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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Literary Locavore IV: Hacker Packer

Cassidy McFadzean has a habit of outdoing herself.  When she graduated with her M.A.from the University of Regina in June 2013, she carried away the Governor General's Academic Gold Medal for the Most Outstanding Academic Performance.  This was for a book of riddles.  But to write these remarkable poems, she brought together her edgy, contemporary world view and the Dark Ages, studying texts like the Exeter book, learning Old English, and going so far as to organize each of her lines into two pieces, to use compound nouns and alliteration, as do the Anglo-Saxon riddles like those found in the Exeter Book.  Riddles undertake two challenges to the reader's perception.  In the first instance, they make strange a familiar object.  But once the riddle has been solved, the poem becomes a guide to seeing everyday objects, like the kettle or the sun, in a new light, as it were.

Cassidy followed her Gold Medal with other achievements:  graduating from the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop and being shortlisted for both the Walrus and the CBC poetry prizes.  Her first full-length book, Hacker Packer, was published by Mc Clelland and Stewart--a considerable achievement for anyone in their mid-twenties.

I've been triangulating Hacker Packer for the last two weeks, and have come to realize that there are three points in the poetic landscape she creates:  North Central Regina, where she grew up, the riddles she wrote for her thesis, and a visit to Europe on which she once said she spent her life savings and where she visited countless museums and monuments.  Some of the poems fall precisely on those points, but in other cases you can see her combining her riddling language to write about situations that are not riddles; other times her surreal North Central sensibility informs the reading of a museum in, say, Greece.  Time adds an additional layer to this map as she brings her 21st century sensibility to ancient places and practices.

I have to admit that as a whole Hacker Packer posed a significant challenge for this reader (and I need to remind you that I'm sharing my impressions--poet to poet--not reviewing her book).  There are several reasons for the difficulties I found.  One is that the title, while it's edgy and might be evidence of her love of riddle and rhyme, is more expression than meaning, unless I'm to take it to mean that after some packing she traveled to Europe, where she hacked into other cultures.  It doesn't guide me in any way into the poems or name a single poem that might provide this collection's key or ground note or central chord.  The second is that there are no sections.  Travel poems mix with riddles, which mix with sometimes straightforward sometimes surreal poems about North Central, which in turn bump up against poems about animals undergoing disturbing transformations, poems about gnomes, poems about the medicinal powers of plants, ekphrastic poems about Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.  Unless you are very patient and well-organized, you don't read all the travel poems together to understand the larger issues of world view and perspective that you could gather up if they were together.  The third is her remarkable vocabulary and range of cultural references.  This is literature in the age of Google:  you read Hacker Packer with your cellphone's or iPad's dictionary and search engine open to look up words like "oscine," and "corvus,."  You look up "Dolni Vestonice" and "Doctrine of Signatures."

Broadly speaking, Cassidy is asking her own questions about how the world works and how it means.  Most artists do this, I suppose; if the artist is serious about those questions and has developed an individual voice and perspective, then astute readers feel the poems will delight and surprise them; they are willing to walk through those questions with the poet.  Cassidy is serious about those questions.  The voice and approach she developed as a writer of riddles has bloomed here, informing both her riddling choice of language and her off-kilter perspective.

The North Central poems are the most direct, so let's start there.  "A Skin for a Skin" alludes to Canada's colonial history, the disruption and death it brought to First Nations people with its small-pox laden blankets, with its fur trade, with its laws.  "Soloist" and "On Naming and the Origin of Pity" (which was shortlisted for the CBC poetry prize, I believe)  bring us more up to date on the lasting effects of racism and racist policies, and suggest some small redemptive moments.  In "Soloist," a group of children from a North Central school are taken to Regina's Centre of the Arts for a concert after being coached on how to behave. For "kids shipped from foster / homes to rez homes to Dojack / then back," manners seem pointless.  Cassidy's riddling habits of seeing one thing as something else altogether are clear in the first stanza:

A piano is an animal's chest
propped open, ribs spread to better
hear the beating of its heart.

Despite the fact that for the children "the seams between / at-risk and asking-for-it" are beginning "to fray," that opening metaphor, with its heart reaching out is slyly hopeful, and gestures toward the closing, which suggests that art has the power to touch in the most surprising places:  "Moved to our feet, we clapped / when we felt it.  We did." 

There are similar hopeful moments in "On Naming and the Origin of Pity," a poem about a student named George, whose life seems laden with trauma and difficulty.  He is taller than everyone else in his class because he has held back; his face is a "wax-tightened mask" from having been badly burned.  Yet the firefighters choose George to demonstrate how to test a door before walking through it if there is a fire.  This is one of those broader queries about how the world works:  "Really?" we ask.  "They would do that?  What are they thinking?"  George is, in a sense, doubly victimized here.  Yet at free nights at the Lawson pool, George has two moments that are not about his burned body.  One is when he is befriended by the speaker's father, who helps George when he can't get into his locker--which contains no towel or jeans, but only a T-shirt and sneakers.  The second is when he jumps off the third-storey tower, where two things make his history beside the point.  One is that no one can see him clearly enough to remember that he has been badly burned.  The other is the ecstasy of simply being a body in flight--not a bruised body but a thrilled one: 

He dashed and dove off the edge of the platform,
a blur through the air,
then disappeared under water.

The travel poems constitute the largest group in the book.  In and early one and one of the collection's many sonnets, the speaker observes that "Museums are zoos where we see other countries' / breeds of griffins, nymphs, endangered stone beasts."  The metaphor of museums as zoos establishes the traveler's culture of the gaze:  I'm just here to look at you, it suggests.  Moreover, the poem's traveler doesn't want to immerse herself into the everyday life of the places they visit, but seeks instead the unreal, the surreal, the puzzling--nymphs and griffins.  Travellers are spectators, hoping to be entertained.  The collection's speaker observes carefully, as in the evocative "On Defeat in the Siegesallee."  Sometimes she even gets involved in the museal culture, as in "Thermal Shock, Dolni Vestonice."  Yet this reader gets the sense that these collections do not open themselves freely to the speaker's understanding.  What the speaker expects and gets from visits to graves, the boundary stone of a Greek Agora, or Rodin's studio is sometimes surprising.  In "The Charioteer," the speaker and her traveling companion crawl into a tunnel under the Temple of Apollo "expecting to unearth / some prophecies," whereas all they achieve is a "trance with dirt on our knees."  

Souvenirs get into the act of mediating our experiences as travelers.  In "On Wearing the Garden of Earthly Delights" (which could also be "On Carrying an Umbrella with Renoir's painting of a rainy day, or "On Wearing a William Morris scarf--museums depend on such souvenirs for a good part of their income) the speaker has clearly bought a pair of tights that depicts the central panel in Bosch's triptych, one scholars believe was designed for a patron, not for an altar.  The tights she wears depicting the central panel give the speaker an opportunity for ekphrasis--to describe the left-hand and right-hand panels which her tights do not depict.  In Bosch's painting, these are rather surreal versions of the creation and the Garden of Eden, and of hell.  The central panel has puzzled scholars:  it's another garden, but this one is full of naked figures in a surreal landscape that is neither earthly nor heavenly.  Those of us who don't like art made into commodities might suggest that making "The Garden of Earthly Delights" into a pair of tights distances us from the painting, making it more a part of the world of commercial stuff than the world of art.  Cassidy's poem suggests otherwise:  the speaker becomes part of the scenes the panel depicts:

      While at my knees, I'm touched by eager arms clutching 
for ripened fruit from the branches of my tree.
      My thighs host a battle scene:  owls besiege their prey
            as nude knights ride in procession alongside swine and ass.

Yet Cassidy's traveler is a little distracted or out of touch with what she views.  She leaves the bone chapel (in a poem with the same title) wondering how she is going to "keep my memory of this moment clear? / Like cartloads of bodies pulled to the friary and air- / buried, time eats our memories, no matter how dear."  She does not ponder this dilemma about memory for very long, however, being distracted by an attractive women in "short black hair and Ray-Bans.  Wedged heels, / tight grey jeans.  I wanted to be her, in Rome, / and disappear down the street talking on an iPhone."  This poem might, in a way, sum up the treatment of travel.  Cassidy offers the reader many, many well-observed moments and sites; you feel that you are traveling with her.  Yet there is often a quiet query about whether travel really gives us access to different cultures and times or whether it only offers an occasion to consider our own culture, our own time.  Is travel critiqued or celebrated here?  I'd say both.

Another group of poems considers transformations:  the way violent death changes animals, the way a fledgling the speaker tried to save became part of the garden, the way colourful blue fish turn colourless when cooked, the way honey looks like putty after decades, yet is still unspoiled.  In "As she talks, her lips breathe spring roses," replete with classical references to Ovid's Fasti and Botticelli's Primavera, the speaker undergoes the calendar-based transformations of Ovid's work, but the changes are entirely surreal.  A related fourth group of poems considers botanical magic and is grounded in "Triptych with Doctrine of Signatures."  Here too, plants have their surreal landscapes, transformations, effects, and uses.  When Cassidy announced on Facebook yesterday that she had "two new witchy poems in Petal," I wasn't quite surprised; in fact, it confirmed one of my reticent hunches about her aesthetic.  These poems about transformations and plants are not "realistic" or "representational."  Rather, in their surreal landscapes and situations, they gesture toward another world altogether, a world seemingly unlike our own.  Yet because that world belongs to Cassidy's powerful imagination and is viscerally evoked in her poems, it's a world we step into.

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