Curio: Grotesques and Satires from the Electronic Age. Elizabeth Bachinsky. Toronto: BookThug, 2005. ISBN 0 9737181 8 8. 111 pp. Pbk.
Published under Jay MillAr's very cool BookThug imprint, Elizabeth Bachinsky's Curio is an energized, endlessly inventive, often brilliant collection - a memorable collage of shifting poetic stances and rhetorical tropes. Bachinsky has distanced herself considerably from what has been the typical debut collection of lyric-narrative, often confessional poems. The eight sections (plus one single-section, introductory prose poem entitled "On the Convention of Narrative in Literature") of her book are all quite different in both form and mood; they range, for example, from the spare, minimalist sequence of "Undressed And So Many Places to Go," to the faux-journals and epistolary discourse of "From the Secret Diaries of Antonin Artaud," to the palindromes (structured as double sonnets that unzip themselves and reverse) of "Spy Cam: Surveillance Series," to the Dadaist riffs of "The Pose Same Ran Am Sage."
Given this diversity, Bachinsky's collection has, as mentioned, more the feel of collage than 'the well-wrought urn,' and it's no accident that her book's epigraph is taken from the great collage artist, sound poet, and renegade Dadaist, Kurt Schwitters. Bachinsky's poetry is self-reflexive; her language is continually foregrounded, reinforcing this resonance between her aesthetic and the art of collage. When we look at a collage, our attention is drawn to the materials themselves; when we read Bachinsky, her language casts a powerful spell. Her poems explore representation, spectacle, mirrors. The collection's five palindrome poems - one of which appeared in Sandy Shreve and Kate Braid's terrific anthology, In Fine Form (2005) - are halls of mirrors in which we can never quite trust what we see; we're always looking back to see what has changed since we last looked. And the surveillance of the electronic age is like that, isn't it? These poetic "cams" Bachinsky has created are extraordinary not only for their formal verve, but for their suggestion of how form effects its own surveillance. Her poetic "cams" also pose an interesting philosophical question: can any reflection of the present moment wrest itself free from an already-recorded past? What do sonnets see when they look at themselves in the mirror? Read Bachinsky to find out.
Curio seems strongly invested in a critique of language and literary tradition. The range of diction in these poems is wild, the diversity of influence deliciously idiosyncratic. How often have we seen John Milton and Lisa Robertson acknowledged between the same covers? Bachinsky's willingness to range fearlessly through history sets her writing apart - or, at least places it in the company of equally daring poets like Robertson, Maine's Jennifer Moxley, and Eliot himself. Bachinsky's poems also remind me, at times, of work by American writer Karen Volkman. Bachinsky forages through the past, defamiliarizing contemporary poetic language in poems like "She is Blond Sin." I love the linguistic cognitive dissonance and sly eroticism created here when words like "dandy kid" (evocative of the nineteen forties Jimmy Stewart movies) and "wanton hidden clit" (a morphing of archaic and contemporary diction) bump up against each other and share poetic proximity. Curio is an exciting linguistic mosh pit of language derived from the past five hundred years.
Bachinsky's "Lead the Wants" is a tour de force, a madcap 'translation' of Eliot's "The Wasteland," one of the great collage poems in western literature. Bachinsky's poem, with its inclusion of K-Mart and R.E.M. seems, in a way, the logical conclusion of "The Wasteland." To cite two examples from Bachinsky:
O O O O shat takes pear he tang hi -
Witt witt witt
Guj guj guj guj guj guj
Record duos fly
Re: e, tu
I have to admit, it took me awhile to discover Eliot's "O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag" from Bachinsky's "O O O O shat takes pear he rang hi" (and even longer to track down Eliot's Shakespeherian riff to Ziegfeld's Follies of 1912). But echoes emerge; we begin to hear the past. Same with Eliot's transplanted classical bird calls - "Twit twit twit/Jug jug jug jug jug jug," transplanted still further by Bachinsky as "Witt witt witt/Guj gujâ€¦." etc. Language is historicized, contextual. T. S. Eliot's "Wasteland," which sounded so strange to most of us who first studied it as undergraduates, comes to appear normalized, in time. Is this - ending up in a kind of linguistic suburbs - the fate of all poetic language? Hopefully not since, as Pound said, the poet's job is to 'make it new'. As part of her procedure for making it new, Bachinsky's driving questions seem to be: what can the status of poetic language be in the age of K-Mart, R.E.M., and the electronic revolution? Can the poet create anything more than a collage? What happened to Keats' well-wrought urn (or was that only ever a dream?). Will the Tower of Babel tip once and for all in the electronic age? Is the poetic past destined to be relegated to the status of mere Curio? Will the electronic revolution democratize language, or destroy it? Bachinsky is, I think, more interested in the process of exploring these questions than answering them - and, since she's a poet, I think this is as it should be.
Bachinsky should be lauded for raising big questions. We should also applaud her sheer moxie - who among us would have the courage to translate "The Wasteland?" For poets of my (slightly older) generation, Eliot's poem remains too canonically enshrined to touch. I don't think Bachinsky's conversation with Eliot in Curio shows disrespect; if anything, it bodes well for the future, bespeaks a revitalized dialogue, suggesting as it does that Canada's new poets are willing to venture where some of us more tyrannized by canonicity (and a residual colonialism? We just assumed Eliot was British, he seemed British!) dared not go. Great to see our new wave of poets decolonize their imaginations. Elizabeth's Bachinsky's 'conversations' with literary tradition, an integral part of Curio, are lots of fun. Her willingness to engage in them carries forward the energy of some of Canada's most interesting poetry; George Bowering has had some pretty nifty conversations with Keats and Rilke, to cite only one example. Elizabeth Bachinsky is one of our new bright lights. Next year, I'm going to assign my college students "The Wasteland" by Eliot and "Lead the Wants" by Bachinsky. I can't wait already.