Many writers are growing weary of literary prize culture in Canada from “outsiders” such as Mark McCawley to “insiders” like former Vancouver poet laureate Brad Cran. Prizes are often awarded to poets on the basis of political considerations, demographics or compromise tactics rather than the work itself it seems. And while many still desire prizes as they provide a source of income, purport to open doors (or, without doubt, direct a few more ears towards one’s work,) and proffer a certain cachet, they remain suspicious forms of acclamation. When it comes to an award like the GG, the shortlist always appears more interesting than who wins. Often the final five texts are a diverse offering while the one selected as the “winner” is usually not my personal pick, most commonly because I sense the work was chosen not for its literary value but because it fit some other category of concern that year. Unfortunately, for the most part, I feel this is the case with the book under consideration, the 2013 recipient of the Governor General’s Award.
What Shines: The cover is gorgeous. Almost encaustic in texture, the title and author’s name are set in script above and below the central painting of a basilica, car, and discarded shoe. The poems are consistently spare in their presentation so a haunting feeling of lack accumulates throughout the lyrics, namely, the lack of work, education, support systems and love in the Winnipeg characters Vermette sketches. Although I was drawn to the first three pieces in “Selkirk Avenue” in which a “girl” walking, standing and driving is echoed by the signifiers of thrush, robin and hummingbird, I don’t think the author’s depiction of these inhabitants with their “big gulps” “chips” “beers” “cigarettes” and pared down, despairing movements really gouges the reader emotionally until the second to last section of the book recounting her brother’s disappearance and drowning. “ghosts” and “green disease” stand out here though for their more resonant detail, their “damp shadows” and the “blond circle” a tree’s ring is after it has been slashed down. In the more cutting sequence of elegies, “November,” the pieces, “picture” “lost” and “indians” evoke the matter of fact, blunt awfulness of a racism that dismisses a dead 19 year old boy as just another indian who “goes missing everyday” and that posts the newspaper headline “Native Man Missing After Binge.” In terms of formal experimentation, “mixed tape” is the only really inventive piece in the book in how it takes titles from 80s metal songs and uses them to introduce fragments of his absence such as: “Don’t Know What You Got” whose poem is: “the cold/wet/quiet/when/everyone else/leaves.” The haiku-like intensity works powerfully here to convey the emptiness than enters when someone you love disappears.
What Stumbles: The whole book is written in lower-case apart from two titles, both men’s names. This technique dates the book, making it feel stale, like it is stuck in an 80s prairie vernacular. And perhaps it is or should be. The brother did after all go missing and die in the 80s so possibly the aim is to maintain that decade in both allusions and style. But I found the poetry absent more often than not, the poet’s ear lax and the poems rife with cliches like “never looks back,” tree tops “dancing,” “resplendent like a jewel,” “branches interlaced like fingers,” trees as “skeletons,” houses sighing “like old ladies,” “whipping in the wind,” “caked with mud,” “stifled sobs.” I could go on. This is tired writing. Or this is first book composition from a poet who hasn’t read enough to know better. Then there’s words used out of emotive context like when posters are described as being tossed around the city like “confetti.” Is confetti ever not celebratory? A modifier like “tragic” could have rectified this gap. I really wanted to love her elegies as I adore this form/genre, but I too often felt they descended into the sentimental, such as when her final piece for her brother closes with him envisaged as just another lost little boy “trying to get home.” And the end sequence of voices of the “nortend” (I WAS compelled by that aural recurrence) might have been lengthier and composed in such a way that the effect is not a mere listing of a range of “types” of mostly damaged residents. I couldn’t help but think this book won out over say Russell Thornton’s masterful lyrics because of political considerations. And poetry, as an art form, not a mode of condoned subject matter delivery, doesn’t need that kind of pity, really.
What it Echoes: Joanne Arnott, Marilyn Dumont, Lucille Clifton, Anne Szumigalski, John Hughes films like Pretty in Pink (1986), a boom box piping xylophone tunes, Giacometti’s The Cage (1950), a trip to 7-11 in the dead of night.