Poetry, Textures of Loss

Reviewed by Kevin McNeilly

Arleen Paré won the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Lake of Two Mountains—meditations centred on a fraught return (imagined and actual) to a childhood summer house on the Lac des Deux Montagnes, where the Ottawa meets the St Lawrence near the towns of Oka and Hudson, Québec. Paré both maps and enacts her poetic nostos across this geography of abandonment: “All things fall away, sink / into brokenness.” She drifts over the “monastic lake,” articulating a latter-day, piecemeal liturgy, aspiring to recover connections to place—inscribed as ownership and immediacy (“Mark the place: ‘You are here.’”)—but inevitably undoing the surety of such land-claims: “This is a map, not real life.” “Who lives here now,” she writes, “means nothing to you.” The poems both acknowledge and refuse stultifying alienation, thickening descriptive texture to build resonance in absence. Paré imagines the bees at the Oka Trappist monastery cared for by a monk: “They sing / into your ears. Untutored, / you cannot decipher what’s meant.” Meaning, marked in the poems as reflection (in the surface of the lake) and inversion (the negation of expectations), gives way to verbal music, work that isn’t deciphered so much as heard and touched: “The lake you are left with: / algae, neon-lime silk, skeins of it, spun / out of nowhere, untroubled cumulus blooms.” Surface of page and lake, connecting depth and sky, blur into a music that, risking sentimentality, settles into stirrings of rapt acceptance.

The Scarborough finds Michael Lista concocting hellish anti-liturgies for dissolute masculinity, poems circling the murder of Kristin French by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka during Easter weekend, 1992. More katabasis than nostos, each text circumlocutes the crime, displacing hints of French’s violent death (“She is prepared to dissociate mind/ from body . . .”) in Lista’s recollections of his eight-year-old self, who watches TV, visits relatives, looks out the window. The final poem, “Tenebrae,” dedicated “for KF,” sublimates her horrific death in a blown-out birthday (or Easter) candle; like Paré, Lista declares poetry’s failure at the moment when meaning is most craved: “Words escaped me when it was time to wish.” But instead of melopoeic panacea (which occurs in passing in the same poem, for instance, when he blows “flickering / Flames to smoke scintillas”), Lista tends toward a brutal and frustrated formalism: “You tell the poem: do what I fucking say / Or I’m really going to have to hurt you.” He harrows memory, unknitting Frygian narratives of rebirth to produce poetry of refusal, without redemption: “What the poem refuses, the poet takes.” His is a writing that, given its atrocities, declines to romanticize, preferring clear-eyed excoriating harshness: “Here, art itself is inappropriate, / As am I, with my rattle bag of puns.” Typical Lista poems assemble highbrow and pop culture ranging from the Aeneid to Terminator 2—“rattle bag” refers to a Ted Hughes/Seamus Heaney anthology and a hunter’s deer lure—but retain a cool, dissociative distance, as the poet “takes his place among the nothing new.” There are some brilliant, Eliot-like lines here, as when he remarks on “that dead hour of desire and Swiss Chalet.” The chill these poems voice, as they withdraw into conflicted enervation, stays with you, like a fierce and brittle ghost.

Jason Guriel’s Satisfying Clicking Sound also circulates through networks of cultural reference, ranging from Shakespearean echoes to personal obscurities, but unlike Lista—whom he name-checks in “Becoming a Unicorn” (and who thanks him in the acknowledgements to The Scarborough)—he tends to distance himself from what, in two poems, he calls “the mob,” the mass public sphere in which those intertexts travel; there is a preoccupation with procrustean hygiene in many of the poems, as the poet’s narrowing community of like-minded readers tries “to wash our hands / of ourselves.” The clipped lines suggest a voice formally at odds with itself, honing and self-castigating, cutting back to bare-bones essentials, getting rid of what Guriel calls any “wiggle room.” A few of the poems focus on what feel like personal beefs, and should probably have been cut; others, like “Knuckleball” and “John Hancock’s John Hancock,” take up his fractured formalism and work through a keen micrology of puns and cross-purposed semantics to produce compact masterpieces, tightly robust encounters with the “lines, / wobbly ones, / of thought.” Writing “blooms around/ the stunted stamens” of his epigonic, reflexive poetry. Guriel’s craft at its best catches the momentary drift of that verbal wobble, a hiatus in which a fraught self finds its brief purchase, and clicks.

This review “Poetry, Textures of Loss” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 123-24.

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