The Outlier

With her new book of poetry, Alexandra Oliver stands apart

Photograph courtesy of Biblioasis
Alexandra Oliver.

There’s this band I like right now that uses eight-string guitars with drop tunings; their songs sail through unconventional time signatures and wacky scales. It’s a brand of instrumental progressive math metal that’s all technical ability. The thing is, I get tired of it. As much as I thrill to some skilled section (“Dude! Check out drums at 2:14!”), the tunes don’t stay with me. In songs where too much happens, it’s just the parts I like, not the whole.

This is how I feel about a great deal of Canadian poetry, specifically the latest generation of young scribes storming our staid scene. Toronto poet Jacob McArthur Mooney has called them “Mulroney Poets.” Born between 1984–1993, these post-nationalist wizards are, according to Mooney, “so used to the repetitive smashing together of cultural products: near and far, high and low, old and new, that the reach of their metaphors can be so much more ambitious and natural than for poets born even a few years earlier.” They are poets born of the Internet age, globalized wunderkinds that can do just about anything on the page.

Mooney is right. His Mulroney Generation is ridiculously talented, fearless in their risks. Take a look at this stanza:

Spent shale, thigh haptic fisher, roe, river
delta of sleep-inducing peptides abet our tent
in a deep time course, in Venus retrograde

or this:

The amuse-bouche was water chestnuts and duck air.
The sous-chefs came out of the closet
for us, and their courage was as palatable

as a raspberry.

The first example comes from “Terra Nova, Terraformed”, the opening poem in 2016 Griffin-winning Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the shaking Tent; the second from “Food” by Vincent Colistro, taken from his 2016 debut Late Victorians. Both are young writers cited by Mooney. Howard’s poems are indeed haptic, taking us in many directions, giving us “vertigo, vertigo, the rush of the vertical” (“Standard Time”) as we fall down her stanzas.  Colistro dives into various personas and voices with ease. In one poem, Colistro’s speaker, a frazzled aristocratic stage actor, admits he has “squandered my money on funny masks” (“Acting”). The poems assure us, though, that those masks were money well spent. Two other poets Mooney mentions—Michael Prior and Kayla Czaga—have won just about every accolade our small pond has to offer. And all these folks penned this stuff in their twenties!

I was born in 1983, so just missed Mooney’s cut-off . Still, I’m wow-ed by a lot of this stuff—the signal-switching, the linguistic sleight-of-hand, the sesquipedalian diction, the wild leaps—and try it in my own work. But while I’m willing to go along with the high wire risks, I have reservations. These reservations bring me to Burlington poet Alexandra Oliver.

Oliver was born in Vancouver in 1970 and became a standout in the city’s late ’90s slam scene. The metrical prowess that would define her later poems is there in her performance work, collected in her first book Where the English Housewife Shines (London: Tin Press, 2007). The poems—caustic, witty, pun-drunk—are high on the entertainment quotient:

Life is luminous and pink
When you’re traitorously sweet
Like the moon above the street
Upon which the lover ruminates,
The same one which illuminates
The dishes in her sink,
And it really makes me think . . .

In a milieu of avant-gardists, Oliver knowingly played the throwback square, hamming it up with ironic conservatism. She brandished tetrameters with panache, dropped quips and punchlines. Oliver has degrees in drama and you can see her acting chops on display in online videos: her introductions and recitations are hilariously awkward—she has the whole place in stitches before she even starts. Oliver’s father, a flamboyant Vancouver barrister, was a lover of poetry and held recitations at the family home. It’s no wonder, then, that Oliver became such a compelling reader of her own verse. Her stage talent helped bring the Vancouver Slam Team to the Nationals in 1996.

Although Oliver has moved beyond performance, she remains a standout, an outlier in the CanPo sphere. One of the most exciting things about her work is the way she takes a different route from the in-your-face newness and hybridity our market now demands. Oliver joins Canadian poets like Amanda Jernigan and Kerry-Lee Powell in a kind of feminist formalism. These poets adopt traditionally conservative, historically male forms for their own ends.

We can see this in one of the best poems from her most recent collection, Let the Empire Down, “Why Girls Need Poetry.” Through a masterful compressed alchemy, the speaker of the poem compares “the girls today” with illustrations of insects mutated by “the great, soft, poisoned wind” of an irradiated Chernobyl. The contemporary young girl, the poem argues, is mutated and mutilated not by fallout, but “the blast/ of modern times:” brutally competitive and judgemental wasteland bewitched by flatlined language. Speech is rendered as a garbled and lifeless thing through technology like texting: “mutated stumps of meaning—limbless lines,/ emoticons.” Words are no longer “sound/ as conduit for feelings” and books are “dying birds on sand.”

The girls are aware of this linguistic erosion but powerless to stop it: “they feel the DNA of speech relax// and fall apart, rebuild to monster form.” Oliver’s poem is bitter and anxious about the state of language, about how young women in our society are exposed to a stunted and disfigured form of it. The nightmare scenario of the poem answers its title: girls need poetry because the careful and deliberate use of language—the well-made poem—is a site of power and agency for young women.

But how long can the well-made poem last? It’s hard not to extrapolate a future where poetry becomes a kind of poststructuralist smear, a poetic twitter feed where wild sound and conceptual leaps are the only game in town, where long-form experiment is favoured over the individual poem, and ironic distancing eats all feeling.

As the latest generation of Canadian poets gets more adept at poetic mixology will Oliver, and poets like her, become a rarity in our journals—or on our prize lists? “Why Girls Need Poetry” wouldn’t win a contest today. Why? Like almost all of Oliver’s poems in Let the Empire Down, it’s grounded in scene and narrative. The prosody is mostly a dependable pentameter, the sentences often simple declaratives.

The collection also bucks another trend: the poems aren’t bit parts in a book-length project. It’s increasingly rare that a collection is just that—a collection of poems. Yet, by some consensus, thematic superglue is now a must. Toronto poet Daniel Kincade Renton recently weighed in on the issue in an interview, stating that he is “not alone among emerging Canadian poets who are interested in collecting a greatest hits compilation rather than a proggy concept album.” I hope this is the case, yet many of our critics appear to demand more theme, less poem. Here’s an example I came across in a recent Arc review for Jesse Patrick Ferguson’s Mr. Sapiens: “But this tendency toward the random also left me with a longing for some ordering of this miscellany, perhaps by theme.” Miscellany is pejorative here. Why can’t single volumes be miscellanies, well-curated wonder cabinets?

Oliver, of course, has her obsessions: the underlying darkness of suburbia, how the past effects the present, the anxieties of parenthood. But these obsessions aren’t spelled out for us. And they aren’t what makes her books good books. It’s the poems themselves; how, one at a time, they succeed in some fundamental way. Each poem speaks for itself. Let the Empire Down offers up sixty pages of poetry. What does that tell you? That the throwaways have been kept to a minimum; the half-pulled-off and just-plain-bad torn out like asbestos in a reno.

Here’s the first quatrain from the opener, “The Megabus Goes by Sherbet Lake”:

There’s the water tank that bears its name.
There’s its purple edge: the shore, the ship
that crossed the lake, beneath a heap of lime.
I went away. I gave the place the slip.

As the speaker rounds the dull suburb, she points out the sites—both geographical and personal—with a dark nostalgia. The anaphora of “there’s” in the poem gives it a dirge-like tone; as the reader gets lulled into the repetition, the juxtapositions between outer and inner landmarks become all the more unexpected. Later we get: “There’s the strip of mansions on the lee;/ there’s the strap that ravaged my behind.” These lines are sonically so similar—note how “strip” and “strap” both fall on that second beat, then the near-rhyme of “mansions” and “ravaged”—and yet conceptually span a large distance. The effect is an amped up emotional charge. The poem ends with a small change in the prosody on the penultimate line: “The wind blows now. Convenient, ill-starred,” and then ends wistfully with “there it goes, forever. There it goes.”

I wonder if, in five or ten years, poems like this—the pathos, the narrative basis, the scene-setting—will be read much anymore. As we’re avalanched each Spring and Fall, each small volume competing for our attention, will poets like Oliver get buried under a flashier music?

A recent, lukewarm review of Let the Empire Down ended on a cautionary note: “For readers and writers committed to the new-formalist project, Let the Empire Down offers an occasionally virtuosic demonstration of the practice; for those less interested in that technique, it will probably attract few converts.” Despite Oliver’s skill, her poems are reduced to mere demonstrations, a tic of technique.

Me? I write poems called “Fatberg” with lines like “the loo’s accrued Cthulhu” and use words like “Pyrex.” But reading Oliver made me realize how hard it is to make poems the way she does, to construct individual intricate devices with nothing all that showy.

Halfway through Let the Empire Down, there’s a curious Dickinsonian lyric called “The Little Machines” about a family heirloom wind-up bird. The pluralized title refers to both the object of the poem and the poem itself—its fives stanzas constituting a little machine all its own, set singing while its “gears sigh and whistle.” The poem is a celebration of form, the ability to create polyvalent effects despite (or because of) an outward constructed nature:

For an antique,

how fine it is at singing,
turning its gilded throat,
soaring in both directions
on the same note;

Like the automaton’s calibrated springs and cogs, Oliver’s formal choices—the rhymes, the quatrains—are vital for the success of her little machines—it’s what makes them go. The poem ends with subtle defiance—a distinctive move in an Oliver poem:

The bird’s intelligent voice
betrays no vital despair.
It will break, rather than die.
It doesn’t care.

The penultimate line, breaking from the usual three-beat to a four-beat, enacts the bird’s eventual breakage. The change makes that last two-beat line that much more effective. It’s as if the poet herself “doesn’t care” about the vicissitudes of fashion; she’ll continue to make her well-built machines, and they’ll continue to sing.

Danny Jacobs
Danny Jacobs’s latest book, Sourcebooks for Our Drawings: Essays and Remnants (Gordon Hill Press, 2019) won the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick Nonfiction Award. He lives in Riverview, New Brunswick, and works as the librarian in the village of Petitcodiac.

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