Three Debuts and a Prequel

  • James Lindsay (Author)
    Our Inland Sea. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Andy McGuire (Author)
    Country Club. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Kevin Spenst (Author)
    jabbering with bing bong. Anvil Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Rona Shaffran (Author)
    Ignite. Signature Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Emily McGiffin

James Lindsay’s debut collection, Our Inland Sea, is a thoughtful and intelligent work that lends careful attention both to the precision of images and to the mechanics of verse. These poems are tight, fluid, and artfully sculpted, the line breaks precise and weighty; clearly, Lindsay has a deep respect for both language and the aesthetics of verse. While some of the poems in the collection narrate an idea or event, others constellate images and ideas whose meanings take time to shimmer through:

Take a knee for a moment and consider cancer

as social contract instead of conspiracy theory

to explain the innate hatred of one’s own voice,

 

as heard by microphones concealed in the chandelier.

Our Inland Sea offers much for the mind, yet this very intelligence—the complex flow of ideas in meticulously paced clauses and subclauses—at times creates a pensive, cerebral mood that holds the reader at an emotional distance. The phrasing in the opening stanzas of “Day Room,” for example, removes the speaker entirely:

The day room is a solar cell, pure

science, light kept captive in the quietest

of solariums. A room made of windows.

 

A terrarium with commercial-grade carpet

and wheelchairs in rows at the start line

of the slowest race. Outside a swarm

 

of snowflakes are miniscule flotsam

from an exploded star raining all around.

A field of silence punctuated by coughs[.]

We are left looking at things as though through a window, the poem both transparent and objectively detached. In this and other poems Lindsay presents the world without imposing editorial commentary about what things mean or what we are to make of them. His job, taken seriously, is focused seeing, leaving the feeling up to us.

Kevin Spenst’s Ignite, on the other hand, is built from the memories and emotions of his difficult childhood, the poems going straight to the heart of things. An homage both to a father whose life was destroyed by mental illness and to the family that struggled through the trauma of this breakage, Ignite explores poignant and fraught emotional terrain in poems that are at times bittersweet but more often heartbreaking. Take these stanzas from “Straps of Roots”:

110 volts for half a second

charged through

the psychiatric circuit

 

How much would go through my father?

[. . .]

 

Did it convulse him back

to youth when everyone’s

head is electric

light bulbed every second?

Here, as elsewhere in the collection, the voice is direct and compelling, unsentimental yet wracked with feeling. The volume sketches the biography of Abraham Bernhard Spenst, beginning with a sequence of Ward Notes and closely biographical poems in the sections “For Abe.” The following section, “My Father, the Physicist,” intertwines the son’s point of view, which becomes dominant as the son grows from child to man and his father’s condition deteriorates. Throughout the collection, the family’s Christianity and Abe’s schizophrenia infuse one another: “God’s given me gifts,” Abe explains in a poem written in his voice: “When I speak it must be in the tongues of angels. My wife won’t understand when I follow my lips as the spirit moves but angels will provide.”

The collection is varied in language and form, with many poems written in regular stanzas, others written as prose poems, and others drifting loosely across the page or using linguistic devices to generate particular effects. One such example is “spilling mistayks in vankuwver,” which mimics the spelling mistakes of EAL students grappling with the vagaries of English orthography:

sow students kun get jawbs

with Monsantoe in meksico

or Krapht in kolumbia or

millton bradley in japon,

or sow stuwdents kun

understande holiwould movies[.]

The effect is akin to reading Chaucer; the reader is forced to slow down and sound out each word, piecing the sentences together, finding unexpected meanings in the process.

Although his Jabbering with Bing Bong appeared in print a year before Ignite, Spenst notes that Ignite, written previously, should be considered a prequel that has much in common with its successor. Jabbering, too, is autobiographical, Spenst’s family once again a central aspect of the poems. “I took acid to get close to a man I was ashamed to be seen with in public,” he tells us. “I took LSD as a father-and-son heart-to-heart mano-a-mano a mindmeld.” The poems are rich with the details of place and time: the book gives us British Columbia’s Lower Mainland according to the working class of the 1970s and 1980s and the precarious professional class of the present day. The poems in this collection are more formally structured than those of Ignite, beginning with a sequence of fourteen-line poems on the theme of growing up in Surrey. Most of the poems in the sections that follow are written in orderly stanzas; even when the lines leave the left margin, they do so in a regular manner with a close attention to the aesthetics of form. Thus, in this collection too, the choice of form inflects the meaning of the text; the regularity of metre, line length, and stanzas lends weight and an air of ironic seriousness to topics (Expo 86, fast-food restaurants, and waterslides, for example) that in freer forms might appear unambiguously light.

Andy McGuire’s debut collection Country Club, on the other hand, makes no pretense of formality. From the outset, McGuire makes it clear that this is going to be fun; his loping rhythms, gaudy rhymes, and preposterous metaphors romp through a country club in combat boots, knocking convention into the sandpits along the way. The opening poem, “Pool,” gives us forty-two end-rhymed lines, piling the mundane—“day,” “stay,” “away”—into the absurd—“beaux idées,” “El Presidente,” “Namaste.” From here, the collection moves on to “Black Box” (“The tail between my legs is yours. / Call and I come”) and then “Dolphin”:

Looking is what bikinis are for.

She reaches for lotion.

My dolphin squirms

At all the commotion.

Like others in the collection, these poems poke dark fun at masculinity and popular culture. Yet McGuire isn’t merely flippant, and he doesn’t shy away from sincerity: “Your body is the only second language that let me learn it. I am sick to my stomach and overjoyed. I want to live everywhere, an architect afloat an ocean of feeling.” Like the other books reviewed here, Country Club presents a unique voice and a singular take on the ironies and idiosyncrasies of modern life, offering new ideas of what to make of them.



This review “Three Debuts and a Prequel” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 13 Jul. 2017. Web.

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