Poetry Actually

Reviewed by Carl Watts

The Purpose Pitch, Kathryn Mockler’s third poetry collection, is described on its back cover as both drawing from “contemporary poetic traditions” and taking the form of “brutal police reports, invented biographies of real people, Google search results, and celebrity-interview mash-ups.” Rom Com, a collaborative effort by Dina Del Bucchia and Daniel Zomparelli, “both celebrates and capsizes the romantic comedy.” These descriptions say a lot about our present poetic moment of diffuse conceptualism; Mockler at once lifts from and generates the genres described, while Del Bucchia and Zomparelli work with characters and clichés so plentiful as to require a large degree of authorial assembly. Perhaps some avant-garde purists would refer disparagingly to these blends of selection and versification as “conceptual lite” poetry; regardless of their pedigree, however, these collections deal yet another blow to mainstream-versus-experimental binaries.

The Purpose Pitch is most effective when its snarky drollery yields depressingly comprehensive insights. Take, for example, statements such as “the English teacher is not a credible source because she wants to kill herself,” or exhortations to “World” such as “I’m sure you’ve racked up a pretty pension. If you don’t like your job anymore, just quit.” Yet while Mockler’s previous collections didn’t always add a formal wallop to her directness, here her multivalent candour uses the prosaic to advantage. In “Poetry—You’re Popular, Okay,” an assault on the proudly embattled genre, strings of monosyllables mark the poet’s complexes as especially banal and petty: “Don’t get your nose so out of joint all the time . . . One day you might have a street named after you.”

Mockler’s use of found text also works in tandem with her darker themes. “April 30-May 31, 2014” consists of eleven pages of police alerts relating to sexual assault. The sequence resembles the infamous fourth section of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, but the inclusion of Canadian localities (as well as the very need to reiterate the prevalence of violence against women) enhances the repulsive power of Bolaño’s precedent. Mockler also brings patterns out of her raw data. After dozens of alerts that begin with constructions such as “A WOMAN WAS” or “POLICE SAY,” two entries on the final page begin, “A 22-YEAR-OLD TORONTO MAN IS FACING” and “A TEENAGER HAS BEEN ARRESTED,” respectively; one realizes at this point that only four of the sixty-seven entries have implicated the perpetrators by marking them as initial grammatical subjects. Whether it’s employing this kind of stricter conceptualism or just strafing sharp lyrical insights with ready-made phrases, The Purpose Pitch consistently makes the case that it is Mockler’s strongest work.

Rom Com’s concept, if it could be described as such, is simple: Del Bucchia and Zomparelli employ verse, prose, lists, quizzes, and found text to converse with the tropes of their book’s titular genre. It’s a product not of the Internet Age as much as a vaguely consistent postwar era of mass packaging and advertising. The authors have stated that their writing process was deeply collaborative, but many poems resemble the work of one more than the other. It’s hard not to see Del Bucchia behind a questionnaire such as “Ever Wondered If You Might Be the Best Friend of a Romantic Lead?” Poems such as “Montage,” with lines such as “Change clothes, change accessories, change your hairstyle, change the colour of your hair, change styles, change your clothes,” recreate the sequence- and permutation-based poems that cropped up throughout Zomparelli’s Davie Street Translations.

Most of the collection, however, consists of more seamlessly blended verse and prose treatments of particular actors, characters, and films. The result is a wry jocularity that sometimes slides into vulnerability, much as Mockler’s poems do. But where Mockler disarms with an awkward honesty that doesn’t seem remotely performative, Del Bucchia and Zomparelli are comparatively guarded. “What’s Your Number” expresses semi-embarrassment at “Drinking wine and researching ex-boyfriends online / while listening to the kind of music sold at Starbucks,” and “Places to Meet the Love of Your Life” mentions a “wedding to which you’re not sure why you were even invited”; the creative-class positioning and the assurance that the speaker is on the invite list give the impression that nobody’s really losing face here. This cautiousness matches the surface-level interiority of the romantic comedy, but, given that the story of the authors’ collaboration is built into the final product, it leaves something to be desired nonetheless.

Rom Com also works in text from Wikipedia and approximations of Twitter-style word games, as in the “Vagina Edition” of “Porn Parodies”:

There’s Something about Vaginas

Notting Vagina

Groundhog Vagina

Silver Linings Vagina

But while post-Flarf humour may be the collection’s centrepiece, the series “Sonnets for Supporting Roles” is at times far more visceral than the jokier sections’ moments of weakness. “Muriel, It Could Happen to You” pulls this off with a sympathetic reading of its supporting character:

another working-class woman can swoop in

take your husband who was always

more infatuated with your womb

than with your fire.

Ultimately, though, this difference is one of quality, not kind. These poems too build themselves out of rote rom-com fodder; that they’re at home with the collection’s more blatant borrowings suggests that such intuitive variants of conceptualism are far from radical or parochial. But, as Del Bucchia and Zomparelli imply, perhaps there’s little to be gained from assuming the mainstream can’t be appealing.

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