Friday, May 12, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 29th Review - Queen Rat

Lynn Crosbie's Queen Rat is actually the third poetry book in a row with a connection to House of Anansi Press.  Queen Rat originally came out in 1998 and was reprinted as part of Anansi's A List series in 2014.  At the time it was a bit of a hybrid, with about 2/3rds of the poems from Crosbie's first three collections, but then three new groups of poems.

The first new material is a series dedicated to Fredo Pentangeli from The Godfather 2.  I have to admit, these poems didn't do much for me, as I never got around to watching The Godfather or The Godfather 2.  I realize that is an unforgivable omission, but I just haven't found the time.  The two movies have permeated the culture to the point that it feels like I have seen them, however.

The second grouping, Presley, focuses on a news story about a child who was so disturbed by the death of her dog that she put it in the freezer.  This is fairly creepy, and not that far off from Faulkner's Emily, though the child apparently nothing to do with the dog's death.  To sort of add to the overall effect, there are photos of a child, a dog and a refrigerator, almost as if this was a true-life story and not a bunch of poems.  To be honest, I thought this series was too manipulative.  Plus, I don't like dogs, not even a little bit, so these poems didn't do anything for me.

I did like Alphabet City, however, as Crosbie sort of memorializes a bunch of bars, taverns and booze cans that she spent time in after her arrival in Toronto circa 1982 (after growing up in Montreal).  While most of the poems are based on her memories of the mid to late 80s, a few reach into the mid 1990s.  It's fairly unlikely that our paths would have crossed, since the pubs I went to were all near UT and I hung with a fairly sedate crowd.  As one reads about Lynn's various adventures, she started to come across like a Canadian version of Jim Carroll.  Many of the misadventures are her own, but she was surrounded by other drug users and documented their struggles as well.  From "Western Hospital": "Some things I remember I would like to forget: / blood soaks the inside of his thighs 3 A.M., the way the street / always looks at this hour on this ride; / the arc of Bathurst opening into emergency; / inert ambulance, waiting to sleep; / then he is staggering through the corridor while I confiscate / syringe, tie, and spoon...".

I would say in general, in her early career she did buy into the notion that outsider artists like Jim Carroll and William Burroughs and Rimbaud (who practically started this all) make better art, and therefore one ought to live on the wild side and perhaps even do drugs to enhance one's artistic powers.  She seems to have come through this, though she is still fascinated by dark and/or tragic characters as seen in her book Paul's Case (a very controversial novel about Paul Bernardo) and Where Did You Sleep Last Night, which envisions the reincarnation of Kurt Cobain into a teenager (but still no happy ending).  

Her experience in Toronto, as related in Alphabet City, is not all bad, and she describes being part of the literary scene and going to and giving poetry readings.  She falls in love from time to time, though typically with other drug users.  She records a trip to Niagara Falls.  For me one of the technically most interesting poems is "Union Station," which seems inspired partly by Robert Lowell, but then somewhat by Anne Sexton.*  "Green and white boxcar heading west past / moulting ferris wheel pasture rows of houses each alike... / ... / the conductor calls; / paterson Johnson tynkaluk adlai hazen cuddy dent trudi nixon lauzon / ... / stops I miss, static, sleep, / train I ride half-dead / objects falling back, smaller, in perfect miniature: the line / of little cats' teeth, bridging sharp incisors, that comb the body, / drawing out tangles in long tined tracks."

Several of the poems drawn from Miss Pamela's Mercy and VillainElle are about murderers or murder victims ("The Black Dahlia" and "Poems for Jack the Ripper").  There are also poems more focused on S & M and power relations more generally.  For instance, "Strange Fits of Passion" ends as follows: "He was quiet also, and I whipped him, / I ground my heels in his chest / until he begged for mercy."

I'm not entirely sure where "Carrie Leigh's Hugh Hefner Haiku" fits in here, as Carrie Leigh is still alive and never accused Hugh of any physical abuse.  (There is a slight connection between Leigh and Crosbie in that Leigh is Canadian and she and Crosbie are the same age.)  I do think it is an interesting exercise in writing a long poem, formed by a number of Haiku (and I had completed writing Double Sabbatical with its Haiku before I read this poem).  I would say that in one critical way they fail the test of classical Haiku in that the poems are supposed to be self-contained and these clearly are not.  They are still amusing, however.  The poem opens: "Hef brings me flowers / tiger lilies, ochre veined / downcast, sleek black cups // small shadows, are the puckers in his pyjamas / where his skin caves in // tired profligate, I / sigh and pour the oil along / your circular sheets".

Of the three books that Crosbie drew upon for Queen Rat, Pearl was the last published (1996) and seems the most assured.  Most of the poems appear to be titled after movies ("Have Gun, Will Travel," "Superfly," "The Snake Pit," etc.).  At some point, I will go ahead and track down Pearl to see what I thought of the poems not collected in Queen Rat.  There are several spots on the internet that claim that Pearl is all about Crosbie's relationship with Tony Burgess, but there are also some sites that claim she and Burgess are (still) married, which does not seem to be the case.  It's probably not terribly relevant to know the truth behind these poems, other than they are about a male partner struggling with drug addiction.

"The Snake Pit" is indeed dedicated "To Tony": "He is often tired this fall, his eyes -- purple shadows, / narcotic flowers. Glassine bags, black envelopes, ill-concealed secrets / I discover, sunflower dust, faint streaks of powder. / ... / At night, he combs the winter streets for / heroin, and sinks deeper / into the glacial corners of his sheets."

The poems named after Blaxploitation flicks seem to be an imagined rendering of this relationship as it would be in a B-movie.  From "Have Gun, Will Travel": "How pleased he will be when I surprise him with the cool barrel, / when it arouses his neck, his temple. / Its sight lowers to the silver zipper, its cold teeth clenched, / closed to me / ... / I want to excite him this way."  Speaking from experience, it is best to leave the gun fantasies on the screen and not bring them into one's life as a marital aid...

Ambrosia seems to be a cautionary tale of trying to hold onto love too long, particularly when one partner wants to be out of the relationship.  "He became restless: the guy wanted to leave and I didn't want him to leave. / A heart-shaped box, the candies are moss green; I have held on to this / too long. Anger hot / enough to incinerate each scalloped chocolate...".  (Note the shout-out to Kurt Cobain.)  It isn't clear if Crosbie is talking about her fraying relationship (with Tony) or a previous one, but in any case, it isn't healthy: "I crush his throat with a metal paddle (stolen / from the factory, sweetness is only mine to steal), / wrap his confectionary body into plastic bags, and then retrieve it. / To kiss the rigid wrists and neck that belong to me...".  Again, the poem has strong connections to A Rose for Emily, which also featured in Presley, a slightly later work.  It's possible that Crosbie goes a bit too far and overplays her hand when she adds "As a child, I would preserve insects in formaldehyde," since the concept has been well established.  I can certainly understand how someone reading this poem would be a bit hesitant to let the poet into his (or her) life, but it is pretty effective.

I'll close with a short meditation on "After Illness."  This poem is a bit more cryptic than some of the other ones.  It isn't entirely clear whether the illness is a literal sickness (like a very bad winter cold), drug addiction or being addicted to love, i.e. staying in this unhealthy relationship.  It might be some combination of all three, though the poem doesn't suggest she is actually out of the relationship with Tony.  "February returns -- a ribbon of pink, a paper wand sealed in ice. Blue / star, a girl in violet tulle and diamante glitter brocades her little bodice. / ... / I have been desperately tired, / and he irons this sickness from me in smooth circles."  Almost all the imagery in this poem relates to winter: chilly, blue, pearl, diamond, etc.  It may be a more effective poem precisely because I am not entirely sure what is going on at the end and what will happen when she emerges completely from her illness, so there is an air of mystery about it.

I liked quite a few of the poems in Queen Rat, particularly those in Pearl and the Alphabet City series, though I do feel Crosbie got swept up into the cliched role of outsider poet throughout the 90s.  It is basically impossible to imagine separating the poems in Queen Rat from this pose (and the actual drug use and the sketchy situations she got herself into during this period).  For some readers, this literary slumming is quite exciting and perhaps a few will be glad that Crosbie did the "hard time" and brought back these poems along the way, while others will be less sympathetic (not that I imagine Crosbie would care either way).

* One of the most interesting facts about Lynn Crosbie is that she completed a PhD on Anne Sexton in 1996, so I might have theoretically crossed paths with her in the U of T English department, but the students taking courses and those that were ABD didn't typically interact. 

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