The teen-penned poem is a form so open to wince-inducing recollection that it’s easy to forget just how those rhyming couplets and long lines of “free verse” ring true for the young poets who write them. Yes, the words “void,” “shattered,” “tears,” and “forever” may not quicken the mature reader’s pulse, but kids know how they feel, and they know how to express it.
That Wendy Phillips has constructed an entire novel in simulated teen verse, which mimics the bipolar rhythms of puberty without putting off the reader, is an achievement in itself. Fishtailing tells the story of a troubled teenager’s impact on three fellow Vancouver high school students over the course of one rainy autumn and winter. The teen in question is Natalie, a beautiful, provocative girl given to drama and self-harm who quickly draws Tricia, Kyle, and Miguel into her personal vortex. When a well-intentioned English teacher assigns the four students a series of exercises in poetic self-expression, their supressed feelings, memories, and confessions quickly surface.
The students’ poems comprise the main body of the novel, with the teacher’s occasional written comments indirectly filling in the young poets’ biographies. Phillips moves comfortably between the five voices, revealing the layers of Kyle and Miguel’s masculine bravado and insecurity, and Tricia and Natalie’s conflicted feelings about their emerging powers and needs. The teacher is, at times, too easily set up as the insensitive adult figure demanding societal restraint from her budding poets, but Phillips nails the shifting voices and perspectives. It’s hard to know how young readers unschooled in confessional poetry will react to this novel in verse, but those practiced in the hyperbolic arts will feel the thrill of recognition throughout.