By Sarah Pinder
Coach House Books, 88 pages, $18.95
Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes
By Jennifer LoveGrove
BookThug, 88 pages, $18
Sarah Pinder's second collection of poetry, Common Place, is a book-length sequence that explores the intersections of city, circulation and citizenship. Though each section is confined almost exclusively to a single page, readers will find themselves at an interchange – often of the vehicular kind. That's because Pinder is a sort of freeway flâneur. There's walking in Common Place, but more notably there's the "new highway still smelling of money," the subway, the streetcar, a city bus, a tour bus, the ferry, a gas-powered low-rider and many other systems of transport guiding the poem like a dash down the centre of a road.
Common Place creates an atmosphere that might feel familiar to us – a city in a perpetual state of construction, demolition and deterioration. Sure, there's that new highway, but the streets are still potholed. The summer is described as a ruin. There are detours, dumpsters and torn garbage bags. Biodegradable foam chips exist alongside more sinister detritus, as "great, weird flocks pass in formation/over the oily water and bone-smooth Styrofoam."
The play on "in formation" and information is also very satisfying. Courtesy of our devices and our bureaucracies, a clog of information piles up alongside all of our actual stuff. The poem is heavy with debt (which, it seems to me, is synonymous with citizenship) and haunted by "screens and papers," "administrative whispers," documents, ledgers and other institutional paper trails. It's ambiguous – in the poem as in life – as to whether all this paperwork validates or organizes anything or simply adds to the general sense of accumulation. Similarly, the presence of cellphones in the poem, beeping and lighting up with alerts and text messages, toes the line between a sense of connection and a low hum of constant anxiety. Is it worth it?
Pinder is interested in the question of value. Who creates it? How is it negotiated? What are the tradeoffs? Who gets to "render a citizenship?" There is the sense that certain citizens own property, while other citizens function as property themselves. Some citizens can privately "bring [their] publics/to face the same direction," while others can't help but be painfully public, such as the "woman burning a mattress in the yard" who at the same time yearns for privacy. Race plays an important role in citizenship too, as the speaker admits to "an overall ease/facilitated by my white skin" even during otherwise tense situations. The poem acknowledges that there are "costs to having personal history," but Common Place's intersectionality makes it clear that some histories are a greater burden than others.
Of the long poem's many tactics, its attention to detail is one of my favourites. It's a particular joy, albeit a dark one. What could easily veer into heavy-handed musings on violence and capitalism are condensed to a detail, a "clot of hair in the storm drain" mirrored later by a shopping cart's "one wheel/dragging with a clot of dust." Pinder switches lanes smoothly, moving between controlled understatement and intense moments of lyricism.
The lyrical moments are so successful in part because Pinder both recognizes their limitations ("First-person voice and thought/are uncomfortable") while using their imperfections to her advantage. Discomfort can be a powerful device, and some of the more lyrical sequences feel like sitting in a hot car with the windows rolled up – in a good way.
Jennifer LoveGrove's Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes also stretches the possibility of lyric expression with a dreamlike twist. The poems in this collection refract the self into a kaleidoscope of human and non-human variations – mollusk, dream, fox, frog, child, mother, moth and more. Beautiful Children repositions many of Common Place's concerns, plucking them off the side of the road and situating them in a sort of lushly weird wonderland.
Trauma and violence are explored through a series of "Incident Report" poems, placing bodies in close quarters with cold, invasive institutions and bureaucracies. The question of who counts as a citizen with agency and who is simply a "tenderized denizen,/ward detritus" is central to many poems exploring the insidious effects of mental illness. The imagination's influence on the mind is interrogated, cast as everything from a coping mechanism, to a mere diversion, to a weapon of obsession and self-harm.
The collection culminates in the astounding title poem Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes, pitch-perfect in its pacing, its whimsy, its desperation and its bite. It's so singularly effective that it almost bulldozes over the rest of the collection – but writing a poem so good that even you have trouble outdoing yourself doesn't seem like such a bad a fate to me.
Domenica Martinello is a poet at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a finalist for the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers.