canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Rental Van

Anvil, 2007 

Reviewed by Aaron Tucker

The complaint about "airport fiction" is that it is killing reading. The breezy, overtly accessible novels bought and devoured during three hour lay-overs instigate a purely linear approach to reading. Such texts turn analysis into a plot based, reductive version of story and undercut the slow and beautiful precision of interpretation.

Current developments in Canadian poetry have fought to counteract this method of reading. Recent works such as Rachel Zolfís Human Resources and Donato Manciniís Aethel are texts that are concerned mainly with slowing the reader down and forcing a consideration of each poem in its many splintering multiple threads and themes. Zolfís work uses a dense prose line packed with excess phrases to stall the quick skimming look while Manciniís book of concrete poetry is so tangled and impenetrable in terms of access points that a reader can (and should) read each poem for hours.

Rental Van too engages in this vein of reaction. It is a slow and careful read. It is a dense, thick book, populated with tangled, pop-littered phrases, a work that is constantly challenging its readers to re-think and re-shape their own understanding of the poems in front of them. It is an impressively difficult book, but also one that is worth the effort.

Burnham forces the reader to be patient and slow by asking his audience to constantly consider how they read. Rental Van is very good at shifting its own entry points with each poem. The pieces are constantly moving. For example, the book begins in columns, long strips of vibrant and opaque phrases. The poem is further complicated by whether the reader decides to digest the poem horizontally or vertically. The reflection on reading practice is pushed further by Burnhamís numbering of sections within the poem (a technique he repeats throughout other poems). Are the readers expected to read in numerical order then? Immediately the reader of Rental Van is confronted with decisions and multiplicity of readings that are both self-reflexive and difficult.

The book then is constantly morphing. Some poems, such as "98 Ruskin" and "inverted-V" are written so that the reader must flip the book sideways in order to read the words. Mixed in throughout the work are large blocks of prose-line poetry, devoid of regular punctuation. These texts create lines that run continuously into each other. The reader is forced to be deliberate in these poems, to consider each phrase first as one larger unit, then in the smaller chunks, then in combination with each other. Then the actual content is disjunctive, forcing the reader to make abstract connections between phrases and ideas. It is difficult then to step back and look at the poems and whole, complete creatures: these works are better considered in their smaller chunks, and when stepping back, to understand the evolution of an idea from the beginning to the end of a poem.

This mode of reading re-contextualizes each word and phrase, effectively shining new light on what may be tired or worn phrases. The reader then begins to see the phrases as somewhat new, divorced from their standard meanings and infused with a vibrancy that carries throughout the rest of the work.

What keeps this book from becoming tired or perhaps too dense is its constant sense of play. The book is littered with puns and funny intelligentsia, most of which comes from the immediate contrast of conflicting reactions. Much in the same way as poets like Jeff Derkson or Reg Johanson do, the humor and play in Rental Van act as a pacing device, giving the texts room to breathe and, in turn, lending the reader space to reflect while giggling. While these are not necessarily jokes but are pockets of relief from the difficult work of decoding the rest of the book.

Again, this is a hard book. But Rental Van does reward the reader with a deliberate and dense text, placing the reading as the foremost important action in the work, and ultimately encouraging the sort of reflective slow analysis that has fallen out of fashion.






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