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Book Reviews

How to Grow Your Own Light Bulbs

by John Riddell

No stranger to fans of local micro press publications, veteran Toronto language writer John Riddell is the author of Criss-Cross and E clips E, as well as the creator of assorted textual goodies that have more in common with Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp than the Oxford Anthology of Canadian Poetry. In the past he’s made art out of cigarette packages and spray cans, but with How to Grow Your Own Light Bulbs he’s once again forced to deal with the textures, dimensions, and physical restrictions of the perfect-bound book. Unfortunately, or perhaps intentionally, much of this collection rebels against its packaging.

At least five of the “poems” are in fact games that require both “accessories” and assembly. Individually, these pieces are visually provocative, quite representative of where poetry and “the book” will at times find themselves; but taken together, as texts that are meant to be burnt, read in a mirror, or made into dartboards and puzzles, they rarely transcend the generic limitations of those “Fun with Words” magazines “kids of all ages” destroy each year.

Perhaps too faithful to the “do it yourself” anti-esthetics of the small press, some of Riddell’s work might have benefitted from redesign for publication. Reduced, photocopied, and reprinted, the typewritten text of “Nightmare Hotel,” for example, is almost impossible to read; because of this, the cut-and-paste collage background is a distraction rather than an intrinsic part of the poem. Similarly, the epidemic of exclamation marks that punctuate the pseudo-scientific essays “The Straytext Device” and “How to Grow Your Own Light Bulbs,” work too much like the graphic equivalent of the amateur comic’s wink and nudge. Lines like “Once sprouts appear…DO NOT TOUCH a ‘mother’ bulb! During the critical (two week) sprouting period, a ‘mother’ is a highly-charged and volatile life form!…Never apply water directly to a ‘hot’ mother!!” hit you with a linguistic hammer: It’s as if Riddell lacks confidence in his own love of generic parody.

Still, How to Grow Your Own Light Bulbs is as deconstructive as it wants to be, a literary diversion that, in poem-games like “Burnout!”, seeks nirvana through self-immolation.