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Book Reviews

Cluster

by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Motel of the Opposable Thumbs

by Stuart Ross

Hymnswitch

by Ali Blythe


According to Freud,
a dream is the fulfillment of a wish. A deceptively simple formula that implies a double-pronged question: what manner of wish and how fulfilled? Freud’s answer is somewhat as follows: a repressed, unconscious wish fulfilled in disguise. For Freud, then, the dream is a representation, by other means, of a desire inadmissible to the dreamer.

What can Freud’s hypothesis tell us about poetry? It is true that the three collections  under review trace unique aesthetic trajectories along the axes of dream and desire. But more fundamentally, they understand poetry to be the discursive mode that confronts language with the unsayable at the heart of its unconscious. If poetry is to language what the dream is to the dreamer, its paradoxical wish is to give voice to the ineffable. 

One way poetry stages this confrontation is by disrupting expectations of linguistic sense and narrative continuity. Favouring a gleefully lowbrow neo-surrealism more likely to traffic in radioactive bingo parlours and talking cheeseburgers than erotic seances or lobster telephones, Stuart Ross is an adept of both. An admirably light touch; a democratic sense that all risks are created equal; an irrepressible need to play the clown, even when it results in self-sabotage: Ross’s stylistic hallmarks are on full display in Motel of the Opposable Thumbs, the first of his own collections to appear under his new A Feed Dog Book imprint with Anvil Press.

In Motel of the Opposable Thumbs, prose poems rub shoulders with centos, and impossible lists cavort with commemorations. In Ross’s poems, subject-object relations threaten to become topsy-turvy at the slightest provocation: “A cigarette cupped my hands, / pulled the phone from / my pocket.” Figures of speech grow flesh: “someone’s unleashed cocker spaniel / pounced on my grammatical error.” Inanimate objects prove self-sufficient actors and spectators: “ovation: / the egg stood up / for itself.” And physics and ratio play a psychedelic game of Ping-Pong: “I / shot a star across / the room and it landed / in chicken soup dribbling / off the roof / of a nine-storey apartment.” By voicing linguistic accidents and non-human entities, Ross seeks a poetic illogic free to dream beyond the restrictive bounds of moral edification and calibrated intention.

“Are we the physics of our dreams? / The ones that keep using // risk erotically,” asks Ali Blythe in the opening poem of Hymnswitch. “That isn’t said quite right,” he concedes, venturing instead that subjectivity is located somewhere “in the movement” itself. Unlike the Freudian dream, poetry is not reducible to sublimation. For Blythe, poetry’s raison d’être is the duration of its performance; by osmosis, it allows us to embody complex subjectivities inadequately represented in other forms of discourse.

Hymnswitch, the follow-up to Blythe’s acclaimed debut, Twoism, twines meditations on addiction, transitioning, memory, and heartbreak through a poetics of recovery. With incredible economy of language and dialectical drama at the levels of sentence and caesura, Blythe delivers taut yet expansive hymns from “the golden-throated era / of the hormone.”

This is a lucid and liminal space where self-abasement wishes to “pull / the little bent nails / from everything,” only for self-compassion to repurpose them as “this installation / of surplus commas”; a space where the picturesque image of a “childhood lake / adjusts its blue gown, / lifts its mask and says / Count backward from ten.” For Blythe, the process of human or personal becoming is as indelible as a text – “I have permanent / editing marks // on my chest / and stomach,” he writes – and yet it is also radically indeterminate, since “This world is so wide open // it is we who / wear lock and key.”

If poetry is the dream of language, nothing reveals the inadequacy of Freud’s theory like poetic ellipsis. Over the course of three previous collections, Souvankham Thammavongsa has established a reputation as one of Canada’s leading minimalists and technicians of negative space. In a representative gesture, her blog contains only one delightfully laconic entry, dating from Dec. 28, 2005: “Anonymity is priceless.” With Cluster, Thammavongsa seems poised for a palpable surge in visibility.

At once her most personal, political, and formally wide-ranging collection, Cluster extends Thammavongsa’s signature chiaroscuro to pattern poems about seahorses and snakes, ruminations on the enigmas of family photos, and documentary pieces about the deadly inheritance left by the American occupation of Laos. Responding to Nixon’s statement that “There are no American combat forces in Laos,” Thammavongsa writes that “You don’t have to declare a war for there to be one”: “the new cash crop” of unexploded ordnance, “planted // Designed and seeded to clear the trail,” ensures that “You could say it never happened.”

Rather than being some index of repression, Thammavongsa’s pregnant silences in Cluster evoke the erasure of language and history, flagrant manipulations of the public record, and events that can only be approached obliquely. “Cut a hole into this page and hold it up to the sky,” she urges in the title poem. Her fragments provide a shelter for the reader to dream without fear of censure of what lies beyond the page.