Friday, September 14, 2007

Zolf & Thesen

Rachel Zolf, Human Resources, Coach House 2007
Sharon Thesen, The Good Bacteria, Anansi 2006

Sharon Thesen edited one of my favourite Canadian anthologies without exception, and that was the second edition of the Canadian Long Poem Anthology, published by Coach House in 1991. Recently she followed that up with third edition, and despite the fact that she included Erin Moure and Lisa Robertson in that latest edition, and I love both of those poets, the anthology didn't have anywhere near the weight and force of that earlier edition. Odd how that works, but there you go. Doing the right thing doesn't always mean you end up with a great mix. And not that the Robertson/Moure selections weren't great, the whole book just didn't gel, the layout wasn't working, and after using it in an undergraduate workshop I couldn't recommend it again.

Now I have The Good Bacteria here before me and with much pleasure can recommend it. Thesen's poems are intimate and confessional, but not in a typical manner. I found a copy of A Pair of Scissors in the Strand a while back with an American reviewer's notes in the margins--a found poem in themselves. But I mention that here because this odd combination of intimate distance is one of the things the reviewer couldn't seem to understand. Confessional poetry in America isn't quite as unruly as Thesen's can be. She doesn't seem to play by confessional's rules of propriety. She has the audacity to reference too many distinctly Canadian things, and to allude to Canadian poems, and poets--by first name! How are we supposed to know who George Bowering is? Who is Jerry? Angela? And are we to make our own leap from Pear Tree to Willow? I'm having fun everyone, but also serious. Let them take out the atlas and look up Skidegate. They can place the Mars bars from there, a kind of pin on the map of poetry.

Human Resources, recently reviewed in the Toronto Star, is a work I've had the pleasure of watching develop over the past few years. It's a language experiment, a bit of office thievery, a slight of hand, and gorgeously executed. Why wait for the corporate world to raid the world of art and verse (we know you're all looking here for your next idea...). "If I could divine nausea fuelled by wiping off shame and writing about money." Why not turn the tables around? Take all that prime double-speak, all those matted down, watered, battered, and barely understood workplace words and run them through the poetry mill?That's what Zolf does here and with aplomb. Words that have never been intimate are suddenly very high, attending an all-night rave (are there other kinds of raves?): "nailing jello," "orphan organs," "lucille lattice," "not warm hard phallus but Bataille...." "I don't want to make an 'event' out of this slippage in language suffice to say." Nor does she want to let you settle into a safe lyric journey. And it is a bit disconcerting for the uninitiated, but don't worry, there is plenty to hang on to as the floor slides out from under you:
Early in the new millenium (G18) hello (Q18) of vagina
america bitch cat, on our 35th birthday in fact, the New
York Times Magazine declared that theory was dead--
just when you'd gotten round to reading it...
I have had the pleasure of hearing Zolf read--certainly one of the finest readings I witnessed over the course of my time in New York. Hear her if you can, and read it too. But hearing it really brings the text to life and the stark words are much friendlier with an ear to guide.

And for all of you still clinging to lyric-only, come on! If all poetry suddenly had to look and sound the same you might have a point, but this is a big world. Plenty of room for all the voices. We're not recruiting. You don't win a toaster. Just dip in and feel free to move on.

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