canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Nerve Squall
by Sylvia Legris
Coach House Books, 2005

Reviewed by Michael Murphy

“There’s no place like home,” chanted a young Judy Garland in The Wizard of OZ, as she obediently tapped her heels together three times. Since leaving her sepia-toned Kansas home, Garland’s Dorothy fought desperately to escape from the Technicolor, the yellow brick road and the general upside-down nature of life on the other side of rainbow. In her collection of poetry, Saskatoon-based poet Sylvia Legris does just the opposite: she lingers in the ethereal realm of Nerve Squall, a nonsensical, mystical space, located somewhere between the neural fissures in your brain and the clouds in the sky. It makes home seem, if not completely illusory in the first place, then simply drab by comparison.

While there is no Emerald City in Nerve Squall, there’s plenty of “Kansas” and plenty of dystopia. Without sounding too serious about it, Legris’ playful use of language comfortably sketches a fragmented vision of a world on the verge of collapse. There’s “water everywhere”, the sky is “losing all sense of itself”, and the weather only gets worse. In the award-winning “Fishblood Sky”, Legris writes “Everything slips / dripping from your fingers, meaning and words (grey cell by red)”. Here, Legris could easily be talking about her own work. The language is slippery and unpredictable, the meaning even more so. But in many ways, lacking a clear direction only suits the premise of the work: the place is falling apart, why should it make sense? In fact, the nonsensical aspect of Nerve Squall is perhaps its greatest asset. “Split-open sky,” writes Legris, “spitting wind, and yes those are cows on the roof! Fish at the window!” There are even a few hand-drawn sketches of fish flying in cloud formations. Far from appearing hostile or dismal (as apocalyptic visions are wont to do), Legris’ subtle portrayal seems merely inevitable, sometimes amusing, and always personal. Nerve Squall is both a meteorological and psychic wasteland, drained of colour but still somehow vibrant and inviting, comfortable and light.

The Dark Side of Legris’ Moon comes with her reluctance to stray very far from her central tropes, namely fish, birds and changing weather patterns. Although the language remains vivid, the images lean towards stagnation. As Legris writes in “Fishblood Sky”, “Always an arm’s length of line between you and the shore. An ocean of measure and wait, each syllable a long-drawn lap, treading water wider”. Indeed, there are times when Nerve Squall itself seems to tread water, most notably in “Truncated” and “Strange Birds; Twitching Birds”, where references to the world freezing over and “demon-faced birds” tend to get a little tired. Fortunately, the disappointment doesn’t last long. In any case, it’s more than made up for by the success of the work as a whole.

When Dorothy wakes up in Kansas with a migraine and a head wound, she seems relieved to be back on the “normal” side of the rainbow. Legris, on the other hand, doesn’t bother going back. She doesn’t have to. Indeed, Legris’ “other side” effectively merges a bewildering atmosphere of comfort and security with a unique sense of language that is both complex and light-handed, shifty but guided. As a result, even when the world is collapsing upon itself, one gets the sense that things are going as they are bound to go. From its frenetic and disjunctive opening to its sincere and seemingly inalterable conclusion, Legris depicts the apocalypse with a sense of humour and makes home seem boring and remote by comparison. “There’s no place like home,” chanted Dorothy. Maybe that’s a good thing?

Michael Murphy is a writer living, unfortunately, in Windsor, Ontario.







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