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Let the Empire Down

by Alexandra Oliver

Ashley-Elizabeth Best’s debut collection, Slow States of Collapse, comprises mostly short, confessional, free-verse lyrics. The book is divided into five sections, some held more tightly together than others by a thematic or referential constant. The poems can be at once evasive, enigmatic, and shockingly honest. A narrative emerges involving a troubled family, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and run-ins with the law, juxtaposed with pastoral landscapes and site-specific references.

AprilReviews_LetTheEmpireDownThe opening, untitled section focuses on family. “Erratics,” the most interesting piece, is representative of the section as a whole, expanding upon the metaphor implied in the title: “Daddy’s drinking … the glacier / that propels our life.” The poems themselves are like glacial erratics: abandoned memories, seemingly out of place.

Gender and sexual relationships are a concern throughout, though they become a primary focus in the second and third sections. These poems reference aggressive – even violent – sexual relations (“He asks things of me, to finger his / puckered asshole, to like it rough”), the speaker’s almost masochistic response to her own exploitation (“I wore this dress to glut / his appetite, now the swell on my face, / menacing to touch”), and the decline of a relationship (“Time disguises certainty, / the space between us / feels threatening and ugly”). The poems, which narrate one specific, destructive relationship, also comment on the power imbalance in patriarchal sexual couplings generally. They are also at times darkly humorous: “The guy I find myself under later /
is sexy in a coked-out kind of way.”

The fourth section focuses on the body and its relationship to medical apparatus. The ambiguous pronouns makes it unclear if the body under consideration is the narrator’s or that of a loved one, but this lack of particularity also emphasizes the dehumanization of medical discourse and procedures: “They curve around my bed, / eyes flaming over charts, / trying to remember, it seems, / to be softer. After all, she is human.” The final section seems to allude to a more positive relationship, especially the poems of “Algonquin Suite.” Slow States of Collapse is ultimately about the correspondence of the subject to the other, though paradoxically the subject in Best’s work frequently appears isolated and alone.

AprilReviews_Slow-StatesAn alternative to Best’s free verse would be Alexandra Oliver’s new-formalist approach, which is best understood as a reimagining of marginalized, closed forms – consistent rhythm, metre, rhyme, and end stops. New-formalist work risks foregrounding an unfortunate byproduct of these traditional elements: a predictability leading to a comical tone that undermines the putative purpose of the poem. At times Oliver’s verse flirts with this tendency, especially in tighter forms like “Two Roads”: “From where I stand, two paths roll out ahead: / one is filled with flowers, one with thorn. / As I wear armour, I will dare to tread / the rougher path, back to where I was born.” Some poems are self-reflexive about the nature of closed forms, as in “Grocery Skipping Song”: “(Scratch for savings, only Monday.) / Stop him, speak, I’ll do it one day.” But Oliver is most successful when she incorporates a contemporary idiom into the restrictions of her style, resulting in a subtle estrangement of the language: “There’s the water tank that bears its name. / There’s the purple edge: the shore, the ship / that crossed the lake, beneath a heap of lime. / I went away. I gave the place the slip.”

The title of Let the Empire Down suggests both an imperative to reject the notion of empire and a lament at having somehow failed at empire’s promise. Much depends on how we read the word: does it refer to the British Empire, and its accompanying poetic tradition? Or the globalized, neo-liberal condition under which we all labour? Much also depends on whether we read these poems, with their formalism and bourgeois subject matter (a lady getting a manicure; a child on tour of Italy in the 1970s; a man boasting about his Maserati), as satirical, or as an uncritical reproduction of the social relations such subject matter reflects and supports. How, for example, should we read “Margaret Rose,” the poem about the British royal family that provides the book with its title: “Her sister’s pleasing properness peered out / from mugs and jugs and stamps. She had the crown. / She never stooped to let the empire down”?

Oliver’s collection is less cohesive than Best’s, comprising a sequence of poems that appear more as standalones. For readers and writers committed to the new-formalist project, Let the Empire Down offers an occasionally virtuosic demonstration of the practice; for those less interested in that technique, it will probably attract few converts.