What Kind of Debut Are You

Reviewed by Geordie Miller

Avocado toast may indeed be what they mean when they talk about millennials, but a truer embodiment of modern city life is the barista. Overqualified and underpaid, the barista daily dons their customer service smile for the losers and winners of the long economic crisis alike—the indebted as well as the portfolioed. Us and Them. You know who “They” are, and Jason Freure knows you know. He doesn’t linger with the long-standing antagonism; his debut collection movingly moves through the city’s streets and public transportation infrastructure, doubling back again and again to wryly catalogue the myriad losses of artists and service economy workers. Of those, like “the hostesses” in “No One Goes to Prince Arthur Anymore,” who

stand out on the empty cobbles with
about to break into back-rent tears
while the owners hunch over wineglasses
watching the Food Network

The “no one goes anymore” phrasing faintly registers capital’s (“Their”) rapid, relentless remaking of the city in its own image.

The city in question is Montreal, and Freure poignantly confirms Georg Simmel’s thesis that metropolitan individuality is shaped by an anonymity that cuts both ways. No one knows your name, so you are free to roam, sketching unselfconsciously: “they’re too busy to care, / too used to mutterers and self-urinators / to mind a young man with a notebook.” Also, though, no one knows your name because maybe no one cares about you and your unselfconscious sketches; put differently: “It was a poetry reading on Super Bowl Sunday.” Enough said. The anxiety that such indifference produces finds its form in Freure’s arresting use of anaphora, which amplifies where all the manic resolutions his poems inhabit end up, i.e., in loss, the same old beginnings. As “Montréal,” the penultimate poem in this full collection, opens, it’s already over: “City of breakdowns, city of leaving, city of failure.”

“Monkey,” a striking poem in Degan Davis’ debut collection, summons Montreal through a memory of former Canadiens defenseman P. K. Subban “cannoning the puck at near- / impossible angles into the net, an ecstatic / geometry.” The remembered joy of witnessing Subban’s brilliance is curtailed “all at once” by a man’s racist remark directed “comradely” to enjoin Davis in white supremacist bile. Davis repeats the man’s epithet, which gives the poem its title, but the poet significantly leaves open the question of whether his response to the racist microaggression was enough: “My voice small / Does he even hear it?”

The epigraph to Davis’ collection, from Alice Oswald’s Dart, describes “Proteus, / whoever that is . . . / driving my many selves from cave to cave.” Davis indeed draws on “many selves” to take measure of men and masculinities, past and present. The narrative impulse that defines several of Davis’ poems is most strongly realized in two sections, “Shoebox” and “Where There Is Music.” The best of these poems tell good stories as they intimately address, among others, Louis Armstrong, Ronald Regan, Chet Baker, and Davis’ father.

And then there’s Sonic Youth. Davis wears a record store t-shirt parodying the album cover of Sonic Youth’s Goo in his author photo, but the resonant lyrics of theirs in the context of these two debuts come from Daydream Nation’s “Teenage Riot”: “Looking for a man with a focus and a temper / Who can open up a map and see between one and two.” Look no further.

This review “What Kind of Debut Are You” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 147-148.

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