canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Queen Rat: New and Selected Poems
by Lynn Crosbie
House of Anansi Press, 1998

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook

Orpheus Approaching Grace

Publication of a "Selected Poems" is certainly one of the various measures of a poet's achievement: a confident and self-conscious appearance, the poet has been judged worthy and marketable enough to justify such a collection, and the poet has to judge his/her own early work and self to discover what endures - what's true to life and to poetry. A "Selected" implies "so far" - a look back to evaluate a present position. A "New and Selected" volume suggests a look ahead as well, and the reader is invited to review the relation between the known and the new poet - to identify continuities and new directions, to better understand a poet's world and development, on the ethical as well as aesthetic levels, for once a poet is "selected", there must be more than mere artistry involved; there must be something to live with and by - a relevant myth.

Lynn Crosbie's Selected Poems appeared in 1998, just after the publication of her first novel, Paul's Case, and before that of Dorothy L'Amour, her second. There should be no surprise that Crosbie is not just a poet, nor just an editor, but a novelist too (as several other poets seem to need to prove today). A reader of the "Selected" can see the rise of the novel form not just in the tension, depth, and insistence of the themes or myths, but in the rhythms and devices. For the most part, Crosbie's poetry is lyrical prose: the core of most poems is narrative as opposed to imagistic (phenomenal), and disparate metaphors are spun off the various images generated by the story in the poem.

Despite the lyrical voice - the first person point of view - in Crosbie's work, we are reading dramatic monologues: we meet Betty and Veronica (comic books), the girlfriend in "Saturday Night Fever" (Hollywood movies), Farrah Fawcett Majors (popular TV programs); Jack the Ripper (tabloid horror/crime) , Xavier Hollander, Hugh Hefner's bunny-wife (pornography and feminism). And these are only a few of the characters in one book, Villanelle ('94). Masks - personae - are typical devices in poetry, especially for young poets. Like any other device (rhyme, form, stanza, metaphor), personae allow the poet a little distance from his or her self (no matter how much they fill/fulfill the character, making the mask a face). They allow a poet to make what is intensely personal a public concern, and vice versa, but also allows the poet to keep such characters at bay: and considering the content of Crosbie's verse - the dark Romanticism, the blood and cum - there's little wonder why she'd adopt personae. Poetic forms and devices are the Apollonian shield and bow sustaining a Dionysian string and arrow.

Crosbie's dominant myth rises directly out of late romanticism (and, therefore, Rock and Roll): love is tragic and decadent, including the poet's relationship with her Muse. Your desire dooms you: to dissatisfied obsession, submission, degradation and oppression. The end of love is death not life, loss not gain, pain not pleasure. For love is the destruction (surrender) of oneself, or, perversely (inversely), the destruction of the beloved. (Note that the fullest realizations of this myth are Crosbie's novels: 'love' as neurosis is an understatement as regards the actions of Bernardo and Homolka.) Thus the ambivalent Romantic Muse: absent and indifferent, She leaves the poet feeling loss and yearning; but then She descends relentlessly insistent, demanding the poet's attention and submission. (And thus the particular significance of Dorothy L'Amour where love's tragic victim is both poet and Muse. The significance of Crosbie's mask here is not in personal identification, but cultural recognition and self-consciousness.)

The second "myth" Crosbie exploits - this so much more self-consciously, and almost famously, now - is that of popular culture, though perhaps "image-reservoir" is a better term. Or "text", since that buzz-word implies the transience and superficiality of the mediums: TV, Hollywood film and top ten radio. With all the dubious, problematic implications, popular culture is becoming the most universal text; sometimes one can't help wonder if pop culture will be the cross on which some talented artists are nailed. It should be noted that Crosbie's use of pop culture references are ambivalent: it sometimes feels that they are used sympathetically (sentimentally); sometimes it seems that Crosbie is being ironic - critiquing our bewitchment by consumerism and commercialism. Ambivalence is at least a more interesting, sophisticated attitude. Of course, there are references to contemporary literature (poetry); and like many honest poems, Crosbie's are very often prefaced with an epigraph.

There is another, more traditional mythology that surfaces in Crosbie's work - Christian - if undercover of ironic romanticism, of Lucifer's charm and Baudelaire's guilt; the only light that of jewels flashing in the dark, a falling star, white skin in moonlight, the whites of eyes, glistening blood, the iridescence of decomposition, the artifice of city lights. But for all that's said of Crosbie's "urbanity", the dominant imagery of her work is not particularly urban; the poems are not necessarily or obviously set in cities. Rather the imagery is of blood, light, disease, clothing, jewelry, bodies, .... not exactly the prerogative of city-dwellers. Certainly one of Crosbie's new works, "Alphabet City", is an aggressive display of hip life in Toronto - all the clubs, parks, streets, semi-famous locals are there. The piece is a spiritual autobiography and turns out to be an excellent formal innovation, using prose, long poetic lines, quotation - a wide ranging in tone and form, yet with a coherent and clear-sounding essential voice. Still, the voice is "urbane", as is the technique.

Crosbie writes free verse, the largest shift in her technique being a lengthening of the line and an increase in stanzaic division. The earlier volumes - Miss Pamela's Mercy (1992) and Villanelle (1994) - contain one- to four-page poems of fairly short lines in two to five stanzas, most poems being the monologues I spoke of. With Pearl (1996), the line starts to lengthen and stanzas become couplets (though the line is so long that they are divided on the page, giving the impression of tercets (terza rime?) or imitation of some obscure classical form (a Sapphic-like image).

What do these rather dry measurements mean, though? Ironically, the line becomes more lyrical - not epic or narrative, not prose-like, though as I said, Crosbie has exploited her talent for narrative and characterization in her novels, recently. So as the prose came, the poetry crystallized. Crosbie has also continued to practice other forms: the sonnet-like sequence (in length & effect) of "Presley", and the medium-length lines of "Fredo Pentangeli". And the narrative element is still there in the newer poems, but also transformed, drawing on the dramatic monologues of the early work, but learning perhaps from prose to spread the stories into poetic sequences. Pearl (96) started to close the gap in voice between poet and personae: and nowhere more evidently than where one should expect - an elegy for a poet, "Geography: for Daniel Jones".

The "New" in this "Selected Poems" is three sequences. Again, they draw on elements of Crosbie's myths, sometimes making them more explicit and/or working ironically in tension with each other. "Fredo Pentangeli", the first, is tragic in tone; the dominant metaphor is Christian - angels in love, from Gabriel to Lucifer. The second sequence, "Presley", is a bittersweet, farcical spin on the first sequence: the subject derives from a news report of a woman who kept her dead dog in her freezer; the sequence is their love story. Angel = [Elvis] 'Presley' = dog; the ironies should be clear.

As often in Crosbie's work, what so intrigues a reader - catching one off guard - is her ability to make us feel compassion, though, with one step back or to the side (with a shift in tone), we can laugh at the parody and satire, the absurdity of human obsession. Or, at other times, feel horrifically implicated or repulsed: "Fetish", in Pearl ('96), is a poem from Ted Bundy's point of view, and clearly an early manifestation of the myth and technique of Paul's Case. "Alphabet City" is the third new sequence: a spiritual autobiography in the form of a historical geography of Toronto covering the period from Crosbie's first arrival, from Montreal in 1982 (the piece is also a document in the myth of moving from the former to the present Big City of Upper Canada) "Alphabet City" is the most interesting new work and one of Crosbie's best.

I say this because, glancing at the long piece when I first got the book, I felt all my aesthetic biases kick in: I was prepared to dislike the sequence because it appeared arbitrary, mechanistic, too too hip, too urban, and the forms (prose, poetry, journal entry, quotation, epigraph) too ponderous and incoherent; too pastiche-post-modernist-looking.

But there you go: I found myself more attentive to and more moved by this sequence than by most other work by Crosbie. She drops her guard, the mask, at times, and the metaphors, and then a right rhythm raises its voice; most importantly when she understands her art:

That glamour may be something else, walking slowly and painfully,
so there are no mistakes. The discomfort, the drag.
Of effacing yourself; the sublimation. Of recovering the grotesque.
(- from "Xtraordinaire")

There is nothing to say about animals, I try to keep this in mind,
how poets lose their art. If compression and allusion come to
disgust you,
if it is cold and there are lions looking sick on a half-hill,

you may find that life is cruel and prosaic. Shudder, and say this:
I watched a female gorilla. She stared at me through the
plexiglass barrier
as if she hated me. Then threw up in her hand and ate it.
Never breaking eye contact.

We quiver like chicken hinds....

Before the putrid ugliness, of everything we contain.
(- from "Zoo")

Everything readers have come to expect from Lynn Crosbie is here, and, I believe, more. The allusions, the masks are still visible, but so too, unexpectedly, is what looks like a face: at an odd angle to the world, evoking both indifferent power and bare innocence. A muse and her poet, seductive and fearsome; a Queen and a Rat.

A review of a "Selected" poems can't quote much; it's more worthwhile to try to sum up the achievement and endorse the book - as I am. I expect her habitual and occasional readers to buy Lynn Crosbie's new collection - it is a major work; they should have it. And I know "New and Selected Poems" will attract new readers - it's a fine introduction to this poet's work. And we will all look forward to a new volume by one of the most ambitious young writers in the country today.

Geoffrey Cook's poetry has been published in "Pottersfield Portfolio", "The Nashwaak Review", and "Descant (#104)". This fall some of his poems will appear in "Matrix" and "The Gaspereau Review". Geoff has received a Toronto Arts Council Award and a grant from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Quebec for his poetry. He has also published numerous essays over the years in "Pottersfield Portfolio", "The Fiddlehead", "Books in Canada", and "Comparative Literature in Canada". Originally from Nova Scotia, Geoff currently teaches English at John Abbott College outside Montreal, where he lives. He is seeking a publisher for his collection of poetry, "Postscript".







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