A book that purports to offer a comprehensive, inclusive representation of the world’s materiality; rules that regulate what people of certain classes can and can’t wear, eat and otherwise represent, an encyclopedia, in other words, and sumptuary laws. Both modes of knowledge-claiming that frame and thereby prohibit other definitions or perspectives, whether overtly or not. Montreal poet, Gabe Foreman’s A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Kinds of People assumes a surreal, ironic stance towards such presumptive genres while Torontonian Nyla Matuk’s Sumptuary Laws takes a contemporary whirl with the consumer allusiveness that keeps us anchored.
1/A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Kinds of People (Coach House Books, 2011)
What Shines: Gabe Foreman is pretty dang comedic. When he recites his piquant absurdities in that dead-pan way, one can’t help but giggle (even if flinchingly at times). But he’s not just silly. The dark subtexts to many of the entries in this encyclopedia of the bizarrely banal are what holds me. Whether it’s the entry Entomologists with its sketch of a dragonfly whose parts are listed mostly according to a tweak of abject ennui as in the antennae, described “I fight to keep my senses, which are worthless,” or Shoulders to Cry on, featuring three columns of names, some of which appear in the encylopedia as erratic characters, all of which are crossed out but Kim, Ramona, Your dad, Foreman balances the hilarity with a compellingly melancholic tone that saves the poems from being merely funny bone fripperies, as in the moving line from Saints, “Those we never thought were watching/often wind up missing us most.” Alphabetically elaborated, lyric and prose pieces are set alongside illustration, graphs and links to alternate definitions as in Extra Mouths to Feed – See Buns in the Oven, a poem which actually doesn’t exist as if you try to locate Buns in the Oven you find another directive instead, See Zygotes. It’s smart, wry, culture-mocking work. And the cover design with its imitation nubbled leather-bound look is perfectly apropos.
What Stumbles: Occasionally I found A Complete Encyclopedia a tedious read. Once you figure out the structure and modes the twisting humour can seem a mere trick at times. Games are fine displays but they can grow dull. I really felt Foreman could have done more with pieces like “Frequent Flyers” or “Ploughmen” as the latter is only constituted of one line repeated twice with a comma inserted before “ourselves” in the first instance. But perhaps I’m missing an in-joke.
What it echoes: The Big Book of Activities for Children, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Dali, Jefferson Airplane, bp nichol, The Strangest Things in the World, The Book of Lists, Shel Silverstein, early Pink Floyd.
2/Sumptuary Laws (Signal Editions, 2012)
What Shines: First off, I love the cover: bright red with a brassy bull’s head whose horns are formed from a pair of lady’s snake skin high-heeled pumps. Brilliant. The entire book is essentially thus, particularly in how the poems seem to have absorbed such a wealth of material culture and yet are still capable of being precise, clipped, sharp and poised, like ice sculptures of lush, rococo vistas. Matuk has a deep command of language and is unafraid to draw from all its resources to represent the tangible happenstances of our object heart. A poem like Sunday Afternoon Croquet utilizes ranges of register to record the dicta of public flaunt, in this case, everything from “Pimm’s” to “old bean”, the “ophidian creed” to the “flat oak tock.” Lines like “the oligarchy of peonies,/sated as Christmas pomanders/with promiscuous, napping droops,” singe my mind and blood with their complex singing. This is when Matuk glows most fiercely. When, as in Freudian Slips, the pantoum stirs beyond its Eliotian references to the emotion contained in the repeated line “Forgetting: that terrible liar” or in Tenebrous: the Painter, the exquisite dialect of smorzando, omphalos, motley and griseous is fused with simple lines like “All love leads to death,” Matuk not only elaborates her command of the contents of society’s closet but pushes through the potential suffocation of silks and pomades to feeling. A impressively unique and intricately intellectual debut. Even her notes at the end are both erudite and teehee.
What Stumbles: Mostly, Matuk frankly blows my mind, though sometimes her gloriette is set at too far a distance, lodged in the “mockery of the bored.” And the pieces are strongest when the form seems as honed as an armoire full of swan-necked hangers. Petite-Mort with its quatrains for instance is perfect, while Aquarium falters as it can’t seem to decide which stanzaic stance to take and thus its incomprehensible shifts distract. The book happily picks up emotive steam as it goes, gradually hooking the reader in further, making all those cold things closer while ironically loosening their hold.
What it Echoes: Marianne Moore, Yeats, Catullus, Mommy Dearest (1981), The Temple of Zeus, Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive by Harvey B MacKay, Joyce’s Ulysses, Elton John’s “The Emperor’s New Joyce’s Ulysses, Elton John’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”