canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Chick at the Back of the Church
by Billie Livingston
Nightwood Editions, 2001

Reviewed by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden

The Chick at the Back of the Church is a collection of discrete poems linked by one narrative, a heroine’s progress with plot twists, setbacks – disappointments in love, bereavements – and triumphs. There’s something oddly old-fashioned about the narrator; she’s naïve and worldly at the same time, full of cinematic Barbara Stanwyck grit. This book plays like a movie, complete with soundtrack. Its poems are sharp little lyrics or country and western laments depicting our heroine’s journey from innocence (sort of: a childhood whose instalments have titles such as "Children’s Aid is Coming" or "Thrills, chills, and aspirin pills" is no idyll) to wary experience.

The persona in these poems – deceptively simple, sometimes courting cliché – becomes increasingly appealing. Anticipating condescension, the narrator takes aim to forestall it with defensive cool and wit. The naturalness and humour of "I Have This Thing" evokes early Michael Ondaatje as the poet tells a joke at intimate leisure to a willing listener. Quoting won’t do: like all good jokes it needs to be heard or read in its entirety, and there’s pain involved, combined with crack timing. I can’t imagine not being captivated by the mother in "I Have This Thing" who wants her daughter to put in her teeth and take her vibrator out, should she be the one to find her if she dies alone in bed. Or with the daughter who tells the complex, loving, exasperated joke.

Other women are depicted with similar affection, ambivalence and economy. Whip through the first stanza of "Auntie May":

May’s got a sad-on. A pointy sad, not
the least bit general. I feel its prick
but still no weapon in sight. Tonight,
for Auntie May’s sad spell, I bring: martini shaker,
Stoly’s, vermouth and ice, all wrapped up
in my ex-cat’s basket.

Or the next poem, "Letter from Lucy: "I can see her like I saw her at seven, making peanut butter sandwiches/backhanding bleach-blonde from her eyes…". This poem is less obvious than it might seem at first. While the narrator seems affectionate towards Lucy she’s also clearly associated with some kind of shame, events from childhood that still sting.

Formally the poems in The Chick at the Back of the Church are simple. Livingston doesn’t seem particularly interested in poetry for its unique properties, apart from compression and emotional enhancement, both of which she uses to good effect. The least effective poems ("Crack in the Fishbowl," "She Has Eyes Like the Glass Ones in Momma’s Old Dolls") are ones that deviate from these touchstones; here the narrative line, which runs plumb through other poems, falters and cliché or overstatement win. Voice and tone are what make Livingston’s successful poems work. Sparse, trim, with easy hooks, these are economical hurting songs with backbone, light on self-pity and sharp with self-perception.

One of the more interesting aspects of the narrator of these poems is her resistance to being reduced even by admiration (particularly sexual) that doesn’t account for the depth and breadth of her experience. "Kitchen Talk" gives voice to this resistance and to its attendant rage. The poem might serve as a caution to any reader who’s skimming these poems for their surface qualities. What could be down-to-earth love-talk –

Poking at hangover food
(salty eggs and Tater Tots)
you begin to list
qualities you believe I possess:
Honesty Intelligence Bravery
– turns, or more accurately becomes clear in the next stanza:
Fidgeting you look away.
There is an aside –
having seen/heard
pictures of my dirty-child face, my
Eastend-Welfare-Booze-reared, Sally-Ann-
child face, you can’t help
but see me and mine (only
on occasion, mind you)
as White Trash.

Hard words to someone whose attempt to praise his lover unwittingly reveals his underestimation of her and his unease with her history. Livingston is bitingly honest in this and other poems on sex and class, on the hostility and mistrust inherent in any lovers’ relationship, but particularly one with gaps in social understanding.

I was left unsatisfied by this book – despite Livingston’s insistence that her poems’ characters not be glossed over or reduced to types, there’s something about their surface, a familiar sheen, that allows skimming. Perhaps it’s that she relies almost exclusively on tone, or perhaps it’s the easy song-like rhythms or the fact that the terrain has been so mined and glamorised in popular music and movies. But while Livingston doesn’t resist the obvious (her last lines can almost always be anticipated) it would be a mistake to underestimate the depth of her insight, or to read her as any less subtle than she is.

Diana Fitzgerald Bryden is the author of Learning Russian (Mansfield Press, 2000).







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