What a timely contrast to Sharon McCartney’s For and Against. The back cover promo for Living Under Plastic says that this 2010 collection “represents a major departure from Evelyn Lau’s previous poetry books”. Wrong. Though the scope is, on the surface, wider, the “obsessive focus on relationships” remains, and that focus is where it always was -- on herself. Poems as seemingly diverse as “Grandfather”, “Blindness” (about father), “Vancouver Special”, “The Burning Desert” (death by disease of a loved one); “Water Damage” (death of another by house fire), and most annoyingly, “The Pickton Trial”, use their ostensible subjects as launching pads for a pitying blather on the woes and foes of the speaker. From “Water Damage: “I wanted to set my home on fire/as if to burn down my very life --/I imagined the building ablaze”; from “The Burning Desert”: “The day your obituary ran in the paper,/I lay buried in bed/as if stuck in sand at the edge of the shore”; from “Quayside: “After hearing the news/of your cancer, for days I felt hungry”; from “Blindness”: "if he leaves me alone with her,/I will never make it out of this house alive."
The language is dead, the narrative unfocussed, the emotions histrionic (“facing a future which came to greet him/like the military tank in the photo of Tiananmen” from “Father’s Day”). In “Return to Monterey Bay”, we have “I could not tell whether the storm brewing/in my body was discontent,/or disease, or the usual creeping fog/of malaise, if this fatigue was a virus,”. How can a storm be compared to “the usual creeping fog”, and to “fatigue”? But perhaps Lau realizes that dullness of limb and spirit doesn’t always translate into a drama worthy of the relentless repetitions in this book and in its even more dreary predecessor, Treble, the latter running on from the 27-45 line poems in Living Under Plastic to a frequently bloated 5 or 8 pages. As usual, the best storms in poetry are either truly lashing, or scary by their subtle or complex build-up and release.
Humour is only apparent unintentionally -- from “Mosquito Season”: “so full it burst with a wet sound/and a red splash between my palms.”; from Grand Canyon”: “the canyon exhaling next to us,/softly, the way water breathes,/dreaming in its sleep.”
The only poem I liked was “The Drowning”, and perhaps not coincidentally, it was the only poem which concentrated on the subject and not the comparative pain of the speaker. Even in its best lines, though, an egregious repetition mars what I’d hoped would be error-free: “the salt breeze/stirring circles into the sand, saffron smoke/from a lit flare smoking across the hills.”
I wouldn’t have spent even this much time on this book but for two reasons: I’ve already promised to at least mini-review every book I’ve read, or will read, on 2010’s GG longlist, however that plays out; and ever since Lau’s hugely popular Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, published when she was 18, she’s achieved the status of literary untouchable. That happens to many writers, of course, but especially when it happens to one so young, it’s almost impossible to question praise heaped on oneself.