Poem Emporium

Reviewed by Carl Watts

Fixtures in a poetry community, even those who are notably prolific, can sometimes be accounted for without much trouble. But figures whose writings span multiple genres, which may come from the smallest of small presses or in otherwise ephemeral formats, can be harder to get a handle on. Any attempt to make sense of such writers, especially in a brief review, seems preposterous.

And yet, a reviewer taking on a new book by rob mclennan may note that his sprawling body of work has been shifting toward producing a somewhat less conventional form of lyric. A halt, which is empty bears out this development; its title comes from a passage by Claude Royet-Journoud that associates writing with the perception of movement. The opening poem’s first section is caught up in this crudely physical act of stopping and noticing; it relies on short “sentences,” frequently of two words (“Uninterrupted, swallow. Machines, recirculate. Relieve. We watch for symptoms, shallow”), distilling into particles everyday processes that clunk with their materiality.

But passages like “[a] mass of modern bus and antiquated streetcar. The power of an average. Slanting, ruin” are also typical mclennan in their alternately clattering and airy impressions of Ottawa. Much of the book strikes this balance between experimental conceit and familiar authorial voice. The epigraph to “Corporation of snow” disputes the colonial “Eskimo words for snow” myth; it asks whether any writing can be truly novel—“[p]articles, we designate. A show of hands. More sentiment / than sediment”—while again simplifying and physicalizing its conceit.

“Birthday poem for Gwendolyn Guth” combines the above techniques with apostrophe: “You turn, you turn, // remark, refrain.” Such moments depict a group of creative people working in loose association with one another, creating a picture of mclennan as publisher of broadsides and of work by possible up-and-comers—a writer’s writer’s writer whose network defines his past and pervades his present as he brings others into the fold, his poetics embodied as they dilate within recognizable limits.

Mark Laba has left a similar paper trail, but he’s been less focused, having worked (as his bio puts it) as a “jackass-of-all-trades.” Laba has a long-term association with Stuart Ross (under whose A Feed Dog Book imprint The Inflatable Life appears), but it’s harder to trace his output than it is mclennan’s ongoing accretion of texts.

“Phil’s Wall Unit Emporium” is a clutter of tchotchkes:

Any endangered species, whooping cranes, marmosets,

owls, pygmy goats, baby sturgeon swimming in pickle jars

filled with pond scum?

The poem also concerns itself with life, death, and the cosmos—sort of. Its final stanza begins,

The earth is just a big wall unit,

an entertainment hub of love and horror,

barricade between you and those

you have buried behind the wall

and a big glowing stereo system,

while its closing image—“the deadened eye / of a trophy fish”—indicates just how far beyond piles of semi-surreal junk and into any form of sincerity Laba’s poems are likely to get.

“Tolstoy’s Leech Farm” expands Laba’s menagerie to include almost primitivist sketches; its text meanders through “a farm that grew / spineless toys into bulky vegetarians,” giving the impression of an eccentric neighbour showing off his model trains or magnet collection. Parodies of precision and aphorism, like “How to Determine the Proper Geometrical Angle for Putting One’s Nose to the Grindstone,” in which

a newly crowned king [. . .]

warbles at the gates of doom like a wee songbird


greets the day

with a shit, regurgitation and a worm,

demolish notions of systematization as much as they do sincerity, their consonance construing the process as part of the flow of daily life.

Crackles of honesty eventually make the surrounding silliness seem more like darkness. “Toilet Duck” notes

that my digestive tract

stretches back

to Russia in 1908

and I’ve been passing gas and pogroms

ever since.

“Moonlit Lung Serenade” begins as one might expect, only to erupt, “and then the guy next to me said, ‘Jesus, you fucking retard, it’s cinnamon girl, not cinnamon man,’” continuing in this vein for nearly two pages of prose. It’s jarring—a disruption that, on second look, may not be so different from the too-muchness that comes before. Like mclennan’s, Laba’s voice proclaims itself in a perpetual present that, as the dark moments remind us, really isn’t so perpetual. “Because, after all, this isn’t poetry,” the final poem ends; “it’s a shooting gallery.”

This review “Poem Emporium” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Aug. 2020. Web.

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