Splitting Off

by Triny Finlay
ISBN: 0889711984

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A Review of: Splitting Off
by Zach Wells

Sonnet L'Abb, in a recent review in the Globe and Mail, had this to say about Triny Finlay's debut collection, Splitting Off: "To say Finlay achieves a note-perfect CanLit voice is both praise and admonishment: Her measured tone announces her craftsmanship, but doesn't yet distinguish her among contemporaries." L'Abb gets it half right. Poets who sound too much like their contemporaries effectively consign their work to instant oblivion; competent craftsmanship provides temporary surcease at best. If such poets merit praise, it is the very faint praise of "fitting in." Significant poetry of any age always goes against the grain of contemporary fashion and thereby distinguishes itself from its surroundings and defines its time, even if only post facto. Thus, the greatest sin a poet can commit against poetry is not outright failure, but the sort of modest success born of a timid attempt. Better, as Yeats said, to "go down upon your marrow-bones / And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones." This is not to say that poets must-even were it possible-create themselves ex nihilo. One expects, especially in the case of a young poet, to be able to identify her influences through a close reading of her work. But young poets should take care to choose their masters wisely. Or, rather, unwisely; for it is all too easy to take one's own measure against the middlers of today than against the towering presences of the past. A poet who follows the latter path is like an insecure adolescent who yearns to dress and act just like her friends-or like those whom she wishes to have as friends-out of anxiety of rejection.
L'Abb's observation that Finlay's "measured tone" pairs her with her peers and immediate precursors seems fair to me, but needs to be examined in greater detail, since off-the-cuff statements about the generic CanLit poem are so frequently made (by yours truly and others) with little precise effort to itemize the genre's actual lineaments.
One element that brands Finlay's poetry as typical is a slavish adherence to the workshop imperative to be specific whenever and wherever possible. This leads to some bizarre and distracting qualifications. In one poem, there is a reference to cream souring in a "pewter jug." One can almost hear a committee of readers commenting on a pewter-free draft of this poem: "Yes, but I really want to know what sort of jug this is." When I read "pewter jug" in a poem, I want to know why on earth that jug is made of that specific metal; I want to fathom what purpose pewter serves in the poem. I do know that, as a general rule, it is not a good idea to serve comestibles in vessels forged of pewter, since said alloy can have a dangerously high lead content. And so pewter is usually reserved for ornamental purposes. And so pewter seems, in the poem, to play a purely ornamental role, furthering no goal beyond gussying up an otherwise plain and useful jug. In other poems, the strategic placement of brand names makes me wonder if Finlay is sponsored by Pepsi (perhaps she is slyly suggesting that her kind of poetry is The Choice of the New Generation) or 3M (ironically, Thinsulate should imply less padding).
Splitting Off is so liberally seasoned with references to gourmet foodstuffs that it reads at times like a recipe book for young urban professionals:

I watched you do it all-toss
tofu in curry paste, turn crimped noodles
flaccid with boiling water
- "Dilate"

If only the noodles were the only flaccidity in this poem; if only something besides the water boiled.

I plan the next
meal-shrimp, cream, sundried
- "Dog at the North Side"

Really? And then what?
You open me, as if biting into
the walnut-dusted skin of a small goat cheese
- "Inceptions of Skin"

This is one of the worst similes I've read in a published book in quite some time. Which is an accomplishment in and of itself, given that bad similes grow like loosestrife in the thousand-acre gardens of Canadian poetry. In one of the last poems of the book, Finlay writes, with no apparent sense of irony, that "It was clear I'd had enough to eat by/then." Presumably, this cornucopia of gustative delights is supposed to evoke a sensual response in the reader as in, say, Robin Robertson's poem "Artichoke". All it does, however, is limn a person obsessed with the trivial decadence of stomach and tongue. Is there something beneath the surface sheen of these nutritive gewgaws? Do they herald anything beyond heartburn? "[F]ood will always lead me somewhere" is the concluding parenthesis of the book's first poem. Where it leads her, more often than not, is astray.
Another all-too-Canadian aspect of Finlay's poetry is her treatment of feminist themes. I am certainly not about to argue that feminism is dead, nor that it should die (except insofar as the idealist in me wishes every ism' would die). Certainly the problems that helped catalyze feminist movements in the last century have not all been solved. Also certain, however, is that as responses to those problems have evolved, the novelty of being a defiant woman poet has worn thin where that defiance lacks the supportive underwire of art. The first section of Splitting Off is a series of six prose poems, yoked together by the colour pink, which appears in the title and text of each piece. If the use of such a rosy trope to "stitch and rip the fabric of female identity"-as the book's jacket copy proclaims-isn't as threadbare as the rug under granny's rocker, it is at least unsophisticated and heavy-handed, no matter how "subversive" the intent:

"Bottle it, not like nail enamel or department store perfume, but like sauce for your next meal, better than satay. You know you love it with jasmine rice, you know it goes well with wine. It was a sweater you wore in junior high, flecked, so itchy you needed a cotton turtleneck between it and your pubescent surfaces. It was a scuffed pair of penny loafers, deep-pocket sugar sack pants, a skinny leather tie you wore on an Eastern airlines flight to Fort Lauderdale. In your bedroom it was rosebuds on the filmy curtains, Holly Hobby's silhouette, plates behind the dresser-drawer pulls."
- "Memories of Pink"

This sort of writing feels strangely anachronistic in 2004; bad enough to align oneself with today's fashions-worse still, yesterday's.
Finlay's work often reads like (mercifully) planed-down echoes of anecdotal "feminist" poems by Canadians of an earlier generation, such as Lorna Crozier and Susan Musgrave. The principle behind such poems is that they are important simply because they are being spoken by women about women; subject matter in such poems supposedly justifies want of structure. As Musgrave says: "Is it any good? That is NOT the question to ask! The question is, to yourself, or whoever wrote the poem: did it mean something to you to write this?" That these stories and poems have any literary/aesthetic worth is an irrelevant, if not oppressive, expectation. An example from Finlay:

"We bought one, periwinkle blue, short,
for my middle sister, the luckless maid

of honour. Ten months early we planned
the routine details, long-distance,

white slipcovers for the vinyl chairs
and free drinks until 1 AM. My mother

sampled cake in remote bakeries,
relating each mouthful of battered

bliss over the phone."
- "Fancy Dress"

And so on. The problem with this sort of poem is that too many of "the routine details" of so-called women's experience are allowed to inhabit the poem, altogether untransformed by imaginative vision. Such poems-trumpeting the personal as political, but really only dragging the private into public view, actually doing much to trivialize women's experience, exhibiting the same lazy narcissism that inflects the poetry of any number of other contemporary Canucks, male or female-may stack up against the Croziers and Musgraves of yesteryear, but compared with the more subtle force of, say, P.K. Page's "The Stenographers" (a poem written when Page was just a little older than Finlay is now, i.e. circa 1946), they shrivel.
In many other small ways, Triny Finlay's poems chime with typical CanLit: nodding references to various myths, which demonstrate only that the author has a passing familiarity with the Classics and is therefore pedigree; a visually trim, though often arrhythmic, free verse line which seems to be the default mode of long-time workshop participants; the "measured tone" L'Abb refers to, which seems to have a range of "mild joy" to "slight melancholy," "wry irony" being the prevailing overtone, with recurrent undertones of semi-precious smugness. This book is also an example of a growing trend: a first book by a poet either slightly younger or older than thirty who has received her formation almost exclusively within universities. (This is another tattoo of CanPo pedigree, a fact of which Finlay seems aware, as she makes a point of informing the reader where she received her first two degrees and where she is pursuing her third.) At twenty-eight, it's safe to say that Triny Finlay has spent most of her life in school; since she is pursuing a PhD, presumably she plans to stay there indefinitely. A lack of breadth in one's experience is a serious hindrance to the production of compelling autobiographical writing (another fact of which Finlay seems aware, as she, with a whiff of slight desperation, lists her "real-world" experience as lifeguard, nanny and outreach worker as counterweight to the three degrees), but it doesn't seem to stop these would-be young turks from writing what little they know.
Most of the poems in Splitting Off have the ineluctable feel of perfunctory exercise; their flatness gives the impression of having been pre-conceived and worked out rather than inspired and arrived at. Further, Finlay is a card-carrying member of the League of Canadian Poets and edits a literary magazine. In short, she is a model young citizen in the poetry community, which is not necessarily synonymous with being a good poet, but is very often accepted as a substitute. All of the above suggest to me that Triny Finlay is following a well-worn groove, one that will become a rut if she fails to shake elements of pernicious peer influence from her work.
The only reason I bother to write this at all, and don't just let Finlay's book slide into the gulf unhindered, is that she does occasionally show glimmers of potential. These manifest themselves, more often than not, in poems that have some form of external control imposed upon them, measures which help Finlay transcend her contemporaneity and lack of experience. For example, a couple of glosa (or glosa-like poems) built around lines from E.E. Cummings and Leonard Cohen are among the stronger efforts-the use of food tropes being far more effective in the former than elsewhere in the collection:

"who pays any attention
to the shape of the tongue
as it forms my name in your
mouth? blend my blood
with heavy cream, measure
me with your hands, by the rings
of sprung curls at my neck. pull the locks and let them go
knowing what this tension brings
to the syntax of things."
- "The Shape of Your Tongue"

A suite of four triolets, a notoriously difficult form to pull off, is also reasonably effective. But the final section of free-verse sonnets, although plagued by the same problems as the rest of the book, probably contains Finlay's best work. "Girl" provides an inkling of what she might be capable in future work:

"She hands me her green sneakers, laces loosed
and ready for my summer feet to slip
inside the pliant canvas shell. Give me
yours, she says, as if this simple trade will
mark us, leave a spoor in every furrowed
space. We walk uphill to Silver Lake,
gravel dimples each of our thin soles
until we stop on the scorched shoulder
to rub the imprints from our toes.
She plucks two tomatoes from her small
knapsack, places one in my slick palm
and says, I like to eat these like apples.
I rub the firm blushed skin with my lips
and bite, tongue-tied, desiccated."

This poem is still characterized by the "measured tone" of the rest of the collection, but the play of vowel and consonant, the precision of the simile in lines four and five, the inobtrusive metaphoric presence of food, the persuasive rhythms, the sense that this story has some disturbed and disturbing depth beneath its surface, set it apart from the majority of Finlay's poems. This is where she shows legitimate signs of splitting off and not following the pack. One hopes that the award nominations her book is bound to garner don't convince her otherwise.

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