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October Books

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Issue: 65 Section: Literature & Ideas Topics: poetry, short fiction

October 13, 2009

October Books

New works by Holbrook & Holtz, translation by Rexroth

by Shane Patrick Murphy, Megan Stewart, Melissa Bull

Joy is So Exhausting
Susan Holbrook
Coach House Books: Toronto, 2009

On writing humor, Dorothy Parker said, “There must be courage; there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind.”

Susan Holbrook’s Joy is So Exhausting is a collection to make Parker proud. Tongue-in-check tart, Holbrook’s poetry is full to the brim with truncated aphorisms (invented) and the juxtaposed rhetoric of double-entendres: “Your First Timpani? Take a deep Brecht and relapse.” Her words play musical chairs and broken telephone at the same time.

While I’m less keen on the Canadiana in-jokes (Green Party, Conservative Party, Peter Mansbridge) and other CBC News refrains, I appreciate that even these dropped names exist in a galaxy far from purple.

Speaking of blue, Holbrook’s sexy lady-love responses to Lorca move liquidly, acting as a sort of Psalm and response style poetical liturgy. And “Poetsmart Training for Your Poet” is hold-your-sides hilarious. Show it to your scruffiest poet and get them in line already.

You’ll read Joy is So Exhausting with a dry pair of eyes; this writer’s whet her wit sharp.

Melissa Bull

Written on the Sky: Poems from the Japanese
translated by Kenneth Rexroth
New Directions: New York, 2009

At some point, most Canadian pre-teens gain a rudimentary understanding of Japanese poetry. Unfortunately my exposure to this tradition has never branched out from those unrhyming lines of five, seven, and five syllables I learned in grade four.

Given this limited exposure, I was excited to learn something from this short collection. However, this is far from an educational tool. Apart from the names and genders of the poets, and the dates they lived, no background information is provided. But this lack of supplementary material is only slightly disorienting. When confronted exclusively with the poems themselves, you can uncover a lifetime of visceral images in these succinct verses.

I keep returning to Masaoka Shiki’s poem, which reads in its entirety: “Frozen in the ice / A maple leaf.” Bare and direct, that maple leaf can spark deep imaginative involvement. Then again, it can be just a leaf in the ice. Stripped of decorative phrasing and emotional triggers, each re-reading provides a new response.

Packaged in a glossy black and gold jacket with ornate flowers and butterflies, this collection seems so much like a romantic gift that they could have published it on pink heart-shaped pages. Cynical as that might sound, it’s probably damn effective as such.

Shane Patrick Murphy

This One’s Going to Last Forever
Narine Holtz
Insomniac Press: Toronto, 2009

It’s one thing to look for love in all the wrong places; it’s another not to look at all.

Narine Holtz’s style cuts to the point and embraces our so-called sexual deviances, her characters share the same confidence to love and find love in the most unexpected places.

Take the sexy amputee who fulfills the fetishized desires of a man and wonders at the cosmic joke of “leaving her homophobic girlfriend” and finally discovering pleasure where she’d only known pain. The phantoms of her past disappear as “her cunt caramelized like sugar sweating in a hot pan.”

One of This One’s best lines is delivered by a middle-aged gay man who performs drive-through weddings dressed as Elvis. The words he speaks about his fag hag, Tracy, and the reasons he’s drawn to her eccentric drama, are among the most tender of this collection.

While the writing is not overtly sexy, Holtz delivers enough intimacy and eroticism to tease but not quite satisfy. This suspended gratification almost has me begging Holtz for a collection of erotic stories that fulfils the fill-in-the-blank anticipation of This One.

This collection of short stories is anchored by the central chapters, telling the story of Clara and her emerging politicization. If you weren’t a small-town Alberta lesbian coming out in Montreal in 1989, Holtz takes you there: “Even the meaning of the words the other students used—words like ‘colonialization,’ ‘hegemony,’ and ‘deconstruction”—weren’t clear to her.”

The greatest source of internal conflict for Clara is her sexuality, and despite her experience with men, she’d rarely known the pleasure of intimacy and love. Say hello to Gabby, who makes Clara blush when she says, “Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.”

However, Gabby’s loyalty is to women, not to one woman. Here Holtz, who was awarded the Alice B. Award for debut lesbian fiction for her previous novel, channels Nietzsche: “In the end, one loves one’s desire and not what is desired.”

Clara’s sexual soul searching may not have been written for comic effect, but her insecurities and coming-of-age epiphanies rarely failed to crack me up. On one hand, her voice is prescient, endearing and sweetly pathetic. On the other, it’s self-absorbed and tedious. Her doubts also flit through the minds of many queer women; she’s not alone and she’s not original. Once between the sheets with her lover, her mind is finally put at ease.

Megan Stewart

Melissa Bull works in Montreal as a writer, editor, and translator. Her first collection of short fiction, Eating Out, was published by WithWords in 2009.

Megan Stewart is an independent journalist in Vancouver, where she is completing her graduate degree at the University of British Columbia.

Shane Patrick Murphy is the former executive editor of the McGill Law Journal. He is slowly getting around to writing his first novel, Still I Dream of Grandeur.

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