Monday, December 7, 2009

Joy Is So Exhausting by Susan Holbrook

Joy Is So Exhausting
by Susan Holbrook
Coach House Books
$16.95 CDN / 88p



Despite spending a considerable amount of energy pumping poetry, and particularly Canadian poetry, I avoid readings like the proverbial plague. Cue Susan Holbrook.

For entirely unrelated reasons, I happened to attend Coach House Press's launch of its fall titles. Joy Is So Exhausting was one of the titles released, and Susan Holbrook was one of the authors reading. The evening was progressing pretty predictably: the Coach House staff hosting the event revealed themselves to be charming individuals, and various authors read from their excellent and recently-published books.

Then Susan Holbrook came up to the microphone. She's probably not you'd think a poet rock star would look like: she's a short-haired, nice looking, lady in maybe jeans and a button-up shirt. I can't quite remember, but my view in the crowd was not great. A drunk lover of literature was standing on a chair for a good view and kept falling off it, right next to me. Apologizing profusely each time, but climbing up again undaunted. He would know, if he could remember, what she was wearing. Suffice it to say, there were distractions for my memory reel.

Regardless of this, and of her unmemorable Clark-Kent-airs, Holbrook is a poet rock star, or maybe just a comedienne extraordinaire. In about thirty seconds, she had the packed barful of literary types in stitches of laughter and didn't let us relax until she had finished her reading.

Oh, and how excellent is Susan Holbrook's wit of word play. One of the poems she read, published in this collection, is entitled "INSERT." As she said at the reading, women usually catch on before men. An excerpt:

Your First Timpani?
Take a deep Brecht and relapse. It's much easier to insult a tanager when you're religious. It takes pratfalls. Most Wimbleton need a few triumphs before they can comfortably and easily insert a tam-o'-shanter. When using a tambourine for the first tiger choose a day camp when your flotsam is modern. Refer to the diamonds so you know what to do.

Sound familiar? It goes on from there, culminating in the "Rémoulade":

Sit on the tolerant with knowledge apart, or squint slightly. Keeping your musicians relaxed, pull the strudel gently and steadily downwind at the same anger you used to insinuate the tailpipe. (See Imaginary flour.) Then simply flush the tadpole away.

Holbrook, who undercovers as a literature and creative writing professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, is spot-on throughout this collection. She writes a poem using only the letters that a calculator can produce. She digs into the conversations between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson. These are ludic and wonderful poetic experiments. Holbrook dances with the texts, as adeptly with Stein as with the tampon package instructions. No mean feat, when you think about it.

So, whether she's exploring the permutations and combinations of the headline, "Harper proposes free vote on the issue of same sex marriage" or categorizing people in "Good Egg Bad Seed", Holbrook is delightful:

People who open the door for you and people you open the door for.
People who open the door for you and appreciate it and people who open the door for you and it's irritating.
People who love it when you open the door for you and people who refuse to let you do it, they want to be the door-opener, and you have a little fight about it.
People who play Boggle and people who would rather be shot in the head.

There are people who love reading poetry like this and people who haven't read poetry like this but need reviews like this to go out and read poetry like this so they can love reading poetry like this, too.

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