By Nick Thran
Nightwood, 80 pages, $18.95
By Daniel Zomparelli and Dina Del Bucchia
Talonbooks, 128 pages, $17.95
Restlessness has always been a hallmark of Nick Thran’s work. The poems in 2006’s Every Inadequate Name and 2011’s Earworm all moved swiftly through locations and forms, throwing off pop-culture references with an enviable ease the whole time. (Critic Michael Lista called his work “genuinely, impossibly cool.”) Mayor Snow, Thran’s newest collection, may be a bit less crowded with pop-cultural references – but it’s still extremely cool and his most mature work to date.
Though actually, “mature” feels like the wrong word – Thran is testing out what he can do with the skills he already has, but thankfully his poems haven’t lost their sense of play or their desire to move around. Take, for example, the book’s first section, “Carapace,” a series of narrative poems written during his time in residence at the Al Purdy A-frame that constitutes the collection’s most sustained attempt to stay in one place. Even in the dead of winter, sitting at Purdy’s old desk, he can’t help but shift around in space and time – from the outset, we’re watching “Documentary footage./You are in the same spot/where I am sitting/inside of your house/right now. Surprise!/You are reading/a poem. Same sofa,/same blue curtain/behind your head” (Yours, Al).
In the hands of a more nervous poet, that image could be the set-up for a sustained, heavy-handed haunting, but thankfully Thran doesn’t drag Purdy’s ghost through these poems (though it does linger at the edges). In fact, most of the doubling-up of past and present in this section is just a sly way into a few of the thematic obsessions that run through the rest of the book: perspective, observation, different kinds of surveillance. By the end of “Carapace,” a camera crew’s shown up with a drone to film the A-Frame, and Thran uses the moment to give a final nod to Purdy’s larger-than-life legend while in the same breath resolving to “shake him off me” and turning toward his own concerns. “Trick is, in the air, avoid casting a shadow. The shadow/reveals the shot’s done by a drone. Better to believe/ […] in the free-floating viewer’s eye” (Drone’s-Eye View of Roblin Lake).
This eye is a theme that runs through the rest of Mayor Snow. The book’s last section, “River,” is a series of poems that span subjects from basketball to filmmaking, but always manage to return to the question of perspective in art or in the first-person. In Oak Bay Basketball, 2006, a poem based on a painting, Thran repeats that there’s “nobody watching” as we watch; in The Particular Melon, a fictional conversation about a film unspools into a sly meditation on perspective and focus and meaning.
But if the poems in “Carapace” and “River” are Thran talking in his most comfortable register – smart, technically sharp, a little colloquial – it’s the middle section, “Mayor,” that stands out by virtue of its subtle difference. The poems in this section are still playful – Mayor Confetti begins with “A classic mistake by a few rookie shredders;/now Chad’s SIN on the shopkeeper’s shoulder” – but they’re also the collection’s least straightforward, its most uneasy. There’s a quiet anxiety about power, technology and even Canadian identity running through these poems; they’re worried about a more sinister (and inherently political) kind of perspective than the ones in “Carapace” or “River.” “Mayor” is full of cameras, but they’re drones, surveillance; we can’t ever tell who’s behind them.
Unease in this book always comes through refracted, secondhand. Federal politics flicker through “Carapace” – we hear them in empty barns, on TV on our way to the end of a poem – but in “Mayor,” as we drift further away from the first-person, anxiety manifests through language and form instead of narrative. Take the spaced-out redaction of Mayor Erasure (“no comment on//some film/we’ve never seen//filmed somewhere/we’ve never been//on a night we didn’t film there”), or the intricate echo of Mayor Drone, a ghazal that borrows its haunting language from a Martha Stewart blog post called Why I Love My Drone. (“Imagine what Louis XIV could have accomplished at Versailles if he’d had one!”)
The rest of Mayor Snow is Thran refining the voice he’s most comfortable speaking in, and it’s a pleasure to read – but the book is at its most engaging when he uses his old talents to new ends.
Meanwhile, in a different pop-cultural corner, Daniel Zomparelli and Dina Del Bucchia lend coolness to a genre that’s steadfastly anything but in Rom Com. The book mines the conventions of romantic comedy, as well as the content of actual romantic comedies, with the kind of deep sympathy and sense of humour you’re only really able to pull off when you really love the thing you’re making fun of. The series of “Sonnets for Supporting Roles” is one of the places where this balance hits perfectly: “When she walks/down the aisle, you think about it all over/again, what falling in love is like […] The way he spent/his time fighting for your attention, the/way you let him, the way you gave in.”
At 118 pages, Rom Com is a little long – a few poems, such as The Acting was Fantastic, feel slight and in-jokey – and if you don’t love dick jokes it might not be for you, but all in all it’s an in-depth exploration of a skin-deep genre that’s whip-smart and extremely fun to read.
Emma Healey is The Globe’s poetry reviewer.Report Typo/Error
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