The Poetics of Everyday Life

Reviewed by Kit Dobson

These three recent books of poetry attest to the range and diversity of works that are being published across the country by both new and more established authors. Glen Downie’s Monkey Soap, Sonja Ruth Greckol’s Skein of Days, and Luann Hiebert’s What Lies Behind work across and between found, procedural, and lyrical modes in order to display the possibilities of the poetic form.

Glen Downie’s Monkey Soap is a book that mines its material from a series of out-of-date, how-to and fashion books, as well as noir films. It builds on Downie’s previous titles, such as his 2008 Toronto Book Award-winning Loyalty Management and 2011’s Local News. The title comes from a recipe found by Downie for a household produce that he states, “includes no monkeys among its ingredients” and whose “efficacy in washing monkeys” he is unable to “vouch for.” The book manages to uncover surprising poetry in what would otherwise be relatively banal material. For instance, the poem “The Wild Grain” notes, with deceptive simplicity, that

Anyone who has had anything to do
in the last 15 years
can hardly have escaped

with plywood
But many persons know
very little about it[.]

The poems of Monkey Soap, in other words, work across the everyday and the bizarre, finding poetry in places we might not expect. The everyday world reveals important questions and answers that move from the quotidian toward the existential, and, as the book ends with a woman who “was once kind enough / to mourn” the speaker’s death, even though it ended up being an “occasion” that “was / fortunately // a false alarm,” we see a poetic practice that builds upon the scraps of daily life to uncover broader questions.

Similarly, Sonja Greckol, in Skein of Days, uses archival newspaper research in order to construct an image not only of the poet’s life through headlines, but also of the ways in which life proceeds over the second half of the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first. This book builds on her previous Gravity Matters and displays a strong command of its material. Greckol searches for and remixes material from headlines in key periodicals on dates near to her own birthday each year, and sets it alongside snatches of then-popular songs and lines from each year’s Governor General’s Award-winning book of poetry. Each year produces a poem as a result; for 1969, for instance, we read:

comets and petroleum transverse optical lattice scared claw

or suddenly velvet returns to bug and prod Edmonton refinery of $85
million rising to bad moon Aquarius

Now we are here and because we are short of time
I will say it; I might even speak its name. 
—Gwendolyn MacEwen

The effect is jarring, yet at the same time curiously melodic; the cacophony of the competing voices that we encounter in every year makes way for a settled voice that demonstrates that these unsettling rhythms are simply the poetics of the world. People die, suffer, and debate endlessly in the headlines of Greckol’s book, yet, as we hear in the poem “Small Matters Still Matter,” “small things thing / up into / large, complex like us” and, ultimately, “still matter.” The minutiae matter, profoundly so, and become the hum according to which the days assemble themselves over a long enough timeline.

Finally, Luann Hiebert’s What Lies Behind is a strong debut volume of lyric poetry that meditates on the middle of life from a prairie landscape. Hiebert’s verse is at its strongest when she uncovers puns in the language that she playfully breaks apart, as in “meno madness”:

how do you do
meno  pause     your imbalance hormones    all    heyday fightto con       troll the game live  playm-bodied craze

Hiebert’s book plays with the line and with language at the same time as it traverses questions of love, loss, the natural world of the prairie, and the haunting calls of trains on tracks that “race on relentless==just beyond reach.” It is welcome as a debut book that provides glimpses into an order that seeks quiet in between the eruptions of the everyday world.

This review “The Poetics of Everyday Life” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 148-50.

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