The Garments of the Known|
by Norm Sacuta
Hamburger Valley, California
by David McGimpsey
by Marlene Cookshaw
Post Your Opinion
|Truths Told Slant
by Robert Moore
Montreal poet David McGimpsey's Hamburger Valley, California is a comic pilgrim's progress through the fallen world of late capitalism's consumer culture. The ersatz heart of darkness toward which these poems tend is the mythical Hamburger Valley, California of the title, arrived at in the book's third section in a series of linked poems. California of course is popular culture's promised land, a hothouse of simulacra which Gertrude Stein famously hoisted with the observation, "There's no there there." As conceived by the speaker of these poems¨a mad-capped singer, a wise-ass sensitive, a not-so-innocent ironist abroad¨the hamburger is a metonymy for all that is seductive, instantly consumable, but ultimately unnourishing in American pop culture: "Hamburger, hamburger,/ my last little dream,/ my last promise to myself " ("Hamburger, hamburger").
Most of these poems stage scenes of either psychic or literal exile in which the speaker addresses the threats of depthlessness and dispossession. In counterpoint to the notoriously 'disappeared' sense of history that happened with the advent of the postmodern, McGimpsey offers moments from a personal history, the locus of which is adolescence, an adolescence prolonged into early adulthood. In the cycle of poems "Ancient Rock Mythology", for example, the speaker harkens back to the days when the self made meaningful connection to the world through popular music:
Rock music the centerpiece of any life choice,
the only hope for change:
a new album nuanced where you wanted to go,
what society you hoped to leave.
("John Lennon and the Minotaur")
At the end of the fourth part of this long poem, "Curse on the House of Aerosmith", however, the hope for change or connection has come to nothing: "Óbut now, what do I do?/ Bounce fabric softener has brought increased happiness/ and Agnetha Faltskog [late of ABBA] walks alone."
The strength of this book lies in its performability, its headlong energy. Considered poem by poem, this is a diverting, witty, and often very funny book. The weakness of the book is the degree of its complicity with the dreck it derides. Unhappily for a book of this length, irony has serious limitations as either a mode of resistance (against our culture's fetishization of celebrity, for example) or as a means of valorizing some potentially redemptive alternative reading of the self in the world. Several years ago in Boxed In, his book on television, H. Crispin Miller coined a marvelous term, pace Kierkegaard, for the way in which irony can become a debilitating end in itself: "hipness unto death." Irony, we're all coming to discover in the Age of Irony, is the song of the prisoner who's come to love his cage.
Too often, then, what's on offer in Hamburger Valley is "the drapery of fancy" Coleridge disparaged; hardly any alternatives to popular culture's debased, commodified values are put on view. Consider, for example, this exercise of McGimpsey's ontic disposition from the book's last section:
Remember how when we went to the Planetarium
and the guide said the Sun is burning out ű
as any fire must ű
and there's only enough fuel
to last 5 million more years?
Can't remember all he said, underneath such fixed stars,
but it really made me think twice
about extending a membership at the Y.
Sundry of gravitas's usual suspects are rounded up¨the press of mortality, the immanence of nada, the tension between reason and faith, etc.¨and then unceremoniously kneecapped with a joke. But it's a joke which amounts to an evasion, a deflationist rhetorical turn which at worst is the equivalent of a Bronx cheer, and at best an gesture of ironic refusal before the putative claims of the ineluctable. It may not be especially meaningful as a joke¨it breaks concentration without redirecting it¨but it's wonderfully timed. The book is compounded out of such man oeuvres. Yes, it's funny, but it's funny quick more than funny deep; more inclined to superficial than genuinely subversive irony, more pastiche than parody; more David Letterman, if you will, than David Foster Wallace. Too many poems, like "As Seen on ER" or "Shake Hands with Oprah", while doubtless a genuine hoot to hear performed, leave too little residue as objects on the page. The last lines of the book: "The great strand of hamburgers:/ each sandwich like the last,/ each sandwich like the next,/ following me into my ready grave/ hip by hip" ("They say check and triple-check"). Well, yes. Despite the liberal garnish of McGimpsey's manic and often self-deprecating wit, the hamburgers of this work's ironic dream begin to taste too much like the original: highly-flavoured approximations of a real meal, each like the next, and, except in limited doses, not so good for the heart.
Marlene Cookshaw's Shameless is the work of a poet at the top of her well-established and impressive game (this is her fourth collection). Strictly in terms of subject matter and tone, the scope of this book is not large. The speaker's attention focuses almost exclusively on a small body of familial and domestic concerns: relationships with her mother, sisters, dog, home, friends, absent father, current and estranged husbands. All within walking distance, if not within easy reach. These poems are informal, the level of diction pitched only slightly above the conversational. As a lyrical realist, Cookshaw's narrative line is solid and linear, even when, as in "Kouros"¨the most technically ambitious and best poem in the collection¨focus shifts, imbricating the speaker's recollection of her own dead father with a radio account by a Dene man of his father's death by drowning. Loss or the threat of loss are Cookshaw's prevailing preoccupations, specifically the ways in which relationships with the circle of one's dead or missing continues long after the literal passings. There is little if any humour in Shameless; whimsy or flight of fancy would seem as out of place here as a ball gown at a bush party.
"The tiny silver luck of minnows", as prolegomenon to the collection, nicely demonstrates the sort of structural integrity and emotional intensity consistently on view in Shameless. Here's how it opens:
A man and his daughter drift
in an open boat on St Mary's Lake.
He fishes, she reads, almost without
lifting her head, a shabby red-
bound book unearthed from the basement
called A Friend of Caesar. Nothing to do
with Rome or even friendship; I can't
recall what happens.
At her best, as she is here, Cookshaw is capable of investing every word¨indeed, every formal choice¨with a remarkable latent charge; beneath the relatively quiet surface of the literal, and at succeeding levels of meaning which descend from view, a great deal of matter is summoned to account. The boat the speaker's memory situates on the surface of "dammed" and "man-made" St Mary's lake sits at an overdetermined nexus, mediating a variety of elements: between father and daughter; between the past and the present; between the remembered space of light and air (in which the father and daughter each occupy discrete psychological space) and the inchoate realm of water (which contains the "words themselves/ fragments of fear"). The father's act of fishing and the daughter's act of reading (the latter, not incidentally, metapoetically prefiguring the poem's own act of 'fishing' for the right words to incarnate this memory) are at once complementary and contrary: father and daughter are together in the boat and alone in the pursuit of their respective interests ("He fishes, she reads," "he with his thoughts// and she with her book"). Cookshaw's distribution of detail is really quite masterful. Note, for example, the way in which the daughter's turning away from the father inscribes ambivalence: she's reading "A Friend of Caesar", a title which the speaker herself points out is misleading ("Nothing to do/ with Rome or even friendship").
But for all of its latency, its abundant suggestiveness, the truth being 'told slant' in this poem never quite breaks through to compromise the narrative logic of the literal. In explaining how figuration, metaphor and simile obtain in poetry's "play in the fields of necessity and crisis," the American poet C. K. Williams points out that, in poetry, the "ambiguities are as crucial as the precisions: the layering of meaning and potential meaning in the poem are the very layers of consciousnes." Or, as Donald Davie puts it, poetry pleases us "by the fidelity with which it follows 'a form of thought' through the [writer's] mind but without defining that thought [emphasis mine]." Cookshaw demonstrates here as she does throughout Shameless how a poem can, as Williams and Davie suggest, body forth consciousness. As the passage from "The tiny silver luck of minnows" shows, her layering perfectly balances the centripetal logic of conscious memory against the almost unconscious centrifugal forces involved in that complex and vaguely sinister relation with the father about which so much seems to have been unspoken. Like the speaker, the reader exits this troubling poem not knowing the whole story of that troubled past relationship. But through the integrity of the means this poem uses¨no gratuitous effects, no unassigned ambiguities¨Cookshaw convinces, as she does in poem after poem in Shameless, that we know precisely enough.
"The Hills Are a Lie", the opening poem in Norm Sacuta's first book, The Garments of the Known, is about the nature, and especially the politics, of representation. It's a good choice to head the collection, and it's a fit poem upon which to dwell in attempting to close to grips with the relative worth of the book as a whole because this poem puts in play the thematic preoccupations which hold this collection together: the constructedness of received notions of the self, the violence that so often attends the marginality of being homosexual (see, for example, "gay in stock's time", dedicated to Alberta's poster boy of family values, Stockwell Day), ambivalence over the hold family, place and history has on us, and the often violent vicissitudes of difference per se.
Situating itself at some ironic remove from conventional representations of heterosexuality (even as it obtains in so antiseptic a version as that immortalized in The Sound of Music, slyly alluded to in the poem's title) "The Hill Are a Lie" takes up the massive prehistoric figures cut into and still visible upon the hills of the English Downs. "Join me," the poem begins, "on this tour of English Downs/ where the Long Man is re-cut into sod/ more deeply than those pre-historic men/ intended; intention the truth/ easily cut into." With the authorship and original meaning of these original figures unknown, we are left with an historical accretion of misprision, specifically with regard to "intention." When a Victorian gentleman removes the massive phallus of one of the seven horses on the South Downs Way, this intentional act of erasure, says Sacuta, inadvertently "made truth." It is that one molested horse alone among the seven "that speaks to you/ and you and you." Recalling the custom of local women who perform the same ritual to help them conceive a child, the poem concludes with an appeal to the speaker's gay lover to "lie [with him] at night/ in the hard-on at Cernes Abbas." The issue of this imagined homosexual embrace, however, is in doubt: "The fertility of you/ wasted on the likes of me." In context, "the likes of me" comes to life, completing a complex rewriting of these ancient images, this time from the point of view of a gay man who wishes 'to lie' with another (like with like). Lying thus, as its concluding two lines state, the poem and the lovers discover themselves "Stepping in the trepidation of flesh/ that will become myth."
In poems like "Sleeping with Michael" and its companion piece "For Michael, in Part", the various and often violent misprisions that attend the act of reading another, or of being read as 'the other,' are limned. For Sacuta, even the relatively innocent business of lawn maintenance, as in "A Fairy's Rings", figures as a cautionary tale about the dangers of having "circular thoughts/ where lawns are perfect lines." The poem ends with a nightmare vision: "Out of two-car ports they comes, spooked/ shirtless and waving spades/ to batter my difference to pieces."
Sacuta's is at times an angry, loving, funny, or sardonic voice, but more than anything it is a decent and honest voice. The effects these lyrics achieve are always earned, in no small part because the drama of the self Sacuta variously rehearses depends upon close attention to the ways in which we are spoken by language, by the images we shore up against our ruin. In its own modest way, the truths made by Garments of the Known are as suggestive, memorable, and finally unknowable as that "intended" by those naked figures cut into the hillsides of the English Downs. ˛