A Good Time Had by All. Exile
Recipes from the Red Planet. BookThug
Fieldnotes, a Forensic. BookThug
To write a review of three seemingly unrelated books is a daunting proposition, no matter how delightful reading them for their own merits may be. Stylistically distinct, drawing upon largely unrelated discourses, and created across disparate locations, it seems nearly impossible to yoke together Meaghan Strimas’ A Good Time Had by All, Kate Eichhorn’s Fieldnotes, a Forensic, and Meredith Quartermain’s Recipes from the Red Planet. However, there are some connections. Each of these works engages with narrative forms: narrative poetry, ethnography, and flash or sudden fiction. Each touches upon the poetics of witness, approaching the discourse cautiously. Each is highly acclaimed, so to consider these texts together is to paint in broad but thin strokes a portrait of contemporary Canadian poetry.
Shortlisted for the ReLit Award, A Good Time Had by All is Strimas’ second collection. Reviews and jacket copy emphasize its grittiness: we begin on a park bench, the speaker sitting next to someone “pissed drunk at noon & stinking of piss / & booze, heavenly booze.” As these lines suggest, the poems do not provide testimony, exactly. Instead, rendering a common and even mundane perspective, they blunder past moments of horror, overwhelmed by sadness: “Hear my misery / skip across the lake.” Many of the speakers seem—intentionally, of course—unaware of the depth of their own feeling. In this way, Strimas’ title is somewhat ironic: the speakers almost insist that a good time was had by all, even as they recount terrifying events that suggest otherwise. A child drops toys down the hole her father punched in the wall; news reports about Robert Pickton’s farm are revisited in vivid detail. The most striking images in these poems are bleak and sad, but Strimas’ vintage slang adds levity even as it suggests the speakers’ implication in everyday tragedies.
Eichhorn’s Fieldnotes, a Forensic is also a second collection, and it too focuses on numbed central characters. Eichhorn brings together an anthropologist and an archivist, recounting their relationship through the detached minimalism of field notes and the technical cues of a teleplay. Sharing the same tiny apartment, though not always at the same time, the two meet sporadically to work through the classic lesbian trifecta of conversation, journaling, and sex. The anthropologist rails—somewhat self-righteously—against the celebrity anthropologist Kathy Reichs: “She hasn’t kept up with developments in the field, but it’s the writing I take offense to.” For her part, the archivist also collects details; through studied reference to the question-and-answer interview format, Eichhorn pits one mode of collection against another, satirizing and sincerely questioning claims to objectivity. Beautifully designed by the good folks at BookThug, Fieldnotes, a Forensic was a finalist for the 2011 Governor General’s Award for poetry.
Quartermain’s Recipes from the Red Planet is the fourth volume in BookThug’s Department of Narrative Studies series and it straddles the boundary between prose poetry and flash fiction. Illustrated by the renowned feminist artist Susan Bee, Recipes pays homage to Jack Spicer’s Martian poetics: the poet is merely a conduit for language, which she receives like a radio signal from elsewhere. In this poetics by dictation, the red planet’s language reconfigures our planet entirely; in turn, the Martian language is reconfigured by the Earth’s specificities. Attention to language sometimes implies otherworldly detachment, but in her review of Recipes, Camille Martin explains that Quartermain’s “ludic impulse is also intimately intertwined with the political.” Local history bobs up to the surface so that rich wit and playful excess always land upon a clear object: “Would you like to touch my stove—everything’s on the back burner. My oven’s almost new. I had a bun in it once. I called a repairman. He said he’d fix it if I wore my hair ever after like Betty Crocker.” Recipes was a deserving finalist for the BC Book Award for Fiction.
Taken together, these three works suggest the generic and discursive range as well as the vivacity of contemporary Canadian poetries. Representing a lyric tradition, a new mode of queer feminist experimentation, and West Coast cross-border exchange respectively, they demonstrate the diverse means by which contemporary poetry engages in public debate, passionately and elliptically.