Leehu Sigler Reviews Poetry Collections from Kevin Spenst, Annick MacAskill, and Simina Banu for EVENT 49/3
Leehu Sigler Reviews:
Kevin Spenst, Hearts Amok: A Memoir in Verse, Anvil Press, 2020
Annick MacAskill, Murmurations, Gaspereau Press, 2020
Simina Banu, POP, Coach House Books, 2020
Kevin Spenst’s Hearts Amok: A Memoir in Verse is a whirlwind of language and semantic possibilities, rapidly and obsessively rotating around one central idea: love. Lovers punctuate the book from beginning to end, framing Spenst’s memoir from youth, ‘those Alpine times of youthful feelings,’ far into the throes of the poet’s personal ‘Middle Ages,’ in which he finds the love of his life. Spenst’s adventure into the recesses of his past is satisfyingly and comically complex. Throughout, love, lovers and poetry become interchangeable, drawn together through an exploration of language that ranges from the nonsensical to the highly sophisticated. In this work, ‘bafflegarb’ assumes just as much importance as ‘highbrow bub.’ Spenst delights in playing with words, discovering in the diversity of language myriad opportunities for romance.
Although none of the poems are strictly sonnets, the sonnet tradition governs Hearts Amok; frequent reference is made to the sonnet, its conventions and its most famous practitioners. Historically, Spenst reminds us, the English sonnet originated with ‘one of Cupid’s pamphleteers, the Earl of Surrey.’ From there, Spenst traces its long history, arriving at his own engagement with the form in his hometown of Surrey, BC. Identifying the sonnet as the archetype of love poetry, he nonetheless pulls and pushes at its seams. For example, in ‘Cupid: The Duke of Trauma,’ Spenst’s hometown, like his poems, is
…. Far and wide away, yet shaped like
a sonnet, here Cupe still coaxed men to holler
hot-to-trot myths from lowdown progenitors.
This 15-line sonnet sits comfortably within Spenst’s collection, as the reader becomes conditioned to respond to these not-quite-sonnets as valid variations of the form, promoting its message of love, if not quite conforming to its rules.
For Spenst, love poetry both depicts and generates love. In ‘Padding the Hoof Through Resident Evil,’ he asks, ‘Is romance a trick I’m trying to do with a penknife?’ He proceeds to whittle down the 14-line poem, searching for its core:
our fate, my last words
will be a poem of
Sonneteers in the 16th and 17th centuries offered poems as one might flowers. But language does not merely represent romance, it manifests love. Trapped at sea, longing for his Laura like a modern-day Petrarch, the poet declares:
…. I lust after
thee to a debris of damnations, to a distraction
of delight, a wreckage of debauchery….
His penknife is language, wielded with deftness and whimsy. In the process of depicting his desire, he discovers not only his love for an ephemeral lover but also his love for poetry. The debris of consonance foregrounds the words, distracting readers from the absent lover and directing them toward the epiphany that the lover’s existence hinges on the musicality of the poet’s song.
Spenst’s specialty is yoking together two seemingly disparate parts. Terminology interpreted through The Old Dictionary of Hobo Slang pulsates between lines of academic and medical lingo; Chaucer catches a movie with poet Karen Shklanka and Nirvana band members at The Blinding Light!! Cinema; Wittgenstein’s duck and rabbit have just moved in together. And yet, they are all oddly at ease. They become evidence for the plurality of love expressions and experiences.
Although his references are often obscure and his fractured writing style can be hard to follow, Spenst’s vagrant grand tour of love, the sonnet and language sweeps readers up into its midst, shakes them thoroughly and leaves them with the lingering suspicion—hope?—that love is not only real but essential. Toward the end of the collection, fearful for his 21st-century contemporaries, Spenst questions: ‘What if we did destroy romantic love?’ Ultimately, Hearts Amok insists on love’s necessity.
When reading Annick MacAskill’s second collection of poetry, Murmurations, you notice its soft whisper, foregrounding birds’ songs and lovers’ sighs and the patter of rain on the window as the weight of bodies come together and push away. Her intricately designed book, curated by the able hands at Gaspereau Press, looks to nature for a language to explore love, grief and reconciliation. There, she is able to bridge the worlds of nature and emotion through their mutual inexplicability. Although poetry can never explain these worlds to us, words may make a fleeting starling present and a soft sigh audible. Murmurations discovers value in our ability to identify, if not understand, such moments; what we recognize, we can cherish.
Like other nature poets, MacAskill has double vision. When it comes to the wilderness, her speaker is both insider and outsider, at once birdwatcher and bird. Examining a forced promise from her lover, the speaker identifies ‘the sound like a treasure/in the deep pit of my beak.’ Not all promises are fulfilled in Murmurations. But the landscape might offer a solution:
…I will remind you
of where we were months ago, and the rivers
that have run through us since—
the beds they’ve made in our bellies, deep enough
to suggest permanence, though at some point
we hang up, or close the window, our calls
The rivers describe the lovers’ parting, but may also offer helpful explanations or insights. Running water can only ‘suggest permanence’; nature’s mutability offers the speaker an opportunity to come to terms with her situation.
If nature helps explain love, poetry is a tentative attempt to communicate this process of interpretation. MacAskill’s outdoors is populated by written language. Fishing lines become a ‘confused elegance of ampersands,’ while an ‘imperative of crows emerges.’ Flocks dart across trees like ‘sparse punctuation,’ elks’ limbs shake like ‘virgules,’ and jellyfish transform into ‘gelatinous stars curved/in soft parentheses.’ Nature is dynamic and illogical but, translated into poetry, attains coherence. Anne Carson’s quotation, opening the collection, hints at MacAskill’s strategy: ‘they recognized each other like italics.’ Poetry becomes a vehicle for observing and illuminating the natural world and its inhabitants, whether birds, best friends or lovers.
Murmurations embodies this vision. MacAskill creates coherence through the repetition of words and phrases distinct enough for a reader to experience an acute sense of déjà vu, but with a subtlety that denies their precise recollection. The ‘streetcar’ of ‘Queen St. East (Matins)’ suddenly resurfaces as lovers’ moans in ‘Of Gold Arms, You,’ and ‘in lieu of an explanation’ in ‘Clark’s Nutcracker’ returns as the somatic ‘in lieu of your skin’ in ‘Dundas St.’ MacAskill understands the power of poetic language to create meaning without explanation. Her world is intuitively recognizable, like a startled flock of geese or a starling invader, ‘like a song,/one I hear on the radio, one I know I already know.’
And yet, MacAskill recognizes, language cannot account for all. Murmurations finds solace in the slippage between birdsong and poetry, and in all that is lost in translation:
…. There are so many sounds in the world
we can’t recreate with our voices, so we trust
what the other means….
Language fails to holistically portray life, but the infinite variety and richness of our inner and outer worlds justifies the exploration. Like nature, love, too, is not an object that can be fully understood or captured by words. But this recognition, MacAskill suggests, has value: ‘I can never repeat the sound,/but sometimes, we still hear it.’
POP, Simina Banu’s debut collection of poetry, begins where other poets refuse to go. It defies silence, seriousness and romance, infiltrating a quiet room with the crackle of an opened Doritos bag. POP makes a noise because of its freshness, a reminder that poetry can be serious while fun, and funny while ominous.
Throughout the five parts that structure Banu’s collection, readers follow the speaker from a toxic relationship to her subsequent breakup, a path littered with free verse, word searches and picto-poems. Like the two previous collections, POP throws love into fresh relief, but here it’s caught somewhere between confessional morbidity and humour. In ‘Critical Failure,’ the speaker reveals:
At some point I tried to reorganize our poem into a sonnet,
but you hated the restrictions. I bought lemons for the vodka.
You slept with other people. I slept….
As the title of Banu’s third section indicates, ‘On Separating from Our Poem,’ the ‘poem’ is the testament to a failing relationship, a mutual possession to be negotiated or a child to bear witness. Initially conceding to the prosaic demands of an unfaithful lover, the speaker eventually escapes with the poem: ‘Our poem is mine now…. I/swiped it and ran….’
And yet for Banu, it is never clear what the ‘poem’ is. Throughout POP, the ‘poem’ is explored, experimented on and questioned. The poems in Banu’s collection take many forms: one-liners, a manual for clown makeup removal, drawings and even word searches. They all revel in pushing the boundaries of the ‘poem.’ Some demand interactive engagement from readers, as in ‘Find Hope,’ ‘OK, OK, Find Myself’ and ‘Persist.’ Others, like ‘see?’ and ‘How to Feel Empty’ might be considered exercises in the graphic interpretation of poetry. At times, her more lexically conventional poems have a loose, meandering quality to them, roaming associatively from one topic to the next. Yet Banu is most successful when she fully embraces the experimental. Readers dispose of high-brow intellectualism as they patiently decipher her handwriting, enthusiastically engage with her puzzles and track down Spotify song references. POP not only dismantles the conventions of poetry, but demands readers enjoy the process.
POP is a startling achievement for a debut poet. It is scary, satirical, confessional and entertaining. In her ‘Epitaph,’ Banu declares:
POP is honest. It is not often that one finds Paradise Lost in a ‘Parasite Lot’ but, with a grin and a nod of acknowledgement, readers will delight at the discovery.