Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit is Brooklyn-based Mikko Harvey’s first collection of poems, but his curriculum vitae is already impressive: pieces in many distinguished magazines, grants from the usual places, and residencies at smart locations including the Vermont Studio Center and Yaddo. The poems are mostly lively, sometimes intense, and linguistically inventive. Fantasy plays a large part in this, and Harvey often deliberately countervails our expectations. For example, a poem entitled “Third Date” (the sex date you would think, but no) has a sentence that begins, “It was there, under the sugar / maple canopy, darling, that I learned of your …” Her what? Childhood abuse? Tragedy in love? No, the final word is “hypoglycemia.”
Horrific moments abound, such as the instant in which a seemingly smart, if odd, little boy, caught reading von Clausewitz, suddenly pulls “the skinned / corpse of a cat / out of his knapsack” and brandishes it triumphantly. Or the titular figure in “Butterfly Hunter” who creates a butterfly out of the flesh of his cheek with a knife. Other goings-on are not gruesome but just odd, including a poem about a group of people who get together and imitate bird calls. (Even here, though, horror pops up: the winner is immolated in a bathtub.) Admittedly these intense and rather rebarbative details might constitute what Harvey calls “language games,” but they remain anything but alluring.
The poetic line Harvey composes often seems arbitrary, and when he includes two prose poems toward the end of the book, one comes to realize that many of his more traditionally lined pieces could just as well be set as prose. There is little conventional music in his work, and many poems strike this reader’s ear as narrative stories rather than lyric poetry, driven by psychic pressure to tell us something rather than arising from the music and energy of language. Still, when he is not “In pursuit of honesty, [creating] a lot of steam,” Harvey is capable of suddenly catching a reader with an immutable truth. “Pastoral” – which is really more an anti-pastoral – concludes with an indisputable verity: “no one / can be sure they are not / what they most / resist.”
Sit How You Want is Toronto poet Robin Richardson’s third collection. At the level of sound, her poetry is much more pleasingly conventional than Harvey’s. Take, for example, the internal rhymes in a poem about Punchdrunk theatre’s play Sleep No More (also the title of the poem): “I’ve spread wide enough to drop through new. / Arena poised for this impending breakthrough. Act two // opens on a torch-lit hall.” Or the quite beautiful music of “Bright bulimics / holding MFAs like payday loans” (“At the Pub with King Lear’s Daughters”).
Richardson uses end-rhyme very sparingly and sometimes for the purpose of irony, but her ear is closely attuned to the intricacies of what words sound like, and that attention pays off handsomely. These lines from the poem “Sit How You Want, Dear; No One’s Looking” demonstrate an exceptional sensitivity to language:
are prepped for post-apocalypse, crabs
quarrying the sand for your abandoned
cigarettes. This is as pleasant as it gets.
Richardson’s poems often seem to begin in the middle of something unclear and to end abruptly. She tells us many times that her ego is a puzzle to her, although her id is usually operating at full tilt. “I’m a forgery / so skillfully constructed it outdoes the real thing,” she avers in “Come In and Get Lost.” In “About the Speaker,” she says, “I am built of myth and girly bits.” This apparently egoless voice sees the world as highly fallen, one in which relationships are mostly pinchbeck (“I’m biding time. / You’re saving face”) and everything seems to proceed in a measured step toward devastation and empty self-indulgence:
missiles craft a show worth sitting on
the roof to watch,
like Goya with his brush makes execu-
The cynicism in such lines seems earned rather than rote, however, and so does Richardson’s claim that “I make Bonnie Parker // look like Beaver Cleaver, preening for a photo / shoot in the debris of this old dive.”
Some of the poems in Sit How You Want are almost impenetrable, especially when Richardson lets punctuation be damned and writes unmoored from accessibility (see, for example, “The Redemption Motif”). But if she is willing to end her book on so glum a statement as “Go by Contraries” – “Being / is our birthright, sure, but being piggybacks us / seriously sadly to its edge and shrugs” – she also knows that she’s “here to hone the craft of living.” And of writing, too.