James Lindsay’s Double Self-Portrait and Lauren Turner’s The Only Card in a Deck of Knives (Buckrider Books, 2020)

“Poetry is a lie/dummies insist is faithful” (Counter-Earth). I am nearly at the end of Lindsay’s second collection when I read the line that seems to sum this book up. Its tone anyway, possibly its underlying motivation. Sardonic, cynical, sly, bereft, gutted of hope. Or is it. Steeped in the abyss of Auden’s famed line: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Ahhhh but read on….”it survives in the valley of its making where executives would never want to tamper….a way of happening, a mouth” (In memory of W.B. Yeats). Essential detachments. Unique modes. Latent potencies. Not the void. Phew.

Lindsay’s assemblage begins with a piece that closes by quoting Donald Britton’s line: “It’s all a terrible lie” and, of course, as befits the Double Self-Portrait concept concludes with the titularly-eponymous poem (possibly the most compellingly “honest” piece in the book) that absorbs the Britton (who also recurs in the central poem, “Repro Ditto”) and spits out the regurgitated last line again: “especially since it’s all a terrible lie.” I get it. I do. But I must say it’s depressing, such bonging insistence on futility. Not in the way speaking of death or grief or even bloody accidents can be, but how listening to shoe gaze music is, or watching endlessly falling leaves that, instead of feeding the soil, instead sink into a bath of acid, or seeing someone staring blankly at a wall and when you ask if they are ok they mumble some incomprehensible response like, “Eating is control in a sport that rewards those who accrue transparency towards/the light source” (Mine Light). Say what? Anyone who knows me understands I’m obsessed with John Ashbery -who is often obscure, weird, opaque. But, somehow, there is always life-juice in his work, a bit of an underlying giggle or swoon, whereas many of Lindsay’s poems have already argued themselves out of traces of longing, echoes of fervency, as if having spiritus is simply gauche, uncool, maybe even irresponsible. Charles Simic once said, poetry is “an exchange of a particular kind of energy” and the transference here is dispirited, “this cold reading” (Survivors), full of drizzle and shadows and fucked-up Freud and shot Lorca and alone bodies. His passion for Jeff Wall’s art is, however, an omnipresent thread, giving this reader a sense of the potential jouissance lying in wait.

After all, I also reviewed Lindsay’s first book, Our Inland Sea (Wolsak & Wynn, 2015) and noted it was “intelligent, ironic, rueful, full of urban ennui.” All still true in Double Self-Portrait. But the jubilant word play has lessened, the lexical energy been a bit flat-lined. It’s still bouncing however in poems like The Revelry of Others (“I will forget to send them a Christmas card/and build a gilded guilt out of it. The worst the introvert heard/was an invite’s bing-binging, the doorbell’s ding donging”), the “ooooos and wooooos grew in intensity….the lake’s glass eczema whispering” (Oooos and Wooos), Travel and Leisure with its crucial lines “There are many poems about bees/failing to be bees in the liberal world/because of new chemicals and sound” or the essential repetitions of Stupid Machine with its sensory recollections of “What you are hearing….what you are smelling.” There are other poems that stir beyond the belly-button level anxiety of the excessively traversed ego and its discombobulated raiment, but I didn’t find enough to feel super yes about this collection. Well written, occasionally subtly funny (“Kiss me,/ I have opinions” Kiss Me, Man-Child), but too deep in the muck of the 21st century’s downer-wagon where the closures often drop you fast and “sarcasm’s shitty shield” (Between Wars) is all too frequently deployed.

*

The Only Card in a Deck of Knives, Lauren Taylor’s first, is equally brainy (though in an entirely different way – more to contextualize than quash) with overt admonishments (akin to Lindsay’s) that we readers should not entirely trust the narrator (though this feels more like an acknowledgement of fluidity rather than a doom-warning), as one should not rely on the body (so readily wounded, disabled, violated) as a permanently sustainable vehicle. Though the body is necessarily paramount when one has been rendered ultra-conscious of it due to a disease like LAM, an eventually fatal lung condition that is suffered, according to Google, by a “small percentage of women of childbearing age.” Turner doesn’t have the luxury to only write about the pastoral directnesses of “light, weather and nature” (Stop Bringing me Here) but must daily confront the oblique, insecure, trammelled and still potent bounds of flesh and its complex fucking, flawed love, medical incursions, maybe maternal yearnings and possibly a more imminent mortality than many. As with Julie McIssac’s erudite and erotic collection, We Like Feelings. We Are Serious. (Wolsak & Wynn, 2018), Turner’s book is also unafeared of those feared lexicons of cunt, cum, fuck, and nor does it recoil from such admissions like, “I am terrified I built my poetry on the backs of violent men.”

Turner got me from the get-go. The opening poem, Engaging the Core has taut, Latinate-dictioned, six-line stanzas, and lines that fuse emotion with biology: “Hieroglyphics of porous marrow/pocketed with secrets, your ferment indiscretions” and overt orders to the self: “This is your waltz. Sway to it.” With alternating literary traces of Plath, Lisa Robertson, Sexton, Chase Twichell, Karen Solie and Robin Richardson, this startlingly titled book with its primary reds of scratcher-tats cover is an exegesis of everything the flesh codifies or doesn’t in its feminized erosions and triumphs. Between Push and Shove unpacks with an elegant, understated vitriol what a woman “should be” – “A woman should dress like a window to be impressive but not one to look through.” Further, the prosy accounts of Appendix 1 Quit Dying to Die are unyielding in their peelings back of the veneers of bulimia, addiction, mental illness, tumours (“Always there’s this difficulty of occupying a body”). Violence against women rears up in many pieces like Rooted too Long in a Single Spot, a poem that recollects the murder of Kitty Genovese and expresses regret for the misuse of such survivor terms as “brave, or traumatized, or broken,” concluding in the most powerfully ironic line in the book – “I could plead for better, but you know I can’t speak.” Then too, there’s the chunk of textbook scenarios divided by italicized segments on X that comprise A Masculine Division and which provide a stirring critique of a medical system that has long ignored female pain, hystericized it, invisibilized it, drawing on the tragedy of murdered artist Ana Mendieta to exemplify how often we are instructed to step over blood: “No man is permitted to weigh my bodily trauma by his lack of empathy.” TRUE! Heavy stuff, that’s right, and this is perfectly okay, adult readers, as mostly the intuitive tweakings of diction and form keep it all palatable as art first. Tenuous balance that fusion of craft and saying core things and more often than not, Turner manages to turn the body’s burdens into transcendences of sonority that both mean (to argue against Archibald Leich’s proposition in Ars Poetica) AND be.

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