“But to walk naked is, of course, no guarantee of achievement in the arts….[some poems] are more compulsively concerned with the processes of psychoanalysis than with those of poetry” A. Alvarez on Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in The New Poetry, 1962.
Sharon McCartney’s seventh collection Villa Negativa (of course a play on the notion of the Via Negativa – that one cannot access god via his positive qualities as the state of being human is too flawed – so villa – an inhabiting though with resonances of holiday? temporality? exoticism? Somehow a villa is never where one permanently lives – to my mind at least), probably shouldn’t be subtitled “a memoir in verse.” Such a concept immediately conjures up Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate: a novel in verse, which is wholly in an iambic tetrametre rhyme scheme. Memoirs yes, three of them: one on difficult relationships with still-hard-to-give-up douche bags, one of a sister, horribly crippled both by a neurological disorder and a blandly incommunicado family, and the last of her own torturous childhood anorexia. But in verse? According to the dictionary (to which one must always return when words lose their resonance), verse is “writing arranged with a metrical rhythm, typically having a rhyme.”
McCartney has written exceedingly rhythmical poems (in For and Against, Hard Ass and Under the Abdominal Wall, among others) and this is one of the reasons she holds a place of high esteem in the Canadian poetry scene for me, and there are, without doubt, sounds in these pieces, from the repetitions of “alone, alone, oh to be alone,” in the first sequence “I am who I am”, to the eponymous words “agonal and preterminal,” among other medical jargon in the second section, to anorexia’s staccato ruptures in lines like: “It’s not lust. I do not want them./I want to be them. Flat. Sharp. /Clothes loose on my limbs./ [textual lacuna]/ It is lust” that punctuate the final narration. But verse? That word even has an old fashioned connotation and none of the work in Villa Negativa features old school modes of talking about any of this troubling subject matter in the present day, namely silence or possibly worse, platitudes. Verse sets up other kinds of expectations than this collection delivers. And does genre matter here anyway?
Even though I wouldn’t restrict Villa Negativa to terms like poetry, never mind verse, that doesn’t mean I didn’t find much to ummmm, nourish me in these pieces (minus the first and last toss-away lyrics, which are really just steamrolled sentences). Though there’s little to tap your toes to, there’s a ton to empathize over, rage against, or even pshaw in disdain towards, usually in the face of some sad sack male character. Echoes of Lynn Crosbie’s Lies and more distant ones of Sharon Olds’ general yen to truth-tell ring out in “I am not who I am,” albeit in a more sardonic, less sensual way. Beginning with the undeniable truth, “The urge to text is always there,” this piece follows such an acknowledgment by introducing the reader to the philandering fabricator and later, the sappy luthier and, as more tragic backdrop, the husband she left because she loved him too too much. It’s mostly a hoot to follow all these schmucks around (though I wanted to scream at the Sharon-persona a few times – why are you trying to find the luthier bearable? – yes I became irritated when struck by a former mirror – run, woman, run!) because McCartney provides a plethora of doors through which to enter the accounts: emails, notes on nature, texts, comments from friends, allusions to things read or listened to like Allan Watts or Bach and endless self-questionings. This knowledge of how to texture and pace a narrative is utterly key to the reader’s enjoyment. Crosbie’s account, by contrast, was simply too long, for one, to sustain engagement in the navel-tickling.
“Agonal and Preterminal,” the second piece, perfectly sketches a painful portrait of an era of institutionalization, medicalese and the hush of shame (“No one ever talks about it,/what has happened to our family”) and although the third sequence, “Anorexica,” is sparser (how apropos) and more prone to philosophical statement, it holds its own power, see-sawing between details of calorie-small food (“raw green cabbage…dill pickles”), rich images of her “rococo sundress” or porpoises that “fling themselves,” and admonitions from Sartre on the ineffability of desire.
I liked Villa Negativa‘s Don Coles or Robert Kroetsch style of pointed reportage. Though I was somewhat wary at times of what it wanted to call itself, its slippery positionings. But hey, it’s a villa, visit, don’t believe everything you’re told in the ad, enjoy the stuff that’s there, and go home to Casa Positiva again for awhile 😉