• Helen Guri
    Match. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Nicole Markotić
    Bent at the Spine. BookThug (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Erin Wunker

What is the object of your affection? What if that object is just that: a thing? How can language articulate the modes of our relatings when it itself is out of joint? Match, by Toronto-based poet Helen Guri, and Bent at the Spine, by Nicole Markotić, each take on questions of object-relations. Psychologist Melanie Kline pioneered the concept of object-relations theory, which posits that unconscious phantasy—that which is produced within the subject—is fundamental to how we learn to relate to things outside of or separate from ourselves. For Kline, the human subject seeks relations with objects as a means of regaining a lost sense of wholeness. Despite their formal differences, each collection offers a finely wrought exploration of the strangeness of language from a slightly disjointed subjective perspective that demands the reader reorient her expectations.

Match, Helen Guri’s first collection, opens with the arrival of the apocalypse. Or rather, as light gallops in and signals the beginning, the end of the world is sutured to a ritual we tend to cast as a beginning. Apocalypse Wedding brings together the tropes of a Shakespearean comedy and a contemporary dystopian drama. The speaker, who soon identifies himself as Robert Brand, describes an uncanny scene of quiet chaos. There are recognizable markers of matrimonial celebrations, but they are made strange, as if viewed through a looking glass. The groom’s mother, who knew in her wicker-basket certainty that the event would be a disaster, now stands balance on one ear in the impossible gravity. Uncle Charlie makes the best of things. But there is no denying the carnivalesque scene: bridesmaids who have watched too many zombie movies, / shriek in chorus, hike up their dresses to wade / across the newly liquid river of the atmosphere. This binding together of two people challenges the very foundations of Robert Brand’s world. For one spooled second everything glows, he observes, then the world starts tipping from its crate. The wedding is not a disaster, as his mother feared, but rather, the disaster is a wedding, bringing two objects into each other’s orbit, and throwing off the delicate constellation of the community’s sense of itself. Why? Because Robert’s bride is a 110-pound, fully operational sex doll.

Match requires that the reader question subjectivity and objectivity. In the first section, One: In which I am largely unrequited, the object of Robert’s unrequited state is absent. Rather, in long, prosaically structured poems such as Almanac, we encounter the young boy as he experiences the stupefying confusion that is a lonely childhood. Time is marked through the length of the poem’s line:

High on the hunch of the rattlesnaking slide, she bet I was the kind
to piss the bed.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It was news to me, kid-iotic as I was, poking a stick into an
aluminum can, imagining I was a T. Rex or a saint.

The lines of Almanac reach back into Robert’s memory and paint the hazy outlines of the story leading up to his object-relations. The Single Life of Lava offers a more recent snapshot of the now-adult Robert. The haziness of childhood has been sloughed off to make room for the fill-in-the-blank repartee of adulthood, and the line-length reflects this. Glory me, she likes my _________ . quips the lonely, lyric Robert, though he is well aware of the mold he is attempting to fit: My lines grow more shameless with time, / I’m the proverbial bulldozer. Guri’s collection is subtly crafted to reflect Robert’s struggle with contemporary expectations of heterosexual masculinity. In addition to shifting the unit of composition to reflect the speaker’s emotion or to signal a temporal shift, Guri works too with juxtaposition at the level of syntax. In Anagnorisis With Sex Aid, Robert describes his divorce as a breeze shot through / with salt in an atmosphere in which all around me a great mind was porpoising. Here, relationships are rendered atmospheric, and thinking becomes a mammal that can live in water. When Robert finally introduces the reader to his beloved, to his match, she is both pure possibility in a crate of elsewhere, special delivery and dead weight / to the delivery man, who grimaces as he lifts the box from the truck. The poems that make up Match build a complex portrait of contemporary masculinity, alienation, and the ways in which humans build means of relating. The results are disquieting: both beautiful (She is body, beloved.) and horrifying. In a late poem, Model, the kindling of Robert’s life, of his loneliness, is set alight: my matchbox car trafficked me to a matchstick house, / wherein my perfect match – in this case, a matryoshka doll – / was cultivating a cathedral of darkness for an inner life. The collection shakes the superficial social sutures that hold subject and object together and apart.

If Match considers the relatings of humans through their attachments to objects, Bent at the Spine objectifies language to dislocate our habitual modes of relating. Whereas Match is a sustained lyric investigation of one speaker’s experiences, Bent at the Spine asks the reader to shift out of the corset of grammar to experience the dysfluency of syntax. The collection is divided into five sections, and each works language out of alignment. Big Vocabulary works with long lines and repetitious words and phrases, and uses enjambment to quickly shift the ligaments of the poem. Puns become osteopathic realignments that move referent from meaning. Take, for example, the following: If, in deco, a cheese-grater replaces the blender, do you waffle / the deco art? Couples marries uncanny couplets to form ear-bending juxtapositions. Succular builds into a breathless expostulation then just as quickly comes to a shuddering halt:

succumb to Winnipeg
suck on combs pegged to winter

snap crackle popsicle python
paste the cracks like clear snake facials

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
rearview mirrors look closer than a book jacket
cute ears press across kooky thumb tacks

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
or jack, posts by tuckering fliers post midnight
then – sigh

The poems in Bent at the Spine are fleeting images that are blurred as they rush past. They poems demand that the spine of the tongue bends itself. They bend the reader to their cadence and curvature. They wave at their syntactical grandmothers and wink at the reader as she tries to keep up. Yes, they acknowledge, word-play still persists (sons and nets).

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