I Should Never Have Fired the Sentinel
by Jennifer LoveGrove
Modern and Normal
by Karen Solie
Post Your Opinion
|More Servings Please
by Lyle Neff
"There is at the heart of metaphor a delicious amoral joy." So blurbs Don McKay on the back of Karen Solie's new book Modern and Normal. It's an intriguing thing to say of Solie, and perhaps of her interesting young colleague Jennifer Lovegrove, whose second collection, I Should Never Have Fired the Sentinel, tills similar artistic soil. Both are observant Canadian women whose sense of morality appears bruised by the jittery, elbow-throwing era we live in.
And yet this proposition of McKay's, about the conscienceless savour of metaphor, seems foggy. Why is it amoral to enjoy poets like these, poets who can fling a simile? To take McKay's meaning fully, you must consider the matter in a more scientific light-as his own books often do. The job of comparing unlike things is a primal human function, isn't it? Metaphor must predate language, since unlike animals we've always had to classify everything somehow. Metaphor-making is omnipresent in human cultures, and must be hard-wired into our primitive brains.
So the blurb's probably right for both of these writers. Metaphor is so central to human experience that it can't contain morality, any more than our need to eat can. It's just that good poets (and maybe scientists, and chefs) make metaphors feel so ethically crucial, as well as tasty.
Solie and Lovegrove are honourable poets. Neither ever flags in her search for the ingredients of fine verse: the gorgeous phrase, the rhythmic statement, the definitive metaphor that exactly signals the thing being talked about. Can you ask for a better work ethic in poetry?
Maybe not, but you can ask for literary success at least. "We live on a fat red lifeboat," writes LoveGrove, "on a geyser of melted gold / siphoned from the veins of the dead." How's that for a violent metaphor which is also a strange pleasure to encounter? Then there's this: "Zack slips me the tongue,/ intent and probing, a hungry eel." Uh-oh. LoveGrove is a poet whose many powers sometimes get out of control.
Part of the problem is the cloak of mystery, verging on obfuscation, that hangs over the weaker efforts in her book. There's some stuff about pigeons and depleted uranium in the puzzling "Box Office Manager". You can admire the play of vowels in this poem: " . . . 'Candy is extinct,'/ Blinks the pigeon-I know/ Morse code", but you feel frustrated. What does this mean? The characters are artists in the theatre of life, or something.
I Never Should Have Fired the Sentinel is, on the whole, distinguished by its mix of autobiography and audacity, and two or three nifty pieces where Lovegrove's intelligent formal artistry connects with earned emotion and pulls you in. "The New Mayor" is best:
The town is a banquet of winking adulterers,
Several municipal cover-ups and a back-alley
Stabbing blamed on the suicide note . . .
Rows of children sob as their beach balls hiss.
Mismangement dessicates the turkey farm,
The hockey team, the pickle factory . . .
There are a couple other poems here you could return to, or anthologize, but "The New Mayor" is irresistible. The controlling metaphor in it serves the best insight into I Never Should Have Fired the Sentinel: corruption is a banquet, and it is delicious.
There's something even more enjoyable about a juicy metaphor though, when it's frozen in the middle of icy Atwoodian diction, as is the case with both these poets. Solie in particular favours a very dry and precise tone. But she evokes with it the unstaunchable flow of emotion Canada's tradition of razorsharp minimalism has always aimed for. She writes of a womanising lover:
if they really loved you, they
would stay. I rest on your pillow, lick your soap,
embrace your toothbrush while you're gone. Now
you're setting traps, eyes mean as bleach,
but I can't believe you really want to do me harm.
Eyes mean as bleach! Now there's a metaphor each of us can understand, appreciate, and even enjoy-though its whole aim is to convey unhappiness.
Modern and Normal, it goes without saying, is not a self-improvement manual even though its title suggests the very goal to which we, as 21st-centuryites, aspire. Like her surly section subtitles ("As If" and "More or Less"), Solie's title is like an obstacle the poems have to overcome. If you're familiar with some of Solie's lyrics from her last book, the revved-up Short Haul Engine, you'd be hoping to see some Modern and Normal poems with love or hate in them, not just ironic distance. Solie doesn't disappoint. Here in "Science and the Single Girl" is a sensitive heroine at a middle-school science-class dissection:
... All things find purpose
in the end, even the done-for,
done-in. But when it flinched
at the pin, she dumped the earthworm out the window
to the lawns and fled. Spring robins
waddling in the grass she narrow-eyed
with a resurrected Catholic dread
that longs to love the world
for what it gives...
What's striking about this section of the poem is the way its syntax gently disintegrates after "she narrow-eyed"-it boldly states the girl's shame, pride and revulsion, but doesn't become incomprehensible or affectless. A close reading of the 20 really fine poems in this collection shows Solie similarly chipping away at the hulk of Canadian poetry's typical flat declamations:
He's gone underground, head beneath a rock
somewhere. We drink ourselves to tears
in the Milltown Union Bar.
Solie has a prodigious talent for technique and the half-hidden forms of free verse. Her content has a satisfying range; the favoured subjects here (the lonely beauty and secret languages of the West, the possibility of human insight into the lives of animals and the bloody-mindedness of men in love) are all rich in potential.
So this poet has not been treading water since the big splash Short Haul Engine made in '02; unfortunately this book doesn't represent a big plunge forward, either. McKay's assertion notwithstanding, the reason for Solie's relative lack of development is an ongoing weakness in the metaphorical realm. I mean that her precision, admirable though it is, sometimes cuts the visible world from her text. Consider the poem "Seven Days", a mediocre exercise in lakefront contemplation:
...From here it looks all right, the city,
and its major structures solid and unpeopled.
Like outcrops, they have simply occurred.
Small craft potter to and fro among the islands...
...Against the city so anxiously made up,
swans seem a deliberate act...
At 35 lines, this modular piece is long for a lyric, yet almost bereft of figurative language; there are a couple of stabs at metaphor, no more. A contemplative poem doesn't necessarily need a lot of verbal and analogical stimulants, but "Seven Days" just lies around listlessly for lack of any. It's remarkable how hungry Solie's occasional metaphor shortage can make a reader feel; it has the effect of making certain poems in the collection seem unimportant. One feels an almost moral urge to say: clear-eyed observation is all very well, but sooner or later you have to find comparisons for the things you're looking at. And most often, as in "Science and the Single Girl", Solie does:
...A circle is never getting clear
of the woods, finding only the body, again and again
a leaky approximate. Despite theologies
of equation, the protractor's gleam
and grin, it's impossible to square all angles
fair. The arc can't straighten up its game,
bails out on the curve,
while congruency rides its dreary rails
like an accident waiting to begin.
Alright, "theologies of equation" may be a bit shaky as a metaphor. But this poem, and the vast majority of its Modern and Normal companions, display Solie at her acidic best, as her figurative and imagistic abilities fall into line with her manifold other virtues. This slightly unfocussed book is still likely to be a crucial one for this generation of Canadian poetry, and it compares well in readability with the work of such exceptional contemporary upstarts as Ken Babstock and Alice Burdick.
Yet none of this quite manages to speak to the "delicious amoral joy" to be found in metaphor. For that, it may be necessary to turn back to Jennifer Lovegrove who, though her talent is comparatively raw, really cooks from time to time. Of an embittered Third World cosmetic surgeon watching her clientele totter toward her in "The Beauty Killer Poems", Lovegrove writes:
They hurtle down sidewalks,
a wobbling stiletto panic...
I offer the end of a rope.
A doorway. A promise.
That heads will turn -
and fall into their laps.
Later in the same sequence, a Lovegroveian child observes "A town stifled / into rows. Hats perched / on heads like heads on stakes." On some level, a reader might reasonably feel a little coarse, a bit amoral, for enjoying imagery as grim as that-and of course the metaphors of loss and melancholy do dominate both poets' books here, and Canadian verse as a whole. (Hell, our culture in general is not a very cheery one.)
But the pleasure of a really clarifying metaphor doesn't depend on whether its content is dark or light. Our response to metaphor is more instinctive than that, and more mysterious. We need metaphor and this need is so complex and urgent, it makes all of psychology look simple. Perhaps this is the "amorality" McKay speaks of in relation to Solie's work. For when this ambitious writer really rouses herself to figurative language, it doesn't matter whether the simile involves human cruelty ("eyes mean as bleach") or something higher in our natures (". . . you moved away imagining/ a blue tent pitched forever by the lake.") Solie's best metaphors produce an intellectual and emotional pang that can only be described as thrilling. If it's indeed a "delicious amoral joy" then let's have a few more servings, please.