Poetic Performances

Reviewed by Susie DeCoste

In his collection For Display Purposes Only, David Seymour is truly adept at exploring ideas of representation and performance, and at guiding readers toward their own questions about what is performed and what is real. His poems are rich and multifaceted; they examine various types of artifice including dreams, photography, film, and false first pages of novels. These pieces perform as the first page of a separate work complete with pagination and the title of the work appearing near the page number instead of at the top of the page. These false starts act as a beginning, but when readers turn the page they find the next poem in the collection not the next page of the novel. Scattered throughout the collection, the false starts can be jarring if readers apprehend them as a printer’s mistake, and they can be absorbing as readers have to let go mid-sentence and move on to another poem. In themselves, these poems demand reflection on ideas of performance and audience expectations.

Meaning also emerges in the poems when an actor or even landscape enters into a performance and is therein transformed. For example, in “The Photo Double,” the speaker says, “They’re about to roll again. Pretend. Be unreal. / Be more real than I ever imagined.” In a poem about Florida, Seymour writes about gated communities and the image they provide to inhabitants: “Safe. / Not safe, having purchased / a sense of security.” For Seymour, there are blurred lines between the performance, the reality, and the apprehension of that reality. Each of these aspects is worthy of poetic exploration.

In contrast to these meaningful performances in Seymour’s collection, C. R. Avery’s collection Some Birds Walk for the Hell of It is a purely sensationalist performance. Bizarre sexual images are featured in every poem, including a phallic unicorn stabbing a dead horse to emphasize a sexual encounter. Many poems feature a self-important male speaker whose world revolves around late-nights, sexual conquests with women, drugs, alcohol, and rock and roll. “Cold Fire Escape” offers an image of “a woman achieving a bonfire orgasm / by rubbing two hand-held sticks together . . . [surrounded by a] surface scattered with the collected letters of Walt Whitman.” The treatment of women as sexual objects may stem from the burlesque roots of Avery’s onstage performances. However, these burlesque scenes do not translate well to the poetry. It is impossible to accept poem after poem that treats women this way.

For Avery, the object is the show, the performance, the surface. Whereas Seymour’s poems prompt reflection on ways that artistic performances create another kind of meaningful reality, Avery’s poetic performance on paper fails to inspire.

This review “Poetic Performances” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 151-152.

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