The Wild, Wild West

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson

Carolyn Smart and Rachel Rose are both accomplished poets, and with Careen and Marry & Burn, we see this creative prowess at work. Smart and Rose are stylistically diverse poets, but they both explore the idea of “the west” in their new collections: Careen details the mythic story of Bonnie and Clyde, while Marry & Burn evokes the west coast of Canada.

In Careen, Smart tackles the well-known story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. But she approaches the notorious outlaw narrative in a fresh manner, expanding her scope to include other, less well-known characters involved in the story of Bonnie and Clyde. Smart uses the thematic context to shape the collection, offering poems from the perspective of both Bonnie and Clyde, but also Buck and Blanche Barrow, various members of the Barrow gang, lawmen who were hunting the duo, and the father and son who ultimately betrayed Bonnie and Clyde. Presumably, Smart chose this approach to expand the constraints of a single theme for a collection; in many ways, she succeeds. But there is also a sameness in voice to many of the poems, despite the beautiful lines and images contained within the poems.

The poems are contrasted by pieces of historical ephemera, including texts from posters and newspaper articles. These inclusions help to amplify the truth behind Smart’s invented poems, and the characters she occupies. There are also excerpts from Parker’s own writing, as well as a detailed cast of characters, a nod to the extensive research necessary to the collection.   Smart deftly uses the narrative poem to capture the desperation of the dirty thirties. Almost all the poems in this book are narrative in style, focusing on the underlying story behind the outlaws and those around them. The most lyric of the poems appear when exploring a specific moment in time, such as barrel fires during a break from the spree, or the clothes worn when they were finally captured, as witnessed in “the clothes Blanche ran with”:

Golden yellow spring outfit with white detailin, white gloves and pumps to match (ruined by grease that time I drove the car). . . . Tight yellow jodhpurs made me look so nice and trim and went real well with ridin boots (what I wore when we were caught).

It is in these small vignettes that Smart’s brilliance comes through; we are perfectly transported to a dusty road in the 1930s, pulled into the mythic lives of Bonnie and Clyde.

Rachel Rose, Vancouver’s current Poet Laureate, explores the complexities of the domestic in her newest collection, Marry & Burn. Poems in the book consider love and sexuality, commitment and betrayal, addiction, and parenthood, filtered through the compassionate lens of the author. Rose experiments with forms and structures, pushing individual poems into new variations of themselves; prose poems, sonnet corona, list poems, and series of vignettes all appear within the new collection. She creates startling images, using language to pivot meaning and subtext, and this is where her work shines. In “Cleave,” Rose juxtaposes the simple act of cutting onions with the end of a marriage:

August swelled
with heat, loops of onion fell from my knife.
The children knew nothing of such sorrow.
My face streaked with sudden rain,
I served them lies

Rose has explored the domestic in earlier collections, but even when tackling familiar topics, Rose is able to create a distinct voice and narrative stance. However, there are sections of the collection that feel less immediate than others. Specifically, Rose’s poems that rely heavily on phrase repetition, including “Living on the Islands II (Rune of the Fatherland)” and “Tooth,” put the reader outside the emotional core of the poems, turning the lines flat:

He could pull a body from a grasping lake.
He could carry a drowned girl to her mother’s arms.
He could hack the mold from a stale cake.
He could fence a pasture with posts and barbs.

The images are evocative, and one suspects a whole world exists in each line, but we are not given the time or space to contemplate their meaning or importance within the context of the poem. In these poems, we are only given a glimpse into a beckoning world. However, throughout Marry & Burn, Rose’s musical ear is apparent, using cadence and rhythm to produce sophisticated pieces about complicated subjects.

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