||A Review of: Splitting Off
by Zach Wells
Sonnet L'Abb, in a recent review in the Globe and Mail, had this
to say about Triny Finlay's debut collection, Splitting Off: "To
say Finlay achieves a note-perfect CanLit voice is both praise and
admonishment: Her measured tone announces her craftsmanship, but
doesn't yet distinguish her among contemporaries." L'Abb gets
it half right. Poets who sound too much like their contemporaries
effectively consign their work to instant oblivion; competent
craftsmanship provides temporary surcease at best. If such poets
merit praise, it is the very faint praise of "fitting in."
Significant poetry of any age always goes against the grain of
contemporary fashion and thereby distinguishes itself from its
surroundings and defines its time, even if only post facto. Thus,
the greatest sin a poet can commit against poetry is not outright
failure, but the sort of modest success born of a timid attempt.
Better, as Yeats said, to "go down upon your marrow-bones /
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones." This is not
to say that poets must-even were it possible-create themselves ex
nihilo. One expects, especially in the case of a young poet, to be
able to identify her influences through a close reading of her work.
But young poets should take care to choose their masters wisely.
Or, rather, unwisely; for it is all too easy to take one's own
measure against the middlers of today than against the towering
presences of the past. A poet who follows the latter path is like
an insecure adolescent who yearns to dress and act just like her
friends-or like those whom she wishes to have as friends-out of
anxiety of rejection.
L'Abb's observation that Finlay's "measured tone" pairs
her with her peers and immediate precursors seems fair to me, but
needs to be examined in greater detail, since off-the-cuff statements
about the generic CanLit poem are so frequently made (by yours truly
and others) with little precise effort to itemize the genre's actual
One element that brands Finlay's poetry as typical is a slavish
adherence to the workshop imperative to be specific whenever and
wherever possible. This leads to some bizarre and distracting
qualifications. In one poem, there is a reference to cream souring
in a "pewter jug." One can almost hear a committee of
readers commenting on a pewter-free draft of this poem: "Yes,
but I really want to know what sort of jug this is." When I
read "pewter jug" in a poem, I want to know why on earth
that jug is made of that specific metal; I want to fathom what
purpose pewter serves in the poem. I do know that, as a general
rule, it is not a good idea to serve comestibles in vessels forged
of pewter, since said alloy can have a dangerously high lead content.
And so pewter is usually reserved for ornamental purposes. And so
pewter seems, in the poem, to play a purely ornamental role,
furthering no goal beyond gussying up an otherwise plain and useful
jug. In other poems, the strategic placement of brand names makes
me wonder if Finlay is sponsored by Pepsi (perhaps she is slyly
suggesting that her kind of poetry is The Choice of the New Generation)
or 3M (ironically, Thinsulate should imply less padding).
Splitting Off is so liberally seasoned with references to gourmet
foodstuffs that it reads at times like a recipe book for young urban
I watched you do it all-toss
tofu in curry paste, turn crimped noodles
flaccid with boiling water
If only the noodles were the only flaccidity in this poem; if only
something besides the water boiled.
I plan the next
meal-shrimp, cream, sundried
- "Dog at the North Side"
Really? And then what?
You open me, as if biting into
the walnut-dusted skin of a small goat cheese
- "Inceptions of Skin"
This is one of the worst similes I've read in a published book in
quite some time. Which is an accomplishment in and of itself, given
that bad similes grow like loosestrife in the thousand-acre gardens
of Canadian poetry. In one of the last poems of the book, Finlay
writes, with no apparent sense of irony, that "It was clear
I'd had enough to eat by/then." Presumably, this cornucopia
of gustative delights is supposed to evoke a sensual response in
the reader as in, say, Robin Robertson's poem "Artichoke".
All it does, however, is limn a person obsessed with the trivial
decadence of stomach and tongue. Is there something beneath the
surface sheen of these nutritive gewgaws? Do they herald anything
beyond heartburn? "[F]ood will always lead me somewhere"
is the concluding parenthesis of the book's first poem. Where it
leads her, more often than not, is astray.
Another all-too-Canadian aspect of Finlay's poetry is her treatment
of feminist themes. I am certainly not about to argue that feminism
is dead, nor that it should die (except insofar as the idealist in
me wishes every ism' would die). Certainly the problems that helped
catalyze feminist movements in the last century have not all been
solved. Also certain, however, is that as responses to those problems
have evolved, the novelty of being a defiant woman poet has worn
thin where that defiance lacks the supportive underwire of art. The
first section of Splitting Off is a series of six prose poems, yoked
together by the colour pink, which appears in the title and text
of each piece. If the use of such a rosy trope to "stitch and
rip the fabric of female identity"-as the book's jacket copy
proclaims-isn't as threadbare as the rug under granny's rocker, it
is at least unsophisticated and heavy-handed, no matter how
"subversive" the intent:
"Bottle it, not like nail enamel or department store
perfume, but like sauce for your next meal, better than
satay. You know you love it with jasmine rice, you know it
goes well with wine. It was a sweater you wore in junior
high, flecked, so itchy you needed a cotton turtleneck
between it and your pubescent surfaces. It was a scuffed
pair of penny loafers, deep-pocket sugar sack pants, a
skinny leather tie you wore on an Eastern airlines flight
to Fort Lauderdale. In your bedroom it was rosebuds on the
filmy curtains, Holly Hobby's silhouette, plates behind the
- "Memories of
This sort of writing feels strangely anachronistic in 2004; bad
enough to align oneself with today's fashions-worse still, yesterday's.
Finlay's work often reads like (mercifully) planed-down echoes of
anecdotal "feminist" poems by Canadians of an earlier
generation, such as Lorna Crozier and Susan Musgrave. The principle
behind such poems is that they are important simply because they
are being spoken by women about women; subject matter in such poems
supposedly justifies want of structure. As Musgrave says: "Is
it any good? That is NOT the question to ask! The question is, to
yourself, or whoever wrote the poem: did it mean something to you
to write this?" That these stories and poems have any
literary/aesthetic worth is an irrelevant, if not oppressive,
expectation. An example from Finlay:
"We bought one, periwinkle blue, short,
for my middle sister, the luckless maid
of honour. Ten months early we planned
the routine details, long-distance,
white slipcovers for the vinyl chairs
and free drinks until 1 AM. My mother
sampled cake in remote bakeries,
relating each mouthful of battered
bliss over the phone."
- "Fancy Dress"
And so on. The problem with this sort of poem is that too many of
"the routine details" of so-called women's experience are
allowed to inhabit the poem, altogether untransformed by imaginative
vision. Such poems-trumpeting the personal as political, but really
only dragging the private into public view, actually doing much to
trivialize women's experience, exhibiting the same lazy narcissism
that inflects the poetry of any number of other contemporary Canucks,
male or female-may stack up against the Croziers and Musgraves of
yesteryear, but compared with the more subtle force of, say, P.K.
Page's "The Stenographers" (a poem written when Page was
just a little older than Finlay is now, i.e. circa 1946), they
In many other small ways, Triny Finlay's poems chime with typical
CanLit: nodding references to various myths, which demonstrate only
that the author has a passing familiarity with the Classics and is
therefore pedigree; a visually trim, though often arrhythmic, free
verse line which seems to be the default mode of long-time workshop
participants; the "measured tone" L'Abb refers to, which
seems to have a range of "mild joy" to "slight
melancholy," "wry irony" being the prevailing overtone,
with recurrent undertones of semi-precious smugness. This book is
also an example of a growing trend: a first book by a poet either
slightly younger or older than thirty who has received her formation
almost exclusively within universities. (This is another tattoo of
CanPo pedigree, a fact of which Finlay seems aware, as she makes a
point of informing the reader where she received her first two
degrees and where she is pursuing her third.) At twenty-eight, it's
safe to say that Triny Finlay has spent most of her life in school;
since she is pursuing a PhD, presumably she plans to stay there
indefinitely. A lack of breadth in one's experience is a serious
hindrance to the production of compelling autobiographical writing
(another fact of which Finlay seems aware, as she, with a whiff of
slight desperation, lists her "real-world" experience as
lifeguard, nanny and outreach worker as counterweight to the three
degrees), but it doesn't seem to stop these would-be young turks
from writing what little they know.
Most of the poems in Splitting Off have the ineluctable feel of
perfunctory exercise; their flatness gives the impression of having
been pre-conceived and worked out rather than inspired and arrived
at. Further, Finlay is a card-carrying member of the League of
Canadian Poets and edits a literary magazine. In short, she is a
model young citizen in the poetry community, which is not necessarily
synonymous with being a good poet, but is very often accepted as a
substitute. All of the above suggest to me that Triny Finlay is
following a well-worn groove, one that will become a rut if she
fails to shake elements of pernicious peer influence from her work.
The only reason I bother to write this at all, and don't just let
Finlay's book slide into the gulf unhindered, is that she does
occasionally show glimmers of potential. These manifest themselves,
more often than not, in poems that have some form of external control
imposed upon them, measures which help Finlay transcend her
contemporaneity and lack of experience. For example, a couple of
glosa (or glosa-like poems) built around lines from E.E. Cummings
and Leonard Cohen are among the stronger efforts-the use of food
tropes being far more effective in the former than elsewhere in the
"who pays any attention
to the shape of the tongue
as it forms my name in your
mouth? blend my blood
with heavy cream, measure
me with your hands, by the rings
of sprung curls at my neck. pull
the locks and let them go
knowing what this tension brings
to the syntax of things."
- "The Shape of Your Tongue"
A suite of four triolets, a notoriously difficult form to pull off,
is also reasonably effective. But the final section of free-verse
sonnets, although plagued by the same problems as the rest of the
book, probably contains Finlay's best work. "Girl" provides
an inkling of what she might be capable in future work:
"She hands me her green sneakers, laces loosed
and ready for my summer feet to slip
inside the pliant canvas shell. Give me
yours, she says, as if this simple trade will
mark us, leave a spoor in every furrowed
space. We walk uphill to Silver Lake,
gravel dimples each of our thin soles
until we stop on the scorched shoulder
to rub the imprints from our toes.
She plucks two tomatoes from her small
knapsack, places one in my slick palm
and says, I like to eat these like apples.
I rub the firm blushed skin with my lips
and bite, tongue-tied, desiccated."
This poem is still characterized by the "measured tone"
of the rest of the collection, but the play of vowel and consonant,
the precision of the simile in lines four and five, the inobtrusive
metaphoric presence of food, the persuasive rhythms, the sense that
this story has some disturbed and disturbing depth beneath its
surface, set it apart from the majority of Finlay's poems. This is
where she shows legitimate signs of splitting off and not following
the pack. One hopes that the award nominations her book is bound
to garner don't convince her otherwise.