In the late 15th century, a Roman youth fell through a fissure on a hillside, only to land on the tile of a subterranean chamber. Unbeknownst to him, he had stumbled upon the baths of Titus, one of a series of “grottos” comprising the remains of Nero’s lost pleasure palace. Among the troupes of artists soon lowered into the ruins was Vasari, who described their walls as teeming with “every absurdity of monster”: a crane with the head of a man; a horse with legs made of leaves. Metabolically, we are what we eat. Metaphorically, the horse that grazes the field always has legs of leaves.
Flesh, Sonia Di Placido’s second collection of poems, extends such insights to pieces that include meditations on taxidermy to an apostrophe for a weeping bear. Di Placido favours an elliptical yet sensuous lyric foregrounded by irreverent etymological play. Her painterly eye is on display in “A Golden Hunger Trails the Emerald City,” in which the rays of dusk “lick” the “climbing shiny gilded easel walls” of verdant skyscrapers. “American Cliché” describes a road trip to the Nevada desert, a place “where rain doesn’t know its own tears”; the utterances of the parched speaker increasingly mirror the “disembodied / parts” of broken-down cars “stationed-in-the-hot-horizon,” making tactile Charles Olson’s claim that “America is just a complex of occasions.”
Di Placido experiments with mixed results. Her more conspicuous puns, such as “Pick (me) up trucks” and “leading” pencil, often land somewhere between avuncular comedy and post-graduate baroque. A series of erasure poems critiquing the fetishistic language of recipes fails to convey much that a moderately conscientious omnivore wouldn’t already be acquainted with. She is at her best when her lines are allowed to slacken and accrue an associative musicality. In “Canto for a Cameo Trailblazer,” subject and object shape-shift in a reverie of form and colour in which grapevines converse with birch leaves and “a novel tramp” adopts hooves. “I touch these cameos,” writes Di Placido in a kind of aesthetic credo, “become / the gem-like stone background
reborn into canto.”
Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s debut, Port of Being, attends to the traumatic blurring of contemporary boundaries, in which touch is often involuntary and to be a self means to be divided and surveilled. Humanism isn’t a refuge in an age where geopolitics invade our apartments and even the “High-definition contours of the face” are contingent on “the camera in the corridor.” Intimacy doesn’t fare much better when “Google knows more than our lovers.” So, with the equanimity of Archimedes, Ramji braces herself and opts to let it all flow through.
In her hands, the democratic picture plane of Mondrian’s Pier and Ocean becomes a linguistic fractal haunted with conversations from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She curates the lonely facts, arranges them paratactically, and asks the reader to make the connections. “What does it take / for a three-year-old who lived on M&Ms / and barely escaped the Gulf War / to call the first part of her life / ‘simulacra?’” asks the speaker of “Secret Playground.”
Ramji is that rare emergent writer who can pen a poignant poem with the line “dick pix from LA” and genuinely crack wise about Deleuze. With strategies that range impressively from collagist to pointillist to confessional, Port of Being fearlessly exhumes the fibre-optic nervous system undergirding our metropolises and oceans, and intercepts the mixed signals that traffic our airwaves. For Ramji, to be grotesque is simply what it takes to be a realist, and the future is now.
Pataphysics meets pulp in Paul Vermeersch’s sixth collection, Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy. Billed as “a survival guide for the Dark Age that lies ahead,” these poems imagine a retro-futuristic “used future” peopled by sentimental robots, “oinking ape-men,” and quizzical utilitarians who fled the suburbs for the moon but seem to have forgotten why. In this speculative universe adjacent to our own, “Unneeded words / are forgotten,” and the afterimage of the past “glows / like a gas station logo […] in the distance of a low-exposure photograph,” by now “too far away / to replenish us.”
“It’s not enough / to be a star,” the speaker wryly suggests in the title poem, “you must be several.” Satirical anagrammatic remixes of Pound and Williams move alongside sinister nursery rhymes which set the plight of Anne Frank to the tune of “Patty Cake, Patty Cake.” Gone is the flat-footed earnestness which sometimes troubled Vermeersch’s earlier work, replaced with a canny pop acceleration equal to the obdurate cargo of politics. “If you do it right,” advises the speaker of “Standing in Front of Antlers Mounted on the Wall So It Looks Like They’re Growing from Your Head,” “you should feel the coronets / rooting painlessly into your skull.”