Canisia Lubrin Reviews Souvankham Thammavongsa's Cluster and Dina Del Bucchia's It's a Big Deal!
Cluster by Souvankham Thammavongsa
Here’s where poems become site/sight, where poems contract and expand the head-heart sense, that eighth sense alive in language: here’s another and another and another and another in Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Cluster. Each of these poems are maps to Thammavongsa’s mighty, mighty command of limiting the physicality of language to the work of very few words. As any reader of Thammavongsa’s previous books, Small Arguments (2003), Found (2007) and Light (2013), might expect, her poems make fine work of the art of suggestion by rending, bolt by necessary bolt, the acute and the complex conditions in which language must do its work. Cluster hauls the detritus of years, offers us an otherwise of paths through family and loss and what is found in the eventides that flow from one time to another, in the thing that amounts to what we call “life.”
Just as importantly, a great music lives in what Thammavongsa fashions in the pages of this work, most recognizable in poems like “Gayatri,” which wields the Vedic metre of the traditional 24 syllabic vehicle for the Solar deity for expiating sin. In its Sanskrit personification of the Gayatri mantra, the poem is arranged in declarative repetitions following the same patterns “I have... //we thought... //we posed... //I angled... //There is... //There isn’t... I have... //It was…,” using cycles of retrospect and compromise to weave a present from the abundance of the past. Something of the past’s long duration, the poet reminds us, means “you determined it was possible I would live.” I found that I could enter into the challenge the poem elicits, and through the big and glorious and shattering messiness of modern life, I might imagine what needs not merely saving, but what must be changed toward a future better than what we found upon arrival.
But take your eyes off Thammavongsa’s lean, muscular lines for a moment. Then stay awhile in the world where “clutter and garbage can have meaning.” Still in this psychic tome, there’s little to dissuade a presumption or two about why Thammavongsa, no doubt, thrives in excavating such meanings from this clutter so that only their necessary components make it unto her pages. And when you return to her lines you’ll wonder at never having left the page at all. Because in this poet’s hands, you assign yourself a small way to move through her insights, a place for holding your mind to the task of coming out to let the poem do to you what it wants to do to you. Thammavongsa makes defter and defter work of line after poetic line, and with her we acquiesce often that, maybe, some rooms we are not meant to enter can in their own way enter us. Such a room is given to us in the poem “My Mother’s House” which lands in us a “small room// In a house my mother made for you in my dreams.”
In the poem “O” we are told that “the carrying-out crops up.” O might stand in for an expression of coming to awareness, sure. But what else might the vowel hold? It is hard for me not to see the world, the shape of it and its meanings, from what it offers as “the bed you slept on” that “wasn’t made” to the world’s “smallest unit of ordinary matter.” The methods and processes that we claim and claim us: family, friendship, photographs, language, births, death, meaning, geographies (and their attendant compass “still there pointing when you’re upside down”) that we are cropped into and from. Thammavongsa throws the reader into a languaged world rife with contradiction, not binding to contravene for its own sake but in the way a thing can suggest its opposite. The poems are seasons turned inside out, summer to winter and vice-versa, how we can get so lost in the meandering of our own lives without the meandering itself wearing us down. The poet here does not shy away from hitting heavy with her wisdoms, but she does so with a controlled breathlessness that means really to be kind even as it stares into the breaches of the brutal.
Cluster is a way of orienting, of disorienting and of rearranging the life/lives of the speaker(s) of these poems. Take that spider invoked in “A Spider” that “spun out/ a whole world/ for itself.” Take the squirrel in “Cost,” long past dead, taxidermied and aware of what “being real” has cost it. The figure (perhaps the poet) observing and recording its demise into “paws/frozen//in pose… //bright /cartoon colours… //plastic mouths/glued open” holds another such cutting and tender moment in “A Plastic Bear.” Here the speaker encounters a bear on the hunt, mouth open and ready to eat. But an instinct to reach out to the bear and carry the weight of its empty hull, its “dark/there”; its bodilessness is an invitation to the reader to also consider the speaker considering the creature considering the self. We are told it isn’t nearly as dangerous as the self-sacrifice evident in “the spine// I splintered/to be here.” And could we disagree? Likely but not.
Cluster delivers blow after devastating blow to the human ego. We question how “we learn to add/Before we learn how to take away” in the abject theories of our dispersals and again in our gathering up as “square root,” a number that looks exactly like it, multiplied/By itself.” But we are returned from that critical sense to “hold open that possibility” of becoming meaning and becoming more in the dangerous business of language.
Thammavongsa impels her readers to take account of what can “happen with so little,” just as her verse in its pared-down architecture and in her mixtures of mono-bi-tri-poly-syllabic lines. Again, how to look at the ways in which “meaning [may not] mean anything.” Again, even as she concedes that the worthy work of language is “to do the work to mean.” Here we return reimagined for something better, something more, again and again from having “lost the shape of who we were.”
It’s a Big Deal! by Dina Del Bucchia
Here are more meanings to plow through in Dina Del Bucchia’s newest poetic offering. It’s a Big Deal! follows swiftly on the heels of her short story collection, Don’t Tell Me What To Do, and it is just as exacting in its humour and badassery and irreverence. I nodded hard through this book. No sleep, no craven demands for catharsis. But to be kept level-headed vis-à-vis, Del Bucchia’s no bullshit foot on the neck of progressivism with its ridiculous addictions to “branding” and “performance” and its deadly romance with modern chauvinism was sublime.
“Rob a bank and buy the cream with the crushed-up diamonds to make/ your face a sparkly, exfoliated, epidermis-less exoskeleton,” the poem “Lifestyle” tells us, before its speaker suggests, at the improbability of such a desire, that it might also do to just “steal the cream.” Ownership is the point to all this anyway. Del Bucchia makes a rollicking work of such characterizations of modern malaise, what most people might think of as a millennial deficiency. But the poet here does not let the reader get away quite so easily with these anaemic interpretations. The poet here does not underestimate her reader, does not put the reader ever to sleep. She trusts the reader to wade with her through her poetry of disorder and disenchantment. Yet, this is by no means an anguished book.
“Have you ever felt like a winner?” the poem’s footnote asks. I was compelled to answer yes. But to what? Here’s Del Bucchia’s true mastery of what I call the “pick-up-after-yourself.” She levels the playing field only to roll back the grass, which is a screen, which is, by turns, a mirage to show us what is really going on and then leaves us to figure out what to do. All of these suggestions made this reader think again about the poems and rethink what is mentioned in the footnotes of the footnotes of poems that open the book, several of which give no fuxs about the status of their minor proclamations: they are also, these footnotes, big deals!
Here is a collection marked by a ceaseless irony and depth of imagination. Del Bucchia might be a comedian at heart but her ethos in this book is marked by its unmistakable discontent with the dangerous conditions of a ruthlessly capitalist world. Her contemporary metro is marked with symbols of the wooly mammoth; internet objects, such as an email which explodes with exclamation points and a message: “There is no security in the message because of its level of URGENCY”; lists, technologies, catchphrases, and clichés that Del Bucchia resurrects from their dead ends.
Del Bucchia is full of surprises in this work. She rages that with all of its promises and prides, the modern world lives for nothing if not capital. And who does not want more of this sort of work? I do. Canadian literature needs more such poets who are willing to be self-referential in this way. Who do not merely throw a temper tantrum at their proximity to the cultural, political and economic forces of capitalism but understand the risk that comes with mounting a poetics that goes beyond simply being mad or angry at the state of things. Del Bucchia’s poems here are a call for such a death knell to sound.
In “Maybe I’m Used to It,” the speaker tenderly evokes the disenchantment of a vegetarian who “misses being surprised by the tragedy of meat.” What does this have to do with the state of things I’m referring to here? A lot. This is more than a break up poem with jabs at an old flame; it is a “look at every mess” where “cleaning is a privilege// but it’s fucking detestable”; it does not merely lament past nights being “drunk in love” but also forgetting “the weight of a wallet.” Del Bucchia is not willing to concede the sociological divisions that often lead to false blazonings like “not all men” and “boys will be boys” and “sorry not sorry.” Such illusions of scarcity when resources of having and getting accumulate into the hands of the very few at the top. Whatever such wills allow to be desired and followed through. You want to travel? The poem “Travel” directs: “Open an Instagram account.// Master Photoshop.// Stay home.” Worried about your health? The poem “Health” concludes: “Think more. ... This will damage your health centre … exhale yourself into the ether.”
If you are not careful you might believe Del Bucchia a folklorist for her heightened social attention to pervasive microcultures and those damned within them. And with a self-criticism propelled by her careful deployments of a body of pain and transgression in this work you cannot be blamed to arrive at that conclusion. But it is precisely this candour that makes Del Bucchia a satirist fit for the task of naming and shaping with her lines an urgent defiance in the shadow of such perils today. The poet digs and digs and digs through mounds of things and people thrown away and dismissed and underclassed by the capitalist machine and lends her hand to the work of “remember[ing] imagination.” The poet understands the risk and does not deny that the work of language and of poetry — even given her trademark wit and willingness to not look away — is how poets risk a better world. Together.
Del Bucchia’s lines brim with great play but they do not disavow the seriousness underpinning the neuroses of our time. I walked into this book laughing and came out wanting to do something about all that ruckus. This kind of reading is rare and It’s a Big Deal!
Canisia Lubrin is a writer, editor and teacher. She is the author of Voodoo Hypothesis (2017), augur (2017) and The Dyzgraphist (2020).