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book review

The Globe and Mail

The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory

By Chris Banks

ECW Press, 88 pages, $18.95

Cruise Missile Liberals

By Spencer Gordon

Nightwood Editions, 96 pages, $18.95

The title poem in Chris Banks's fourth poetry collection, The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory, describes living as a "catalogue/of blunders and missteps and then, a surprise party!" If thinking about surprise parties fills you with a wave of nostalgia followed by existential dread, Banks has also aptly conveyed what it's like to live inside his poems.

With a gift for pith and a penchant for the Big Questions, Banks occupies a present where the "past seems more real than a world/where Greenland is melting, where people stare at phones/the way they once did at paintings."

Anxiety about climate change, tech-induced apathy and mass extinction are spliced wistfully with the simple pleasures of yesteryear: all-night arcades, mixtapes and the days when Morrissey lyrics felt true. Amid an age in crisis, The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory questions poetry's purpose and overflows with generational ephemera in search of a new type of authenticity.

When interrogating the roles of poetry and art, Banks can be both precious and exacting. At the end of the title poem, the speaker wonders if they're "being/greedy wanting art to be more than a bowl of fruit,/wanting there to be answers." In Roadside Attractions, poetry "can't even make you feel the sky is actually blue," while Parallel Universes claims that "a poem feels more real than life,/at times."

Panic Room is perhaps the most tonally grating, as the speaker-poet anxiously ruminates on what it means "to feel human and alive," while spying on the couple next door and presuming their thoughts go no deeper than "what wine to pair with tonight's dinner." The speaker continues: "… we seal ourselves deeper in a living/slowly wearing people out. No one likes to talk about it,/especially in poetry. Write about childhood or politics,/your dog or your ex, but not about the invisible fires/of existence."

I can't tell whether Banks is being facetious or genuine. Surely even quotidian poetry without claims to loftiness can illuminate aspects of the human condition – and besides, poets are boring, too. Tackling "the invisible fires of/existence" sounds like a farcically tall order, soured further by the speaker's condescending, tortured gaze.

Often, Banks's self-awareness is what saves the collection from melodrama. Although he monumentalizes old haunts, such as arcades, dive bars and variety stores, he acknowledges that "nostalgia is a verdict for not living well." He is seasoned enough to know when to cue the violins, when to point out a poem's cleverness or narcissism, as well as when to linger on a moment of "imperfect perfect" human intimacy.

If The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory becomes too philosophizing, Spencer Gordon's poetry debut, Cruise Missile Liberals , might be the oddball balm you need. If what Banks needs during these dark and confusing times is "a poem to be a kind of ark/to float above it all," then Gordon's poems are completely submerged in the zany, disturbing thick of it while blasting Taylor Swift.

Gordon doesn't just question the place of poetry (here in an overtly political Canadian context), he interrogates the role of the poet as a citizen, directly implicating himself in the critique. "I belong to any nation that will pay me," the speaker says in I Hate Poetry, after he gets "buzzed like a loser off a pint" and goes "home to archive [his] failures, to think about food and sex."

Similarly, in Replica, Banks calls the drive to "eat, sleep, [and] reproduce… /the human story repeating itself to itself." It's a great line – but I find myself less interested in an all-encompassing, overarching narrative than I am in something more specific and almost humiliatingly embodied. Replica also claims that "[a]uthenticity requires time/most people would rather spend at Walmart," while in a forced metre so bad it's good, Gordon tells us that "[o]nly in Canada is poetry mattering more!/For poetry never died in the flagship Roots store."

There are countless similarities and counterpoints in The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory and Cruise Missile Liberals. Coincidentally, both poets lampoon the word "palimpsest" (Banks includes "filigree" and Gordon adds "liminal" – duly noted!).

On the matter of the artistic death drive, Gordon's The Winter's Wind opens: "Keats, Wordsworth, Avison, Tupac,/ex-Jackass star Ryan Dunn: they all/claimed the same sly thing: New Year's Day was optimized for suicide," while Banks's White Mansion begins with "[a] confederacy of suicides," forgoing the mix of high and low by rattling off "a pageant of/death and despair" citing the likes of Berryman, Celan, Sexton and Plath – an example of Gordon's gameness to get both tragic and silly.

Both books create a sense of vivid oversaturation by using listing or cataloguing as a main poetic tactic, tackling alcohol, boredom, failure, nostalgia, technology and music as shared common ground. What Banks can pull off in a wise, existential timbre, Gordon accomplishes with an absurdist, jittery laugh. Your preference might depend on what sounds more authentic to your ear.

Domenica Martinello's debut collection of poetry, All Day I Dream About Sirens, is forthcoming from Coach House Books.

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