Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Meredith Quartermain's Recipes from the Red Planet

Meredith Quartermain's 2010 Recipes from the Red Planet, published by BookThug, didn't make it to this year's Governor General's poetry award shortlist, which must be somewhat equivalent to being repeatedly passed over in a shorthanded pick 'em pick-up indoor soccer game. Most other potential players, at least, never had a chance, locked out and deaf to the proceedings. The funniest part of that story? Recipes from the Red Planet is clearly a better book than its more celebrated home team competitors, so the McCaffery-led cabal couldn't even get that right.

I'd read one previous book of poetry by this author -- Vancouver Walking -- and though footnotes on local history also appear in this latest collection, they're far fewer, and have passion (in drips if not surges) filtering through their veins, as in "On my way to the overpass".

Gone, too, are the boring walkabouts and schoolroom lessons. These are replaced in Recipes from the Red Planet by language and rhythm that churns and declaims. The tone is relatively narrow, but is convincing and confident ("winding around me its magnetic flux of elastic vibrations -- until I threw off Bellerophon and kicked in the Helicon which they now call the horse fountain" from "She would"). I don't like "magnetic flux", but I'm not an overbearing stickler for detail when the voice and its sounds are this much fun.

The lessons, though mixed with sweeter medicine, keep a comin', however. Quartermain, through her narrators, has a big problem with authority of many kinds. And those authority figures -- whether bosses, politicians, mythic beings, or local heroes -- are invariably male. The ladies are persistent, tough, clever, or (to reach back into a more tilted patriarchal past) forgiveably winsome. And when a specific brute isn't handy, a generalized one will do, in the guise of unthinking (by creator and receiver) advice. "Directors Change Directions" is just one example of the latter tendency: "Don't touch. Don't skateboard. Don't talk with your mouth full." (Ah, to make a poem completely out of cliche and homily. To alter another popular phrase: "try this at home, kids, because anyone can do it!").

But "Directors Change Directions" and "Maximal" aren't just about guy-knows-best (or brainwashed woman-knows-best), they are list poems. Credit Quartermain for sticking to her belief in the poetics of her male masters. The so-called patriarchal dominant and subjective clauses must be powered over by the matriarchal, all-inclusive steamroller. Samuel Beckett wrote apparently levelling sentences, but there are exquisite shifts and ironical shenanigans going on within those units in Molloy, for example. Most other mortals haven't approached that kind of sophistication, though, which just goes to prove that theory which promotes "only one way" is both narrow-minded and exclusive of nuanced (ironically so) vertical evaluation, whether paratactic or (the form of most speech and thought) hypotactic. The anti-authoritarians don't or won't see their own attempts to dominate. The paratactical straightjacket limits syntax, rhythmical range, dynamics, mood, reverie, thought, and time signatures in all sorts of ways, and what results from the Oulipian, supposedly democratic arrangement is a temptation to flatline. Hence, the list.

A list, by nature, has no coherent beginning or ending, no arc, no reference within the structure. (All language has some kind of structure, even in brain-damaged individuals.) So all endings are arbitrary. Many of these poems could be fifteen lines shorter or fifteen thousand lines longer without helping or harming the finished product stylistically or structurally. After you've click-clicked through a few, the lists -- and the paratactical hopscotching -- start(s) to run away from the voice like the engine of a train separating from the other rolling cars.

At 119 pages, Recipes from the Red Planet feels like too much ice cream after too little protein, but since the diction and playfulness are an improvement over her previous starvation diet in Vancouver Walking, the meal is often enjoyable if not filling.

No comments: