The only thing that Aaron Giovannone’s The Loneliness Machine, Debbie Okun Hill’s Tarnished Trophies, and Melissa Bull’s Rue have in common is that each book announces a new talent. They are otherwise utterly distinct: Giovannone’s poems strive for comedy, Hill’s book tours physical sports, and Bull’s poems explore Montreal and her own various pasts. Each book has its own project, tone, and merits, and each will find radically different audiences.
It is appropriate that Montreal poet David McGimpsey endorsed Aaron Giovannone’s The Loneliness Machine, because its first section is as cheeky as McGimpsey’s own writing. While the tone can be fun, there is inevitably one drawback to comedic poetry: a witty punch line is often the poem’s centre. A case in point is one of Giovannone’s weakest poems, “A Famous Quotation is Hidden in This Poem” (the quotation is, the speaker tells us, from Chaucer). There is no way to navigate the poem without eccentrically focusing on its premise:
Read this line,
now this one.
The lyf so short,
so longe to lerne.
Did you get it?
There is a discussion to be had about the speaker’s dialogue with his reader, but I nevertheless find the lines flat. That flatness sometimes happens at inopportune times in Giovannone’s book, when comedic throwaways deflate better lines that hit hard.
Giovannone’s more successful attempts at comedy are his satires of lyric intimacy. In “Pop the Trunk,” for instance, the speaker coaxes the reader into “sending [him] a text message” and pleads, “Please. / My number is / 403-829-1369 / That’s my real number.” The poem is not just funny: it plays on the “I-you” quality of lyric by engaging audience in ways that Whitman could never have imagined. A side note: I tried texting Giovannone, but he never wrote back.
Giovannone’s The Loneliness Machine, however, has more than this sharp wit; at times, the poet offers touching lines that are focused, spare lines. The opening poem, “Burnt Offering,” has this quality: “I am trying to get at something, / and I want to talk plainly to you.” That spare style, though, is more typical of Giovannone’s second section: “Beside my mother watching TV, / we’re quiet, faced with a secret / so precious we keep it forever.” Such lines often get to the abstract core of some concrete image, and Giovannone manages to achieve the same sharpness in his comedic poems: “Of my two thousand recommended calories, / more than two thousand / will come from Nutella.” Giovannone cycles: he drifts from comedic lines to poignant ones and back again. That tidal movement proves that profundity and wit are not mutually exclusive in poetry.
There is a similar balance of lightness and emotional weight in Hill’s panorama of the sports world, Tarnished Trophies. The book is a noteworthy accomplishment in some ways: it is thematically coherent, is logically arranged, and has some poems (“It Starts Here” is perhaps the best) that nicely capture the physicality of competitive play. Those good qualities make for an inviting reading experience.
Yet, even if I respect those qualities and appreciate Hill’s evident care for the art of poetry, I still struggled to appreciate the neatness of her poems. She takes no risks with the scenes she depicts. The inoffensive image of sweat, for example, recurs in many poems: “an eye dropper / of perspiration” (“It Starts Here”), “dribble-drip sweat” (“Thirst for First”), “repressed droplets / now leaking in slow motion” (“Hockey Sweat”), and so on. These are physically demanding sports that need more than sweat: where is the deeper emotional or physical exhaustion that athletes suffer? The poems offer nothing violent or visceral. The consequence of that decision is a constant feeling that Hill has not gone beyond the surface details of professional sports or scenes of competition.
Other poems offer scenes that seem tonally inconsistent with the majority of the book. One poem shows children innocently playing: “At four years young, she sits in the middle of soccer field [sic] / like dreamy princess [sic] floating on cloud turf pillow” (the missing articles may be intentional, but it’s difficult to tell). These mawkish scenes undermine their potential power. It happens elsewhere: in Hill’s poem about the suicide of a young athlete, “At the Click of a Stopwatch,” “parents everywhere” are “trying to understand” how to help young athletes balance “sports and leisure activities in / this confused and changing world.” The pathos and clichés in such poems are unlikely to inspire an emotional reaction from the reader.
Hill’s sounds and structures are equally tidy. The use of sibilance and alliteration (“rumble, rolling,” “drifters dreaming,” “lobes and lips”) is so frequent that the sounds quickly lose their effectiveness. Most poems in the book rarely vary their visual appearance, and when there is variation, it is predictable: the back-and-forth bouncing lines in a poem about ping pong (“The Gift of Ping Pong”) or the tumbling lines in a poem about doing laundry (“Tackling Laundry”). When reading poems about fierce competition, one would expect some frenetic visual movement to capture the spirit of the scenes. In short, the book would have benefitted from deeper and more poetically daring representations of the athletic industry.
Lastly, there is Melissa Bull’s Rue, which digs very deeply. On the back of this tremendous book, we’re told, “In English, to rue is to regret; in French, la rue is the street”; Bull’s titular word signals much more than these two basic meanings. “Rue” actually has many etymological associations: to repent in a religious sense (German), to mourn (Dutch), a path (Latin, which, of course, gave way to the French meaning of la rue). I raise that point because while “la rue” nicely evokes Bull’s Montreal roots, the other meanings of the word evoke something more vital to the poems: the poignancy and mournfulness of the speaker’s spiritual path, her navigation of complex and conflicting attitudes toward love, sex, and death. The obvious power in those navigations comes from Bull’s sound, brevity, and meaning. Sound. Bull’s poems sing:
His fickle determination
follows me: agog, critical.
He comments on a zit,
on the lowness of my brow,
my cheerleader thighs.
Bull turns even the most casual and common phrases into something musical. Early in her book, her speaker describes “arrhythmic reverberations,” and that phrase captures her own aesthetic. In the passage above, Bull’s consonant “l’s” and “t’s” trickle down the stanza, the assonant “e’s” and “i’s” softly echo, and the italicized phrase (“cheerleader thighs”) drags out bold sounds in the reader’s mind. It’s a near perfect stanza if only because of what someone hears when they read it out loud.
Brevity and meaning. Bull maximizes the emotional effects of dense, yet readable, lines:
It was all the beats leading up to
my eyebrows doing this thing
and you downstairs telling me your last name
tearing half a page from your notebook
and writing your email in allcaps
saying, Is this it. Will I never see you again.
Your voice pitching up.
I watched you walk, hands in your hoodie,
lights pooling you in and out of dark puddles.
Bull animates scenes: the liveliness of her active participles (“doing,” “tearing,” “writing,” “pitching,” “pooling”) sustain an interplay between two strangers that feels effortlessly genuine. And Bull still, even in such direct lines, finds the heart of her subjects: the awkward exchange of words and feelings here shows the vulnerability of both the lyric speaker and her interlocutor. It’s a spectacularly balanced creation—and the work of a true maker.