Two new volumes find similar poets at very different stages of their careers: the established Mary di Michele and the emerging Suzannah Showler. The similarities lie in their formal practice: new formalist lyrics with heavily enjambed stanzas are the dominant form in both books. But the works differ in subject matter: di Michele’s Bicycle Thieves is more canted toward place and the past, while Showler’s Thing Is focuses more on the movements of consciousness.
Bicycle Thieves could be read as a hymn to formational places in the poet’s life: Italy, Toronto, but especially Montreal. “Scotopia,” the first poem in the volume, functions as an epigraph to the whole, with the image of the cross on the mountain orienting readers in the text just as the physical cross does the denizens of that city: “Beacon shining from the top of Mount Royal, / a cross, unblinking under Capricorn.”
The opening section celebrates the continuities of decades in Montreal, while also waxing elegiac over the deaths of the poet’s parents, and meditating on the ways the place simultaneously becomes transformed by their absence and prompts reminders of their presence: “This morning I saw my father driving a red / Toyota wagon with Quebec plates, je me / souviens, turning the corner at Grand.” As the title of the book suggests, cinema also makes its way into these poems – not only in the form of de Sica’s 1948 classic but also with references to Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal. A poem like “De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette” could be described as ekphrastic (cinephrastic?): “I can no longer get past that scene / where Maria pawns her matrimonial linen.”
Bicycle Thieves concerns itself with memory and reflection, and with examining the scale of a life from the perspective of one’s 60s. The highlight of the book is “Life Sentences,” a marvellous sequence of reflective haiku that accumulate to represent a life. The sequence becomes an autobiographical Künstlerroman, detailing the development of a poet who, in reading Keats’s Romantic ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” “learn[s] to speak the language / of the dark muse.” There are 100 haiku in the sequence, a round yet arbitrary number, evoking the capriciousness of imposing a narrative pattern on a life, even one’s own. “Death and Transfiguration in New York City” also turns toward the past, specifically the execution of Timothy McVeigh in the summer leading up to 9/11: “As ravenous as pterodactyls / in the sky above us airplanes wheel.”
Thing Is, Suzannah Showler’s second book, is organized into four sections, or “Personae,” variously concerned with consciousness, beauty, haunting, and the future, among other things. Like di Michele, Showler makes use of heavily enjambed lines, and – also like di Michele – uses this enjambment to multiply significance, often humorously: “It’s hard to stop thinking of yourself / as a fuck-up.” Showler’s poems differ in tone from di Michele’s: they are written in a more vernacular idiom and tend to be more humorous. “If I Had One,” for example, is a poem about a phallus: “I’d walk my dick like all the neighbours walk / their dogs when they come home from work.”
This is not to say that Showler’s work is flippant or lacks gravitas. “Consequence,” for example, shows her method at its best; she reveals the poetry in the most casual of idioms and idiomatic expressions: “when you’re a hammer, everything / looks like a less-important hammer.” These tend to be cerebral poems – what might once have been called metaphysical, with their unexpected similes (“you touch yourself like a new haircut until / it gets old”) and elaborate conceits. “Morning,” for example, with its echoes of Dickinson, extends the image of lines on a wall thrown by light coming through blinds: “as if light has big / hopes of being memorized / cheat sheet of unsettled verbs.” Showler pushes her enjambment method to its limit with “Self-Portrait as Misremembered Riddle,” in which the narrowed lines impose a productive constraint that amplifies the confusion: “It’s not what I / say, but I am what / I say I am.”
Showler also turns her attention to newer forms of interface with the world and each other. In “Hashtag No Filter,” she plays with the obnoxiousness of the hashtag format. “Self-Portrait with iPhone” explores the poetic potential of our devices – in this case, the ghostly relationship of online subjectivities to our embodied selves. “I’m Staring at My Phone” addresses the limitations imposed on the articulation of experience by the digital templates of iPhone and Facebook: “Because I’m looking for emoji / to mean elisions, knots of nothing / in a brain.” Such poems address the importance of these new ways of shaping and relating to the world, while suggesting a new role for poetry in navigating our modern existence.