Curio: Grotesques and Satires from the Electronic Age. Elizabeth Bachinsky. Toronto: BookThug, 2005. ISBN 0 9737181 8 8. 111 pp. Pbk.
Published under Jay MillAr's very cool BookThug imprint, Elizabeth Bachinsky's Curio is an energized, endlessly inventive, often brilliant collection - a memorable collage of shifting poetic stances and rhetorical tropes.
Curio seems strongly invested in a critique of language and literary tradition. The range of diction in these poems is wild, the diversity of influence deliciously idiosyncratic. How often have we seen John Milton and Lisa Robertson acknowledged between the same covers? Bachinsky's willingness to range fearlessly through history sets her writing apart - or, at least places it in the company of equally daring poets like Robertson, Maine's Jennifer Moxley, and Eliot himself. Bachinsky's poems also remind me, at times, of work by American writer Karen Volkman. Bachinsky forages through the past, defamiliarizing contemporary poetic language in poems like "She is Blond Sin." I love the linguistic cognitive dissonance and sly eroticism created here when words like "dandy kid" (evocative of the nineteen forties Jimmy Stewart movies) and "wanton hidden clit" (a morphing of archaic and contemporary diction) bump up against each other and share poetic proximity. Curio is an exciting linguistic mosh pit of language derived from the past five hundred years.
Bachinsky's "Lead the Wants" is a tour de force, a madcap 'translation' of Eliot's "The Wasteland," one of the great collage poems in western literature. Bachinsky's poem, with its inclusion of K-Mart and R.E.M. seems, in a way, the logical conclusion of "The Wasteland." To cite two examples from Bachinsky:
O O O O shat takes pear he tang hi -
Witt witt witt
Guj guj guj guj guj guj
Record duos fly
Re: e, tu
I have to admit, it took me awhile to discover Eliot's "O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag" from Bachinsky's "O O O O shat takes pear he rang hi" (and even longer to track down Eliot's Shakespeherian riff to Ziegfeld's Follies of 1912). But echoes emerge; we begin to hear the past. Same with Eliot's transplanted classical bird calls - "Twit twit twit/Jug jug jug jug jug jug," transplanted still further by Bachinsky as "Witt witt witt/Guj guj…." etc. Language is historicized, contextual. T. S. Eliot's "Wasteland," which sounded so strange to most of us who first studied it as undergraduates, comes to appear normalized, in time. Is this - ending up in a kind of linguistic suburbs - the fate of all poetic language? Hopefully not since, as Pound said, the poet's job is to 'make it new'. As part of her procedure for making it new, Bachinsky's driving questions seem to be: what can the status of poetic language be in the age of K-Mart, R.E.M., and the electronic revolution? Can the poet create anything more than a collage? What happened to Keats' well-wrought urn (or was that only ever a dream?). Will the Tower of Babel tip once and for all in the electronic age? Is the poetic past destined to be relegated to the status of mere Curio? Will the electronic revolution democratize language, or destroy it? Bachinsky is, I think, more interested in the process of exploring these questions than answering them - and, since she's a poet, I think this is as it should be.
Bachinsky should be lauded for raising big questions. We should also applaud her sheer moxie - who among us would have the courage to translate "The Wasteland?" For poets of my (slightly older) generation, Eliot's poem remains too canonically enshrined to touch. I don't think Bachinsky's conversation with Eliot in Curio shows disrespect; if anything, it bodes well for the future, bespeaks a revitalized dialogue, suggesting as it does that Canada's new poets are willing to venture where some of us more tyrannized by canonicity (and a residual colonialism? We just assumed Eliot was British, he seemed British!) dared not go. Great to see our new wave of poets decolonize their imaginations. Elizabeth's Bachinsky's 'conversations' with literary tradition, an integral part of Curio, are lots of fun. Her willingness to engage in them carries forward the energy of some of Canada's most interesting poetry; George Bowering has had some pretty nifty conversations with Keats and Rilke, to cite only one example. Elizabeth Bachinsky is one of our new bright lights. Next year, I'm going to assign my college students "The Wasteland" by Eliot and "Lead the Wants" by Bachinsky. I can't wait already.