Play On Three Spaces

Reviewed by Laura Ritland

An urban neighbourhood, the airport, and the Internet situate these three poetry collections’ common interest in space and place. All three also employ “play” with poetic form to comment on or contest the dominant economic and social forces shaping these contemporary spaces.

Composed of short lyric poems interspersed with word-maps and naturalist-like notes on seasonal changes, Bren Simmers’ Hastings-Sunrise records the “phenology” of a Vancouver neighbourhood: seasonal and local events are described as, and compared to, animal and botanical life. Bees echo human industry. Human romance participates in the same energy that choreographs the chickadees’ and juncos’ courtships. Simmers tracks the natural rhythms of her local community to suggest a form of resistance—“growing roots, pushing back”—to the commercial forces raising house prices and eroding the neighbourhood’s formerly diverse economic and social character. Gentrification also raises a more immediate concern for the speaker and her partner who, in a city of unaffordable housing prices, face perpetually leasing property or moving towns: “Can we make a home without a house?” the speaker asks. Her celebration of local acts of reclamation suggests how this might be possible at least on a communal level: a neighbourhood lending library, yarn graffiti, and a shared urban garden show this community laying claim to its territory. Simmers further personalizes space through playful acts of map-making. “Map of Neighbourhood Swings” is a literal map of x’s and o’s marking “tree swings” and “swing sets.” “Map of Open Doors” marks open doorways that are “(a)” attended or “( )” unattended. This representation of space suggests a more private, experiential understanding of a community. This local focus also accompanies the speaker’s explorations of her self and inner space: poems reflect on how to “hold space/ for self” in a new marriage or meditate on the psychic need for the “four walls” that enable her to dream, write, and love.

Sachiko Murakami’s Get Me Out of Here also celebrates resistance to the hegemonic control of space. However, her ironic and subversive play with form suggests that her restless critique extends even to the methods by which writers describe and depict their subjects. In establishing the process for writing this collection, Murakami called for airport travellers to respond in situ to the question “Why is it so difficult to stay present in the moment?” Her resulting poems riff off of, respond to, and re-use travellers’ one-line responses to expose and deconstruct the societal rules (gendered, economic, racialized) that determine human subjectivity and power relationships in airport spaces. Poems beginning with lines like “Fatima joins me in the life-sized corridor” reveal Murakami’s razor-sharp attention to the ways in which certain subjects in the airport are more “real,” “lifelike,” or legitimated in their agency than others. Her depiction of airport surveillance systems reveals the policing of differences, behaviours, and even (half-jokingly) semiotics: “Collin [an airport traveller] arises from the symbolic into the real where the weapons of the real are no joke.” Passengers’ literal and metaphorical baggage are examined with dehumanizing scrutiny “as though excess would allow itself to be measured” and “the mass of what we carry could be calculated.” In a sense, legitimating this “excess” and “mass” is Murakami’s mission: she voices the inner desires and private longings of passengers to indicate what escapes, hides, or suffers from this surveillanced space. Fear, anger, passion, joy, and sadness distinguish human subjects from objectified products of the airport. At the same time, she is also suspicious of any technology (or poetry) that “opens up the self/ and its ultrasonic evidence,” and this scrutiny about mediation seems to involve an examination and re-evaluation of poetic structures. Her eclectic use of anagrams, onomatopoeia, experiments in grammar, and the visual placement of words on the page both bespeaks an interest in form and draws attention to the “rules” of these forms. Frequently, she breaks, varies upon, or adapts these rules to suggest a challenge to totalizing structures and to invite humorous, creative play.

Whereas Murakami touches on how digital spaces fuse with material spaces, Aaron Tucker’s punchlines amplifies this dynamic. Framed narratively as a couple’s road trip from British Columbia’s west coast to San Francisco and back, this long poem reads as a series of journal entries meditating on the relationships between physical and digital experience, self and other, human and machine, language and code, mind and body. As with Murakami and Simmers, humour and play are informative to the collection’s overarching intent: each poem begins with an “input” or title in the form of a nonsensical “joke” (“Do Avatars Dream of Electric Sheep?”) and results in an “output” or poem making use of computer algorithms and computer code ( “||” replaces “or” and “+” replaces “and”). The effect suggests a jokey affection for our digital culture and a synthesis between digital and human life such that “we agree our conversations our languages/ are inseparable from code.” Metaphors comparing landscape to code, dialect to “local area networks,” or thought processes to “hyperlinks” similarly insist on a continuity between human beings, their physical environments, and their computer systems. Tucker is conscious of the more negative implications of technological life, such as disembodiment (“we are a cough without a body”) and the globalization of Internet culture (“this viral spreading leaves all objects inbetween”). Yet the collection seems largely interested in exploring the nature of digital life rather than criticizing it. Consciousness, for example, becomes interestingly plural in this space: “there is a sense of being multiple, always”; and the reoccurrence of dream sequences in the collection suggest digital activity may reflect a kind of unconscious, associative neural process.

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