Shored up against the glittering allure of memory's slipstream, Living Under Plastic, Evelyn Lau's fourth poetry collection, offers readers a fleeting glimpse of that which endures despite the diurnal dejectamenta pooling in the deluge of contemporary existence.
Most often enacted upon "a raft on a sea of nightmares" despite its highly dramatic emotions (especially of the hysterical variety) and hyper-traumatic events, Living Under Plastic lays it on the bottom line:
Here on earth, this is what you are missing- a crab carcass floating downstream, hinged and jointed like intricate jewellery, the bells of white boats knocking in the harbour, the thud and drone of Olympics construction. The garbage and music …
The garbage and music indeed. Both saturate the work's underwhelming soundscapes and pseudo-heightened mindscapes. It almost goes without saying the Vancouverite tips her fedora in the direction of Emily Dickinson, Jeramy Dodds, Susan Holbrook or Leonard Cohen, attempting to come to terms with the finality of suicide or assiduously tackling the gruesome 49-slain stain this world now knows too well in perhaps the collection's finest composition, The Pickton Trial: " 'Believe it or not, once, I had a chance/ for me, believe it or not …' Pickton said, laughing./ Yes, once you too had a chance to escape/ this city mapped in memory,/ these streets and alleys crisscrossed/ with their cryptology of pain …"
According to the back-cover blurb on Lau's latest, the poems featuring in these pages represent "a major departure" for the author of such works as 1989's Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, Oedipal Dreams (1992), Other Women (1995) and Choose Me (1999). "Instead of the obsessive focus on relationships and emotional damage that has characterized much of her earlier work, this book opens up to explore new subjects: family history, illness, death and dying, consumerism and the natural world."
Obsessive focus? Emotional damage? New subjects? Consumerism? Huh?
The "new subjects" of these meditations, these streams of dismal Stygian rumination? Father, Grandfather, this terminally self-destructive companion or that brittle yet frangible speaker accomplished in the art of living under plastic (in all the glory that concept connotes and denotes): "I want/ to say no, you do not have to do this,/ you do not have to nail yourself to this cross,/ under the flaming sky, wait for the vultures/ to pluck out your eyes." (Eliot? Check.)
An oddly uneven work, Lau's follow-up to 2005's Treble will either bedazzle or bewilder readers, most likely because its complement of speakers gives voice to suicide's attraction, despair's consolation and the impossibility of resurrection, while bizarrely sharing space with narrators terminally struggling beneath the weight of consumerism's endless denials and demands. Name-checking - Starbucks, Ikea, Holt Renfrew - dates and weakens a work already compromised by its repetitive fetishistic returns. Ostensibly intended to provide readers with an ironic take on silver flash and gold flake, Living Under Plastic's trio of parts contains much too much … well, loving attention to the good shopper's mission and the acquisition of more and more must-own - ultimately disposable - designer products and bloated boatloads of stuff.
Examples? Retail Therapy, The Mall and, most obviously, the Plathitudinous Rings:
I hover over the glass case like an anxious parent picking out her offspring from the row upon row of identical faces. The jeweller lifts another band from where it sleeps snug in its velvet cradle, my face trembles up at me in reflection, a sliver of self wavering across the watery surface of precious metal, frozen in fear like an actress's in a horror film, her face mirrored in the blade of a kitchen knife …
Lau elects to celebrate those with whom she shares (or shared) space on this post-ghost planet, an admirable goal at the best of times; however, almost all of the poems' speakers suffer the slings and sorrows of enervation and ennui to a near-unbearable degree. Each adds to the growing heap of the fallen; and every last one takes up residence in the pages of Living Under Plastic, redolent with the luminous recollection of Arthur Miller's ever-growing mountain of skulls, once a novelty, now reduced by the near-vacuity of the regrettably weak narrators to little more than mere banality. From Landlocked:
… You would be amazed at how empty some women feel, how some days we walk around like glass vessels with a blizzard of nothing inside us. I buy lipsticks and lotions, search for a silk thread to lead me out of the labyrinth - I want to spiral out of the earthbound past, to drift along in the blue and buoyant air …
On the one hand, poetry aims to ease the anguish of the actual even as it fingers those wounds incapable of healing. Blindness, Tarantula and The Drowning, the trinity that comprises Living Under Plastic, will, by virtue of its rhetorical pattern of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, alongside its transparent consonance, leave careful readers both superficially comforted and deeply disturbed. On the other hand, poets - sentinels of the sensorium - ought to stand at the ready, nimbly translating the universe by releasing words into the void in a steady enterprise that subverts definition.
Readers expecting illuminating insights into la condition humaine might wish to seek elsewhere for such lofty sentiments (or, for that matter, technical excellence); spare and dignified threnodies notwithstanding, Living Under Plastic rarely rises to the poetic occasion, perhaps because its creator pays little more than lip service to precision and originality in a collection that all too often collapses beneath the weight of its precious pondering of imponderabilities, through questionable strategies in the act of mourning the irrevocable.
A Poetry Fellow of the Chalmers Arts Foundation, contributing reviewer and In Other Words blogger, Judith Fitzgerald lives in Northern Ontario's Almaguin Highlands. She is working on her 30th volume, a poetry collection slated for release … eventually.Report Typo/Error
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