Two from Mansfield (2016): Brockwell & Strimas

Both exotic with research and its eccentric dictions and pedantic with the typicals of existence, from home renos to his mother’s arthritis and from bacon production to yes, death, Stephen Brockwell’s fusion-voice is an unusual one in CanPo, highly intelligent and deprecating of certainties, its tones equal parts professorial and buffoon-esque. Wallace Stevens’ ghost wavers through Brockwell’s eloquently-cerebral surrealisms (a baby fitting like a “chemical bible” on a lap, “a spider diagram of tongues,” “one grain in a haboob” scratching your cornea), commingled with tasty words like zonked, ossicles, contraindications (ok that one’s not so delectable), catadromous, stanchion and ineluctable.

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Although they can sag into wordiness, I’m particularly fond of his list-style poems such as “The Location of Culture” which enacts a fabulous litany of arcane and quotidian sites of human creation from “Across Coltrane’s reed” to “Inside shelves installed in his dresser drawers, we found/the alphabetized complete works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey,” or “Wednesday Morning, 3 am”, which repeats the phrase “nothing more silencing” in a variety of innovative ways, Brockwell’s adept syntax pacing the revelations out so the ear rarely grows weary. Even in poems that otherwise slump into “huh?” like “Cable News Briefing,” his list bits are potent, as if repetition were Brockwell’s Virgil.

His “Biography of my my Mother’s Ashes” is a brilliant distanciation from grief through the aegis of the selfie and the recursive motif of leafing through a virtual album full of photos no one would usually take: ” And here is a snapshot of her ashes/in the urn. Morbid? Sure. But I’ve always/wondered what cremated remains look like/before they’re scattered. Similar, I’d say/to weeks of stubbed-out cigarette ashes/from one of her scorched porcelain ashtrays.” The assonance in urn/sure along with scorched/porcelain and the rhyme in say/trays leashes the sound and thus tautens the imagery to a vision both poignant & absurd. Yes there are silly moments in the collection All of us, reticent, here, together that fall flat-footed into the mind like tepid mashed potatoes in an overflowing bowl, but Brockwell persistently creates a poetry that makes one ponder with an inner wink the weird and heartbreaking universe where one can only, at long last, “hope to be mistaken for soil by seedling pines.”

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A classic Stuart Ross book (and yes I will miss his imprint, these being his final titles), Yes or Nope by Meaghan Strimas takes on an overall flippant or glib tone in order to access the black humour in everyday acts of parenting, relationships and gender tussles. More often than not, Strimas, like a latter day Pam Ayres or Stevie Smith, diddles our funny bone to remind us all is relatively tragic, if we can read beneath the “Vacay-cay” and “Baby Duck” to the willed blindness of women to ineffectual or even repulsive men, and children enticed to fellatio by the promise of a chocolate bunny “tricked out in cellophane.” Many poems, however, like “He Follows her on his Scooter or Mother of all Devotion” or “It’s Okay/Standards” are much slighter and give me that “so what” shrug, though one can suppose they were included to provide texture so everything doesn’t sink into the humorous doom mire.

While beginnings (including her quirky titles) are regularly loaded with goofy aural spunk such as, “Dog! Here he be, the escapee/who’s leaking pee as he tears up/the green,” endings often kaplunk into banal utterance, as in “Inside these fences,/there’s freedom to be found,” as if a zippy engine were revved up promisingly and then after a bit of a wonky scoot, sputtered out. Again, this mode could be read as a kind of balance, but for my ear, such endings were more of a let-down. Yet a poem like “Butterfly Unit Two: Goodbye” shows just how poignant Strimas can be when she drops the bozo-pose a little and composes a suitably long skinny piece about laying out deceased butterflies: “one by one/beneath/the base/of the oldest/tree, where/from a distance/they looked/like fallen leaves.” Not a mind-blowing image but still a tremendously moving one. With traces, at its best, of Frank O’Hara or Elizabeth Bachinsky, Yes or Nope presents a poetic world in which pain has been assimilated into the ludicrous and daily, the “ham & cheese pinwheels with the pimento spread” laid upon a tablecloth made of “brown trousers stiff/with food and piss.” Yummy or Icky 🙂

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