It’s an interesting image. The museum shop, in stark contrast to the museum it serves, is never a presentation of history as it was, but rather a series of representations of the idea of the past reduced to talisman. The plastic dinosaurs that Smith describes in the lines before he makes this request are not dinosaurs as they were—they are playful extrapolations of the idea of dinosaurs and a past that is elusive. Smith’s Emanations, Jennifer Zilm’s Waiting Room, and David B. Goldstein’s Lost Originals all engage in this exploration of hauntological memory, seeking to represent or capture experiences both quotidian and aesthetic despite the distance between the reader and those moments of inspiration. That those moments may themselves be mere instances in an ongoing cycle of inspiration and representation is part of the joy of embracing the mind as museum shop. Each of these poets makes use of different techniques to do this work—Smith seeds his text with an idea and riffs, Zilm makes use of erasure and intertext, Goldstein’s text is an example of ekphrasis absent the original—but each of these collections seeks a past that has become more gift shop than museum.

It should be little surprise given his work as a sound poet that the poems in Smith’s Emanations are highly musical. Rich with assonance, alliteration, and language play, the lines in these poems beg to be read aloud, to be heard. This musicality carries over into the poems’ relationship with their inspiration. Each poem riffs on a seed from a source poem—sources include works by Di Brandt, bpNichol, Lyn Hejinian, and Lisa Robertson, among others—reacting, expanding, and playing with that seed in order to create something both wholly new and tied to a history. The seeds are present in the poems, yet entirely absent, providing a layer of textual complexity for readers should they wish to excavate for further archaeological strata. However, the seeds remain elusive, sometimes even for Smith, as the notes on “Offering” indicate, while imparting the text with a tremendous amount of energy. Emanations isn’t about the seeds so much as what happens when they take root in Smith, and, for the reader, what he does with those moments of inspiration is itself inspiring.

Waiting Room is Zilm’s first full-length collection of poetry, and, considering the fact that the poems confront dentistry, psychiatry, and graduate school, the title is apt. The collection is bound together by a concern with critical and therapeutic interventions, but its strength is in the way Zilm makes use of the familiar contours of these interventions, their normalcy, to create engaging poetic moments. The familiarity of these moments allows the reader access to the anxiety and uncertainty—the pushy yoga instructor hygienist imploring you to breathe properly—that these therapeutic spaces carry with them. Even the crisis space of residential recovery on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which Zilm juxtaposes with Dante’s vision of Purgatory, is grounded in the quotidian because she starts the cycle about that experience, “Singular Room Occupancy,” with something as mundane as a job description. Even Zilm’s use of pre-existing texts to generate some of the poems serves this function, allowing for introspection through excavation. Waiting Room is compelling, gripping, and familiar. It is a valuable contribution to the documentary tradition in Canadian poetry because it works to reveal the subject waiting to be uncovered in the document.

Goldstein positions the work in Lost Originals as an act of translation, an attempt to evoke objects that can only be apprehended by the reader through the ghostly echoes of poetic language. This is an interesting exercise insofar as it seeks to capture the aura—which Walter Benjamin describes as the special quality of an object related to both its singularity and proximity—of the objects described when the objects themselves are irretrievably absent in an era when the auracular is constantly being effaced. The first section of the book, “Object Permanence,” largely succeeds in doing this because its collected dolls and figurines are knowable or discernible as types of objects despite the absence of the specific. However, when the objects that Goldstein engages with are more esoteric, further estranged from the reader, the poems are less successful. The original becomes lost in translation.

This review “Museum Shop Memories” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 143-144.

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