Poets perform from printed materials so why shouldn’t performance artists have published books, given the fact that publication remains one of the primary indicators of value and seriousness in the literary world, despite how few of us apparently read, versus say watching spoken word presentations on YouTube. Hilary Peach has been a name in this community since the 90s and Anvil Press has now seen fit to honour her unique longevity with a beautifully printed book, the cover the close globe of a horse’s eye, with the title in bold red against matte stock. Simplicity, repetition, accessibility and sonority are some of the hallmarks of spoken word and Peach has been honing these touchstones of the craft for decades. Often these characteristics translate well to text on the page and others….who really wants to read the same phrase like “I would always be wrong,” or a word such as “sometimes” over and over without variation? In the context of the performative space, the repetitions can work to build gravitas, suspense, energy, but on the page, without the performer’s interventions, the phrases or words can begin to feel like a pointless hammer to the skull.
Regardless, in reviewing anything, one attempts to describe it within its own merits in relation to the success of what its creator strove for so, knowing that these pieces are mostly skeletal transcripts best served by being fleshed out beyond the page, we can begin an assessment of sorts. The strongest section for this critic is Rhapsody of Scars, pieces that surround the tough yet compelling life of a Boilermaker welder, working shutdowns, living in sketchy accommodations and, as a woman in the industry, dealing with gendered incursions of subtle or overt sexism, as underlined with terse humour in “Judy, I remembered” and “The Mouse.” Having lived with a boilermaker partner, I can attest to the brute veracity of images such as: “For a month I worked night shift/welding tubes….he had a gold front tooth/and made scorpions out of mechanics wire” (Montana) or “the women who do it/must be making/some sort of special statement/to spend their days/face down in the mud-drum/their nights in that shabby room” (The Great Cathedral).
The other sections contain balladic lyrics that remind one of the conventions of cowboy poetry, minus the rhymy-chiminess. Snakes are main players, along with black horses and birds, apocalyptic smoke, small towns in Rosebud County and women called Loretta. “Outlaw Girls,” the final narrative ballad whose generic precursors include The Cremation of Sam McGee and the gruff utterings of Tom Waits, sings solidly as it tumbleweeds out a tale of Honey and her dangerous love, Billy who “still hung in her/ eyes like a star.” Academia, which continues to create the dominant canon, has often denied us the cadences and fragrance of such essential entrees into the human heart because it can’t parse, deconstruct or otherwise parry them into argumentative papers. Too bad. They are missing out on some wild sorrows.
And so, the last lines of “Cowboy Dreams” can perhaps serve as a summation of Peach’s performative aims all these years: “don’t let them slip that smooth new rope/around your tangled mane.”